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Architecture Firm Spotlight #05: Stephen Sun of D!G
June 24, 2021 at 6:30 PM
stephen sun on archslate.png

A conversation about the Future of Architecture, Entrepreneurship, and the Wave of Architectural startups with Stephen Sun

Interview by Vaishnavi More, founder, and CEO at Archslate

Edited by Sidhanth Thomas

Earning his Masters in architecture from Harvard as well as going on to do multiple internships at other architectural firms, Stephen Sun has had tons of illustrious experience behind him already. Tired of the closed-door real estate way of architectural planning and design, he along with his co-founders founded D!G which seems to be making big waves in the industry. D!G is a collective of software engineers, data scientists, planners, and architects who strive to “democratize design to be accessible and delightful.”

Vaishnavi More: What does D!G stand for and tell us a little more about what it is?

Stephen Sun: D!G stands for Development Integration Gurus, we decided the acronym was better served for digital architects as it seemed that people resonated with that message a lot more. We're building a website that automates the production and design of any building.

Vaishnavi More: Given your background in Architecture, how did you come up with this company and how did you come about co-founding it? Today you're building a startup that's at the intersection of architecture and technology. What is your main driving force behind creating it?

Stephen Sun: Like many aspiring architects go off to grad school and enter a firm, they realize the ways you can improve as an architect is quite linear, you get extremely good at design, leading up to you eventually becoming a partner, where you start becoming a salesperson. I wanted more control over how I design my own professional career path. Aside from that, the way architects are designing and working today is unfortunate. 99.9% of what we do can be automated while we spend our time doing paperwork. I know that's definitely not why I became an architect. So I think D!G was founded by drawing from a combination of passion and frustration towards buildings.

Site plan generator tool offered by D!G

Vaishnavi More: What do you think are some of the obstacles that the architecture industry is facing today?

Stephen Sun: We’ll need a whole another podcast to talk about this (laughs). However, a primary obstacle today is that architects feel disassociated from reality. Unfortunately, only a few architects who worked for real estate developers would understand what factors and variables are driving design. As we don't truly understand how designs have been programmed during the initial stages, we’re never at the table to make any big decisions. We simply become the implementers of someone else's dreams and ideas. Not understanding the bigger picture, much of our creativity, and imagination is lost. It's like showing up to a barbecue competition with amazing sushi. It’s not relevant, neither is it applicable. I use the financial underwriting knowledge as one component, similar is the scenario of how to build something, where I see a lot of architects drawing things with no understanding of how it's actually put together. When you're on the field, you don't even realize just how differently the scenario plays out.

“Like many aspiring architects go off to grad school and enter a firm, they realize the ways you can improve as an architect is quite linear, you get extremely good at design, leading up to you eventually becoming a partner, where you start becoming a salesperson. I wanted more control over how I design my own professional career path. ”

Check out the D!G website here

Vaishnavi More: You mentioned this aspect of sales. As architects, we are so focused on design. What do you think was the biggest challenge when you realized that you had to become a salesperson? Did it come naturally to you? Or did you have to struggle with that?

Stephen Sun: It was a massive struggle, one of the biggest, in fact. We've talked about Y Combinator a bit, although one of the funniest things they've ever taught us founders is that people get really good at something but are poor at their jobs, which makes them want to start a company around what they're good at. The second you start a company around what you're good at, you soon realize the work distribution is not what you presumed it to be. Almost immediately, you're forced to get to sales. I remember the first time talking to one of the Y Combinator partners, they told me that my job now is not to design buildings but rather, to go out and get $10,000 worth of revenue fees. I was terrified at that prospect because I've never sold myself as an architecture professional. My modus operandi was always to be given a problem. Sales was completely out of the blue for me. But I think it's something very teachable. It does take a large amount of practice and it took us a year to get good at it. Sales is an absolutely critical part of any profession or industry, for if you can't sell, you don't understand what customers’ problems truly are.

Vaishnavi More: Stephen, you are one of the few architects who at a young age, is changing the face of entrepreneurship in the sense that you have been backed by incredible VCs, including Boost VC, and you were also a part of the Y Combinator alumni. Tell us about how, as a designer, you cracked these interviews and went on to redefine the face of entrepreneurship in architecture.

Stephen Sun: It’s definitely a long story, although a lot of credit goes to my past co-founders who were quite technical. I think, if I were to enter a company as its sole founder, without truly understanding how the software works, and how to build a company, they would not have accepted me. What VCs are truly looking for is not necessarily passion or expertise, rather the ability to not give up, always pushing forward and being good at learning things you don't know, then applying them to the business. We got into Y Combinator on our first application and I attributed a lot of luck to that. With Boost, it took us two tries, when they initially told us that although they did like us, we were too risky as we failed to exhibit ABCD. We were then told to go do ABCD and come back, which we did! They needed us to get customers to pay you for building something that works, and that VC perspective, I can see now. Boost VC’s Adam Draper and Brayton Williams, they're incredible investors! They've always said that investors invest in lines, not in dots. The first time you reach out to a VC is just the beginning. Now you would want to build trust and attraction as well as a relationship with them, to show that you are not going to give up. And that's how you get into any of these accelerators.

Vaishnavi More: Being an early-stage startup, how does D!G go beyond the competition that exists in the architectural world today? When there are so many companies out there that are doing the same thing that D!G is, what are the different practices if any that D!G employs to beat the competition?

Stephen Sun: I would say we're not beating the competition at all, we're dying (laughs). What I can say is that D!G actually has two companies embedded within it. There's a software side, that is building tools to automate the way architects work, and then simultaneously we have architects building plug-ins and tools to make ourselves a lot more efficient. I've always used the analogy of bridge-building; you always build a bridge from both sides, eventually meeting in the middle. Typically, software companies have struggled to create or generate revenue at an early stage. We don't have that problem because like everyone knows, buildings need to get built. They need purpose. They also need architects that service that. On the converse side, our biggest weakness is that we are not technocrats. We are not trained in computer science. Palak, my co-founder is also not a software engineer. We have a lot of obstacles and struggles, so much so that sometimes we do not understand how to build software around the architectural industry. But boy, is that a fun design challenge!

"Democratize design to be accessible and delightful", courtesy D!G

Vaishnavi More: You've taken a very non-traditional and unorthodox path compared to what most architects would do today. You've also brought in certain aspects of technology and AI or maybe machine learning, embedding it within traditional architectural practices. What made you do that? What made you take that non-traditional path, which no one would actually think of today?

Stephen Sun: That's a great question. I think if I were to reflect, I went to school at Carnegie Mellon which has one of the best programs to learn architecture. I naively thought that they were far too conservative in regards to how they taught architecture which as it turns out is the only way to teach architecture. I ended up going to SCI-Arc, which if anyone knows, is just a crazy place for crazy people. Eric, who was the director at the time, always pushed that one, If you don't build it, it doesn't count, and two, you have to design your own tools to achieve whatever architecture you want to achieve. I'll be rendering sculpture components or even a software company when I’d remember that the lesson really stuck with me; of designing tools for myself. When I was working with developers as well as other architects, real estate agents, and brokers, I began to realize that there are so many tools that they're missing, not architectural tools, but just tools. I started my career as an architect to solve other people's problems. This is a big combination of all of that.

Vaishnavi More: Do you think today, architecture firms are accessible to everyday architects in the sense that whenever you think of hiring, or whenever you think of approaching an architect at a big firm, are they really accessible?

Stephen Sun: That’s a hard question. I think my gut instinct is to say, no. Some firms do a better job at being transparent, although I can't think of any off the top of my head. I'll say No! Unfortunately, a lot of you know if you are a homeowner and you go to a contractor, you ask them how much this is going to cost for me to build, they will not tell you because they themselves don't know how much it's going to cost. The lack of transparency or accessibility may not be solely a matter of cultural policy decisions. Quite often like we ourselves don't know what's going on in our own company. I can say that I'm guilty of that, too. As of right now, it's just Palak and me. I have no idea how many hours we're spending on each task, as part of any typical architecture project. In order for us to be accessible and transparent, we need to know ourselves and this knowledge of ourselves translates to data. Architects are not trained to think in data, which makes it very difficult for us to be transparent and accessible. That's why we have great marketing teams to portray a brand of transparency as opposed to truly being transparent.

Vaishnavi More: Hypothetically, what would your ideal team and studio culture look like in the next five years? How would you want to differentiate it from all other architectural practices that exist out there?

Stephen Sun: I have no idea what our company is going to look like in five years. What I do know is that we have an ideal team right now, albeit incomplete. There's always that caveat when you hire someone you think is ideal, and turns out to be ideal, you're really thinking about who is the next person to move on to? If the purpose of a tech company is to grow extraordinarily fast to fulfill the investment returns of the limited partners of the VC that funded you, then you're always thinking about growth. To grow strategically, and coherently is extremely hard. That's the hardest thing in terms of what I face so far. What makes an ideal team, really comes down to communication. If the people you work around can communicate well with you, and you can communicate well with them, and if they are sufficiently competent in what you’re asking them to do, then that’s what an ideal team is. That’s why I'm blessed with my two current co-founders, Palak and Michael. I can speak volumes as to why I chose Poly and Mike.

“If the purpose of a tech company is to grow extraordinarily fast to fulfill the investment returns of the limited partners of the VC that funded you, then you're always thinking about growth. To grow strategically, and coherently is extremely hard.”

A comprehensive research tool offered by D!G

Vaishnavi More: More often we are thinking about our team, recruiting people, or getting new talent, while we subconsciously put our studio culture in the backseat. What do you think studio culture should be like, for creating healthy workplaces?

Stephen Sun: Unfortunately, this is going to sound narcissistic, but the studio culture or a culture of any company or startup really comes from the founders. At D!G, the culture is very much an extension of Palak’s, Michael's, and my personality encompassing the things that we truly believe in. Something that we do believe in, is that if anyone works at a hundred-and-twenty percent capacity, you don't work on weekends, you need a therapist, you need a gym membership, and you need loved ones around you. When we need to be working twelve to fourteen hours on a daily basis, we need to have this entire support system behind us for everyone to be working effectively. Otherwise, everyone just burns out, it's simply impossible to work that hard that fast. I've gone through my fair share of being burnt out, not just in school, but with my own startup. It's an extremely bad place to be.

Vaishnavi More: When you think about growth and talent, recruiting and retaining, how much success have you had so far? What does talent recruiting and retaining mean for us in the architectural space? In other industries, they have recruiters, hiring managers, have large HR departments, which is very different from the architectural industry. How do you feel about that?

Stephen Sun: The terminology itself that we choose is so incredibly different. There's a whole podcast around hiring while there's a whole podcast around recruiting. I've made so many hiring mistakes, as well as many recruiting mistakes. What I then realized is that there are really no shortcuts to anything, even though I was aware of some. Some of my mistakes included posting a job application, reviewing resumes, neither of which resulted in anything truly long-lasting. We recently had to let the entire architecture team go which was very bad. What I've learned from that though, is the best way to find people that you truly want to work with, is very much like dating. You create the ideal persona down to the skills, character as well as personality. Then you go out and you find it. Most people are simply good, while the great people will be taken up by something else. They're not just readily available for us to find these people, rather we have to steal them away from another organization. In Michaels’s case, he was essentially the VP of Engineering at a fairly well-established software company. It took two to three months of conversation for me to convince them to get him to join us. It took a year to convince Palak to leave her stable job and put her sponsorship and citizenship process on the line to join. I think me reviewing resumes and simply assuming this person should be a good fit even after testing them was a mistake I made in the past. Technically, from an architecture perspective, it just did not work out.

“There's a whole podcast around hiring while there's a whole podcast around recruiting. I've made so many hiring mistakes, as well as many recruiting mistakes. What I then realized is that there are really no shortcuts to anything, even though I was aware of some. Some of my mistakes included posting a job application, reviewing resumes, neither of which resulted in anything truly long-lasting.”

Vaishnavi More: Is D!G currently hiring and what kinds of roles are you hiring for?

Stephen Sun: We are hiring. We need a project architect, a competent one, so to speak. Although there are plenty of them out there, we're looking for; a term that we always throw around, which is a “mini co-founder.” Competency isn't exactly enough. The ability to foresee problems, the ability to self-initiate around those problems, both of which ties right back into studio culture. One of the key values, after self-health, is what we call “obsessive resourcefulness.” If you have a problem, how can you be obsessively creative in solving that problem without using up too many resources such as money, time, and people? I always think back to a movie called, 38. Alright, we have two hours to fix this problem. No more, no less. Just don't go at it head-first. That's what a start-up really is.

Vaishnavi More: While looking at potential team members when you're hiring, what is the most important thing that you look for? What's that essential aspect that really stands out for bringing someone to your team?

Stephen Sun: There's really no singular factor. Just like before, we had a lot of trust issues with our early employees. We went on and ended up overcompensating for trust and hired friends. When people were directly referred to us, it became a competency issue. After which, we ended up overcompensating for competency, compounded by the lack of those entrepreneurial qualities. Being quite cavalier, they treated this as just another job, which goes on to show that there are a variety of factors that affect hiring. Funny enough, without reinventing hiring, which is something that many companies out there like to do, Palak and I just trusted our gut. Within the first five minutes of talking to a job candidate, if Palak thinks they’re good or if I think they’re great, then, that mostly ends it right there. In the end, you really just have to go with your gut. Ironically, most mistakes I’ve made as a co-founder came from me not trusting my gut.

The D!G vision statement

Vaishnavi More: Tell our readers, what does the foreseeable future of D!G look like? Where does your leadership stand in it?

Stephen Sun: Why don't we do another interview a year from now? I'll be more certain in my answers then. I don't even know what tomorrow is going to look like for us. We have so many fires to put out just from this morning! Problems you never thought could materialize suddenly become very real issues that have to be dealt with. But I still believe that all of that is better than sitting in an office doing bathrooms. It goes without saying that Palak and I love working with each other, working together on things such as problems the industry faces, the problems that our discipline faces that are worthy of our time. Even if the idea fails, we gave it our all and we will be proud of ourselves for trying.


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