Despite the fact that not many design firms in our region have done so, outsourcing labor out of the country makes sense: The technology and the talent are there to make it cost-effective and timely.

Our Florida office at Architecture, Inc. was overworked and understaffed. With the continued boom in the construction industry in South Florida, the work kept flowing into the office. A mid-sized architectural firm, at the time the firm had 47 employees, mostly in the Greater Washington, DC area, but five were in our Florida office. We needed people, and I was tired of paying $25,000 finder’s fees for good recruits. We put ads for employees on the AIA website, and we needed responses.

Then we got an email. It was titled, “Help for from Bulgaria.” I read on. “Do you need any assistance on drafting?” Sure, we needed help, I thought, but I don’t speak Bulgarian. Nonetheless, I was running out of options, so I began my reply email. “Yes, we need help.” My contact’s name was Todor Todorov, a 30-year-old Bulgarian with a technical education and the enthusiasm of a brand-new capitalist. At first, I was skeptical of his offer to handle some of our drafting work. Who were these people? What was their expertise? Would our computers mesh? We were a Reston, Virginia company with $8 million in annual revenues specializing in schools and hospitals. These designers were in Sofia, Bulgaria. Over a real-time Internet chat line, I learned a little more about Todor. He understood my concerns about compatibility, assured me that he had the latest computer equipment, and offered a free trial run. We were working on a design for the Delray Medical Center and we had some drafting work we could send over. If it didn’t work out, we still had plenty of time to get it up to standard. I loaded up the computer file and hit “send.” The next morning, I walked into my office to find an email waiting for me: 36 man-hours of drafting work form Todor. The plans were a little rough, but close to what we needed. When our computer drafting guys came in at 8 am, we had them reset the line weights on the computer file layer by layer. It wasn’t a bad first effort, In the end, we were able to finish the Florida project a couple of weeks faster than we had planned—and we saved tens of thousands of dollars in recruiting costs.

It’s a strategy a lot of companies with manpower problems can utilize. Despite the fact that not many design firms in our region have done so, outsourcing labor out of the country makes sense: The technology and the talent are there to make it cost-effective and timely. As we looked into doing work with overseas designers, I got in touch with the State Department to find out if such an arrangement would carry any legal repercussions of which I was unaware. It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy. The State Department is actually actively seeking out U.S. businesses to invest capital or build working relationships with companies in countries like Bulgaria, where the transition from Cold War communism to modern American capitalism has been difficult. As Todor and his team’s work improved, we realized we had scored twice. Not only did we solve our Florida office’s manpower shortage, but thanks to the seven hour time difference, our firm is now effectively open 24 hours a day. Today we can say to our clients, “you need that sketched out by breakfast? No problem, it’ll be ready at 6 am.”

Plus, it’s been a fascinating experience. We finally met face to face with our Bulgarian crew. Todor and our Sofia team came to the States for our office Christmas party. They stayed at the Dulles Hilton and got their first taste of life in America. Todor had some interesting observations for us on life in a country with no capitalist tradition. His generation in Bulgaria is the first to be able to break free of the mindset that the state is responsible for providing everything. No one older than 30, he explained, would have thought to seek out work from an American architectural firm on the Internet—the idea would seem preposterous. Today, Todor has five employees, and they have effectively become our European office. Beyond piecework, we have high hopes that the team will bring in new business for our company. Yugoslavia is just 90 miles away, and they may need some help rebuilding. If the fit is right, we’ll have a ready made design team on site.

About the author: Buzz Drury is president and co-founder of Architecture, Inc., a Reston, Virginia firm specializing in health care, educational, assisted-living and commercial design. Article reprinted with permission from Washington Business Forward. All rights reserved.