The 50 States Project is a yearlong series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, designer Beth McDonough, owner of Wasilla, Alaska–based Forty Nine Interiors, tells us about dividing her time between interior design and staging, how she handles the shipping and storage challenges of her state, and why she still bills hourly even as her business has grown.
When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
It wasn’t until much later in life, but in looking back, I can see that trend throughout—I didn’t love doing the science project, but I loved gluing all those pieces onto the display board, that sort of thing. About five years ago, I started really thinking seriously about design as a career, but I’ve been doing it as just a hobby for the last 17 years.
My husband was in the Army, so we moved a ton. I’ve lived everywhere. And what I found was that I was really good at making a house a home. As soon as we would get somewhere, I would immediately [get to work], because I didn’t want to waste a moment enjoying my home. I wanted to do everything right away so that I could enjoy it for every second that we lived in that location. And then I got really into the sale of our home—in each place, we bought a house and invested in it and then would sell it, and I learned that I had a real knack for knowing what sells and turning over the properties quickly. So I actually started with staging first.
You went from staging for yourself, essentially, to staging for others?
I started with DIY because we had no money—we did all of our projects ourselves, and I would document it on social media, and everyone was always like, “You should do this.” I was like, “No, no, no, that’s ridiculous. It’s not a real job.” But as my kids got older, I thought, “You know what, I really love doing this.” I had started doing stuff for people on the side—helping them with their projects or managing their projects or giving them DIY advice—but for some reason, I was convinced that the design part was maybe a little unachievable.
Because you didn’t have formal training?
My dad owns a PR firm, so I grew up in a household that was very client-focused, and I always saw him having to justify what he did for people. In my mind, design really fell into that category. I was telling myself that I didn’t want to constantly be selling myself—trying to get people to hire me and explain the product. Because I think when you’re selling ideas, it’s harder.
I thought staging would be a good place to start: I know I’m good at that, I know I know what I'm doing, and it’ll be easy to get a job because I know a bunch of [real estate agents]. I can definitely do this. We were living in El Paso, Texas, when I took that leap. I started off getting my staging certification—but ironically, while that’s the part of my business that took much more oomph to get going, I immediately got design jobs. I still love staging and I’m successful with it, but 75 percent of my business is design and 25 percent is staging.
What are the different mindsets required for the two of them?
Design is more personal, but I do throw in a little bit of my staging [experience] when I design for people, particularly if they think that they’ll be selling the property. When they’re deciding whether they want to do a project or not, I’ll put on my stager hat and say, “From a real estate perspective, this would be a good investment.” Or, “I would choose this tile over that tile.” That sort of thing. When you’re staging, it’s all about staging for the masses, design for the masses, but still unique enough that you’re creating a lifestyle that people want to buy, because they’re buying with their emotions. So they’re walking the property and immediately feeling emotionally connected to the space and then they want to buy it.
When I’m designing, I can really hone in on specific colors and luxe items and bells and whistles to make that person’s dream home. And those are mainly the clients that I’m working with now—the ones that are in their forever homes. They’ve been waiting, they’re busy, they’re usually multi-income families too busy to tackle it themselves. They’ve got kids, they want functionality, they want beauty, they want nice items that they’re going to keep for a long time. They’re ready to make an investment.
And I love both [design and staging] for different reasons. Staging is fast and furious, and you get this instant gratification. Last week I staged a house and it sold in three hours.
Wow! What is the scope for a typical staging project? How much are you bringing in or changing?
It depends on the project, because the seller is the one that is investing. So if they understand what staging is, they’re more willing to make the investment. Some of my staging jobs will just be a DIY recommendation list. I go room by room [saying], “These are the things that need to come out, this is what you need to add.” Some people do it on their own and are great at going through that list. And then some [projects are] basically vacant stages. Those are really fun because you basically bring in [everything]. I own my own inventory and bring it in—even things like art, accessories, kitchen utensils and olive oil and all the little details that make it feel like home. The vacant stages have a bigger wow factor, I think, and it’s more similar to design on that big reveal day, since you’re coming in and really transforming the space.
You said that staging is new or unfamiliar where you are in Alaska. How has that changed the way you talk about what you charge?
During the certification process, I took a course that helped me know what to do on the business end of things. So going in, I knew what stagers across the country were charging hourly, but then on top of that, when you’re doing a vacant staging job, you need to know what your inventory costs are. Basically, I approximate what my per-room costs are, and then I use that as my benchmark. And then I have a design fee for my staging day—so my labor, plus all the rental items, basically.
And then you store all of that inventory for when it’s not being staged.
I currently have enough inventory to stage two to three houses at a time. We have an extra storage garage on our property, so I’m lucky in that I don’t have that added cost, but if I continue to grow, I may have to invest in a better warehouse space. I did have one in El Paso, but it was just a mini storage space, because I was just starting out then and my husband had kicked me out of the garage. He was like, “I want to park my cars in here!”
When did you move to Alaska?
We have been in Wasilla for a year now, but I was born and raised in Anchorage. I’m a lifelong Alaskan girl, but then I got romantically inclined and ran all over the country with my husband. Now I’m back.
What is it like to have to pick up and start your business over?
That’s hard. The fatigue of doing that really weighs on you. After this last one, I was very glad to be done with that. My husband is done with the Army, and now he has a civilian job, and my family’s here, so we’re going to stay. The fatigue of starting businesses over and over is [a lot]. Before this, I had an online stationery boutique, and every place we went, I had to reestablish myself. It was all online, but I had to get out new business licenses and new tax stuff. At first you’re like, “No problem, I’ll do anything for love.” But after the sixth or seventh time, you’re like, “This is it.”
What was different about starting over in Alaska?
It’s been so fascinating—I didn’t expect it to go over quite as well as it has. I didn’t expect there were that many people looking for interior designers. And I have been fortunate enough that either my client service or my aesthetic or something is resonating well with people, and I’ve gotten a lot of referral work and I’ve worked both in Anchorage and Wasilla, so I have jobs in both areas.
It’s important to know what the people are like in your area. For example, in Alaska, every single person is outdoorsy. So if I’m designing something, I’m keeping that in mind: When you come in, where are you dumping your muddy boots and seven parkas and gloves and hat and the dog leash? You have to keep in mind how people live, and come ready with solutions.
How many projects are you typically working on at a time?
Too many—I have 20 active projects right now, all in different stages. That’s been one of my biggest pain points this year, is learning how to properly manage a waitlist. I’m currently booked through June.
Aren’t you a team of one? That’s amazing.
Yeah—who’s the team? You’re talking to her.
Well, that’s not completely true. I have this amazing client service contractor that I work with to help make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks, and I have hired somebody to help me with my newsletter. But I am actively searching for a design assistant.
What is that client services contractor taking on for you?
She helps me create workflows and realize where I could get help. She’s also helped me put together a welcome packet that answers a lot of the clients’ questions upfront so that I don’t have to do that, and so on. She helps me organize things. It’s a little different than a business coach, but also she does plenty of that. She’s amazing.
Is that a long-term relationship, or a finite thing to overhaul systems?
We met through this Pinterest class that we were both taking. It was a little thing like, “Tell us who you are and where you’re from.” And she said what she did as the client experience manager for interior decorators and designers, and I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m going to write her name down.” I had her do an initial assessment, and I loved her work so much that I wanted to bring her on, on a more regular basis.
Has transforming the client experience become more important as you’ve gotten busy, or was that always on your mind?
It’s always been on my radar, because I’ve been in client service my entire life, from growing up in a house seeing my dad’s PR firm to every job I’ve ever had—I worked for Princess Tours in high school, I was in advertising right out of college, and then I owned my own stationery boutique. Everything was client-facing, so I know that part of my business really well, but what I wanted was somebody else to come in and take my general direction, refine it, and give me all the steps that need to happen in between so it’s seamless—so I’m not spending a lot of time reinventing the same email over and over, or touching base along the way. Sometimes these projects can last six months to a year, and you don’t want to lose steam; you want to remain in control and on top of things on the client end. So that was important to me, to make sure that that part of my system is really well honed.
Have you felt the difference as you’ve started to put that into practice?
Oh, yeah, definitely. It makes me feel more in control of what’s happening—I feel like I’m utilizing my systems well. She helped me figure out how long, start to finish, I can work with one client before I can bring on another, and helped me manage that waitlist.
Are you saying no to some projects outright?
I’m not saying no, but I’m making it really clear about what the timeline is and that I understand if they don’t want to wait. So far, I haven’t had anybody tell me no. So far everybody said, “That’s fine. I would love to wait.”
I thought so, too.
What is the design landscape like in Alaska?
There’s not a huge community. A lot of my clients have said things like, “I’ve been looking for someone like you for a long time.” I think I might bring something that’s not in the average Alaska builder package.
Are there challenges that are unique to being cut off from the contiguous 48 states, or hitches in the process as a result, or maybe different access to resources?
Resources and shipping timelines are the major issues. I’m not big on taking no from somebody. If there’s something I want, I’m going to figure out how to get it. I’m not satisfied with items that are in stock. Almost everything that I’m doing is a special order of some sort or creating something with a local craftsperson. I love doing that. But the cost for shipping just average things, it’s a lot. The cost to ship a rug here is like $1,000. I mean, it’s wild. Thankfully, most Alaskans are already aware of and used to that. They know that their projects will take longer, and then you get your delivery and hopefully there hasn’t been massive damage along the way, because it’s already been on a journey. I just wrapped one project last week, and if I had been doing this in Texas, it would have been finished a lot sooner.
So many designers I talk to are feeling the pressure from clients as a result of freight and supply chain issues right now. Are you a bit more protected from that because people expect that it’ll take longer?
It’s either that or I communicate it well in the beginning. I haven’t set any precedents of, “Yeah, I can get that done in a week for you.” I’m letting people know realistically what the timeline looks like, what types of challenges we might face along the way. And then I let them know if something happens so that they’re not surprised. If you keep your clients well-informed, it’s easier to manage those types of issues when they arise.
How does stuff get to you?
Mainly by barge. I use several receivers and most have a dock in Seattle. So items are delivered by truck to Seattle, then put on a barge and then they arrive here. Based on what it looks like the arrival time is going to be, I try to do a white-glove delivery of said items together. But sometimes there are some straggling pieces. ...
The big reveal has to be a lot harder in this scenario.
Yes, exactly. It’s frustrating in that I don’t necessarily get the big reveal. That gets spoiled along the way a little bit. I try to hold off on the accessories, so once that last major item comes, I load up the space. But realistically, most of my clients don’t want to pay for all of the items to be in storage for eight months—they want to live with their new sofa!
When you moved, did you have to change anything to adjust for a new market?
No. I changed my rate recently, but that was just based on what my numbers were and getting 100 percent of my inquiries.
By the way, “getting 100 percent of my inquiries” is the most amazing sentence—I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say that to me before. Congratulations!
Thank you. I know, right?
Are you billing hourly for design work similar to the staging work?
Yeah, I do bill hourly, but I do a proposal based on how many hours I think the project will be and say, “Your finished room service cost should be approximately this.” And then furniture and product is obviously not included in that, but I am doing that. I have had some discussion of whether I would do a flat fee, but [my current system] seems to be working for me. And what I like about it is, I’m good at tracking my time, so there’s no problem there. And I don’t feel like I have to say no to a client if they want me to do something additional.
So you never have to say, “That’s not in scope.”
I don’t like that. I like saying, “Absolutely, I can fit you in, I can work that into what we’re currently doing and have you sign off on that.” I still do a proposal and have them sign off on the work so that they can see everything they’re getting—and then I can double-check it, make sure I’m delivering everything I thought I was going to deliver, but I am still doing hourly.
Do you charge a markup on furniture procurement as well?
Yeah, I do on some. I don’t do a lot, and I struggled with that a little bit, but I want my clients to have all the cool things, and I don’t want them to say no because it costs too much to get it here. So I just put the shipping cost, lump it into the product total, and then I do a slight markup. But it’s not necessarily always consistent. If the shipping for something ended up being terrible, I’ll take a smaller markup because I don’t want them to say no to the item.
How do you describe that in your contracts? Do you tell clients that straight up?
Yeah, basically I tell them, “I want you to have all the cool things, so I give you as big a discount as I can. And I need to meet my costs and all that, too.” I found that if I’m really honest with my clients, they’re just really receptive to that.
When you moved back to Alaska, how did your first clients find you?
They were people that I knew, and actually two were clients from my stationery days. So they knew my attention to detail and my taste, and they had been along for the journey on my personal Instagram feed. But it was out of the blue. I had no idea that they were going to ask me to do their entire home. So that was really fun. And then that has snowballed into additional referrals: “I saw the work you did at so-and-so’s house, and we want you to come and help us.”
Are you still selling stationery online?
My website is still up, but I am phasing that out. That was a hard decision [that I made last year]. At first I thought maybe I could handle both, but I can’t. It was this luxe one-on-one stationary experience—I did wedding invitations, and then it grew to baby announcements and personalized stationery, all luxury papers and handmade items. I would go to markets. It’s actually kind of similar, in a way, to what I’m doing now: I’m directing creativity, finding the really cool things and bringing them to my clients.
Obviously business is booming for you, but where do you see the most opportunity to grow?
I think in the year ahead, [since I’m still] relatively new to the area, I want to really solidify my team. I want to know who my favorite tile guy is. I want to know who my favorite woodworker is. I want all of the people who can understand what I’m trying to do in a space. I want to refine that team. That’s my real goal for 2021, because I do find that most of my clients want me to bring the contractors.
What does success look like to you?
Success to me works like a good balance. I’m a little bit of a hippie in that kind of process. I want to be happy. Design makes me happy. Making something great for somebody and seeing how much they enjoy it makes me happy. I’m just so grateful for everything that’s happened in the last year and in my move to Alaska. I definitely have felt welcomed back into my community that I grew up in, and in forging my own new way.
Homepage image: Beth McDonough | Courtesy of Forty Nine Interiors