Moonlighting for Young Architects

Moonlighting is a dirty word.

Much of the architecture community frowns whenever someone says that awful word or jumps to the conclusion that moonlighting means:

Lying, cheating, and stealing clients
from your employer
to start your own business.

When I say moonlighting, I don’t mean that at all.

The Google dictionary simply defines Moonlighting as:

Having a second job in addition to one’s regular employment.

It provides this example:

“Many instructors moonlight as professional consultants”

I have zero experience in lying, cheating, or stealing clients from any employer. In my opinion, all of the negative connotations about moonlighting are “other people’s baggage.”  It’s not my baggage and it certainly isn’t my story.

So for the sake of this article, when I say “moonlighting,” I mean:

Hustling your ass off at a second job,
while successfully maintaining one’s regular full-time employment.

For me, moonlighting became the vehicle that helped me break out into the next phase of my life as an Entrepreneur, and ultimately brought financial and professional freedom as an Architect.

I have no interest in debating “What if” scenarios about moonlighting, nor do I want to discuss boneheads who have lied, cheated, and stolen clients away from their employers. I don’t care.

I simply want to tell my story, in the hopes of inspiring other Young Architects to work just a little bit harder.

The rest of the blog post I share the detailed account of how moonlighting helped me get to the next level in my career as an Architect. At the bottom of this article, there is a section called:

Advice for Young Architects about Moonlighting.

So if you get bored, you can just skip ahead and go straight there. There are also links to all the other Inspiring #ArchiTalks Bloggers who also wrote about Moonlighting.

My Moonlighting Story

In 2012, I got sick and tired, of being sick and tired with the architecture profession. The recession almost killed my hopes and dreams of becoming an Architect. It actually did kill off most of my peers, and failing to complete the ARE killed off the rest of them.

For a long time, I hated how little money I was making, but I was stuck in limbo, with needing to complete 3 remaining architecture exams.

Was I ever going to become an Architect?

During that time, I had an intense  existential crisis, where I started to question:

How did I get here?
What the hell am I doing with my life?!???

I was frustrated with architecture, and felt like I had been on the fence about a lot of things for a long time. I really needed to make one of two decisions:

1. Go 200% full-steam ahead into becoming a successful Architect.
2. Find and do something else with my life, like sell used cars or cellphones or something like that.

I had nothing else to fall back on. All of the energy I’d spent for the 10 years prior and $70k of student debt had all been about becoming an Architect. Besides, as dysfunctional as the profession is, I truly did love architecture deep down inside.

I became serious about becoming an Architect and started aggressively working on completing my remaining exams.

In December 2013, I was licensed and there came a time when I no longer had to study. I had 15 months of momentum built up from intense ARE studying every single day. I didn’t know how to stop showing up to spend 15-20 hours a week sitting in a Starbucks reading books about how to practice architecture.

So I just kept showing up to Starbucks, but I started to transition all of that energy into figuring out how having this architecture license was going to inform the next chapter of my life.

The Day Job

I was working full-time for the City of Portland as a Facilities Project Manager on capital improvement projects. My Government projects were huge and very complicated, took years to complete, and had many stakeholders (or cooks in the kitchen, as I sometimes called them).

My job was being a Project Manager, not an Architect. My Employer cared about my expertise, not my Architectural credentials.

Being an Architect was who I am and not the job description. My job description for the City was this:

  1. Keep the Client happy.
  2. Get these projects done as fast as possible. Keep them under-budget and ahead of schedule—without breaking too many rules or pissing off too many people.
  3. Do not be the Architect. Be the Owner’s Rep, manage the project, and make the decisions. Do not do the drawings or the work. Hire Professionals (Architects, Engineers, and Contractors) to do the work, and let them accept professional liability. Your job is to manage the project.

I loved this job and I was good at it. I felt like I learned more about the profession and how the world works, because I was spending money on architecture and construction, rather then trying to make money with it.

The day after I brought home my license. I was given a firm handshake from the Supervisors, and that was as much acknowledgement it ever received. I never bothered asking them if could earn more money and didn’t want to give them the opportunity to laugh at me.

By that point, I became inspired about learning how to get out of situations that involved having a once-a-year opportunity to ask my employer for permission to make more money.

Immediately after obtaining my license, I met with several people at the city and even a Lawyer to ask:

“Hypothetically, if in my free time, I started providing architectural services on some small residential projects as a Licensed Architect, would that create any conflict with my current day job employment situation?”

Everyone I spoke with gave me the same exact response:

“No, as long as…

  1. You never work on your personal projects while you’re on the clock as a city employee.
  2. There is zero cross-contamination with clients, contractors, consultants, and anyone that you are working with on city projects. Mainly, they should have no influence over your ability to do your day job or make decisions.
  3. Don’t be a jerk. Always be open and transparent. If anything is in question, ask. And be willing to walk away from any opportunities that may jeopardize the day job.”

Moonlighting and a Few Extra Jobs

After those conversations, all of my nights and weekends now became focused on moonlighting. My day job at the City was awesome, but I wanted more. I wanted to earn more money and use my energy to start building the Michael Riscica Empire.

I started working as a Licensed Architect. I began taking on small residential work and a variety of small projects. I built some models, did some renderings, created feasibility studies, drew construction documents, pulled permits, and even created some simple existing-condition drawings for people who needed them.

I met a builder who had just purchased a home for himself. He wanted to rip it apart, add on a 2000 sf addition, and put the whole thing back together. We worked together closely, made his goal happen, we went on to work on several other projects, and are still actively working together in a design/build relationship.

This work allowed me to use my training, education, and years of Architecture Technician skills. Not all of these projects were that glamourous or the pinnacle of my portfolio, but I found them deeply satisfying because they were my projects, not my employers’.

At that same time I started my own architecture practice, I also started YoungArchitect.com. The inspiration for Young Architect was being frustrated with the profession. I felt there was a severe lack of support, encouragement, and guidance between the years of Graduation and becoming a Licensed Architect.

How is our Profession ever going to get better when no one is acknowledging, supporting, or leading the future generation of Architects?

Young Architect was my attempt at being a part of the solution by sharing my personal insights and knowledge.

After finishing the ARE, I was left with tons of built-up creativity, which I had suppressed for a long time. I NEEDED some kind of a creative outlet, and starting an architecture blog seemed like fun and got me excited.

The main focus of Young Architect has always been giving value. But if I could make a little bit of money at the same time, that was cool too. In the early days of Young Architect, I monetized it by reviewing architecture books on Amazon, then collecting a referral commission if those items were purchased.

I used to fantasize that Young Architect would be successful and I hopefully would figure out how to monetize it in a way that offered value and was aligned to my mission.

The same time I began moonlighting as a Licensed Architect and blogging for Young Architect, I also started an Amazon business.

I became an Amazon Prime Seller.

Every day when I walked home from my full-time job at the City of Portland, I walked through Target to see what was on clearance, then checked on my iPhone to see how much each item was selling for on Amazon.

I’d buy 20 Barbie Dolls (or anything I could turn into a profit) at $5 apiece, brought them home, put stickers on them, and shipped them to Amazon (who warehoused all the inventory).  When each of those Barbie Dolls sold for $50 apiece, Amazon shipped the product to the customer, and deposited the money into my bank account. All I did was supply the inventory and send it Amazon. They took care of everything else, including customer service.

I learned how to read Amazon’s sales data, to see if each item would sell quickly and at what price. This data informed all my decisions I made with the Amazon business. It told me why one Barbie Doll was good and another one was bad. I flipped toys, books, games, lots of electronics, baby stuff, makeup, home goods and as long as it earned me a profit, I didn’t care what it was. No one showed me how to do any of this, I researched and figured it all out by myself. I have always been good at understanding eBay and Amazon.

Within an 5-week time frame, I obtained my architecture license and suddenly had 4 sources of income:

  1. Working a full-time day job as Project Manager for a Government agency.
  2. Working as a Licensed Architect on small residential projects.
  3. Writing a weekly blog focused on helping Young Architects.
  4. Flipping dumb widgets on Amazon Prime in a buy-low, sell- high, retail-arbitrage situation.

Managing my Time

The Architecture work has always been stop-and-go, and I have been okay with it.  As necessary, I shift gears between it and Young Architect. When I need to practice Architecture, I push Young Architect aside, and it’s always there for me when I come back.

But Young Architect is what I’m truly passionate about. Blogging, writing, and putting things out there became the way I wanted to spend my time.  I could work on it as much or as little as I wanted, but I have always given it most of my attention.

I worked on the Amazon business every day. Most days, I would spend less than half an hour working on it, which was ideal. But in an average month, I spent about 15-20 hours giving attention to the Amazon business.

I always tried not to give it too much brainpower. I tried to work as efficiently as possible, by batching tasks and creating a system for everything I did. This allowed me to think about Young Architect or listen to podcasts while I was physically working on the Amazon business. Mailing Amazon boxes of plastic crap was not how I wanted to spend my time. But it was easy for me, and I was good at it.

I need to clearly point out that:

All of these moonlighting projects were done on nights and weekends, NOT WHILE I WAS WORKING AT MY FULL-TIME JOB.

I NEVER worked on my personal projects while I was being paid as a city employee.

Once in a while during my lunch hour, I went down to the permitting department for personal business. But that was on my personal time. Most days I used my lunch hour to catch up on sleep and ate lunch while I worked.

I always drew a clear line in not letting my personal projects interfere with my day job. I was public employee, a public servant and being paid by tax payer money. I needed to respect that, and I always did.

Money in The Bank!

The Architecture work paid really well. It had low overhead, and most of the projects were small. I usually got paid hourly because (as we all know) small projects can be just as hairy and as much work as a large project. This arrangement worked out well for me.

For a long time, Young Architect made a little bit of money, but I spent far more learning how to blog, build a website, connect with my audience, and figure out how I was going to get people to look at what I created. It was my passion project, and Young Architect was a huge money pit for the first 2 years. I also made alot of stupid mistakes trying to figure it out.

The Amazon Business became insanely profitable. I spent the least amount of time on it and it made the most money. It solely financed Young Architect and helped me pay off some debt. The problem was that I was really good at it, but it was dumb. And I hated doing it. I even started to hate that I was good at it.

The Day Job paid me significantly better than working in an Architecture firm. The problem was that I was hired as a limited-term contractor, which became a loophole that allowed them to keep renewing my contract for 4 years (without ever giving me the opportunity to earn more money).  I used to get upset about it, but I gave up and just used it as inspiration to get out of that situation.

The Shit Hits The Fan!

For a year and a half, I worked 40 hours a week at my day job, and another 20-40 hours a week on all my other projects during  nights and weekends. I had no social life or a girlfriend. (And still don’t, but that’s another blog post for another day.)

By the summer of 2015, something had to give. All of my moonlighting projects had a lot of traction, and showed a track record of success.

I was starting to get frustrated with my day job and felt like I needed to move on. I grew more as an Architect in the City job than any other architecture job I’d had, but felt like there wasn’t much more for me to learn or ways to keep growing.

I only wanted to manage projects, I had no interest in managing people who managed projects. I was an Architect, and I didn’t care about climbing the corporate ladder or becoming upper management. I started to become frustrated with the bureaucracy and was having a harder time biting my tongue when I didn’t agree with what was going on.

Black and white digital drawing of Portlandia

The renovation of The Portland Building was beginning to pick up momentum. I hate The Portland Building and had zero interest in being apart of saving this piece-of-shit building, which doesn’t deserve to be saved.  I worked inside for 4.5 years. It is a public building, for public employees that was designed with complete disregard for the health, safety and welfare of the public.

Putting $200 million worth of lipstick on the pig, isnt going to fix it. The real problem is with the architecture, not the seismic or the envelope. Those are merely just symptoms. The Portland Building is a symbol of everything I am against as an Architect. No one from my generation was ever consulted about saving this building. It is a trophy to a shitty time in architecture, financed by Portland Taxpayers. There was no way, I was going to be apart of that major renovation project. It’s not my problem.

By September 2015, it was really time for me to move on. I stepped down from the full-time job (while still on a high note) and started focusing all my energy on the projects I began while I was moonlighting. At that time, I wrote a whole emotional blog post about it.

I used moonlighting and working harder as a means to get out of my uncomfortable situations.

Today

The first thing I did was kill off the Amazon business. OK, I didn’t really kill it. I just let it die its own death. Almost a year after I stopped adding inventory to it, it was still earning significant chunk of change each month.

After I stopped working for the City, walking through Target every day was now out of my way. It was a chore, rather than a simple detour home from work.

I let it just sit on autopilot until I liquidated my entire inventory, which was sitting in Amazon’s warehouses. I used my desire to get out of the Amazon business as inspiration to earn more money on everything else. I now avoid going to Target at all costs and become anxious any time I do go inside.

I started taking on more architecture projects as a Sole Practitioner.

I always have 2 or 3 small projects going on, and I like keeping it at that. I say NO to more projects than I say YES to. I don’t want every project. Sometimes I work for friends as a consultant, or as extra muscle when they need help and I’m not busy.

Young Architect grew five times faster then I ever fantasized it would. Starting this blog has been the most rewarding project I have ever worked on. I have written a book, created a successful program that helps people study for their exams, and recently added The Young Architect Podcast. I have also been doing a lot of public speaking and meeting lots of brilliant Young Architects at conferences all over the country.

Financially, I am doing just fine being self-employed. Some months are better then others, but I am making a better living, then I would have if I had never gone down this path. I am far from being wealthy, but now my income is directly proportional to how hard I hustle, which has brought me tremendous satisfaction.

Advice for Young Architects about Moonlighting

As promised here are some tips about moonlighting.

1. Become Licensed First.

I am the only person who publicly advocates for both getting licensed and not getting licensed. But the truth is:

If you want to build a business or practice architecture as a second job, you must have your architecture license, because you are probably breaking the law.

If you’re not a Licensed Architect, no one will take you seriously as an Architect or expert. Opportunities will pass you by and go to those whom are Licensed. It’s just how the world works.

For me, I truly kick-started the next phase of my life by intensely focusing on getting my license and committing to achieving that goal.

If you can’t finish the ARE’s, what makes you think that you have the dedication or discipline to be successful as an Entrepreneur Architect?

2. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

This is the Golden Rule of Moonlighting:

You will never create competition, steal company resources, or lie to your employer. Your first responsibility and loyalty is always to your employer.

If your office does small residential remodels, you cannot start a side business doing small residential remodels. You simply need to find another business model, which does not create a conflict of interest.

Maybe you write a book sharing your expertise. There are a million things you can do that will allow you to leverage your existing knowledge without jeopardizing your employment situation.

ALWAYS play it safe, be upfront and honest, and ask if it creates a conflict of interest before you start any moonlighting project.

3. Overcome the Lack of Support.

This point could sound really awful, so let me be careful with my words.

I deeply love my friends and family (from my pre-2012 life), and they love me…

BUT…

Since they love me so much, they just want me to be safe. So my whole life, they have often given me the worst advice, and encouraged me not to take risks and to only make safe decisions.

If I’d listened to them, I never would have been successful at anything I am proud of.

If you are going to reinvent yourself and grow into a more evolved version of YOU, you may have to build an entirely new support network of people, who clearly understand exactly what you are trying to do. People sometimes have a hard time letting go of your old identity, especially when you have grown but they haven’t.

I never told my parents I was quitting my comfortable government job, so I could focus more energy, get serious about my architecture blog, and start my own architecture business.  They would have lost their minds, and they found out long after it happened (from my sister, I think). It was an emotionally terrifying time, and I didn’t want anyone around that wasn’t behind me saying, “You can do it!”

Too many times, people have told me that I can’t do it. Then when they see me doing it and being successful, they pretend like they were always onboard. It was not easy to find the right support network, but it is an integral component of the success of EVERY Entrepreneur or Architect. You must surround yourself with people who believe in you.

How did I find a support network?

I started by not spending time with people who were draining my energy, weren’t growing, and had a negative outlook on life. Then I spent more time with people who were optimistic, supportive, and trying to achieve something great. Many of these people came from the Young Architect and yoga communities.

When I find amazing, inspiring people, I love and support them and say, “I believe in you!” and, “You can do it!” And the positive energy comes right back.

I am always networking outside of the Architecture industry. I find other entrepreneurs who are doing similar stuff as Young Architect, but with other industries and communities. I have gotten so much inspiration for understanding Young Architect, by looking at what was going on outside of the architecture profession. All of my architecture projects come to me from relationships I have with Non-Architecture Professionals. They understand what I do and recommend me to people I can help.

Long before I quit the day job, I hired a brilliant Business Coach, who helped me figure out my exit strategy. We still work together, and I contribute much of my success to his support. He helps guide me and shows me how to acknowledge my successes and see things clearer. He is expensive, but I don’t care, because I couldn’t ever have gotten this far without him.

No one ever asked me to get my license, moonlight, start blogging, and start my own business.  When I have grown and many of my friends and family haven’t, they have not been supportive of what I do until I have shown that I have been successful. It sounds shitty to say, but it’s true. This is exactly why I built myself an entirely new support network of people who believe in me and get it.

4. You can do it, because I believe in you!

All this moonlighting stuff might sound awful to you and if so, it probably is. I don’t think everyone is cut out to be an Entrepreneur, or should feel like they have to be. There is absolutely nothing wrong with finding a great company, becoming a “company man” or a “company woman”, and dedicating all of your energy to helping your company be amazing.

All of us are different people with different skills, experiences and beliefs. However I truly believe from the bottom of my heart and state in many Young Architect blog posts:

Everyone who I see as being successful in Architecture is working really hard between the hours of 5pm and 9am at developing themselves, getting better at what they do, becoming licensed, moonlighting, building businesses, and getting ahead.

The 9am-5pm day job is about making a living and paying your bills. The profession of architecture is very competitive, and working 9-5 isn’t enough, if your goal is to be successful.

My story isn’t unique. Moonlighting helped me find financial and professional freedom within this crazy profession and I still have a long way to go. I’m just a normal guy with average intelligence. Many people succeed at doing this, and you can do it too.

Sincerely,

Michael Riscica AIA CSI

Check out the other #ArchiTalks Bloggers.

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
Should Architects Moonlight?

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
The Ironic Blasphemy of Moonlighting and what Architects are Missing Out On

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
moonlighting more than an 80s sitcom

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Moon(lighting) changes with the seasons

Collier Ward – One More Story (@BuildingContent)
Moonlighting

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
hustle and grind: #architalks

Stephen Ramos – BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@BuildingsRCool)
Architects do it All Night Long

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Starlight, moonlight – tick tock

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Is Moonlighting Worth It? Probably Not, But We All Try.

Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Dancing in the Moonlight

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
The Howling

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Moonlighting: or Why I Kept My Dayjob.

Tim Ung – Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
An Alternative to Moonlighting as a Young Architect

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Architalks 28 Moonlighting

Gabriela Baierle-Atwood – Gabriela Baierle-Atwood (@gabrielabaierle)
On Moonlighting

Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
There is no moonlighting. It’s a jungle!

Jane Vorbrodt – Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Crafted Moonlighting

About the author

Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect who lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with his Labrador Retriever. He is passionate about helping Young Architects change the world. In his free time, Michael likes to take very long bicycle rides across America. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In.

4 comments
Steve Ramos - July 11, 2017

This is an epic post. Seems like it should be your bio on the website. I just jotted down a couple things that resonated with me. Glad you are not selling cars or cell phones btw. I like how you transitioned your 15-20 hours of studying directly into something else. That may be the biggest lesson of the article. We are all capable of big things and at times we really push ourselves, but then we turn it off thinking that the secret to happiness is sitting on your ass and watching television.

Your observation about overcoming lack of support and surrounding yourself with positive people is a post in itself. As a blogger I can certainly identify with that. It has been interesting to see which people in my circle get it and are supportive and others who don’t have a clue. As Jim Rohn said, “you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”

Well done sir! -Steve Ramos

Reply
Collier Ward - July 11, 2017

This IS an epic post, Michael.
(As Mr. Ramos said.)

I’ve been inspired by your evident productivity – but I only knew part of the story! Keep up the great work.

And let me know if you do a webinar on the Amazon gig.
I might be able to retire sooner than planned!

Collier

Reply
Mark Stephens - July 14, 2017

Really, really great advice and a great back-story too – well done stick at it

Reply
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