business advice | Oct 18, 2018 |
Am I too old to start a career as a designer?

Dear Sean,

I knew from a very young age that I would never be satisfied living with ordinary things. I have never really known what it is like to not be sourcing or processing an image or idea—I was never able to just “be” without absorbing my surroundings. Until recently, I had been content immersing myself in product knowledge and application techniques to satisfy my own desires for living well; I have been registered at select showrooms for years and purchase for my own homes from those showrooms and auction houses. I also began an Instagram account about a year ago as an outlet to share my passion for design history.

But lately, I have begun feeling the sadness of a wasted gift. I just turned 42 and have been questioning whether or not that will limit potential opportunities. I recently spoke with an Instagram follower—one whom I respect a great deal as an expert in the field, with a shop on Pimlico Road in England specializing in both antique and reproduction pieces—and we discussed various outlets to use my passion for design. Within moments, this confidant recognized my inability to shut it off, and told me that it is in my DNA, so to speak, and that with 100 percent certainty, despite my age, I should pursue this path.

Do you have any advice or suggestions?

Warm regards,
Design Mind

Dear Design Mind,

In business, and especially in a creative business, age is just a number. Here is a link to some amazing entrepreneurs who started their businesses after 40—companies like Gap, Siebel Systems and Lululemon, to name a few. The answer to your question is not actually whether you are too old to start, but rather whether you are willing to be judged by strangers for your knowledge (or lack of it).

The difference between an amazing home chef and a professional chef is not just the ability to produce, at scale, consistently and amazingly, but also to accept that some may not appreciate or value the experience. The same is true in design: This microscope, as any designer will tell you, is as intense as any ant ever felt underneath the magnifying glass. If this will be too much for you, please keep the work as your passion and let it fuel your life, instead of launching a business.

On the other hand, if you feel compelled to own your “gift” and share it with others professionally, then leap. Of course, there are many schools of thought about how to leap. For some, mentoring and working for designers who matter to you is a wonderful way to learn what it means to be in the design business. (The latest issue of Business of Home has a wonderful article on this topic.) For others, there is a desire to just start—to take the knowledge that you have and apply it to your own creative business as only you can.

Where you are is incredibly personal to me. I am a perpetual student of business and have worked as a lawyer, investment banker, financial executive and food business entrepreneur, all before jumping into creative business. When I fell into creative business in 2003, I found my calling. What makes me great at what I do today is my background, sure, but also that I had absolutely no preconceived notions about how things were supposed to work—and when I was told how things did work in most creative industries I encountered, I knew there was a better way. You will be the same, and I encourage you to own that for yourself. There is no right way in the design business, only the way that works best for you and your art.

If you do decide to go for it, whether working under someone else or striking out on your own, have conviction. Know what it is that you are meant to share with your gift. If it is about the history and beauty of design, I subscribe to you that you are at six and those who will hire you (either as an employee, or an entrepreneur) will demand that you be a nine. Go deeper and further with what matters to you than you have ever given yourself permission to go. Then live there in what will certainly be an outrageous place. Talk to the smallest possible audience (not literally, just specifically) so that you can ask to be paid what you need to do your next project. If you are underpaid for your current project, you will be depleted; overpaid and you will feel a fraud. Get what you need, no more, no less. Only you can determine what that number is.

My last piece of advice: Before you start, do not look around. Instead, look only in the mirror and ask yourself if you firmly believe what you have to share matters to the world and will be transformative to those that care. If your answer is yes, do not look back.


Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Shoot us an email—and don’t worry, we will keep your details anonymous.

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