Christopher Mercier | Crain's Los Angeles

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Christopher Mercier

Background:  

Mercier founded the full-service architectural office (fer) studio in Inglewood, Calif., in early 2002 after nine years as a senior associate and project architect for Gehry Partners Partners LLP (formally Frank O. Gehry & Associates). Representing form, environment and research, (fer) is a contemporary design practice whose projects span urban design, civic, retail, restaurant, hospitality, commercial, educational and residential design. 

The Mistake:

A mistake when I started my business was based on a big assumption that was completely off.

I did well in terms of where I was, at Gehry, and there was no reason for me to leave. So it was really a personal decision. I wanted to do my own thing. It took me 10 years to get to that and when I finally did, I had lined up two residential projects, then a larger project. I thought, OK, I’ve got three things secured, and I expected more things in that vein, so I moved out.

The second week after leaving Gehry Partners and being on my own, those three fairly good-size projects all went under for various client reasons. There I was with nothing. That led to a string of projects like garage additions, master closet interiors and bathroom additions, all very small projects, something I wasn’t used to and, in all honesty, maybe I thought I was above it at that time. I was thinking, “A month ago I was project architect for the biodiversity museum in Panama, running the whole thing with a team of five or six people, and now here I am worrying about whether this client has enough drawer space.”

Needless to say it was an extremely humbling experience to go through that phase and to grow my business through those years and into the larger projects we are doing today.

You really have to re-earn your keep, just one project at a time.

The Lesson:

Because of my past I thought I was going to be blessed with all of these great projects, but you really have to re-earn your keep, just one project at a time. Over time I’ve learned that, even now that we’re doing bigger work, it’s good to do smaller things. Keep an open mind and even the smallest project leads to someone who knows someone else, or something bigger.

For example, for a Father’s Office bar-restaurant in Santa Monica, we were going to help reface the bar. It wasn’t much of a project, but it was something. We could have just done some drawings, but we did three or four models and built physical pieces. A year later, that went from designing the face of a bar to designing a whole other Father’s Office restaurant location in Culver City.

Every time you do whatever you do, take it seriously. Always know, even if it doesn’t happen here, it’s a kickoff. It’s a way of extending the design process. You end up doing something here that, sure, may not pan out, but it will be a kickoff to something else, and then that work you did will mean a quicker move into that project. I look back and appreciate that early setback as a positive experience I was not expecting.

Follow (fer) studio on Twitter @ferstudio.

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