Noz Nozawa was always drawn to design, even when it wasn’t accessible to her. As a kid, she favored design books featuring images of bathrooms over illustrated children’s stories—a sign if there ever was one that she’d end up in the world of interiors. Still, family circumstances meant that decorating her childhood bedroom was a nonstarter, so her creative energy sat waiting for an outlet.
“I had pretty blank walls growing up as a kid, and it all just kind of fell out of me when I finally got a chance to decorate my own space as an adult,” Nozawa tells host Kaitlin Petersen on the latest episode of Business of Home’s new podcast, Trade Tales.
While pursuing a first career in marketing, Nozawa landed a role at Houzz in 2012, traveling the country to explain the platform’s services to architects and designers. It wasn’t long before she realized that not only would she rather be in their shoes, but many of them had also once been in hers—or at least, in other industries unrelated to design. “There are so many landscape designers and interior designers I met who were doing that as their second career. Their chosen career,” says Nozawa. “They did the law thing, or they did the accounting thing, and they burned out and wanted a better life and chose residential improvements. That, for me, was illuminating.”
The designer admits that transitioning out of a stable career in marketing and starting her own design business was incredibly difficult. It took a combination of exceedingly frugal business operations and marketing expertise for Nozawa to soldier through the growing pains and propel herself to a place of security in the industry.
After coming out on the other side, she is using her outsider’s perspective to do things differently. When she first started billing a flat fee and passing her discount on to her clients, the design community didn’t exactly rally around her. Now, as the practice has gained popularity, she has proven that it pays to reimagine how the industry works. She even has a few thoughts about its future—including what it might mean to implement some pretty radical ideas (depending on whom you ask) around pricing transparency and opening up access to design services. In the meantime, she’s applying that same intentionality to her own finances to create a workplace where both coworkers and clients can get the most out of their experience.
“I didn’t create this business to make all the money from every single client,” Nozawa says. “I made this to live a good life and to create incredible spaces with incredible people that made me feel like I did something good for somebody else’s everyday life. That’s my mission—that’s what I’m driven by.”
Listen to the episode and check out some of the takeaways below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. This episode was sponsored by Universal Furniture and Currey & Company.
Be the employer you wish to see
Having previously worked in the tech startup sphere, Nozawa recalls companies dispensing capital to “attract and distract”—spending lavishly on elaborate office spaces and pricey offsites instead of investing in their employees’ livelihood or the quality of their product. Resolving to do things differently, she waited to expand her team until she had an entire year of projected revenue on the books. With that financial padding, she could offer her employees benefits and stability. “I started thinking a lot about, What would it mean to me to be a good employer?” Nozawa says. “I wanted to create a way for people to see that you can have a creative career that pays well, that has good benefits, that has a good work-life balance, and your employer gives you challenging and rewarding work.”
Market where it counts
In the early days of the pandemic, Nozawa made a seemingly risky decision. She decided to invest in a showcase opportunity—a major marketing expense at a time when many clients were putting projects on hold. Despite the market’s precarity then, the designer knew what she was doing. A knowledge of brand-building philosophy from her marketing days has allowed her to focus on promoting her business through the channels that have won her clients from the start—she estimates that 80 percent of her incoming inquiries have come through platforms like Houzz, Instagram and Pinterest. “I never really related to the idea that referral clients were the North Star of how to secure future project stability,” Nozawa says. “I always felt like it would be really important to continue to attract clients who were attracted to the work I was doing, by way of images or learning more about us as a team. That way, the clients who are coming to us are coming by way of the narrative that I had more influence in, versus the narrative of a previous client’s experience.”
Pricing information for all
From fabric yardage to high-end furniture, Nozawa wants the industry to put it all out there when it comes to prices, just like the other luxury categories do. She argues that there will always be consumers who don’t participate in the industry, but there will also be untapped clients who stay away because they automatically assume the costs of accessing design services and high-end furniture are out of their league. “I know that there are a lot of folks who want to be able to maintain some amount of control over what their clients are aware of, so that you can have more influence over the narrative of what things cost. I think that’s totally understandable, but it’s not the way I see client relationships or client communication,” Nozawa says. “It shouldn’t be on [our industry] to assume and dictate for people what they should spend money on or how they should start planning.”
Homepage image: Noz Nozawa | Courtesy of Nicole Morrison