How to get your foot in the door with big clients: become a resource and offer to help without expecting anything in return – an interview with Paragon Architecture

Every entrepreneur dreams of the moment they’ll make it to the Inc5000, a signal of success and industry recognition. We’re interviewing B2B Inc5000 companies to crack the code of HOW to get on the list (and stay on!). This series will hopefully become the playbook to your success too. Today, we’re interviewing Brad Erwin, Principal Architect at Paragon Architecture.

NXT: How & why did you start Paragon Architecture?

It was out of survival. We started Paragon Architecture in 2010 (the recession hit Springfield a little bit later than everywhere else).

We were working at a previous employer, who decided to slow down and merge with another firm.  Everyone was fired on a Friday, and the 2 of us started from scratch the following Monday.

We didn’t have a name, no office, just an idea. Within 100 days, we added 2 staff.  We were about that size until 2013, when we added a significant number of staff. Now, we have 16 designers, architects, and interior designers.

NXT: How did you grow in the beginning?

We got our foot in the door helping schools pursue the grant program offered by the State of Missouri for tornado safe rooms back in 2010. After the Joplin tornado in May 2011, more funding became available in 2012 for tornado safe rooms across the state.

School districts didn’t know that they were eligible to pursue that funding, nor did they have the expertise to put together an application.

So we cold-called and set up meetings with the school districts’ leadership team and walked them through the application process. Cold-calling is not my favourite thing and  I never follow scripts. But what I did was offer ourselves as a resource.

We often helped, without expecting any projects in return.

NXT: What was your tipping point, where you grew over 200% in the past few years?

The fulcrum was our expertise in the education sector, especially with the tornado safe rooms. When the grant funding became available, it accelerated our growth much faster than we anticipated. We had done a few tornado storm rooms for some schools, and word spread that we were the go-to experts.

In previous years, tornado safe rooms represented 75% of our projects, and we’ve been able to transition into other segments based on our experience that we built up during those early years. Now, tornado safe rooms represent less than 10% of our active projects.

In 2013, we had about 30 active projects, and now we have 47. The scope of the projects has also changed. Some projects are much larger in dollar value and duration, where some projects now require 9 months of design work, compared to just 4 months in 2013.

NXT: How did the transition from ‘safe room’ go-to experts happen?

Our expertise in tornado safe rooms led us to working with dozens of school districts across the state. They then started asking us for help on their classroom additions, or their new school projects.

One example: A tornado safe room project introduced us to work in higher education, which led to two more projects with that college, which led to two projects with another college, and eight projects with another university.

NXT: What kind of projects are you working on now?

We focus mostly on corporate offices, publicly funded projects, and anything that is highly technical. We also work a lot with school districts, from pre-K through high school to higher education.

Currently, we are designing an intermediate school that is focused on providing a 21st century learning environment, university buildings, and corporate offices even for Fortune500 companies located in the Springfield region.

NXT: How do you differentiate from other architecture firms when you go through the qualification process?

The term “collaboration” is overused, but we truly co-create a design with our clients and welcome any feedback. Our ego is very small, and we’re willing to partner with other firms if we know it’ll help the client.

We “tagline” our approach The Paragon ApproachTM, and it is about who we are and how we do things differently. The feedback that we’ve gotten from clients is that other firms tend to talk about themselves, but we focus more on what we can do to help our clients.

NXT: What was your revenue in Year 1? You’ve hit $2.5m on the Inc5000 records!

Our Year 1 revenue was $350,000 (9 months), and $460,000 in 2011 (12 months). Our approach to growth and revenue is a little different than most.

We don’t set our sights on a specific growth percentage, or a specific revenue target.

We set our sights on the type of clients we work with, the type of projects, and who we want to be as an organization. I truly believe that if we focus on these things, then the money will follow.

NXT: Why did you apply for Inc5000? Can you tell us your motivation?  

Whether it’s the Inc5000 or local business journals, there are 2 reasons why we apply for these rankings:

  1. It’s a benchmarking tool for us to see our progress compared to previous years, and to see where we stand among peer organizations that are similar to our size and industry
  2. It’s a good way for us to tell our brand story and get a little recognition. The more people that know who we are and what we do, the more we can help the community.

NXT: What do you wish you knew back when you started?

I wish I knew more about the tremendous impact that reaching out to your peers can have on your organization.

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a couple of peer groups that have allowed me to grow and develop my capabilities as a leader much faster than if I had to figure it out myself.

I highly recommend other business owners looking into these resources:

  • Local CEO Groups that are not necessarily within your industry. I’m in one where we talk through issues and discuss the challenges that we currently face
  • CEN (Chief Executive Network) is a national organization that brings industry-specific executives together as a big group, and as a small group. We get together twice a year, and we talk through the challenges we face in our organizations. You get to know one another really well and are able to form a tightly knit support system

I believe that your involvement outside of your own firm can prepare you for different challenges and provide a tremendous amount of experience that you can bring back to your firm.


A huge thanks to Brad Erwin, Principal Architect of Paragon Architecture. He makes sure the firm consistently delivers a high-quality product that meets not only the needs of the client but also the needs of the users and the community. He has been recognized for his work with tornado safe room, which is technically based and functionally complex. Erwin has spent his career perfecting the ability to assimilate data and disseminate information to transform concepts into real-life solutions.


Paragon Architecture


Tess is a Business Development Associate at Board Studios Inc, an animation production agency that helps B2B companies simplify and communicate more effectively. She's passionate about B2B business models & marketing, and spends a lot of time working on partnership development, content marketing, and scouring for the best business books for Her blood type is an authentic caffè macchiato.

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