Griz Dwight of GrizForm Design Architects: “You need to know your industry inside and out”

You need to know your industry inside and out. As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Griz Dwight. Griz Dwight is principal and owner of Washington, D.C.-based architecture and interior design firm GrizForm Design Architects. Believing that architecture can provide more […]

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You need to know your industry inside and out.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Griz Dwight.

Griz Dwight is principal and owner of Washington, D.C.-based architecture and interior design firm GrizForm Design Architects. Believing that architecture can provide more than a shield from the weather, Dwight decided to open his own firm in 2003 in order to push the bounds of creativity and strive to produce original spaces that maintain an awareness of historical context. “I think that it’s the drive to improve on the last project that keeps us fresh and innovative,” says Dwight.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Absolutely! I grew up in a handmade barn in Vermont, where my passion for architecture began as I was always surrounded by great design. I would spend my summers working in construction and my winters ski racing. I wanted so badly to be a ski bum for a while after receiving my Bachelors from Williams College, where I majored in studio art, but the Masters of Architecture program at The University of Pennsylvania was the next move and I loved it.

Once I received my Masters, I decided to combine my love for buildings and construction with the design ideas I developed within the art studio and I moved to Washington, D.C. with three goals. First, get a job with an interesting design firm. Second, catch the girl that I had been chasing since college and third, move to the mountains to be a ski bum. Two out of three isn’t bad. I have that cool design job, the girl and I have been married for over 20 years but I still have hopes for the ski bum goal to work out.

After my first successful solo venture in 2003, designing a restaurant named OYA in D.C., GrizForm Design Architects was established. Fast forward to today, our award-winning boutique firm has created more than 249 projects, including Fiola, The Salt Line, Ember & Rye, Estadio, Farmers Fishers Bakers, and Estrella Lounge at the AC Hotel Washington, D.C. Convention Center.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My first project, OYA, was one of my most valuable learning experiences. The client hired me and asked me if I had ever thought about starting my own business, which I did once we began work on this project. Once we started the process, however, it became clear that the client was always looking to cut corners, and it was eye-opening from a business perspective. I had been so focused on becoming a successful architect that I had never stopped to consider the challenges of the business side. That client ended up owing me a good portion of my fees, which was a great lesson for me. Now, I know what signs to look for and always listen to my gut about who to work with. If I hadn’t learned that lesson on day one, I wouldn’t be where I am with my own business today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

One of GrizForm’s early projects was a restaurant called Farrah Olivia, where we agreed to do a coconut shell installation on the ceiling. Overachievers that we are, we decided that we were also professional artists and would handle the install ourselves as architects. We underestimated the amount of time — and coconuts — it would take to complete the ceiling, so we ended up closing the office for two weeks to finish the installation (something I thought would take a day at most!) Once finished, while it looked beautiful, the coconuts started to fall off during service!

The takeaway? Stay in your lane! If you have an idea for a cool, innovative art installation, find a creative artist! We’re architects and need to stick to what we know and do well.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re not afraid to take risks. We create innovative design solutions unique to every client, and employ sustainable design practices within every project — taking green measures to a whole new level. Utilizing unique materials, our team has turned tire treads into a thing of beauty and function on walls or reconfigure reclaimed wood scraps into eye-catching design elements.

Additionally, we start every project from scratch.. From finishes and materials to the overall look and feel, every restaurant has its own unique identity. Once we close the door on a project, we’ll never give another client that same look, even if they ask for it (which happens often!). Every day, we push to be innovative and think outside of the box.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Check-in!: At GrizForm, we try to continually check in with each other throughout the day, usually just to chat while drinking a coffee or making lunch. These calls simulate being in the office, catching up, and talking about our weekends. Inevitably, these calls also turn into brainstorms — we chat through project questions and other design ideas. The informal and friendly aspects of office culture are so important for an engaged team. It’s easy to let that go when everything is virtual, but it’s one of the most essential aspects to hold on to.

Get Involved!: Involvement with local emerging professional networks has been a valuable way to remain engaged throughout quarantine. Our local AIA chapter quickly pivoted to virtual meetings and events last spring, allowing even more people to attend and participate than ever before. We’re still meeting new people, networking, supporting each other in our goals, and providing opportunities for impact and education — even in a virtual world.

As a firm, we also participated in a virtual AIA Small Firm Showcase over the summer and other local design firms. It was great to hear how the other firms are staying engaged, setting goals during this time, and presenting some of our local work to the design community.

Above all, though, the main thing I would say is to make sure you get out of the office! At GrizForm, we push our employees to work regular office hours and log off at 6 PM. If your life becomes the office, you won’t feel as creative and inspired. The experiences outside of the office are where inspiration comes from. We like to encourage a LIFE-work balance, not a WORK-life balance!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

First, I have to mention my wife, Mary. We both started our own businesses around the same time when it was just the two of us, which gave us the freedom to take significant risks. I wouldn’t be where I am without her support and having her as a person to lean on as a source of constant inspiration.

On top of that, I spent a good amount of time trying various things — for example, construction. When I was having those experiences, working construction over the summer, one of my colleagues taught me all about building — we did plumbing, electric, roofing, the works. That hands-on experience has proved priceless when it comes to my work today.

Finally, that business lesson I learned from that first project, OYA, has been invaluable time and time again.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

While some businesses might determine “good” vs. “great” based on finances, that’s definitely not us. It’s about how guests experience the spaces we design. A great design is transportive: you go out to eat at a restaurant to experience something new, whether that’s an unfamiliar cuisine or exciting atmosphere. The restaurant’s design needs to help you step outside of your comfort zone, forget the outside world and the stresses of the day, and just focus on how unique the space is. A great business designs spaces that give people that “wow” feeling.

There are three main components to restaurants: food, service, and design. A good restaurant can have one or two, but a great one has all three working together in perfect harmony.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Keep yourself fresh and innovative! Make sure you’re maintaining your inspiration, whatever that means for you.
  2. You need to know your industry inside and out. You have to understand the problems to solve them! Get out there, study the industry, and explore as much as you can.
  3. Be collaborative. The sum is always greater than its parts.
  4. It’s important to know when to pivot. This isn’t always easy, but if you can see a way to challenge yourself and turn something good into something great — go ahead and turn it up to eleven!
  5. Allow your team to be individuals. You hired them for a reason. Don’t put them in a box, and more importantly, don’t let them put themselvesin a box. Push everybody to be their most unique and creative selves.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

For me, it’s all in the team. If a team is creative, and, more importantly, if that innovation has a purpose behind it, that will make the business all the more successful. A moral team committed to doing something for the greater good is always a plus in my book.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

First off, get vaccinated if you can. We need the world to reopen so we can get out of our collective holding pattern. On the whole, though, if you’re feeling a loss of passion or inspiration, go find it again. This could be as simple as walking away from the business for a week or two, taking a much-needed vacation, or thinking outside the box about how to pivot the business. Find those creative juices that got you here in the first place.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

One of the most important things is to maintain the relationships you’ve cultivated while developing your business. In an industry like GrizForm’s, where you’re only as good as your latest project, keeping the people who help generate that buzz for you in your court is vital. Having these advocates every time you complete a new project can lead to new business and word-of-mouth exposure. The more people you have on your side, the more successful you will be!

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

For me, it’s running the company! I was a studio art major and went to architecture school, and so I didn’t learn a single thing about running a business — how much time it takes to do billing, pay rent, write contracts, etc. Acclimating to the company’s business side has been a real learning curve for me — after all, I went into architecture to be an architect — and in the beginning, I definitely missed deadlines or sent bills late. The time and capital it takes to start a small business can not be underestimated, and this isn’t a choice that small business owners should have to make.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

In my experience, being a real person to your clients — speaking to them directly and making a connection with them, is so important. Our clients are opening a business as well and want a real collaborator throughout the process. Be your organic self — people want to work with someone that they can trust and build a relationship with.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Do a good job! Make sure that you put in your best effort. To define your brand, you have to be unique and innovative and have guests come into your spaces and say, “Wow, who designed this?”

On top of this, make sure you step up when you make mistakes — it’s okay when something doesn’t work out, as long as you own it and learn from it. Clients recognize when you are trying to do your best, as long as you don’t make excuses. Integrity is part of a brand, too!

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

A lot of people visit hospitality and restaurant spaces — sometimes 1,000 people a night. With that many people experiencing something you’re creating, you have to tie in your brand but also the client’s brand — you’re creating something together. Collaborating successfully to design something different from anywhere else is what sets GrizForm apart.

In design, we try to tell a story through our spaces to get people to come back over and over again. A genuinely successful restaurant will tell a new story each time you eat there — for example, each bathroom has a unique, Instagrammable design, or there are “micro-climates” within the space defined by food. The kinds of things that people tell their friends they have to experience.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Here are my thoughts as a hospitality designer — Instagram has been great for showing off well-designed spaces to the world, and social media has helped feed the restaurant industry. Don’t get me wrong, I like this trend, and I am not predicting the demise of Instagram. However, I think that the trend for designing moments specifically for Instagram has jumped the shark. Spaces are designed for the people who are using them at the time that they are there. If you design it right, you can get that both/and situation where people will enjoy it and Instagram it. Say goodbye to the places set up only for the photo and don’t hold up in real 3-D life. The whole point of going out to a restaurant is to experience something that you don’t get while in your house (or on your phone). Live for you, not the picture!

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I’m learning every day and want to forge my own path. You’re going to make mistakes, but what’s most important is that you don’t make the same mistake twice. I always tell my team that I don’t mind if they make a mistake, as long as they learn from it. It’s a killer if you make the same mistakes more than once!

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need to start solving some problems in the world. Social and racial equity, financial equity — we need a real reset on how people treat each other, and need to recalibrate some of our societal fundamentals.

How can our readers further follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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