HBR: Tell me about starting your own firm.
Gehry: I’m not a businessman, but the business model I set for the office turned out to be a good one. It’s simple: Don’t borrow money. Pay everybody. Nobody works for free, ever. It was difficult financially for the first few years. At the beginning I had to do all the work myself. And then it was hard to get experienced people. They had families; they didn’t want to work with a struggling young architect. So I couldn’t get the technical help we needed, and we suffered for it. Buildings leak when you don’t have enough construction experience.
You’ve said that one of the reasons the Guggenheim Bilbao is a great building is that you had a great client. What makes a client great?
It’s a collaboration. I’d say it’s 50/50. The client has got to be willing to talk to you. Imagine you get a job with IBM, you’re working with an executive vice president, and he shows the model to the president, and the guy says, “What the f--- is that? That won’t work with my work.” So I only accept jobs where I work with the decision maker.
How do you balance your clients’ desires against other concerns?
The client hires you, so the client is the priority. But you can’t just build a building based on what the clients say, because their vision is based on what’s normal. How do you get out of the normal? You’ve got to question everything. Spend time with the user group. Glean all the information you can. And then throw it all away and begin to play.
Extracted from Interview from Harvard Business Review