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How Do You Manage an Interior Design Business With a Creative Mind?

A panel of designers discussed the surprises, challenges and best practices involved in running their creative businesses.

Amy McIntosh
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Las Vegas Market rountable
From left: Toma Clark Haines, Dann Foley, Wendy Glaister, Kerrie Kelly, Diane Falvey, Kimberly Joi McDonald, Fernando Rodriguez, Sarah Grover

At the January 2020 Las Vegas Market, Furniture, Lighting & Decor hosted its first roundtable discussion as part of the Home Design Business Think Tank Series. The discussion, titled “Left Brain/Right Brain: Managing an Interior Design Business with a Creative Mind,” was closed to the marketgoing public, but we’ve compiled five takeaways from the spirited discussion among these seven design professionals.

Roundtable participants:

  • Toma Clark Haines, The Antiques Diva & Co.
  • Dann Foley, Foley & Stinnett Interior Design
  • Wendy Glaister, Wendy Glaister Interiors
  • Kerrie Kelly, Kerrie Kelly Design Lab
  • Kimberly Joi McDonald, Designing JOI LLC
  • Fernando Rodriguez, Stewart Rodriguez
  • Sarah Grover, Suite 52 Living

1] Build a team you can trust.

Running a business is often a team effort, and while the panelists’ team sizes varied, all agreed that it’s important to be surrounded by capable people whose skills help their businesses run more effectively. 

“I was taught early in my career to always surround yourself with people who know more than you do,” Fernando Rodriguez said. “And that includes team, mentors, people who are going to give you inspiration and motivation.” He also said to never underestimate the strength of an enthusiastic intern. 

Kerrie Kelly recommended outsourcing certain tasks that might not require a full-time employee. 

“Having three people [on staff] now, when we used to be at 12, I thought I had to have everything in-house,” she said. “It was that control thing; I have to see everything that’s happening. When you outsource something, you suddenly become the client.” This dynamic can provide a level of service in which the outsourced employee is aiming to satisfy you in a way a permanent employee might not. It also helps save on some of the costs associated with hiring.

2] Communication and control are key.

Kelly said honesty is the best policy when it comes to communication.

“I think when people understand the truth rather than sugarcoating it, it really helps eliminate the drama and get straight to the point,” she said. “So when we show up with a solution, whether that’s to a vendor or another designer or your client or employee, I think that truth and cutting to the chase, that springing into action, has always been something that works.”

According to Dann Foley, it’s a balance between communication and control. “Control can sometimes be a dirty word, especially in an industry that’s dominated by women,” he said, because controlling men and women are perceived very differently. “I think it is so important to be successful and to be able to do multiple jobs and wear multiple hats in a day that you are always in control of every job, every contractor and, more importantly, every client.” Your clients have hired you to do a job, he said, so be firm in letting them know that the job will be done your way.

3] Diplomacy and humility go a long way.

With this communication and control, designers should check their egos. When asked what surprised them when they first started in the interior design business, Wendy Glaister noted the need for a gentler, but still firm, approach to communication. 

“I didn’t understand the value of diplomacy at first, and how you phrase the truth in a way that people can accept it and hear you,” she said. “Whether it be subcontractors on the team or craftspeople or your client — delivering news in a way that’s encouraging and uplifting to them but that keeps the project in check and on track. You have to have a way to coach to the message and the outcome that you want.”

Toma Clark Haines thought of humility when the question was posed, noting that while she might want to control every situation, she has hired her staff for a reason. “There comes a point when you’re running a company that you realize if you’re going to grow you have to trust other people. If you’re going to grow you have to let go of micromanaging,” she said. “For me, it’s realizing that I don’t always know best and learning to trust everyone around me. And there are times that I still say, ‘I’ve heard everyone. I still disagree. This is what we’re going to do.’ However, more times than not, if I have my entire team giving input, someone has a better idea than I do.” 

4] Take control of the numbers.

For designers, whose brains tend to lean more toward creative endeavors and less toward financials, taking control of the numbers portion of the business can be a challenge. 

Many participants agreed that it’s important to know where the money is going within your business. Foley said his business partner and bookkeeper take care of the financials at his firm. 

“Beau [Stinnett] is one of those people who’s also both business and creative,” he said. “That’s a big help. He actually knows where every nickel of every client’s budget is on every single day, and that’s the way you keep everybody afloat and everybody happy.”

Rodriguez suggested outsourcing this work to a professional. Clark Haines noticed she was having a hard time understanding the information her accountant was presenting to her. After expressing her confusion to her assistant, her assistant said, “If your accountant is not presenting information in a way that you can read it, he’s failing, not you,” she related. Clark Haines took control of the situation, going back to her accountant and asking for the information to be presented in a different way. 

5] Know your value.

Knowing what  — or how — to charge can be a challenge for designers, but it’s important to not undervalue the work and knowledge you bring to projects. Rodriguez pointed out that the perception of interior designers can be that “you’re just making pretty things.” 

“When it comes to money, when it comes to dollars, it’s extremely important that in your contracts you’re detailing the amount of work that goes into what you’re charging for,” he said. “Because then they’ll realize this is not just putting up pretty curtains and wallpaper, which is the mentality a lot of these people have.” It can be eye-opening and empowering to itemize your services and show clients that you know your true value without backing down.

Foley outlined his pricing structure and his unwillingness to back down, particularly when it comes to product markups. “Everybody has their friend’s brother-in-law’s neighbor who can get them a better price on something,” he said. “Then hire them. You’ve come to the wrong place.”

Kimberly Joi McDonald said walking away from a project can help articulate your value to a client and ultimately breed more consistency across the interior design profession. Sarah Grover agreed.

“I think knowing your value and being willing to walk away is important because either they come back because they realize you’re valuable, or whoever they go to next, they have that model for them already,” Grover said. “So you’re educating your clients about how design works. The more of us that hold the line, the more that becomes what the profession looks like.” FLD

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