This week’s small business star is Alison Brooks, who founded Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) in 1996. She was named joint winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize in 2008.

Alison arrived in Britain on a working holiday in 1988 and set up her own practice eight years later, which now employs 22 people. She tells us how she made it through the early years of the business with a little help from the Yellow Pages and why her passion, ideals and entrepreneurial spirit has helped her to overcome her business challenges.

1. Setting up on my own was part of an underlying urge

“I moved to London in 1988 – I came over with my suitcase, my portfolio and £500. I’d recently graduated from architecture from the University of Waterloo in Canada. I came over on a working holiday visa and haven’t gone back. It’s proven to be a fantastic and opportune place for me to have settled.

“I joined Ron Arad Associates and worked with Ron for seven years – we designed the Belgo restaurants, the Tel Aviv Opera foyer architecture, and several other houses and commercial projects before I decided to set up a practice on my own to carry out larger scale urban and public projects, regenerations and housing design. I’ve always felt a duty work on the city, to make a positive impact on the average person on the street.

“Ron and I had a very creative and productive design relationship but I always had an underlying urge to push the social project of architecture, which is urban design and housing. It was just an interest I had that I needed to realise in a different context.

“Quite soon after launching the practice ABA was commissioned for a design hotel in Germany and after that the VXO House in Hampstead, which won a RIBA award back in 2002. It was really a stepping stone for ABA to get both publicity and recognition and ‘a way in’ to larger scale housing and residential work.

2. I didn’t see myself as an entrepreneur at first

“I didn’t really think about the business side of going it alone. You just start working on a project and bury yourself in it, and when projects are coming to an end you’re frantically searching for the next project or doing competitions to expand your repertoire. You’re not necessarily on a treadmill but you have to constantly be thinking about how once piece of work will be leading to the next one.

“I didn’t see myself as being a entrepreneur when I set up, although I’ve been called an entrepreneur since then. My thought was, ‘What? I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m an architect!’ But eventually it does become apparent that you do need to have an inherent faith and sense of adventure and risk taking. I suppose that does characterise entrepreneurs.

“The aim was always to push the boundary of what is considered to be architecture or what space can be, and how we can work with light and material and landscape in new ways.”

3. We used to do a lot of unusual projects to survive in the early days

“Our approach to selecting projects has changed. There were points in the past when we were just so desperate for work that we were happy to get people calling us. Because Alison Brooks Architects was the first name in the Yellow Pages when you looked under architects, we used to get lots of very unusual requests to do small projects, which we did because we had to in order to survive.

“Now we don’t tend to do very small projects anymore – it doesn’t make sense when you have a practice the size of ours. In order to win the larger scale projects, and to win public and civic and arts projects, you have to increase in scale and capacity

“We do have a policy of keeping one private house project going where there is the opportunity to experiment and push the conceptual side of the practice in a way you can’t do with bigger projects. We limit our work on small private houses to those that offer an opportunity to do something extraordinary, architecturally.”

4. You have to measure how far you can push the boundaries

“We’ve taken lots of risks. I think in a lot of ways doing a one-off house such as the [Manser nominated] Lens House is always risky because there’s no end point. You’re starting a journey with the client and we’ve been very fortunate that our clients have been very keen to be taken somewhere they’ve never been taken before.

“Obviously there’s functional aspect of the client brief but in terms of the architectural expression they have been very open minded. As an architect, you have to measure how much you push the boundaries and what the risks are that you’re going to take.

“It’s a very competitive environment to work but that’s good as it keeps you on your toes. It’s part of the excitement and adrenaline that you need to keep going – that sense of going to unfamiliar places, mastering and conquering the risks and unknowns that lie within each project.”

5. I realised that most businesses need start-up finance

“In hindsight I wish I’d got a business loan. In some years where it was really tough we didn’t have money to upgrade the practice or do competitions to the quality and level they should have been.

“I realised far too late that most businesses get start-up finance from somewhere. I never did that, so it just made expanding and marketing the work we had done very difficult. It held ABA back a little bit because I was too conservative managing finances of the practice.”

6. Your ideals will see you through the tough clients

“My advice would be to hang onto your ideals is probably because they will carry you through the tough times and the tough clients if you have a certain set of things that you just will or will not do.

“Although it may be limiting the early days, you have to stand beside your values as a designer because experimental ideas are nearly always being attacked or eroded by external forces. This makes life harder, but when things are really hard its usually a sign you’re striving for excellence.”

For more advice and insight from business owners, visit our Small Business Stars hub or watch the films on YouTube.

Find out more about Alison’s business at www.alisonbrooksarchitects.com. Find out more about RIBA and the 2014 Manser Medal, sponsored by Hiscox, at www.architecture.com/RIBA.

For more information on Hiscox’s specialist services for RIBA members, please visit: https://www.hiscox.co.uk/riba/