Today in the Lounge, Nick chats with Wendy Glaister of Wendy Glaister Interiors from the Bay Area, to talk about how she came to be the head of her own firm after deciding not to go down the path of being an attorney. Learn about her tactics for marketing in the digital age and how she stays centered as a designer with a plate that’s always full.
Building a Business
Today in the Lounge, Nick is joined by Jaye Mize of Fashion Snoops, from New York City, to talk trend forecasting. Tune in to learn more about current trends in the design world and why you need to be paying attention as a designer to improve your practice!
By Tyler Mochizuki
So I guess the question is… why showrooms? There are so many ways, especially with digital media today, to display an interior designer’s work.
Well, having a showroom offers one key marketing value that no other medium has: seeing designs in person. There is no better way of showing clients, both current and prospective, a designer’s vision and creative process than in person. Showrooms come without the constraints of real projects.
Simply put, a showroom is truly a designer’s free and happy space.
Young Designers and Showrooms
I recently spoke with a familiar face, London Walder, who has previously been a guest on The Chaise Lounge Podcast. Though she is quickly advancing her career in the interior design industry, London warns young designers from opening a showroom prematurely. They require significant time and financial investments, she says. Instead, she encourages young designers to work under highly experienced designers in a variety of projects. The up-and-coming Chicago based designer recently debuted her first showroom. It features a balanced blend of modern and vintage styles.
With practice, designers will develop their own “signature look” which is a crucial element of running a successful showroom.
More often than not, money is the driving force behind the decisions of any business, and this is no different in the industry of design. The unfortunate truth is that showrooms are expensive. That’s not to say that showrooms are exclusively reserved for well-practiced interior designers. It merely comes down to the fact that they have the established funds to open shop.
“I think it’s one of those things that you should only do when you feel comfortable spending the appropriate amount of money to make the showroom look good,” London explains. She has a fund set aside reserved exclusively for showroom expenses and is entirely separate from her day-to-day business accounts.
There are two large upfront expenses of showrooms to consider: leasing the space and initial purchase of furniture and other decorative pieces. Designing your showroom authentically and uniquely to your style is essential in making it stand out to clients – but can be pricey.
Often, showrooms will offer exclusive discounts on specific pieces of furniture and accompanying accessories. They are an excellent way to showcase pieces and products that are not sold by general retail stores. This aspect alone can potentially attract a wide variety of clients.
While showrooms do have significant upfront costs, they can be extremely beneficial to designers to draw in more substantial clientele and increase financial gains in the long run.
Showrooms are there for YOU
It’s easy to assume showrooms are intimidating spaces reserved only for the top designers. Don’t worry! A designer can expect their showroom will give back just as much as a designer invests. Places like The Chicago Merchandise Mart (The Mart) are prime examples the mutual relationship between designers and showrooms.
Judy Giordano of A. Rudin, Inc. at The Mart advises all designers to “take advantage of the unique, custom lines offered by the showrooms… rather than shopping at retail furniture stores.”
Walking through established showrooms exposes designers to the work and products of others, helping to curate a unique look.
Designers “can work with wholesale showrooms [like The Mart] to market themselves by hosting events, seminars, and luncheons,” says Judy. Her experience has extended over 25 years in the design business. Designers are enabled to drive significantly more traffic in business by using social media platforms of the showrooms.
For designers new to using showrooms, it is important to establish relationships with sales representatives, get on showroom mailing lists, and attend events. Showroom spaces provide perfect environments to network, meet peers, and find potential clients. Perfect for the design industry, being all about connections.
Treat showrooms like long-term investments, because, while they have significant upfront expenses, the benefits vastly outweigh the initial costs.
Don’t think that you are in it alone when investing in such spaces, because as Judy puts it, “[showrooms] are here to help you.”
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.
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.
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 means 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 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.
The most common questions we get asked here at The Chaise Lounge are when is it right to start my own business, what do I need to do first, who do I hire first, etc. On today’s show, Jo Rabaut address those questions. After graduating from college in Michigan, Jo worked for other firms for 12 years before opening the doors of Rabaut Designs in 1989 in Atlanta, GA. Rebaut design does a full spectrum of design, everything for a frat house to store front to commercial rebuilds to brand new lofts.
She has learned a lot in the 25 years that Rabaut Designs has been open. She prefers her firm small so it’s a more intimate environment with her team. Currently she has 4 designers on staff. She focusing on fulfilling her staffs wants so they are able to grow and become better designers. She understands that people need to be free to create but also to have a life outside of work. Jo feels that when you “hit the design wall” you need to recharge and find a new event to attend to remind yourself why do design. She understands the art of interior design in a bit of a juggling act so she enjoys educating and leading her team.
Our sponsor Design Manager is your best answer for all your back-office needs. It will help you with your accounting, paperwork, and logistics. There are a lot of things to track in your business, don’t leave it up to Word docs and spreadsheets. If you give DM a try, please let them know you heard about them in The Lounge.