50 states project | Apr 5, 2024 |
How hiring a business advisor took this Kentucky designer’s firm to the next level

The 50 States Project is a series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Louisville, Kentucky–based designer Jessica Kain Barton of J. Kathryn Interiors tells us how her first fixer-upper house launched her business, how she discarded people-pleasing for boundaries, and how she learned to be OK with the fact that not everyone likes her look.

What was your path into the design industry?
I was in marketing and PR first, and I did that for eight years. I was good at it—but I just wasn’t happy. I always loved design, but I always thought of it as a hobby and creative outlet. When we bought our first house, one of my girlfriends at the time was thinking about becoming a designer. She was like, “Let’s experiment together,” so we collaborated and had a lot of fun. I loved having that kind of creative control. Then my husband and I moved to California and bought a total fixer—it was this beaten-up house from 1932 that had not been taken care of in probably 20 years. It had a tree growing in the window! But it was affordable for us. When we had a cousin over, he said, “This is a teardown, right? This is a great piece of land.” But we said, “This is what we can afford, and this is going to be our home.” And over the next several years, I spent every minute I had working on it.

Then I found that I was pregnant—and I don’t know what it was about the whole process of being pregnant and giving birth, but my husband tells the story of coming home from work and finding me, dressed and with makeup on, and with the baby dressed and ready to go. I had a newborn—he was 7 weeks old. And my husband was like, “Where are you going?” And I said, “I’m going to go get an internship.” And he was like, “What?

That’s amazing.
I was like, “Don’t panic, I’m going to keep my job, but I’m also going to go get an internship at an interior design firm.” And so that’s what I did: I walked into a little design firm in the Bay Area, asked for an internship and started working there.

What made that feel like an essential step?
I’m the oldest child, and I’ve always been a rule follower—I think it’s just the way my parents raised me—so I just wanted to be a sponge and take in as much as possible. After about six months, I had the confidence to change professions, but I didn’t have the confidence at that time to go out and start my own firm. I didn’t know all the vendors, tradespeople and craftspeople; and I wasn’t living where I was from. Maybe if I had been in Kentucky it would have been different, but I was in a totally new environment, which is like learning how to walk.

When did you realize you were ready to go out on your own?
During the pandemic, it became apparent that that firm wasn’t going to be the right long-term fit for me. We were in this crazy shutdown, and I thought, “I don’t know if tomorrow is promised. I’m just going to do it.” I went ahead and took this leap. I’d only had the business for about eight months when my husband got a job back home and we relocated to Kentucky.

Did it feel like starting over?
Well, it was just starting to pick up steam, so it wasn’t super disruptive. But I really put the pedal to the metal and started trying to finish my house in California, because I knew that if we were going to be moving, it was important to get it photographed.

California is beautiful, but if you’re somebody who really loves architecture and homes, it is a little humbling to move to a place like that and realize just how unattainable it is to have a home bigger than 1,100 square feet. Real-estate envy is real when you live in those cities! When my husband got the job offer, he was like, “Are you sure? We don’t have to move back, I can tell them no.” And I was like, “No, I’m looking at houses [there] right now, and I think we should do it.” We were living in a basement Airbnb while looking for houses here in Louisville when I got a notification that House Beautiful had picked [my California house] up for an online feature, and it was like, “Oh, this could be it.” That was really where the momentum started, and it picked up steam from there.

I loved being out in California and I learned so much, but I’ve found that my clientele—the people I feel like I really connect with aesthetically—there’s just a larger swath of them near me here in the Southeast. I remember talking to people in San Francisco, saying, “What about this print in your bedroom?” And they’d say, “What? That’s so many flowers. My husband will never go for that.” And I was like, “My dad wears pink and he’s always had flowers in his bedroom!”

Did having more local connections to friends and family after moving change the trajectory for your firm?
It did. And I think that’s probably where most designers can say that’s the blessing and the curse. For the first year, I took on any and every project I could get. Sometimes that was wonderful, and then sometimes it was like, “You know, what I got out of this was a good learning lesson.” But that was worth it, too—now, I think what’s been amazing is how I’ve learned to figure out which clients are for me, and I don’t think I ever would have known [that] if I had not had those interesting relationships in the beginning that were mostly based on me begging to design their house.

How hiring a business advisor took this Kentucky designer’s firm to the next level
In a Bay Area bungalow, a verdant wallcovering brings a sense of abundance to the breakfast tableBess Friday

How did the business evolve as you gained confidence and clients?
It’s done so much for my mental psyche that I actually am doing what I love for a living. But as I’ve grown, I’ve started to see that the more projects you take on, the more responsibility you have, which means there need to be more people involved. I was finding myself pulled into spending most of my day doing the back-end things—which honestly bring me nothing except anxiety and stress—so the first thing I wanted to do was figure out how to grow the business without committing to bringing on a bunch of people until I knew I could keep them on forever. Right now, most of the people on my team are on a freelance basis. That way, I can bring on full-time hires when I feel confident that they can have the income that they deserve and be set up for success.

One thing my dad has always said that stuck with me is, “I want to be a small giant.” He gave me a lot of great advice when I was starting my business. He told me that if I really wanted that small-giant mentality to work, I needed to make sure that I always hired people who were smarter than me. And he’s right: Bringing on people who are smarter than me in all of these different areas is not a threat. It’s an asset. And when everybody’s working on their own parts the right way, it’s magic.

What freelance roles did you look to fill?
The first person I brought on was my business advisor, Caitlin Hill. She was recommended to me by Emily Janak in Wyoming—I had been following Emily on Instagram when I was living in California and I just loved her work, and then one day she posted a photo of herself and I realized that we went to high school together. I just didn’t know her married name. When I started my firm, she was so supportive and gave me honest insights and good information. When she recommended Caitlin, she said, “I don’t know if you’re like me, but even though I want my own company, I need a boss to tell me what to do.” And I was like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for.”

Caitlin helped me write my agreement and figure out a filtering process for prospects. She also gave me great incentives and advice on how to bring on other people—things like making sure I had a close relationship with a photographer and stylist to create content and keep that momentum going. For the first year, we had bimonthly calls and spreadsheets that she expected me to keep updated. It was like having a chief operating officer: She gave me advice on financial decisions, and was so crucial when it came to making operational decisions and talking through how to handle difficult client situations. I’m very sensitive and I hate conflict, but Caitlin was like, “Jessica, you can’t just shut your laptop off and run away when things get hard. You’ve got to face it.” I credit her for helping me become a real business—and for having the confidence to have those conversations about agreements and budgets. It’s because of her that I can say, “Listen, this is my hourly rate, and this is why it’s this price. This is why we have this clause in our agreement—it’s to protect you and me.” I’m set up for the utmost level of success because my agreement is [rooted in] respectful boundaries. I feel like I was playing company before Caitlin came along.

Even when a recent opportunity to do the 2023 Southeastern Designer Showhouse was presented to me, I remember calling Caitlin to say, “I’m doing this, right?” But she said, “No, you can’t just make a decision like that.” And it’s like, “What do you mean? They asked me, and it’s an amazing opportunity. Of course I’m going to say yes.” But she made me do a spreadsheet to understand every single detail: How much am I going to spend on lodging? What will I spend on my meals? What am I going to spend on wallpaper and lighting and installers? She told me, “It’s not going to be some tiny little amount. Even with all of the favors you call in, it’s going to be a lot of money. Can you sustain that? Is that something you want to pay off? Is the reward greater than the risk?” I hated doing that spreadsheet so much, but [I’m glad that] when I did say yes, I wasn’t going into it blindly.

The two other people who have become absolutely instrumental over the last two years are a freelancer in Fort Worth who does all of my drafting and elevations—we work so well together, and she’s able to turn my terrible sketches, specs and all of the things that I want to create into documents for the tradespeople we work with to turn my designs into reality—and a bookkeeper to help me on the accounting side. Immediately after those two joined me, I felt relief—which gave me the confidence to take on these larger projects with the knowledge that we can do it the way it should be done.

Left: The breakfast nook in a Louisville pied-à-terre features a medley of leafy motifs Kate Leichhardt | Right: The designer outfitted the project's primary bedroom in a delicate floral Kate Leichhardt

You mentioned building boundaries into your agreement. How has your approach evolved?
I’m such a people pleaser—it’s in my DNA—and it would have been so hard for me to have done that without having somebody like Caitlin being the wind at my sails, saying, “No, you’ve got to do this.”

When I started, I still felt like this level of—not unworthy, but this worry that maybe I wasn’t as talented as I thought. Or what if people didn’t like me the way I wanted them to? I needed to be liked, and I needed to make everybody happy. But the irony is that it’s an unattainable goal. The harder I tried to do that, the more I found myself in these predicaments. If you set yourself up to say yes to everything, you’re going to disappoint a lot of people because you don’t have control over all the elements. And I remember being so heartbroken when I learned that the people who I just wanted to make so, so happy were the ones who could hurt me the most. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is that I’m not for everyone. They’re not always going to like my style, they’re not always going to like my personality—they might just not like me, and that’s OK.

The funny part about all of it is that after I spent so much time trying to people-please, [no one cared] when I started actually putting up boundaries. I would sit down with prospects and go through my agreement with them: This is how the agreement works, this is what you can expect from us, this is my availability. I was expecting that they were going to be like, “She’s so firm,” or “She’s too stiff,” or “This agreement is ridiculous,” or “That’s too complicated.” But every single person was like, “Absolutely, that makes sense,” or “I had one question and you’ve already addressed it.” It was just completely based on this place of mutual respect.

Did you feel the difference as those projects unfolded?
The projects—and the creative liberty—got bigger and better, and so much of it was that I was able to say to myself, “If I get that project, that’s going to be amazing. But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be OK. And I’m not going to take on a project with red flags out of fear.”

The showhouse was the other turning point for me. When I did accept the invitation, I told myself, “I’m just going to go for it. I’m going to go totally off the wall and do everything I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m going to make a name for myself in this market by doing what I really love.”

The first weekend, about half of the people who came in would be like, “Oh, my God, this is so beautiful,” or, “This reminds me of Bunny Mellon,” or, “I can see that Mario Buatta vibe I’m reading about.” The other half would be like, “Oh, this is way too much.” And at first, hearing that kind of hurt my feelings. But by the end of the month, I loved hearing both kinds of feedback.

What do you learn from the people who didn’t like it?
Melanie Turner was in the show house as well, and obviously she’s an icon in the industry, so it was just amazing to be able to learn from her. Her husband is a developer, [and his company had] done the showhouse, and he gave me such poignant feedback at the end—he said something like, “I think you should be really happy with how this experience went for you, because a lot of people walked into different rooms and they felt indifferent. But people walked into your room and they either loved it or they hated it. Design is supposed to provoke, because not every designer is going to be for every person, and you’re creating your niche. You’re showing that you can do different things, and you’re getting a reaction.”

And from there, I did start finding that different people were reaching out, whether it was a blogger or a website or an influencer or just somebody who had walked through the space.

Left: A galley kitchen in a historic Tudor home packs form and function into a small footprint Kate Leichhardt | Right: For her room in the 2023 Southeastern Showhouse, the designer channeled design legends Mario Buatta and Bunny Mellon for a layered look Robert Peterson

How did you land on an approach to billing for your work?
Our approach is a little old-school: We collect a retainer in the beginning based on the size of the project, then charge the same hourly rate no matter what [phase of the project we’re working on], as well as my costs for drawings. If the client is out of state, we’re going to charge this many hours a day for travel, plus our airfare and rental car. I lay it all out in my agreement, and I talk about it on the first phone call so that there’s no question. It just is what it is.

In the beginning, I weighed the pros and cons of each approach. At one point, Caitlin said to me, “If you do a flat rate, are you the type of person who will stick to the hours that you’ve estimated, or will you lose money because you’re going to go over?” For me, charging hourly is so much easier because I know that I’m not leaving anything on the table.

Has that certainty made billing less stressful?
I still get anxiety when I hit send at the end of a really big month. Even if you know that you’ve put in all of that work, I can’t help thinking that someone’s going to come back unhappy about the hours. But I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is give an estimate on the higher end of what they can expect from the beginning, and to let them know when they’re going to get a higher bill. I can’t be afraid to have those hard conversations—it’s if they don’t hear it come out of your mouth that you’ll have problems.

Beyond a specific aesthetic approach, how has the Southeast influenced your design philosophy?
I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, [hearing people say] that if things look good, you’ll feel good. Now, that’s a bit of a surface-level way of thinking, but I think what they mean is that when you’re having a bad day, if you have your house put together and you yourself are put together, it’s not going to fix everything, but you tend to feel better. It’s going to help, environmentally. So I grew up knowing that interior design wasn’t some superficial idea. It’s something that we call a luxury, but it really shouldn’t be. In my opinion, every single person should be able to have an environment where they feel comfortable, safe, and that they can make it beautiful.

I love beautiful things, but I also have a toddler who runs around with peanut-butter fingers like everybody else. I always tell my clients that we would be better off if we just accepted that things are going to get messy and dirty, and that it’s OK. There’s perfection in imperfection. If somebody spills a glass of red wine on one of my pillows, I’m going to wince for a second on the inside, but then I’m going to go get something to clean it off and the party will continue.

Your introduction to the industry was in a market with a ton of resources and a big design center. How did moving back to Kentucky change the way you source?
That was the hardest part about moving back: I was spoiled by the resources. Within 20 minutes, I could be at the San Francisco Design Center and have every memo, every tile sample, every colorway immediately available. I never had to wait. Even during Covid, we’d send an email and our reps would have [our memos] sitting right outside for us within hours. It was such a well-oiled machine.

When I moved here, I realized that you could send an email or reach out to your rep, but you might have to wait two to three weeks to get your samples—and that’s just time that I don’t want to have to wait, because once the memos arrive, it’s not [guaranteed] to be a good fit. So about a year into living here, I decided that I would go to Chicago once a quarter—that’s our closest design center and where most of our reps are. I set aside two days; I have an agenda of what I need to do, and I get everything that I need. Sometimes way more than I need!

I take a lot of pride in my library, and in sourcing very niche, small vendors and brands. And that artisan work is something that I’ve always been drawn to. So I tell my clients that because I strategically make these visits to see what’s new and gather those samples, I never feel like I’m starting completely from scratch when I start a project. There are a lot of things I don’t feel confident in, but I truly believe that I have some of the best library pulls, which means that I can really hit the ground running when a project starts. It’s not like I get excited for the project and then [have to stop and] wait three weeks for everything to come in. I can actually start the process as soon as we’re ready.

How does that work for the furniture side of things where a library doesn’t get you all the way there?
I think so much of that is having to have trust with my clients that I’m not going to pick something that’s bad quality or isn’t going to be comfortable. I really rely on a few to-the-trade workrooms that make custom furniture, which gives me the ability to go to the clients and say, “OK, let’s talk about the fill of your sofa. Do you want down? Do you want a mixture?” I truly believe that custom furniture is the greatest luxury—but also is one of the biggest old wives’ tales in our industry, because custom doesn’t always mean more expensive. We really try to customize everything.

We still order one-off chairs, and sometimes whole sofas, from the big companies—brands like Hickory Chair and Century. But I’ve found that one of the things that became really hard for clients to accept were long lead times. I know it’s something manufacturers are trying to come back from, but when you have a piece that takes 12 to 18 weeks to make and then it’s in transit, it’s really hard to convince the client that it’s worth it—and then their expectations when they get something that took that long are so much higher. I feel like most of the time they don’t like it, and I think it’s because they are going into it not wanting to like it because it took so long.

Left: Thoughtfully placed trim adorns soft goods throughout the primary bedroom Kate Leichhardt | Right: A stately entry in a historic Tudor home Kate Leichhardt

How do you want the business to grow?
I want to continue to have fewer, larger projects where we can make a big impact, alongside being able to provide design advice and guidance for different types of clients—maybe on a consultation basis as a resource for design enthusiasts who need a little direction or can’t afford or commit to a full-service interior designer.

Something else that I’m very passionate about is focusing on how to give back. When I was growing up, my sister was in and out of the hospital with a chronic illness and it was debilitating for our family. I grew up very upper middle class—we had nice things and we never had to worry about a roof over our head—but my bedroom became my sanctuary, and I don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t had a home where I was able to go into my room and really take care of myself. I truly believe that it shouldn’t be a luxury to have spaces where you feel safe and where you feel like you have beauty. So I’m trying to figure out whether organizations [to do that work] exist where I am locally, or if that’s something that needs to be created, but I’d like to create spaces for individuals [in need]—small sanctuaries where they feel peace, no matter what chaos is going on in their life. I would like to be able to show other people that it’s not too much to want a space like that.

What does success look like for you?
I’d like to be able to grow, and I love being able to pay my bills and not be nervous, but at the end of the day, a text message from a client saying that they love their space is more valuable than when the money hits my account.

To learn more about Jessica Kain Barton, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.