Interior design is all about change—usually for the better.
But what happens when obstacles present themselves, as they sometimes will, that require a design business to slowly or abruptly pivot? That’s what host Nick May and interior designer Wendy Yates—founder of Frisco, Colorado-based Abigail-Elise Design Studio—talk about in this honest, open-hearted episode of The Chaise Lounge podcast.
Please join us! And let us know how you go about maintaining relationships, growing new business, and, yes, pivoting when fate throws you a curveball.
We’d love to hear from you.
The Launch: False Starts and Big Hearts
Wendy Yates, a native of Honolulu, Hawaii, has demonstrated her gutsy approach to the design business (and life in general) since her high school graduation in 1995, when she bucked the four-year college tradition, got a job, and started studies at her local community college.
“What I knew about design as a high school student was what I knew from watching shows on HGTV,” says Wendy. “It didn’t seem super-accessible.” So, instead of studying design, she majored in art history, then theater, and then thought about being a physical therapist. “After two years, I dropped out and started a design business.”
She’d moved to a small town in Colorado as a high-school junior, “met a boy,” and worked hard to make a life in a small town where there was really no money to be made as a designer. “But, thankfully, I had connections in Hawaii and some people who were willing to help me. And the ability to fly over there and stay there for a couple of months at a time.”
The First Big Break
“I was fortunate enough to have a developer in Hawaii take a chance on me and let me do a model home for him,” says Wendy. “So I would make my money there, and then come back and live in my small town in Colorado.”
She convinced a local newspaper to do a story on her business and put a sign in her front yard advertising her fledgling design enterprise, but the only job leads that came of it were $10 an hour wallpaper hanging jobs or solicitations to decorate rooms for kids.
“I had no credibility because I hadn’t gone to school,” Wendy admits. But she had natural talent and a work ethic that brought new opportunities. It was time to pivot.
A Career Develops: First Job, First Success
Commuting back and forth to the Big Island, Wendy worked closely with the residential and commercial developer who’d taken a chance on her. “He would have me do the model-home work,” Wendy recalls. “I’d go with him and his wife to the San Francisco Design Center, where we would pretty much do all the furnishing selections for the model homes. But all the fixed finishes—tile, lighting, flooring, cabinetry, everything from the ground up—we would do in Honolulu.
Looking back, Wendy feels both gratitude and amazement at the latitude her mentors gave her to make selections for their properties.
“I remember being surprised myself at how great my first model home turned out. I was like, I love it! I was 22 and super green,” she continues. “I had no knowledge of even fixed finishes. For me, design was décor—that’s how I understood it, not being trained. But I had organic natural ability and visualization.”
Silencing Your Inner Critic
“I could always visualize a space from a floor plan. I would see it in a 3D way. So I think that creative side of my brain is what gave me the leg up in being able to pull off something like that without any training,” says Wendy.
After her first big project was complete and successfully sold throughout the development, she gained confidence in her design ability. But the “imposter syndrome” reared its head on occasion. After every job, she asked herself:
- Can I keep doing this thing?
- Is the next project going to be as great as this one?
- How am I going to get clients beyond this one person?
If you’re a self-taught designer, chances are you’ve dealt with the same insecurities from time to time. But remember: On-the-job training is real training. Hands-on practice is as legitimate over time as all the things you learn in design school.
“The developer in Kona set me on the path to making my own mistakes. Learning about construction. Learning about development. Learning about real estate,” says Wendy. “So I got a computer. I had the Internet. I didn’t really know how to use any programs, but I could do sketching and drafting because I was really into art. And that’s how it started. Very nontraditionally.”
Another Pivot: A Divorce, a Break from Design, and a New Job in Retail
“In my late 20s, I had a reboot of my life. I took a break from my design business, and moved to Breckinridge with my daughter, and took a job at a furniture store,” Wendy recalls. The early relationship with that boy back in her small town didn’t succeed. With a young child, the Colorado–Hawaii commute to continue designing with her developer client became unfeasible. But she still needed a creative outlet, and source of financial security.
“It was a downtown—2007/2008 is when everything sort of stopped up here and I was like, Well, I’m gonna start a new brand in my design.” She decided to change the name from Wendy Yates, her married name, to something that created a broader identity “that wasn’t just all about me, so if I built an incredible team or wanted to travel more nationally, I would still be the creative direction behind it, but it would take on more of a presence that wasn’t so individualized.”
Another Pivot: Fast Growth and then Contraction for a Better Fit
Today, the company Wendy founded during those transition years, AE Design Group (A for Abigail, Wendy’s own middle name, and E for Elise, her daughter’s middle name) continues to provide design services to residential and commercial clients around the country.
“For a while, we had a showroom in Denver. It was great to have a place to show product to existing clients,” says Wendy, “but, quite frankly, retail was not for me. As a designer, we provide furnishings and décor for our clients in a different way than having people come in and shop for them.”
So she took another pivot at that time, about five years ago.
Stepping Back: Reassessing and Re-strategizing
“We were becoming very successful and growing very fast,” says Wendy. “And maybe it was too fast. It was a huge struggle for me. I did not have the foresight to see how running my design studio, running a retail showroom in a different location, and having to manage all the people would be so difficult for me. I started to feel like I failed.”
The answer, for Wendy, was to shut the showroom down.
She transformed her business back into a boutique studio based out of Frisco, taking up even less square footage than before, and decided she would rebuild her team and client base around people that presented a good emotional fit and whose personal work ethic and life philosophy coordinated with AE Design Group’s company culture and values. Decisions didn’t have to be based on where people lived, geographically.
Today, Wendy heads an international design firm that includes eight team players, some based in Frisco and others around the country. The key, says Wendy, is asking, “Who are your people?” They don’t need to be sitting next to you at your desk all day.”
The “virtual office” opens up new opportunities for business outside one’s city or small town. Currently, AE Design has residential and commercial development and wellness projects going on in Colorado, Bonita Springs (Florida, outside of Naples), Virginia, and back home in Wendy’s beloved Hawaii.
New Goals and Opportunities to Pivot
Wendy’s most recent pivot involves a startup passion project she calls Well Fit Human Retreats. Launched just last year, the brand designs travel experiences and retreats for people who wish to stay in private residences, do volunteer work, pursue physical fitness, and experience other cultures from a personal perspective.
“Life is short. I wanted to travel. I wanted more human connection. And I wanted to incorporate as many things as I can to evolve,” says Wendy. “I want to be in love with life.”
Chaise Lounge Updates
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