business advice | Feb 7, 2023 |
How do I justify the cost of traveling to far-flung industry events?

Dear Sean,

I’ve been having major FOMO following along on Instagram as my designer peers gallivant around the world at trade shows and design events. But how are they making it work, and should I be attending these events too? I struggle to justify the cost of attending, coupled with the lost revenue from taking time away from my business. What do I need to do to opt in?

Aspiring Globe-Trotter

Dear Aspiring,

Old thinking allowed you to build the cage you find yourself in. The notion that you are paid specifically for effort beyond wisdom is ingrained in your thinking, as is the idea that you are a person in your business. You are not. You are an asset, just like a computer or a desk or an employee. So the real question is how best to maintain and even improve the asset. You would not expect your laptop to run underwater. By the same token, not engaging in meaningful development of your design sensibilities because you believe it’s indulgent is a fool’s errand.

The single most valuable asset in your business is what lies between your ears. If these trade shows and design events teach or inspire you—and even if they merely give you a sense of belonging—then the investment is more than worth it, provided you are compensated on the other side.

The logistical execution of your design does, in fact, require a tremendous amount of work. However, the value you provide for clients is not that work—it’s what you see that never was but always could be. This is your gift, and this is what you must be paid for. It lives beyond effort, and its value is irrational in that it must be whatever you say it is. I am fairly certain you have equated the value to the rational up to this point, whether by counting hours or calculating a percentage of budget, and you are finding yourself feeling less than. And here’s why: If you pair the rational (measuring worth in hours) with the irrational (the value of your ideas), the irrational fades away for the very reason that it is, ahem, irrational and deeply subjective.

The good news is that changing that mindset is up to you.

You must believe in wisdom if you are to move forward. Wisdom is the sense of place and purpose you discover through the course of your practice as a designer. It is your ability to transform and usher a purposeful change into the lives you seek to serve. If you can recognize the value of wisdom, you will choose to invest in yourself, as the reward will be your ever-growing ability to effect change. It will mean asking for the irrational simply because it is what you need to create.

I have written many times about the process of determining how much (and how) to charge. It starts with honestly answering a couple of questions: How much do you need to live your life and cover your expenses? And how much do you want to work? If your answers are $200 and four projects per year, your price is $50. Then you will know that you need to invest in yourself. (For more on this subject, check out my columns on raising your rates, coping with client rate pushback, finding the right charging model, charging a premium for client indecision and managing flat-fee projects.)

Where you choose to make that investment is certainly up to you, but it’s time to step out of your self-created cage. And one more word to the wise: Only true designers can improvise up. Everything else can be done by others, including machines. Now is your moment to recognize the world shifting beneath your feet and get on the plane to (re)discover the power of creation by immersing yourself with like-minded peers. Your alternative is to be left on the sidelines, watching those who are playing an entirely different game. Plain as day to me—and your FOMO says it is for you too.

Homepage image: ©Tierney/Adobe Stock


Sean Low is 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? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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