business advice | Nov 27, 2018 |
When is participating in a designer showhouse worth it?

Dear Sean,

I’m always getting invites to participate in designer showhouses. I love helping a good cause and promoting my brand to the public, but my last showhouse turned out to be such a resource suck. What’s a useful way to determine if participating would be beneficial to my company?

Show Biz

Dear Show Biz,

When it comes to managing your time as a designer, the question really becomes, Where is the best value for my marketing (or advertising, social media or public relations) dollar coming from? It can be very easy to say, “This showhouse costs me X dollars, but if I even get one client from it, it will have been worth it.” And down the rabbit hole you go. Instead, figure out your goals and then establish—and live by—a marketing budget.

Getting the next client is a relative question. If you are new to the business, or to running your own business, then getting your name out there is almost certainly worth it. When no one knows who you are, introducing yourself, your art and your business to the world is a necessity.

However, if you are, as I suspect, a seasoned designer with an established reputation—one bombarded with several showhouse requests—you have to put your economics hat on. What is the marginal benefit of the recognition of doing the show versus the time and expense it will take you to participate? (Translation: How much more will you be known after the show versus before? The answer, most likely, is probably not a lot.)

Don’t bother asking yourself whether or not there will be business from the show (this applies to attending or participating in any industry event); instead, ask yourself whether or not you are doing it to maintain your position in the industry, or because it is a cause you personally believe in (DIFFA, for example). From there, you can comfortably judge whether the effort is worth it.

For those efforts that support your reputation, you do need to make a calculation. The way to do this is to establish a firm marketing budget for next year—and if you have never established a budget, add 15 percent to the number. Then, ensure that every effort you make toward supporting your reputation counts against that amount. This includes doing projects for less than your usual fee, for example, or the cost of participating in showhouses and charity events. You establish the price of the project as you would any other, then subtract the price you actually charged. The difference is marketing.

A quick example: If a showhouse costs you $1,000, and if it were a real project you would have charged $10,000, then all $11,000—what you spent, plus what you would have spent—goes to marketing, not just the $1,000. Or if you do a small project for an influencer and you charge $10,000 when your usual fee would be $25,000, then the $15,000 difference also goes to marketing. But if your marketing budget for the year was $30,000, you now have only $4,000 left to “spend” for the year after these two projects.

The record keeping is easy. Here’s the part that’s hard: Committing to the fact that when it’s gone, it’s gone—no more free or “less than full price” for anything else once you have maxed out your budget. If you can have this discipline, you will very quickly be able to weed out the distractions simply because you will run out of money if you do not.

Nobody can tell you where you should go with your marketing intuition. Your design business, though, needs you to be aware that great opportunities can be like quicksand if you have no way to judge when enough is enough. Having a marketing budget and putting real thought into whether the effort is justified will guide you on when to say yes—and, more important, when to say no.


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'll keep your details anonymous.

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Marie-Christine Design
New York, NY
Marie-Christine Design
New York, NY