The Bottom Line – Making Money with SketchUp
From the moment Bob Pineo suggested this SketchUp money making topic as one of the Unconference Sessions at Google Base Camp 2010 I immediately thought: hey this guy has said it finally, actually something I have been twisting around my mind for quite sometime but never got around to it, but now I somehow sensed this opportunity to pursue and expand on this great topic. Anyway we spoke about it at the conference, then again just before boarding the airplane in Denver and last week we finally met again online and took our discussion a step further. Most of us that use SketchUp are more than aware of its advantages, short learning curve, simplicity, how it helps us to understand and eventually sell the idea/project. So on one hand we agree that without any doubt, a professional in an already established line of work, architecture, design, film, stage to name just few, can benefit greatly with SketchUp by adding additional value to his product in a competitive world that exists out there. Here at SketchUpArtists.org, in our Spotlight Section, we have already featured and will continue to do so some of the great great artists and their unique use of SketchUp.
Now, what makes it is really exciting and what we decided the highlight of this particular discussion should be all about “the possibilities”, opening up new opportunities, creating new market niches, inventing new and creative ways to sell SketchUp, through modeling itself or together along with other combined skills. We strongly believe that this second category offers endless possibilities. We met and talked to some great people at Base Camp 2010 and witnessed the fact that many use SketchUp at work each in his own unique way. We also met quite a few young people just starting out, with great potential, but still in search of their market niche.
We decided it might be of interest to to start up a SketchUp Business Section in the hope that eventually it will develop into a series of related articles. Our aim is to encourage other 3D artists and SketchUp users out there to come forward and share their own stories, exchange experiences and learn from each other.
Mateo: Bob let me just recap on the Unconference Session part and begin from there. You are an architect by profession. Tell us something about the work you do and what effect do you feel: the use of SketchUp has had on your work?
Robert: I’ve always been interested in the Real Estate Development Field. The field of architect in general laments so much of what is being built, I decided to see if I could get involved and try to bring change. After Grad School I developed a 10 lot subdivision on a piece of family land in Boston. An architect’s dream, we had complete design control of the infrastructure, the lot configuration, the architecture, and the building. What we might not have been so prepared to handle where other aspects of development, architecture school didn’t teach me much about: marketing, the entitlement process, client negotiations etc. I quickly learned that my project was going to sink or swim on my capacity to share and deliver on the aspects of the projects that distinguished us from everyone else. This was back in 2004, and this is when I first discovered SketchUp. Initially I used SketchUp to move the design along faster and create construction documents that communicated details to the builder. Within no time, SketchUp began to help me close contracts for new homes, I used it for general marketing, and even in the entitlement process. My first of many ‘ah-ha’ moments came with the overwhelming positive reaction I received from potential clients, my Realtor, our builder and surprisingly our banker. Everyone loved seeing the project in 3D. It was almost with a sense of relief that the almost universally accepted usage of 2d imagery was being replaced by what is humanity’s native visual language: 3D
Fast forward to my business now: the lessons I learned in that project opened my eyes to a business opportunity most architects have not tapped: the need to tell a compelling story.
In Real Estate Development all other endeavors are directed by the Developers Story. Entitlement, premarketing, design, construction, sales, the story continues to evolve. What makes this project special, cost? location? amenities? details? I use SketchUp to explore all aspects of “the Story”, and as it was with my first project the reaction was immediate and overwhelmingly positive.
Mateo: What are your experiences on approaching people and selling them that predevelopment design idea?
Robert: The Pitch is relatively simple but pretty effective, its very hard to convince anyone (especially these days and especially developers) to put money into something they don’t think will add value. The developers I work with have all been very different, but one common denominator is that they all fundamentally believe in what they are doing. The tool I provide is a means to help express that belief. Once they see that this tool can help close a lending commitment, or help through a bumpy entitlement process, or provide costing feedback ,or boost sales, the job of selling my services is done.
Mateo: Well Bob I have to tell you that what drew me to this topic in the first place is the similar experiences in my own line of work. Predevelopment of concepts has been in my vocabulary for the best part of last 5-10 years. I can not really say with certainty that most people actually fully understand what I do. The important thing is that there is always somebody out there that is prepared to pay for my services.
One of your success stories is the Dam Project in Charlottesville where you used SketchUp visualization to help ease community confusion surrounding the dam’s proposal. Can you tell us more about that?
Robert: My city, Charlottesville Virginia, is probably like most city’s in the world. Just about everyone has an opinion they don’t mind sharing! When it comes to local politics, there is a lot of energy spent debating the facts. One of the biggest public projects in Charlottesville’s history is a very controversial water plan that among other elements initially proposed a 100 million dollar dam. In my discussions with other citizens, I found that everyone I talked to had a very strong opinion (one way or the other). It was either too big or too small, it went too far, or not far enough, etc etc. But when I asked the question “What is your knowledge about exactly what is being proposed? Where is it? How big is it? How will it effect its surroundings? What materials are being proposed? What alternatives are being proposed?
In general, no one had any accurate answers about the specifics. To truly understand the specifics it would take the average citizen a lot of personal time in attending meetings, sifting through the alternatives, reading and deciphering opposing opinions, and at a base level being able to understand engineering drawings even I found difficult to comprehend.
Luckily in our city a news organization named “Charlottesville Tomorrow” took on the role of reporting on all land use questions in the area. I contacted the Executive Director, Brian Wheeler and invited him for a coffee and a bagel. I introduced him to SketchUp and its seamless interaction with Google Earth. We talked about the limitation words can have when it comes to describing land use issues, and most specifically we talked about how a good citizen is an informed citizen. By the end of the meeting, Brian’s eyes where as round as the bagel we just ate. We have done several projects together since then, but the dam project was the most exciting. Brian hired me to model the existing conditions, and 2 alternate schemes for the new dam. I created the animation using SketchUp and Google Earth, we added titles and theme music and published it on Youtube and the Charlottesville Tomorrow web page. The reaction was fantastic. We took what is a very complicated subject and distilled many of the major elements into a holistic whole, all in the span of about 8 minutes. The video was used by the engineering company in their presentation to the public, and they even paid me additional money to help create some 2d images. Brian’s group is using our success to fund a new initiative called Cville 3D. Our goal is to digitize the entire city and surrounding county and explore all land use issues in a 3 dimensional way.
Mateo: You said at the conference that you are currently able to charge $100 per hour for a variety of SketchUp/3D services, instead of using a ‘flat-rate’ fixed pricing system and have found success that way. Can you elaborate a bit more on your experiences?
Robert: I actually charge $80 per hour (a bit of hubris on my part at the conference, sorry). To use a baseball saying: I have been “swinging for the fences” most of my career. That is why the lour of real estate development was so enticing. I believe in my talent, I believe in my profession, and I think I should be rewarded. The problem I have encountered until recently is that “Swinging for the fences” also means a lot of strike outs. The payout was always somewhere down the road, I took on huge amounts of risk, debit and responsibility. On a business level I did some really interesting things, but a personal level my financial picture wasn’t where I wanted it to be. A couple of years ago someone asked me what the receipt for a successful business looked liked? I was anticipating something metaphysical, but I got: Gross Revenue(-)Expenses(-)Overhead= Profit. Suddenly it seemed pretty simple. Increase sales, reduce expenses and overhead and I’ll do better for myself and my family. Then I looked at where I wanted to be. It would be great to make a 100k a year profit right? Turns out, if I bill 40 hours a week @ 50$ hour for 50 weeks I would make 100,000$ a year. Basic math. As it turns out, most other architects in town charge $100-$150 dollars an hour, so in my client’s mind I am a relative bargain. The key is keeping my expenses very low. I work from home (which I love), I have a $500 program (SketchUp) that is an absolute cash cow, and I’m doing all sorts of really interesting work. Not to mention I have never (not even close) been so busy professionally.
Mateo: Is it true that you can now sustain yourself on income from 3D modeling services alone?
Robert: I’m not sure yet. Consciously or unconsciously I make the bulk of my money through architecture design services. The benefit to my business with staying (for now) with this type of work is that I have repeat clients with projects that have long duration cycles. The income stream is hard to pass up right now. My goal is to raise capital and then explore that market. I will say every day (and I don’t say this out of hyperbole) untapped markets for 3D content jumps out at me. I think they do for most SketchUp users.
Mateo: Definitely you are right about the fact that the 3D content opportunities are popping up daily. I sense the same in my line of work. You often teach and hold lectures, you say that the average turnout is exceptional. How do you account for that ?
Robert: This goes back to the fundamental issue I discovered for myself in the development project I did. At some level, we all crave to know more about our surroundings. I still remember my first spin around my childhood neighborhood in Google Earth! As a designer, SketchUp unlocks a lot of aspects of design buried in antiquated drawing methods. In construction 3D drawings I show builders, it helps narrow the gap between design and construction. In my development projects the banker, town planner, neighbor, prospective homeowner and the Realtor all want to know more and understand it. I think the key to all of this is, people want to figure it out for themselves, they don’t want to be told. 2D images are often (and especially in architecture) parochial in nature and need explanation. 3D images are native and intuitive, the user gets to form an opinion without filters. I think that is why SketchUp is blowing up right now, it’s a movement of self exploration. I teach and lecture architects, landscape architects, builders and planners and the excitement generated is rooted in the possibilities they see for themselves and the advancement of their interests.
Mateo: Robert, thank you so much for your time and for sharing with us your experiences . Hopefully we will continue this topic involving other SketchUp users with their own life experiences.
Please contact us here at sketchupartists,we are looking forward on hearing your story .
To be continued….
Bob Pineo is an Architect from Charlottesville, VA. He is the owner of Design Develop LLC.