year in review | Dec 30, 2023 |
9 essential takeaways from 2023’s 50 States Project

For the past four years, I’ve called up one designer from a different state every week and asked them to share their secrets. Some 200 interviews later, the stories unearthed in the 50 States Project continue to surprise me as designers evolve and adapt to new industry challenges. (For a look back on how the series came to be, you can read this essay.)

If 2022 was a year of reacting to the changes a pandemic boom had wrought on design businesses, 2023 was a year of reckoning. Over and over, I talked to firm principals as they took stock of how they wanted to work—and who they wanted to work with—in more exacting terms than ever before. They updated their processes to protect their businesses, streamlined their teams to create a workflow that matched their goals, and proudly found new definitions of health, wellness and success.

As we look ahead to a new year, new challenges will emerge. I hope you’ll take these nine lessons with you.

Create Incentives for Clients
One of the secrets this series has consistently revealed is that you may not need to turn your business model upside down to find success. If you’re struggling with a specific pain point, especially in your relationship with clients (and especially when it comes to money), the solution often lies in reframing your explanation of how you work and what design costs. In Oregon, designer Teresa Gonzalez Wilkins adjusted how she bills in order to encourage clients to stay the course, breaking down the payment into six installments that make the fees feel more manageable. Her billing coincides with the project’s deliverables rather than landing on a monthly cadence, which speeds up client approvals and maintains motivation. “First we have a retainer and a first deposit when you’re excited to hire a designer. We get started and we create floor plans. Once you’ve approved those, we enter the design process—how everything is going to lay out—and you’re excited to see what that design looks like. You get that check in, and you can see how we’ve brought it to life on paper. You’re excited about that. Now you want to see, How do we get going? We need another check before we start ordering,” she explained. “It’s that excitement of wanting to see that next step—that’s their incentive to shuffle along.”

9 essential takeaways from 2023’s 50 States Project
With a luxurious seating arrangement in a loftlike space, Teresa Gonzalez Wilkins marries earthy and airy huesNathan Schroder Photography

Use Fees to Encourage Clients to Commit
After struggling with clients who scaled back their scope of work mid-project, Oklahoma designer Mel Bean implemented a 20 percent retainer for the cost of goods as part of a project’s budget sign-off. That chunk of change is ultimately used on the client’s final invoices—for example, a client who agreed to a $100,000 budget would make a $20,000 payment, which is applied to the final 20 percent of their product invoices. While the billing methodology didn’t change, that shift in how the funds were collected has proven to be a game changer for the firm. “It really is a commitment to us. It also helps at the end of the project when they’re tired of spending money,” she said. The purpose: to prevent clients from reneging on their spending commitments. “If I’m taking on your project for $500,000 of fees [and then] you come back to me and are like, ‘Actually, we’re going to cut $400,000 of that—we only want to spend $100,000 with you,’ I turned away work that was going to be more than that to take on your project. That’s not fair. With my approach, it’s a way to say, ‘How serious are you?’”

Another way to do that? A hefty minimum. Indiana-based designer Heidi Woodman of Haus Love Interiors found that implementing a $1 million construction budget minimum—what she refers to as “an investment”—and talking about money at the start of the project made the rest of the project much less stressful. “I have an investment package that I send out to prospective clients before they even meet with me so that they really understand the financial side of the project,” she said. “By the time we get to the interview and client onboarding [stage], we know that they’re OK with how we bill.”

9 essential takeaways from 2023’s 50 States Project
Heidi Woodman sheathed a dining room in deep textured walls for an enveloping atmosphereNolan Calisch Photography

Walk Clients Through What They’re Getting
For Ohio-based designer Laney Reusch, the secret to success was explaining how she landed on the client’s budget. Her estimating process hasn’t changed—she still meets with clients and then makes a spreadsheet documenting projected costs for every room as well as the firm’s fees to do the work. But now, the next step is a face-to-face meeting to walk through those costs together. “It’s been a game changer because they know what they’re getting into, and we’ve agreed on that number. And if we are designing a bathroom, we know if the budget is going to be $50,000 or $150,000, and we can design around that,” she explained. “Before, we would just email [the estimate]—just kind of sending it out in the wind and saying, ‘This is it.’ Now we can be there [in person] to answer any questions, and the conversion rate is much higher.”

Stand Firm in Your Boundaries
As her business grew, Charlotte Lucas drew a line in the sand: The firm would only take on whole-home projects. (She does allow clients to execute in phases, with a contract and a separate budget for each, if clients aren’t ready to spend on the whole project at once.) The impetus was primarily about identifying ideal clients who were ready to spend big with the firm, but the North Carolina designer quickly found that the shift resulted in better work too. “When you start to piece things together, you’re not thinking through the overall design intent,” she explained. “You’re not able to value-engineer thoughtfully. Sometimes, you can get to a place where you think, ‘If we had known we were doing all of these things later, we probably wouldn’t have done that wallpaper there, because we have this great art over here.’”

Setting that boundary also brought out qualities in prospective clients that helped Lucas know when to pass on a project. “Some people don’t want to hear it, but that’s a red flag for me,” she said. “If you just want this instant gratification, we’re not your people. Or if talking about the budget is a hard conversation for you to have, that’s a red flag, too, because we’re probably going to have harder conversations.”

9 essential takeaways from 2023’s 50 States Project
Charlotte Lucas installed a second island—a sculptural stone form balances the kitchen’s more traditional details—to establish a zone for family mealsChris Edwards

Don’t Lose Sight of the Client’s Why
Not all perspective shifts are about making the money talk easier. For Julia Miller of Minnesota firm Yond Interiors, her challenge is to adjust her language to capture the magic of the design process for clients. As a former social worker, her professional training emphasized process and documentation—something she replicated in her firm because it made sense to her and she knew it would develop trust with clients. “My natural inclination is to be like, ‘OK, A to B, this is how we’re going to do it.’” she said. “[However, we] are in the business of selling not only good design but an experience. What I need to do is focus on the parts [of the service we offer] that are harder to pin down. That’s been an evolution for me, trying to soul-search about why I do this and how I can communicate to clients what we do that might be different from another firm.”

Bigger Isn’t Always Better
This year, more designers than ever expressed a willingness to change up the structure of a traditional firm in favor of building a team that suits their strengths or helps them achieve the work-life balance they prefer. After striking out on her own, Massachusetts-based designer Sashya Thind Fernandes set out to grow her business. For her, that was just what you do: “When you think of a firm, you think of lots of people and big projects,” she said. But after several years of steady growth, she felt too far away from the work she loved. “I was running around—not in the studio, not designing as much. I wasn’t giving 100 percent to clients because I was depending on staff to do so,” the designer recalled. In 2019, she tapped business coach (and BOH columnist) Sean Low to help her adjust. With his guidance, she set about downsizing; today, she outsources bookkeeping and accounting, some administration and drafting, and 3D renderings to virtual freelancers. With a change in team came a change in the firm’s workload—a full plate is now two to three whole-home projects a year, plus a few small projects along the way—but the designer is grateful for the shift: “At the end of it, I was doing bigger jobs, making more money and was less stressed.”

9 essential takeaways from 2023’s 50 States Project
Sashya Thind Fernandes created an oasis clad in white oak and soothing tones for a prefabricated cottage overlooking Long Island SoundJared Kuzia

In Virginia, Quintece Hill-Mattauszek of Studio Q made a similar change, pivoting from a four-person team to operating solo, with two virtual contractors she found on Fiverr. “I don’t want to manage a huge team. I’m doing more of the subcontractor work myself instead of having a ton of employees,” she said. “I have a virtual operations manager, and then I’m doing the boots-on-the-ground project management—and I like it that way, because I have a bit more control over the pace. And then I have a virtual assistant doing a lot of the paperwork that I can’t get to while I’m out in the field.”

Your Firm Doesn’t Have to Look Like Everyone Else’s
Still other designers are embracing a larger team structure, but they are shedding the hierarchy that traditionally comes with it—in a thoroughly intentional way. In Utah, Marianne Brown of W Design Collective recently reorganized her 16-person team to include primarily senior designers and project managers. Noticeably absent? Junior designers. “I think it’s kind of a problematic position, because we tend to have them doing the spec sheets and things like that. It’s all admin-type work, but they went to design school, and they’re so anxious to get there,” she said. “I just felt like they weren’t ever fully happy, and then I’m not loving that they’re not happy—I want my team to be happy with their work.” After recognizing that the firm had a strong enough reputation to recruit senior talent (in her words, “at least three to four years of experience, because you’ve had to have finished a full project at least a few times over”), she changed her approach to staffing: “I decided that I’d rather have [the second team member on each project be a career] admin person who’s happy to take notes and do the spec sheets, not hoping that one day they’ll be running the project and doing the CAD drawings.”

It’s OK to Say No
For South Carolina–based Angie Hranowsky, getting comfortable turning down work that didn’t feel like a good fit was the biggest challenge as an entrepreneur—and the ultimate turning point. “This is a business, and this is what we’re worth—we work our butts off, and we’re good at what we do,” she realized. “You don’t go to your dentist or your mechanic and ask for a discount, but there’s something about being in the creative world in general [that makes people dismissive].” For Hranowsky, the shift came when she thought about just how arduous the creative process can be: “It’s not like you just sit down and it comes out,” she said. “When I’m designing a project in the very beginning, I will kick everybody out of the office for days. I don’t watch TV or listen to music—I have to get in a zone. I think standing up for the quality of work that you do, and getting paid for it, is really important, especially for creative people.”

Redefine Success
After nearly throwing in the towel on her design career, Connecticut-based Kristen McCory found that making time for herself outside of her business was what would turbocharge her firm’s growth. Getting off the hamster wheel didn’t come naturally at first, but carving out time to recharge has proven essential to staving off burnout and building a business with longevity in mind. “I’m a very driven person—I’m sure most designers are. You set goals for yourself, and you want to hit them. And when you have that drive, you’re sometimes willing to do whatever it takes to get there, even if it means staying up until 3 o’clock in the morning again and again,” she recalled. “But what I realized is, no, that’s not how you do it. You take time with your family. You go to the gym and work out. You go out with friends. It’s important to honor yourself, because the more you take care of yourself, the better you’re going to perform.”

Choosing a different path also meant choosing different goals. For McCory, that reset has paid off. “Before, my goals were huge. They were long-term. And right now, my goals are more short-term: What’s happening next week? What are we crossing off the list?” she said. “I still have long-term goals, but if you don’t fix or finish the things that are in front of you, those long-term goals are never going to happen. And I have to tell you, there’s instant gratification in saying, ‘This is what’s on our list. Let’s get A, B, C and D done.’ We find ourselves having more time at the end of the week to work on those long-term goals. … [And] there’s nothing better than crossing things off the list.”

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