This is National Small Business Week, and the SBA’s theme of “Dream Big, Start Small” perfectly summarizes the origins of Kamus + Keller. In a joint interview given to commemorate our 10th anniversary last year, John Kamus and David Keller shared their memories of launching a small business, both the rewards and the challenges:
QUESTION: WHAT WERE YOU DOING PROFESSIONALLY PRE-KAMUS + KELLER?
JOHN KAMUS: I was in self-practice, working as an architect commissioned to work on architectural projects as well as interiors projects.
DAVID KELLER: I was working at another local firm, one at which John and I had first met.
Q: WHY START YOUR OWN FIRM?
JK: I think David and I were both looking for something more to achieve than our previous relationships with other companies [could offer]. David and I had an existing relationship for nearly 15 years prior to starting Kamus + Keller, so we had an understanding of one another and how well we did work together and we wanted to give more [within] our profession than we were able to achieve at previous firms we worked with. And so that opportunity for us to work together, to bring our talents that are different yet similar together, was the main reason why David and I got started.
DK: We wanted the freedom to be able to treat the clients the way we wanted to treat them: they’re not just numbers or dollars. They’re individuals, they have their own requirements, their own needs. We don’t produce a widget, we produce quality. We provide a service that fits with their needs, not ours. When we met fifteen years prior to starting the firm, John and I had the same vision and approach to clients and their needs and how we should treat them and give them the hand-holding they deserve. They’re paying for our service, they’re looking to us to provide expertise, we’re working to give them a creative solution, not a solution that fits our model but fits their model.
Q: WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST HURDLES YOU JUMPED IN OPENING KAMUS + KELLER?
JK: Money and staff resources.
DK: Yeah, we didn’t really start with [any] capital. We decided we were going to start this out of our homes, and just build it from there. We’re going to use sweat equity to make this company work.
JK: We were fortunate, we had a few clients follow us, and gave us projects to get us started. From there it’s always been just a very strong work ethic to provide our clients with good service, and one referral led to another and projects just started rolling in the door.
DK: It was taking off, but we were at the [cusp] of the recession. We were a new firm and people wanted to give us work, they knew who we were, they trusted us, but they had [certain] corporate liabilities. And right as we started rolling, right away, everything kinda stopped. But luckily our deep relationships allowed us to switch gears rather quickly to work within our clients’ budgets, when a lot of companies couldn’t do that. We had the flexibility to meet the timelines, the payment schedules. It was a very exciting first three years before it kinda fell apart, but luckily during that time we didn’t suffer any consequences. We actually grew the firm because of our relationships and flexibility.
JK: I think David says it well. I think the clients were looking to work with the Principals of a company, and because of those relationships they got that experience that they were really looking for. With a decline in the economy there were resources available because people were being laid off, and we were looking to grow, so we were able to acquire some additional staff so we could expand from there. And really the foundation of our practice, our business, has all been about providing our clients exceptional service, Principal-level service on each project, meaning that Principals were involved in the project from beginning to end. That was very unique at that time, and opened up a lot of doors for us.
DK: It really solidified who we were in the market. “They can get it done, they can provide it, they can make the timelines work.”
Q: TALK TO US ABOUT A FEW OF THE FIRST PROJECTS YOU HAD.
JK: Our first project was a museum-type project in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, quite challenging and unique. As David had said earlier, it was a matter of jumping in with both feet and wrestling through the logistics of the project, and getting it done quickly for the client. I think that was the project that initiated a lot of our practice. Then we quickly moved to another company that was developing residential product lines for various home builders throughout the industry. They wanted to have showrooms, and the showrooms were being populated in a number of locations throughout California. And like David mentioned, this was right before the bubble bursting. Home building was underway and escalating at that time, and so this gave us more opportunities to expand. We were doing multiple projects for the same client, which at that time was backed by Home Depot, so it was a real interesting client.
An Early K+K Project for CBRE
DK: We kicked AT&T off right at the beginning of the bubble crash, and we had a couple of landlord clients who were solid. They weren’t desirable to other firms at that time because those firms were looking for bigger and better clients, and we were able to build those relationships and hold onto those guys. And the relationship with the museum opened to doors to a lot of the big brokerage firms, that allowed us to meet Herbalife and Beachbody. There was a lot of transition in the industry with people moving back and forth between jobs, and one of the only stable things was us. We had clients who went through three, four, five jobs through that time, but stayed with us consistently. So that was a relief to them, that they could call us and we’d be there.
Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY INTERESTING STORIES OR ANECDOTES ABOUT THOSE FIRST FEW YEARS?
DK: Doing a punchwalk at 11 pm so we could move the tenant in the next morning!
JK: At the beginning like any relationship you don’t know one another, and being so hungry for cash flow in our company there were times when we’d have to pause work to facilitate payment to come our way. And we would have clients, one client in particular, who would show up on our doorstep with a check at 7:30 in the morning or 11:00 at night. It was an interesting relationship with that client. I’ve never seen that happen before.