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Finding the Niche Within the Niche: A Profile of Architect and Visible Expert, Dale Mulfinger

At Hinge we have been studying Visible Experts℠, people who have attained high visibility and expertise in their industry, creating a personal brand that is recognizable industry-wide. We study them because we want to understand how they attained that status and what we can learn from them. This profile focuses on Dale Mulfinger, a Visible Expert in Architecture. 

For architect Dale Mulfinger, founding partner of SALA Architects in Minneapolis, Minnesota, becoming well known in one professional niche just wasn’t enough—so he went out and did it a second time! In the process, he has become a nationwide expert on cabins and second homes, combining a solid professional and academic foundation with an ability to personalize his brand and take it to the national stage.

The First Niche: Focusing on Home Design

Together with fellow Visible Expert Sarah Susanka, Dale founded the firm Mulfinger/Susanka in 1983, later changing the name to “Sala,” from the Latin word for room or salon. From the start, their firm sought to create a distinctive business model: instead of focusing on major commercial projects, Dale and his partner decided to focus exclusively on the homeowner market. “Mostly homes were a one-off item that larger firms would do as a favor to the homeowner,” Dale notes. “Designing homes just wasn’t a central theme for firms. We turned this model around. We found a market. And then we figured out a way to let the market know we were there.”

Dale Mulfinger

The choice proved to be prophetic. The post-recession market of the early eighties was ripe for growth and the firm promptly took off, blossoming from two to six to, ultimately, a high of ten partners. Adding partners in this fashion was also a conscious choice. “We realized that we wanted to grow horizontally,” Dale says. “We wanted everyone to have a stake.” The firm is run on a rotating basis by three managing partners; they typically take the lead for several years before handing the reins over to another set of partners.

Another advantage of the SALA model, Dale notes, is the conviction that everyone’s work is valuable. In many architectural firms, a partner tends to “grow out” of design into management as they move up the career ladder. At SALA, however, value is built around each member’s portfolio. This gives the members the room they need to create their own personal brand, and each partner is very much involved in the design process.

Forging a Personal Brand

Initially, Dale had difficulty identifying his own personal niche. “I love to do everything,” he says. “I get as excited about designing an Italian courtyard house as something contemporary. It was harder to define my brand because I don’t subscribe to a style.”

So, wisely, Dale stepped back and reframed the concept of his brand: rather than basing it on a particular style, as most architects do, he would base it instead on a particular service. “I built my practice on excellence,” he says. “Which meant lots of word-of-mouth referrals. I initially become known for designing additions that keep the flavor of the original house – what are known as seamless additions.” Dale’s focus on seamless additions was the first step towards his discovery of a more established and lucrative niche, down the road.

Classroom Cred

 

As Hinge discovered in its recent research study, Visible Experts are not only great communicators, they are also teachers who excel at putting their work into language that is accessible to regular people. Dale embraced this skill early on, taking his practical knowledge into the classroom and building a 40-year teaching career at the University of Minnesota. For Dale, teaching was a natural extension of his professional life, and one that allowed him to hone his public speaking skills.

His academic work also gave him the credibility to take the next step in his career: as an author. “To write a book in a way that is based on knowledge and research—not on whim—gives great credibility,” Dale says. “I was able to knock on doors and say ‘I’m from the University of Minnesota’ and it legitimized my research. I get to walk into people’s houses this way and examine them and get the story. The academic side gave me that credibility.”

The Niche-Within-a-Niche

Dale’s first book was a biography of the St. Paul architect Edwin Lundie. While conducting research for the book, Dale became immersed in the cabin side of Lundy’s design work, so much so that he chose one of Lundy’s cabins to be the cover image for the book. The book generated interest and led to his being hired to design cabin projects of his own. From there, Dale began studying cabins during the summers with his students, which led to articles and requests for interviews. This, in turn, blossomed into writing his first cabin profile in the Minneapolis/St. Paul magazine. Some 72 articles later, Dale’s name has become synonymous with cabins and second homes.

SEE ALSO: Visible Expert℠ Profile: Sarah Susanka

Cabinology by Dale Mulfinger

Dale’s articles and speaking eventually attracted the attention of Taunton Press, a publishing house, who asked him if he would like to write a book. “When I wrote my book, The Cabin, Taunton asked me to focus not only on Minnesota, but the entire country,” Dale says. “This expanded my research.” Dale had found his niche-within-a-niche, establishing himself as a cabinologist.

The publicity started a cascade of opportunities, including a flood of second-home and cabin design work, a column in Cabin Life Magazine, a series of public-speaking engagements, and a second successful book, Cabinology—an empowering handbook that allows readers to take their cabin-building project into their hands.

Dale’s success lines up with two of Hinge’s key findings regarding fast-track Visible Experts: first, that focusing on a very specific audience helps experts become famous faster, and second, that nearly 85% of fast-track Visible Experts write a strategically focused book. Dale was already a success as an architect and professor. But with a highly focused niche and a book under his belt, he was catapulted into Visible Expert status.

That Visible Expert Blend

As for the “visible” part of being an expert, Dale notes that not everyone is willing to step onto the public stage. “Some of us are more comfortable doing that, and it’s in my nature. Some people just do not want to be in the limelight. Others would like to be on stage but have not yet found a niche. Maybe they haven’t done the hard work to develop that opportunity. You need to do the serious work to legitimize your message.”

Even today, as an established expert, that “serious work” is something that Dale Mulfinger continues to do. His week is divided into approximately ¾ client work, and ¼ content marketing and academic work. The latter includes book signings and public speaking engagements at a number of different venues, both regional and national, including:

Interestingly, it was in front of an adult-ed class at an art-and science center where he and partner Sarah Susanka got their start. “Before we went onto a national stage, Sarah and I paid our dues on the local and regional stage,” he says. “That’s where we learned how to talk to an audience. In a classroom, no one leaves the room, but at a home show people are milling in and out and you have to be a bit of an entertainer. There’s an art form to being in the public realm, to getting the public to want to have you back. You have to play the small stages to learn and build your name in order to get to the bigger gigs.”

Hinge’s research shows that all Visible Experts must build expertise, find their niches, and pay their dues. Ultimately, however, the secret lies in choosing a path that you can be passionate about—over the long term. “I feel immensely blessed for having chosen this profession,” Dale notes. “Sometimes I pinch myself because I can’t believe how lucky I am and how much I still love it.”

Additional Resources

How Hinge Can Help

Want to become an industry thought leader? It’s one of our specialities. Learn about our Visible Expert℠ Program or contact us to learn how we can help you demonstrate your expertise and build your visibility in the marketplace.

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Author: Sylvia Montgomery, CPSM A Senior Partner and the head of Hinge’s A/E/C practice, Sylvia collects many shoes and wears many hats. When she’s not traveling around the country for speaking engagements or client meetings, you will find Sylvia creating marketing and branding strategies for clients, supervising her A/E/C team, developing new business, or working on her personal brand. With a 20+ year career spanning visual communications, strategy, and marketing, and over a decade working in the A/E/C sector, Sylvia brings a creative, business-focused approach to her client engagements.

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