Sprinting Forward: Melissa Hanley on Learning Curves, What-Ifs, and Beating the Establishment
Melissa Hanley is the co-founder, principal, and CEO of Blitz. She is passionate about human-centered environments and has worked to make Blitz a leader in commercial and workplace design for the digital age. Melissa leads the firm’s design teams, and manages operations, brand strategy, and project delivery, and specializes in sustainable, high-performance environments for innovative companies. Her clients include Microsoft, Google, UC Berkeley, Dropbox, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Fitbit, among others.
In her interview, Melissa talks about building her firm during a recession, staying humble through steep learning curves, and beating the establishment. She advises young architects to put in the work, and aspiring firm owners to find a business partner.
How did your interest in architecture first develop?
I’m so envious of the people who say they knew they wanted to be an architect from the time they were four years old. For me, it wasn’t until my 20th birthday, but my interest in experimentation and creative design developed when I was a child. My father is a contractor and fine woodworker, and my earliest memories are of us drawing and painting together. My parents saw my interest in art and put me in after school art lessons from the age of six. Growing up in such a creative environment gave me the sense of exploration and freedom to test ideas without restraint - often to the detriment of the walls and furniture.
How and when did you decide to pursue architecture?
My design epiphany came during my second year of college. At the time, I had convinced myself that I should sideline creative pursuits as hobbies only and should pursue law as my profession.
Yes - I was working at a law firm and preparing for law school. However, I took myself to the MoMA on my birthday, as I do nearly every year, and in a moment of reflection and contemplation while sitting in front of a Rothko, I realized how inauthentic my life was. In that instant, I was called back to design.
I knew that fine art wasn’t going to stimulate the part of my brain that loved the problem solving and research aspects of law. I took an architectural history class on a whim and it opened my mind to a whole world I had never considered. The rest is history.
You were at UC Berkley at the time. What did you learn about yourself from studying architecture there?
I feel very lucky to have had a liberal arts education at UC Berkeley. Exposure to subjects beyond my professional and technical training has continued to pay dividends. I had one of my first employers say that a purely technical education would teach me how to practice for the first five years, but a liberal arts education would teach me how to think for the rest of my career. Granted, he was a Cal alum, so take it with a grain of salt, but thus far, I’ve found the concept to be true. I often find myself drawing on that early exposure to anthropology, psychology, fine art, and biology.
How did you get your start in the field?
I joined a mid-sized firm straight out of school doing mostly K-12 education projects. In 2006, I met my future business partner and now-husband, Seth, when he came to work at the same firm. He was in a separate studio and it took two years before we would finally get to work together on a competition. It was on that project that we identified in each other an ally in design and a common attitude towards the world and the work.
When did you start Blitz?
In mid-2009 at the height of the economic downturn, we were both laid off from the firm along with ¾ of the staff. The next day, while nursing a serious tequila hangover, Blitz was born. There was a 40% unemployment rate in the A+E industry in San Francisco at the time and we knew that, if we wanted to stay in the profession, we were going to have to make our own way.
Within four months, through one of Seth’s connections back in the UK, we landed Skype’s North American headquarters in Palo Alto. The project quickly grew from a 10,000-square-foot space plan to a 90,000-square-foot building. We delivered the project from our dining room. It was an exhilarating and terrifying experience figuring out how to work together, build a business, and deliver what was one of the largest projects going in the Bay Area at the time. That project was the springboard for the firm in many ways. While we didn’t set out to create a workplace interiors firm, we found the speed and sense of creative experimentation of the project typology aligned with the way we liked to work.
Tell me about running your own firm.
For context, I was 26 when we started. I had no experience managing people, major projects, or building a firm. What I did have was a voracious appetite to learn, and a wonderful advocate in my partner who quickly brought me up to speed. I read every blog, every book, and spoke with every person who was willing to share their insight and advice.
Taking a position of humility was critical to tackling the steep learning curve. I’ve seen a lot of my peers act like they know more than they do and that just backfires. I’ve found more mentorship and support in this profession by honestly acknowledging what I don’t know and being open to standing on the shoulders of giants.
Where are you in your career today?
In our practice, we are looking to move the needle on progress, creativity, culture, and invention. It’s important to address meaning and value in our work while designing in a climate that prizes innovation and, foremost, speed. Our work must be more than just placing employees in workspaces to be truly valuable. This forces us to engage our clients in a conversation about why a project will be meaningful.
This is usually a new type of conversation for our clients and a new metric to judge their own work, which can be a rewarding challenge. Continuing to put the topic of “why this will be meaningful” at the center of our work is a constant challenge given the schedule and economic pressures.
Blitz also turns 10 this year - which totally blows my mind - and I’m looking forward to celebrating this incredible milestone. We’ve achieved so much, and it is a good time to reflect on what the last 10 years have meant and where the next 10 will take us. When working at the speed that we do it’s rare to take a moment for this reflection.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
My biggest challenge early on in my career was managing and cultivating staff. Starting the firm as early as I did meant that I didn’t have any coaching or training on how to effectively manage teams. There is an art to mentoring and inspiring a creative team. I recognized this weakness in my own inexperience and have invested in working with a management coach to help me develop skills to be a more effective, engaging leader.
The change in the studio has been transformative. I only wish I committed to the coaching earlier in my career. I would highly recommend for any professional to seek out mentorship and coaching. It’s such a great way to become a more robust leader.
What have been some highlights and what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of making my relationship with my partner work. I know this is a little fundamental, but maybe that’s why it’s the first thing to come to mind. Having a life partner that shares your ambition and completely supports your goals in executing those ambitions is priceless. People usually look at us with incredulity when we mention that we’re in business together, and quickly add that they “could never work with their spouse.”
There are far more positive aspects of working together than negatives. We value that our work spills over into our personal lives. The fact is that Blitz is our brain child, and we have dedicated our lives to the studio and its success. If we had to overcome challenges on the home front with an unsupportive - or just ambivalent - spouse, we would never have been able to sprint as far and as hard as we have. The shared vision, language, and shorthand is everything.
The most challenging thing, musingly, is remembering to clue in the rest of our team to decisions made outside the office. We’ve learned to (mostly) leave the troubles of the day at the door, so much so that clients only occasionally wonder if we’re married, or just coincidentally have the same last names. I get all the support I need at home and at work that I could ever want to keep chasing the dream. As an architect that is a woman, I find this incredibly powerful. I’m also very proud of the number of women at Blitz. We are a predominately female organization and are committed to gender pay equity. I’m dedicated to seeing women promoted and supported in this profession.
What has been your general approach to your career?
Bulldoze. Even as a young child I was described as pushy. It’s in my nature to identify a goal and to sprint towards it. In my career, I’ve not waited for the perfect circumstances to present themselves or for permission to go after what I want. I’ve very publicly expressed my discontent with the architecture establishment and their outdated ideas on the profession and the role of the architect. Not relegating myself to “getting in line” has completely freed me up to pursue projects, clients, and a design process, my way. Lucky for me, the market has agreed that this works.
We recently opened a third studio in Denver, and have expanded our Los Angeles studio. The energy and talent of the Denver and LA markets are invigorating and inspiring. There is such a terrific sense of adventure and willingness to experiment. We’re psyched to expand our presence in both locations, and see what new and wonderful creations the studios will produce.
Personally, I’m getting re-engaged with my family’s farming business. It’s early days but it’s been incredibly powerful to reconnect with my roots, so-to-speak. It’s a new adventure which feeds my soul.
Any other projects in addition to your family’s farming business?
It’s totally weird but I also like to build pro-formas for non-architecture businesses. There is something fascinating to me about dissecting a business and modeling the startups and operational financials. Among my recent studies, I’ve explored a brewery, a coffee shop, and a printing press business.
Seth and I have a number of other creative business pursuits outside of Blitz, so those endeavors also take up quite a bit of our free time. My favorite thing to do is scheme with him about the “what if” questions over coffee or a glass of wine. We are constantly thinking about projects, products, and processes.
What advice do you have for those just starting their careers? For those wanting to start their own firms?
Put in the work. There is a concept of putting in 10,000 hours to attain expertise. While I don’t agree with the idea that architecture needs to be an all-consuming nearly monastic pursuit, I do think this is not a profession for those that don’t see design as part of their core identity. Working for myself is way harder than working for someone else. I think, if you want to do it, you just have to jump in. I can’t tell you the number of designers I meet in their 40’s and 50’s who complain that they don’t feel “ready”. I’ve got news—you’ll never feel ready. And the longer you wait, the harder it is to leave the cushy situation of a nice paycheck and 401(k).
I couldn’t run my business without a partner who is very different from me, whose strengths complement my weaknesses. It’s damn near impossible to be all things to all people so, if I had one key bit of advice, it would be to find a partner. Someone who you can get in the trenches with and someone who will fill in the gaps in your knowledge, expertise, and interests.