Investment Note

Building the network practice: why we invested in CO-architecture

Written by
Tom Smalley
On behalf of the Skalata Investment Team
“Staffing is the number one expense in a design practice, so when work dries up, jobs are the first on the chopping block. Yet most practices identify talent as their number one competitive advantage. We wanted to address that irony.”
Kevin Mitchem

52% of the creative industries are made up of independent contractors.

On top of that, 46% are small businesses. 

That’s an incredible 98% of architects, designers, draftspeople, and small firms working on a project-by-project basis, often being forced to go where the work goes.

They’re doing their own portfolio-building, networking, pitching, applying, and job-searching legwork. 

In a cyclical and often volatile industry, small firms have little recourse when they lose major projects but still have to pay full-time staff. 

And no dedicated platform to recruit or network on… until now. 

CO-architecture is an online community and hiring marketplace founded by Kevin, Wade, and Luke - specifically, three graduates with expertise across architecture, civil engineering, and marketing. 

In Kevin’s words:

“We’re built by industry, for industry. The idea behind ‘CO’ is bringing everything together - meet-the-architect articles, tender portals, all those great things into one place to build a project, scale, or find that next career move.”

While industries such as Marketing and IT have created marketplaces to help manage market fluctuations and contracts, architecture is still moulded around a traditional recruitment market.

If projects are lost during an economic downturn, there is nothing in place to protect talent.

“We were interested in the idea of a network practice; that you could resource [talent] to other practices so that they can maintain their career goals or their incomes.”

CO-architecture helps smaller firms to scale and removes barriers for the vast amount of independent contractors seeking work.

Meet the team

During Kevin and Wade’s time with multinational firm Woods Bagot, they saw first-hand what a large talent pool can deliver, and the ability to strategically tap into a network of talent across Australia to meet demand.

And like most working professionals around the millennial age bracket, Kevin experienced first-hand the impacts of the GFC and later the pandemic on working life.

As he saw across his 10 years in the industry, “these massive economic influences heavily impact construction and project markets. In architecture and design, talent accounts for 60 to 70% of practice expenses. So when talent impacts the bottom line, the number one response is to cut jobs”.  

But there’s a not-so-sweet irony to the situation. In their market research, the founders found that good people were the “number one thing” that helped smaller agencies win business, scale, and flourish. 

Cutting talent doesn’t make sense - for anyone. 

Through rolling lockdowns in 2020, the founders’ mission to bring work back to workers was gratefully received, when Kevin and Wade were accepted onto the Curtin Ignition program and sponsored by the neighbouring local government of Victoria Park.

“We got to focus on building connections within the startup ecosystem, taking a fine tooth comb through that market, and actually focusing on the valuable commercial things. And then getting a lot of mentoring and feedback.” 

At the end of the intensive week, the team pitched to a panel of investors, sharks, mentors - one of whom being Michael Malone, iiNet founder and shareholder in AirTasker. 

From there, the team was sponsored into the Curtin Accelerate, receiving a $5,000 grant which actually helped them to build their first MVP.

Meet the Product

CO-architecture is an online community and hiring marketplace. 

Drawing inspiration from online marketplace Airtasker, CO-architecture provides a sustainable solution for managing the architecture industry’s resource demands and fluctuations. 

The online membership-based platform is targeted specifically to design professionals, and unlike most job searching sites, users are pre-vetted. It connects anyone orbiting the profession -  engineers, interior designers, draftspeople, photographers, landscape architects. 

Rather than encourage a casual workforce through its marketplace, the purpose of CO-architecture is to sustain it.

It mimics the strategy of big agencies - Woods Bagot, Hassel, Cox Architecture - who retain large volumes of staff, but move them around according to requirement. They can shift resources across states to fulfil shifting demand.

That’s exactly what CO-architecture aims to do with the 98% of independent traders and small businesses.

Naturally, the platform triumphs inclusivity and collaboration (rather than competition). It welcomes all professions that contribute to building and interiors. 

Architect and former Deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Perth, Sandy Anghie, has watched the venture grow from an idea into a thriving community.

“This idea of a networked practice is one that happens informally across the industry. What's smart about CO-architecture is that it formalises this idea and scales it nationally. The platform improves the hiring process, and it provides smart, efficient and accessible technology to help support the wider architecture and design community.”

Anghie has recently worked with the team to develop SITE - an architecture-dedicated content platform featuring interviews, project profiles, and helpful resources.

How it works

On the side of the individual/small business/job seeker, users can browse and apply for jobs, get found by recruiters, and showcase their work. 

The portfolio builder has editable templates, a drag-and-drop function, and a free flipbook feature built in collaboration with Issuu.

The landing page sums it up: it's a better way to introduce yourself.

On the employer side, users can quickly post and promote job openings, find candidates, and showcase their brand and employment offer in a similarly creative and visual way.

It makes a lot of sense. When you’re dealing with visual people, give them the tools to do what they do best.

Candidates are vetted, easy to find via the designer directory, and searchable on the basis of speciality, expertise, and location.

If an employer posts a job or contract for, say, a landscape architect, then the algorithm will automatically create a shortlist of relevant candidates and people that they can connect with. 

That previous pain point - where recruiters are digging around freelancer boards and LinkedIn profiles - is where a lot of time and money can be saved.

What we love

CO-architecture has found a spot in a relatively blue ocean.

After just 12 months, they’re holding around 5-6% of market share. Registered users have nearly doubled in January alone. The founders are aiming for 20% by the end of 2023 with the introduction of its new designer directory. 

And architecture is just the foundation. The founders want to build outwards to include things like engineering and construction, further connecting a disaggregated industry.

CO-architecture investor and director of multinational design studio Hassell, Peter Lee OAM, believes the platform offers a unique solution for a volatile industry.

“As the world of architecture is so closely tied to construction, projects fluctuate drastically depending on the state of the market and economy, making traditional means of finding work challenging.”

We love anything that puts the power back in the hands of the individual and the small business, and fuels their ability to promote and sustain themselves.

There are international strategies in the works, with New Zealand and UK markets as early targets.

Skalata Venture Partner Shahirah Gardner is inspired by CO-architecture’s aim to not only revolutionise industry networking, but to help gather crucial insights.

“CO-architecture’s ability to collect data on larger scale issues will help support research and conversations around equity and diversity.”

The founders have recently published a comprehensive industry salary guide to challenge the notoriously large gender pay gaps in the space. This coincides with recent changes to the Australian Fair Work Act that prohibit secrecy terms in employment contracts or other written agreements.

Kevin, Wade, and Luke’s mission sits very much in alignment with our beliefs about sharing and collaboration, and our dedication towards more connectivity in Australia’s business ecosystem.

Through their work with us, the team can start by reinforcing their primary markets on the East Coast. 

In Kevin’s words,

“Everyone we've talked with, worked with and pitched to at Skalata have given us their all.”

Here’s to building great things with CO-architecture.

Inspired by CO-architecture's story?