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interior design firm

Building an Interior Design Firm Bigger than ONE

Building an Interior Design Firm Bigger than ONE

Talking to so many interior designers allows me to see a wide variety of models on how to build an interior design firm — and when I say firm, I mean team.

If you are a solopreneur, I don’t say this to talk down to you, but simply to clarify what it is that I am talking about: I always think of a “firm” as being a group of people — and if you are a solopreneur, you are simply an interior designer. Instead of giving tips on selling a one-man-band, I’ll be discussing the countless ways that a team of competent and creative folks can leverage growth and break the old mold you’ve established.

Marc-Michaels Interior Design

None of my interviews have illustrated the importance of building a team more than my interview from this week with Marc Thee of Marc-Michaels Interior Design. Marc talked about how he builds his team, how he lets them fail and learn, and how he gives them the freedom to make mistakes. Marc knows a thing or two about building a team, as he has a team of over 30 and has had as many as 70. He loves to work in a team environment, sharing ideas and collaborating. Building a team also allows you to have experts in certain areas of your business. From day one, Marc has had a partner that handles most of the financial aspects of the business, freeing Marc up to focus on customers and design. It has been my experience that in order to grow, you have to be able to focus — so bringing on a fantastic team member is the best way to get started.

My Experience

Over the last 17 years I’ve been trying to grow my painting business, Walls by Design. I was looking over my financials for the last few years, and I noticed a huge shift. From 2013 to 2015, my business sat at about $630k in sales.  I had hit a ceiling. While I had moved myself out of production (painting and day to day, on-site work), I was still the key person for sales and project management. While I was a good salesperson, I was not a great project manager. I was disorganized and easily distracted.

Last year I decided to make a shift: I knew I needed to get out of this part of the business. So I put a plan together to move one of my painters, Casey — who had started with me from the bottom as a prep painter and had moved up into my top lead painter positions — into a sales and project management role. I gave him the north part of Denver and I kept the south end, where the business started. Within one week, I knew it was a great decision because my office got a call about Casey and how fantastic he was. Two months later, I moved Aaron, another long-time painter, into the south part of town, and I became the sales manager. While we have had a few bumps in the road, Aaron too has turned out to be amazing.

Now, we are on schedule to do between $1.2M and $1.3M — which is double my glass ceiling for the previous 3 years. The lesson learned? I was getting in the way of growth. Sure, I was working hard, but I was not doing what I do best and I could not juggle all the balls that needed juggling to go to the next level.

Now I spend about 80% of my time marketing and managing the overall growth of the business. I still have a role in hiring and training, but we only need to hire one person per month to keep up with our growth, and the time it takes is less than 10 hours per month.

Building the Team

Time and time again, I speak to successful interior designers about how they hired their first employee, how they built their interior design firm, and what it Rolexmeans for them as the lead designer. However, far too often I speak with designers that are afraid of hiring staff or designers, for fear that the employees will turn around and steal their clients and their business. Do you want to know the secret?  The secret is: You need to build an organization that is bigger than the individuals. A Rolex is just a combination of metal and crystal. But put the pieces together, and it is a Rolex, worth way more that the individual components! When you do that, you will have people begging to come work for you. You won’t keep them all, and some will even go off and start their own interior design business, but that is OKAY! If you invest into them, build them up, manage them well, you will earn their respect, and they will help you build your organization first.

Your First Hire

Everything has to start somewhere. So if you are working by yourself, and you are overloaded with work, you need help.  Your first hire should be someone to help you with administrative tasks. This is a position you can pay $12 to $15 per hour, but it can start as a part-time position. Lots of people think they want to start with an intern or a junior designer, but I think that is a big mistake. You need help doing the things you are not great at, and that is going to be organizing your office. Believe me, I know, I have worked with lots of interior designers, and this is where most of them do a terrible job. This allows you to keep design control and continue doing what you love. You should stick with this one person until you and they are almost maxed out. Don’t max out, because that will cause too much stress, but stay lean and keep in mind the slow seasons of the year. In the residential market, that will usually hit mid-summer (unless you are just swamped with projects) and just after the holidays.

Your Second Hireintern

Your second hire needs to be someone that can help you build your pipeline, and someone to help you with marketing. This too can start as a part-time position, but this IS someone (I think) that can be an intern. The interns are going to know more about social media than you and me combined, so let’s leverage that knowledge. You will need someone that can help with customer communication, social media and website content, PR opportunities, and any other marketing programs you want to initiate. I cannot stress how important this person is to building a business.

Your Third Hire

Now it is time to go find that intern designer or junior designer. Now that you have the right people on the team to handle the volume, you’ll need someone that can help you in the field to  carry out your vision and work with clients.  What do you look for? That’s a hard question. It will depend on you and the direction to take your firm, but here are some things to consider:

  • Will they do more design work or more project management?
  • Do you want them to work directly with customers or with you?
  • Will they work directly with you daily or be more autonomous?
  • What exactly do you want them to do?
  • How much time can you devote to training them on a weekly basis?
  • What do you want them to grow into for your organization?

Many times small business owners, no matter what the type of company, only hire to get a warm body. You want to hire someone that will represent you and help build your brand. This takes planning and training. Starbucks doesn’t just hire someone and say “Go ring up a customer” or “Go make lattes”. They have a complete hiring system and training program.

Make your own system and program. This can start basic: as fast as you can, write down a plan and a process for hiring and training. Leave nothing to chance.

  • How will they dress?
  • How will they interact with the clients?
  • What hours will they work?
  • What is your process for working with a client (what do you do when)?
  • How will they know if they are being successful?
  • How long is the trial period?

After you have gotten to three on the team, everything changes. Now you are a manager of people. You will need to plan time for team building, meetings, and communication. In my next blog, I’ll talk about hiring and the process I use to hire my team. It will be different than what you will do, but the principles are worth sharing.


If you want to connect with Nick May and The Chaise Lounge, please do so on our website at TheChaiseLounge.com where we talk the business of interior design.