50 states project | Feb 23, 2024 |
How this Georgia designer fights back against budget fatigue

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, Atlanta-based designer Sandie Mazzi tells us about her full-circle path from residential to commercial design and back again, her creative hack for generating her early portfolio images, and why she’s happy being a one-woman show for now.

How did you know it was time to go out on your own?
I went to college for architecture and then to Parsons for design, then graduated in 2008, right when the recession hit. Nobody was hiring. I thought I wanted to do commercial work, and then couldn’t get any, so I was an unpaid intern for a whole year at residential firms in New York before I was finally hired for practically minimum wage doing high-end residential work. I realized I liked residential design, but there was always that [internal question] of, “Is commercial design more my niche?” I didn’t know, because I’d never done it; at the same time, it felt impossible to advance in my career. I ended up going to Italy for my master’s in design.

By the time I came back, the market had changed and I was able to get a job doing commercial design for high-end residential buildings. That job led to another working for interior architects in corporate design. And through those roles, I discovered that commercial design is really not my thing. It was a lot more technical than I liked, and it just felt more rigid—there were so many more limits to what you could do. By that time, I had been in New York for 12 years. My now-husband was in Atlanta, so I decided to move there in 2015. It was like, “Do I find a job there or do I just jump off the cliff [and start my own firm]?” And I decided to jump off the cliff.

What did your early days in Atlanta look like?
I didn’t know much about the city when I first moved, but I was pleasantly surprised by all the resources available, and all of the opportunities. Georgia has so much—I just didn’t know it. Not just showrooms, but also factories and manufacturers.

I was on a contract for my last job in New York, and I was one of Homepolish’s top designers. They were just about to launch in the Atlanta market, so when I told them I was moving, they were like, “Would you be willing to take the lead for us there and open the market?” That helped me get my first clients in a brand-new city where I knew nobody.

That had to be so helpful as a lead generator.
It was, and I am grateful that they gave me my first clients, but it wasn’t necessarily a good model for setting up my business.

In what way?
When I was working at high-end residential firms in New York, I felt like there was a lot of shadiness in the industry around pricing, product sales and billing. So when Homepolish came around saying, “Everything is transparent; we pass on pricing to clients,” it was like, Wow. It was this new way of doing design, and I happily signed on. But when I fully went out on my own, I quickly realized that Homepolish’s model would not have been profitable to me. Even though I was one of the top designers on the platform, so they were taking less of a commission from me, that model would not be profitable unless you billed a lot in design fees.

How this Georgia designer fights back against budget fatigue
Dark cabinetry pairs seamlessly with a heavily grained wood island in a sleek kitchen that lets natural materials shineDaniel Stabler Photography

How long did you keep taking projects from the platform?
Thankfully, I had already moved away from the platform in a significant way [when it went under]. By then, I had a client base and was getting my own projects, but I was owed a lot of money—in the five figures—by Homepolish, and I really had to unlearn a lot of their ways of doing business to set up what works for me.

Have you ended up somewhere in the middle?
I did, and I am transparent with my clients about my business model. They know upfront that I make an amount from furniture purchases on top of my design fee. But it’s not like Homepolish, which was purely design fees and passing on all trade discounts to clients.

How have you approached billing for your work?
I started out billing hourly every month, but I often encountered issues where clients got funding fatigue when the project was 80 to 90 percent complete. They start to worry about how much they’re spending, [which only gets worse] when you send them a bill. And I get it! Having been on the receiving end of that monthly bill when I hired a contractor to do a renovation of my own house, I decided to do a flat fee model.

Once I’ve mapped out the exact scope, I always tell my clients, “You will know your design investment when you go into a project.” Especially when they’re building and renovating, clients are already expecting everything to go out of budget—I don’t want to contribute to that stress and anxiety. At the same time, I definitely try to protect myself with a scope of work and firm boundaries; I’m also not afraid to speak up and say, “This will be additional—what do you want to do?” if somebody really goes over scope. I bill enough design fees to cover my time and a little bit of a buffer so I’m protected. I’m not overextending myself, and at the same time, the clients know exactly what to expect.

How do you approach procurement?
I still pass on part of the trade discounts to my clients. That means that they get better pricing on anything from a trade vendor than they would if they were to purchase on their own, so that’s a win for them. And if they want something from West Elm or Pottery Barn, they just pay the retail price, but they will have my services built in. That’s the middle ground I reached between working in the traditional model and what Homepolish did.

How this Georgia designer fights back against budget fatigue
A patterned fireplace surround creates a graphic focal pointMarc Mauldin Photography

When I think of the Atlanta design scene, traditional always comes to mind first, but the market is actually so varied and vibrant. What was your approach to finding clients who were in alignment aesthetically?
That took a long time—and, honestly, I’m almost there, but I still feel like I’m not completely in the place I want to be. My style is more contemporary with global influences, so I’m not doing the typical transitional Southern style. But it took years of putting myself out there [to find the right clients].

I did a lot of networking the first two years I was here. I can’t say that yielded too much, but it got me out and talking about my business. And then slowly, I started to build a base of past clients, contractors and architects who would refer me. I have enough in my portfolio for people to see what my strengths are, and a lot of clients nowadays find me because I’m not a Southern-style designer.

But it’s not easy. I calculated the other day, and I have had 130 clients so far in the years I’ve worked on my own, yet I only have a handful of photos on my website because I will only photograph projects that are more of the style I want to put out. I’ve been very selective with what I showcase, but sometimes that means I’m not putting out a lot, so it’s hard to build that traction.

I think that is far more universal than we usually talk about as an industry.
When you don’t have clients, you don’t have pictures. When you don’t have pictures, you don’t have clients. Two of the first projects that I posted: One was a staged project and one was my own apartment.

What was the staged project?
I borrowed furniture from another project that I had yet to install, got a photographer, went out and borrowed stuff, and styled these vignettes. I really went all out.

I’ve had a couple of conversations lately with designers about this idea of pulling your projects up to the level that your brain and your aesthetic are at, and how to navigate that process of inching closer and closer to where you want to be. What’s the strategy there, besides patience?
I feel like it’s a snowball. You start out with a little bit, you roll it, and it grows over the years—even if it’s a lot slower than you want it to be. But, you know, a lot of it is also luck.

For me, the first four years were harder because it was an ebb and flow of projects—times when I was busy and others when I’m wondering where the next project is coming from. I did know it would take time to build, but I’m also an impatient person to begin with, and then you hear all these podcasts or you read all these magazine articles about all these overnight success stories: Someone’s second year in business and they’re in magazines and getting awards and have a Netflix show. It’s easy to look at yourself and think, “And I’m still here struggling?”

Left: A seating area bathed in a soothing shade of blue includes nods to the homeowners’ Taiwanese and Moroccan heritage Marc Mauldin Photography | Right: Like a pair of blue jeans, a denimlike textured wallcovering serves as a neutral backdrop in a layered bedroom Marc Mauldin Photography

What does your business look like today? What is a full project load, and how do you decide what you say yes to?
I’ve had to set firmer boundaries. Before, I was taking on like 10 to 15 projects at a time, and I did not care if it was a small project or a big project—I just took it on, and I worked nights and weekends to get it all done. Now I have a toddler, so I’ve had to stand firmer in my boundaries. That means taking five to 10 projects at a time, all in different phases, and I especially make sure that I’m not doing the design phase for more than two or three projects at a time.

In terms of why I say yes, I think it’s about a feeling of what the clients will be like. If they have unrealistic expectations about budgeting and cost, I don’t take them on. To me, it’s less of a matter of scope and more of a matter of the client profile.

I know some designers don’t take on one-room projects—but I had a client who wanted me to do his home office in 2020, and when we finished that space in the summer, he ended up hiring me to do basically half of the house by the end of the year. That project sustained me throughout the pandemic, before the industry got crazy with incoming projects coming in left and right. Plus, it was a very profitable project, and they were great clients.

Is it still just you, and do you have plans to grow your team down the road?
I’ve never aspired to be a huge firm, but I do intend to grow my business. For now, for this season of life, I’m quite OK as a one-woman show. It’s balanced, and it’s what I can manage. When my daughter is older and my workdays can be a little longer, that’s when I would like to grow.

How this Georgia designer fights back against budget fatigue
The cozy basement media room includes ample seating for a family that loves to entertainMarc Mauldin Photography

Who are your ideal clients these days, and what are they coming to you for?
I have two types of clients: The ones who find me online, who tend to have an international upbringing or lifestyle and like the global edge in my work; and the other half, who come in with renovation projects through a builder.

What do you like about working with builders?
One of my strengths, I think—which I didn’t know until that builder told me—is that I have the ability to really help clients make confident decisions for their fixtures and finishes.

I had clients who needed light fixtures, so I took them to the lighting showroom that the builder recommended, they told me their style, and [at the end of the appointment] the salesperson was like, “We’ve never had a homeowner make such fast and competent decisions.” It happened again when I was helping a build firm as they were growing into design-build. They’d have me come in to meet with their clients for decisions on fixtures and finishes, and within two hours, we had all of the decisions for their kitchen finishes, tile and plumbing fixtures—and not only did we have decisions, but they were excited and ready to move forward. [My job is about] not only guiding the client’s decisions but making them so excited about what they decide that they can’t wait to get going with it.

I feel like that’s also such a gift to the builder or contractor partners you’re working with.
I’m also very organized. I’ll have the spreadsheet with fixtures and finishes, and I try to make it easy not only for the client, but also for the contractor when they’re getting the information about what the client selected. One of the builders I work with refers clients to me all the time because we communicate well and it makes both of our jobs really easy. And, of course, you want easy when you’re doing a complicated renovation.

What does success look like for you right now?
Success for me, I would say, is having projects and clients that truly remind me why I love what I do and that bring me joy. Having that with, you know, bringing in enough income to sustain my family and my business. And I don’t strive to be famous, but I think just being respected and at least known in the industry is the most I would aspire to.

To learn more about Sandie Mazzi, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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