podcast | May 24, 2023 |
Ahmad AbouZanat on the power of treating clients like guests

For the third season of Trade Tales, the show will feature stories of business pivots—large or small—that fundamentally transformed a firm. This week, the show covers a designer who leapt into action after the demise of a design platform left the back end of his business untethered.

There was always something about design that spoke to Ahmad AbouZanat—maybe related to the striking mix of French and local traditional architecture in his native Lebanon—but he never actually put pen to paper. That quickly became clear during his design school interview, when he was asked to show his portfolio.

“My response was: ‘What’s a portfolio?’” AbouZanat tells host Kaitlin Petersen on the latest episode of the Trade Tales podcast. “I had no idea. I was admitted on probation because of that—I ended up graduating top of my class, but I was on probation during my studies because of that.”

After graduation, he began work with an architecture and design firm in Beirut, where he learned the ropes in luxury ground-up construction projects. The projects were lavish—a far cry from AbouZanat’s own upbringing, which seemed modest in comparison. With his next career move, he made a conscious decision to join a firm that took on a wider range of projects, where his focus began to shift toward homing in on clients’ needs rather than splashing out on big-ticket items with limitless budgets.

Then came a chance connection: A friend of a friend based in Washington, D.C., paid a visit to Beirut and, struck by AbouZanat’s work, offered him a job in the U.S. The experience was ultimately short-lived (the firm was forced to downsize, sending AbouZanat back to Beirut for some time), but fate soon found the designer back in the U.S.—this time, in a showroom sales position in New York as he looked for a full-time design job. After sending in hundreds of unanswered applications to design firms, AbouZanat eventually took matters into his own hands and launched his design studio, Project AZ, in 2017.

AbouZanat joined the interior design platform Homepolish, which provided the infrastructure to get his operations off the ground and a steady stream of project leads. But by 2019, his lucky streak had vanished: Homepolish folded, leaving AboutZanat struggling to make sense of his business’s back end. When the pandemic set in, he wondered if it was time to pack it in and find a job at another firm.

Just as quickly, he had another thought. “I decided, ‘Let me just continue to push,’” says AbouZanat. “Instead of spending time worrying about what to do next, I started dividing that time—I’m going to research how to get in a magazine, how to finesse my photography, how to write a better story about my projects. I began to realize that I need to invest in the business, because I believe in this business, and I believe it can grow.”

On this episode of the podcast, AbouZanat shares how he found the right avenue for increasing his firm’s exposure, why he’s committed to taking on a broad range of projects, and how sharpening his listening skills helps him serve his clients emotionally.

Listen to the show below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. This episode was sponsored by the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Homepage image: Ahmad AbouZanat | Richard Phibbs

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