weekly feature | Jan 26, 2022 |
A new generation of designer directories is here

It’s fair to say that the last two decades have brought plenty of disruption to the design industry. As everything has gone online, the old ways—from pricing models to ordering samples—have been called into question. But just as technology has taken much away, it’s given plenty to designers in return, including a wide variety of ways to tackle that most fundamental of challenges: How do you snag new clients?

The simplest and probably oldest way that the internet connected homeowners to designers has been through online directories. Houzz is one. The Franklin Report is another. Homepolish was basically a designer directory. Though each has a slightly different business model, they all share a basic concept: Collect designer portfolios on one site so clients don’t have to go wandering through the wilds of Google to find a good fit.

Online directories have created plenty of work for designers, but the model has taken a few knocks over the years. Houzz has had an occasionally testy relationship with the trade. Homepolish crashed and burned. You can sense a wariness among designers around the concept.

Despite that history, a new crop of directories has emerged in recent years—this time, with a focus on community, shared resources and a sense of solidarity among designers. Though these directories are at least partially set up to attract project leads, it’s worth asking if new business is necessarily the main expectation, or even the draw?

In some ways, it’s easier to define what these directories are by outlining what they are not. They are not online interior design services like Havenly, Decorist or The Expert, nor are they Houzz-like behemoths offering everything from products to plumbers. Instead, they are more like modern-day guilds—support networks that foster opportunities, education and collaboration for their members. While each provides the matchmaking aspect of linking designers to homeowners, none tiptoe into the backend of a designer’s business once the connection has been made. That’s intentional.

The shadow of Homepolish looms large for this generation of directories. The platform, founded in 2012 by entrepreneur Noa Santos, was successful in generating leads for hundreds of young designers. But the company went beyond matchmaking, also providing the project management and product fulfillment for jobs booked through the platform—a service that many designers found clunky and intrusive. Worst of all, the company’s 2019 collapse left many designers (and clients) high and dry. A foundational prerogative for burgeoning platforms has been to take the best of what worked about Homepolish, and to learn from what didn’t.

That’s especially true for Freddie, which is built around a database and an Instagram account that F. Schumacher and Co. acquired from Homepolish after it went dark. “When we bought [the Homepolish assets], we felt strongly it was a good way to help the design community,” explains CEO Timur Yumusaklar. “We don’t look back, but we’re all responsible for this community and we mean to maintain trust and foster that.”

Interior Collab also grew from the ashes of Homepolish. Its founding members were former Homepolish designers who banded together after the platform collapsed. Though the group has since expanded, a mission statement on its website hints at past burns: “In a time when tech startups and venture capitalists are seeking to make money off of hardworking interior designers, we decided to carve out a safe space where we can support and inspire one another, and have control over our futures.”

A new generation of designer directories is here
Rachel Moriarty, who designed this living room, says that building brand legitimacy through directories is as important as getting new leads.Courtesy of Rachel Moriarty

For this crop of directories, establishing their roster’s legitimacy over enormous platforms like Houzz is a top priority. The goal is not to scale up, but to curate a group of likeminded, vetted designers. The thinking goes: It’s better for the designers to be listed alongside respected peers, and better for clients, so they don’t have to sift through an ocean of dubious options.

Vetting one’s peers comes with its own challenges, especially in a field like design where talent and credentials aren’t always aligned. “I don’t believe you have to have a degree to be talented, but it is a huge problem in the industry of the public not knowing what they’re getting,” explains Gianna Marzella, a designer on Interior Collab’s board of directors. “We don’t require a design degree, but it is a basic requirement that your business is already established, and our designers all share a certain amount of professionalism.”

Ethos Design Collective, founded by Missouri-based designer Kelly Schellert in 2018, has tried to codify those sentiments more directly; its qualifications include at least five years of professional interior design experience, including two years as principal of your current firm, and a website with professional photography, a social media presence, and no more than 5 percent of the business targeted towards e-design. (Freddie’s criteria is more vague, with membership granted to currently practicing businesses with active marketing channels and portfolios.)

Professional trust seems to be crucial for designers as well. “Membership adds a level of credibility to my business,” says Denver-based designer Nadia Watts, who posts her portfolio to Freddie. “Clients know the portfolios are vetted and they’re pulling from a legitimate group. It’s not so much about client introductions for me, but an added layer of due diligence once the conversation has already begun, and a way to get to know my work on a respected platform. Plus, just having another online presence supports my own marketing efforts.”

Schellert prioritizes delivering resources for her members, such as a mix of educational webinars, a database of viable CEUs to maintain credentials and business standards, and lists of professional photographers, website designers and virtual assistants.

The importance of servicing designers outside larger metropolitan areas is not lost on Schellert. Although Ethos currently represents designers on both coasts, providing rural professionals with opportunities to advance and maintain high industry standards is a constant focus for the St. Louis–based platform.

Though none of the designers reached by Business of Home had landed a project directly through a directory, they all saw value in being included. “Kelly puts her designers first and really works hard for them, so there’s a collective credibility here that would take years to build on your own,” says San Diego–based designer Rachel Moriarty, a member of Ethos. “Project leads are not my primary concern. It’s more of a long game of establishing my wider business model.”

Lorenzo Cota, a designer in New York and Philadelphia, and an Interior Collab member, appreciates the importance of getting and staying involved in a design community: “The enticement is to keep up your business and stay engaged, or you’ll fall through the cracks and you’re not noticed.” Interior Collab’s coalition mindset, he says, keeps him at the top of his game. “Leads are always welcome, but in our industry, you work in a bubble and can feel very detached. Keeping tabs on what other designers are doing fuels me. ”

Across platforms, networking is one of the most important aspects of membership. Many of the members of Interior Collab and Ethos—with memberships hovering at about 40 and 50 designers, respectively—found their way to each group through existing relationships, private Facebook groups or personal recommendations. Staying connected to fellow members is a big part of the draw. “If someone has a new lighting collection, I want to know about it,” says Moriarty. “Someone puts it on Instagram, someone else reposts it. We’re celebrating each other’s wins.”

“The value is in connection,” explains Marzella. “People are connecting offline [or] through our monthly, all-member Zoom, sharing resources, vendor feedback, advice, bouncing ideas around.”

All that networking has produced tangible results. Moriarty took part in Ethos’s member-exclusive ongoing designer paint collaboration with Sherwin-Williams. Interior Collab has partnered with renovation platform Dipt, and a capsule collection with J.D. Staron will be launched at ICFF 2022 in May. At Freddie, Yumusaklar plans to expand user-generated, content-sharing features for the platform's designers (currently more than 1,300 members) and homeowners. “We have over 10,000 images for inspiration and browsing, and plans to increase content production,” he says. Those goals include rolling out Instagram Lives, interviews and keynote speakers who will cover business skills, pricing structures and tax procedures.

As designers continue to work with designers, more collaborations, innovations, tools and resources are likely to emerge in the months ahead. Westchester, New York–based designer Hope Scully, a founding member of Interior Collab, puts it simply: “That scarcity mindset of ‘every man for himself’ is over.”

Perhaps as important to designers as the resources they do want is what they don’t need. Because these groups are largely founded by designers themselves, there is an increased sensitivity around practices that have left other professionals feeling exploited in the past. “A main promise is never to sell product against our members’ images, and always maintain the greater good of the designers,” says Schellert, seemingly a reference to platforms like Houzz (and more recently Pinterest and Instagram) that have paired user-generated content with direct-commerce. Another promise she’s made to her members is that she won’t sell out. (“As soon as you bring in VC money, you’re bound by those terms,” she says.) Ethos is largely self-funded, though members pay a $450 annual fee; similarly, Interior Collab’s $250 annual membership funds the running and promotion of the platform. “There’s nothing wrong with money,” explains Marzella. “But we definitely saw a turn at Homepolish [when VC money came in]. We’re not looking to monetize this.”

Although Freddie is owned by a larger business, its goals, for now, seem to be aligned with smaller platforms. Membership for the first year is complimentary, and Yumusaklar says there are currently no plans to charge anyone for using Freddie. “We’re not dependent on its financial success,” he explains. “We’ll all be much happier with stronger extensions and support in the community, and [parent company Schumacher] benefits from that, too.”

Perhaps the biggest red flag for designers is the idea that a directory will be involved in a firm’s day-to-day operations. (Although it was conceived as a useful service, the insistence that members use its internal project management software became a sticking point for many Homepolish designers.) So far, all three platforms show no interest in tackling that part of a designer’s business and are vowing to steer clear. “We will always stay entirely out of the backend,” confirms Marzella. Yumusaklar agrees: “I think it’s overstepping.”

Some designers might be open to a little more involvement from directories. While Cota says he suffered a significant financial scalding from Homepolish’s demise, he values the efforts it took to vet and prep clients before handing over a project. “The first-round questions, the contract negotiating, the initial walkthrough—they handled 90 percent of that process and qualified the client first, albeit for a steep fee,” he recalls. “If there was a way to assist with that process and have those conversations—even a simple Q&A to figure out what the client and project needs are—that would be a huge value add.”

On the question of internal management, however, he’s firm: “Stay out of my books.”

Correction: January 27, 2022
An earlier version of this story suggested that Ethos Design Collective is focused on designers from the Midwest. The organization is not concentrated on any one region.

Homepage photo: Room design by Nadia Watts | Emily Minton-Redfield

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