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, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania–based designer Michelle Gage tells us about launching her own firm after freelancing for Homepolish and Domino, why she moved her office out of her house and how she fosters a healthy culture among her tight-knit team.
Did you always want to be a designer?
I did. From a very early age, I used to carry a little Lisa Frank notebook and sketch out floor plans when we would go to family and friends’ homes. One time, I brought the notebook to my brother’s football game and left it under the bleachers. Another mom found it, passed it to my parents and was like, “This is so cool. She’s definitely going to be an architect.” By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be an interior designer—potentially a lawyer, but probably a designer—so I looked at all the schools in the country that were FIDER accredited (that’s CIDA accredited now), narrowed down what states I would want to live in and wound up applying to just the one school that I had my heart set on: Virginia Tech.
What was that training like?
It was very technical. The program had more of a commercial focus than residential—and that’s what you’ll typically find from an accredited school. It was a lot of hospitality and health care, with a couple of residential projects. I was the only student in my class who knew they wanted to do residential and was kind of thrown by the fact that there wasn’t much of a residential focus. But in the end, I think it was a good thing, because it gave me strong technical skills—how to use Revit and SketchUp well, which is what you need when you first graduate and land at a firm.
Right, you’re not going to be putting together room concepts at your first job.
Exactly. The samples in our library were all expired, discontinued products, so we also weren’t learning how to spec product as much as I would have liked, but we were learning how to execute on our ideas and speak to them. We had critiques every week where [professors were] like, “Stand up for what you’ve designed and explain it to somebody who’s just looking at it for the first time.”
That’s an incredibly powerful skill. I would think that has served you well.
Definitely. I don’t think I realized it at the time—it just felt like we were being put through the wringer constantly, taking both positive and negative feedback. I didn’t know how much that was training me to speak to a client, and to not take things personally and take my ego out of it.
Did you end up at a firm after graduation?
I knew I wanted to work in homes, but I didn’t find any residential interior design firms that I really wanted to work for. I knew I wanted a role where I could home in on my aesthetic and gain the experience that I hadn’t gotten in school. My classes were all about black-and-white drawing, model building, and the technical and computer-rendering sides of design, but I wanted to learn about the tactile part of it—the gorgeous lighting, great furniture with beautiful velvet upholstery or a fun print—and how to pull all of that together. Most of my peers were looking for work at commercial design firms in D.C., but I set my sights on Anthropologie’s home office in Pennsylvania.
I applied while I was still in college, but I wasn’t hearing back. I heard that they got a crazy number of applicants—so I actually moved here and kind of hung out until they hired me. I figured if I was here, I’d have a better shot of getting the job than if I was in Virginia. Luckily, I got a job there within just a few months—but I was starting as an intern when I graduated because that was the only opening they had in home.
What was that role like?
I was an intern in the home merchandising department, which works with the buyers to put the assortment out there—working on the catalog and displaying it nicely online and in stores. It was the perfect place to land. When my internship was ending, they were looking for a way to keep me, so I wound up working for the found objects department, which was all of the brand’s art and antiques—which, again, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I couldn’t have told you that was the perfect job for me beforehand, but that was the perfect job for me.
How did you know when it was time to move on?
When I felt like there was nobody who had a job above me that I wanted. I realized the role that I wanted next didn’t exist at this company. I had tried to make it exist—I had a couple conversations with people and tried to be the first interior designer there, but it just wasn’t an interior design firm.
I always say that I recognized my window. There was a window of opportunity to follow a certain track and be promoted to the next level, but it meant being promoted into a world that I didn’t want to be in. So I recognized that it was time to go, and I quit my job. My husband and I were engaged at the time, and I really needed health insurance in order to quit, so we eloped first.
Did you have a career plan?
No, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to do interior design, but I had no idea what that looked like. In the meantime, I had two streams of income once I quit: I freelanced through Homepolish, and I started writing for Domino.
How did it go?
It was a little hectic. When I left Anthropologie, I wanted to make sure I didn’t backtrack in my income, so I set a goal to make the same amount of money once I was a freelancer. So every single week, I would look at what was coming in from Homepolish and what articles I was getting accepted to write—because at the time, I would pitch an article to Domino and they would accept or reject the pitch, and the consults with Homepolish were for free. I would track whether or not [the potential clients] hired me—and if they did decide to move forward, [whether it was] for three or 10 hours, which were the options. I would track it line by line in Excel and do my projections manually every week to see if I would make the money I wanted to make for the year. Every single week, it was, “Did I land this?”
That sounds exhausting.
It was. Luckily, Domino was accepting so many of my pitches—I wrote over 100 articles for them. And in the process of doing both, I got very familiar with rejection—like, very familiar. But it wound up being OK, and I made the money I had made at my salaried position.
I think the thing that was really missing while doing design jobs with Homepolish was that it was not the way I would have run my business. I was working as a designer and answering to clients in a model that I wouldn’t have created for myself.
It’s wild to me that both of those revenue streams required you to do a lot of creative tap-dancing up front before anyone said yes or no to paying you. When did you start charging for your creativity up front, and how much of it was informed by those experiences?
The way I do it today is: I don’t do jack without being paid upfront. We are very rigid about what projects we take on, even in terms of what I will go see for a consult. My project coordinator, Molly Zimnoch, does our discovery calls, which are free, and then I’ll decide if we’re going out on the consult. Even though we charge for the consult, I don’t want to show up to a project that we’re not interested in, or where the budget doesn’t allow for what they’re looking to do. I don’t want to set anybody up for disappointment.
As a result, we don’t go on that many consults—and when we do, and we land the job, we take a significant portion of the fee upfront and then the remaining balance at the design presentation so that we’re never left holding the bag. The client can never say, “Hey, thanks for the design presentation, but we’re going to do this on our own.” We don’t allow ourselves to be in that position because of the way we structure our fees. I’m not doing any work before I’m paid for it.
Have you always structured client intake that way?
I’ve evolved my payment structure and our process a lot over the last six or so years. For the last two years, someone else has been doing the calls for me because I found that I would get so invested in that early phone call and I’d start planning. I wanted to do everything and I’d start planning how we could fit it into our calendar, and OK, maybe their budget isn't enough, but this is how I can make it work. So basically [I was doing] the tap-dancing that you said, in a different way. I found that once I put Molly on the call, it made me choose projects more from a business sense than from an emotional sense. It didn’t put me in a position of overpromising, and it didn’t put me in a position of backtracking and saying, “I know we talked about this on the phone, but in reality, this isn’t going to work for X, Y and Z reason.” And it’s worked really, really well for us.
Well, it means, too, that you’re only maybe getting invested or falling in love with the homes and the clients that you know are a good choice.
Yeah, and we have a pretty intense form on our website that we ask everyone to fill out. And I can tell you once that inquiry comes in if that’s going to be a good project or not before Molly even had the phone call. So that gives us kind of a heads-up of, “Hey, this is a call that we definitely want to make happen so that we can book the consult,” or “Let’s reach out for a call, but if they don’t get back to us, it’s probably not a good fit for either party.”
When did you realize that was an important part of the structure you wanted to establish? The payment part, especially.
I would take a look at my LOA and how I structured things after every client project wrapped. I would say, “How could I do this better? How could this work better for the client? How could this work better for me?” There was one instance in particular where I gave the client everything they asked for, but come the design presentation, they said they felt like they could have done it themselves. I hadn’t collected the remaining balance at that point, and there was no way I could in good conscience say, “OK, well, you still owe me the extra 50 percent because I did the work and I do think I gave you what you asked for, and I do think it was more than you could do on your own.” So I started collecting the fee ahead of the presentation, so that I was never in a position of having to feel like I didn’t meet the mark for them and that they had an out.
We take what we do very seriously—we take copious notes at every presentation; we do our research. This is our job, and there’s no way that we’re going to show up in a way that is not beating clients’ expectations. I had gotten into a situation or two where I felt the client just wasn’t the right fit. They probably couldn’t have actually afforded the service, and I wanted to make it work so I did it on a budget that was not really workable, but I wanted to get them what they wanted. And it just was not a good fit. Knowing that has helped me not only weed out the clients that aren’t going to be right, but also helped me stand in our value and say, “This is what we do. This is what we provide.” It’s very clear, it’s very cut-and-dried. When you get to the design presentation, you’re going to be blown away, and if you say otherwise, you’re just trying to skip out on the bill. So, it’s helped us there.
I don’t want to grill you too hard on Homepolish, because I feel like nobody likes talking about it. But how long did you stay? Were you there for the bitter end?
No, thank God. I was there for about a year and a half. I ultimately decided to stop accepting clients through them when was I was getting inquiries on my own. There were pros and cons to Homepolish, but I will say I would have never been able to start my design business without them. Nobody knew who I was and I didn’t have any work, so Homepolish was connecting clients who didn’t know how to find a designer with no-name designers. I had a bunch of clients with them throughout the year and a half that I was with them, but ultimately, there was a point where I had finished a bunch of jobs and clients were finding me through my website—or through my Houzz profile or word of mouth or Instagram—so I no longer needed to be beholden to a service that was taking such a large cut of my fee.
How did you lay the groundwork for starting your own firm?
It wasn’t strategic at all—it was more intuitive. Last week, I ran into the boss that I had at Anthropologie when I left, at Merci, which is a great home store in Paris. He was like, “I’m so proud of what you’re doing. I remember when you quit you said, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I’m going to figure it out.’” He was like, “Look, you figured it out.” And it was so sweet to hear, but also it was such a reminder that I had no idea what I was doing when I quit. I felt like writing for Domino helped to establish me as an expert in my field and a voice in this industry before I really had projects to speak to. That was a huge stepping stone for me.
When you’re starting out, I am also a big advocate of doing your own house. So I did my own house, which was the truest reflection of me. And I got it professionally shot, I got press for it, and that started to build my portfolio. Then I started to get small calls—jobs that I might not take now, but jobs that I was so flattered to get inquiries for six years ago. All that started to build to give me something to put on a website. A couple press hits, a couple stories that I wrote, a couple of photos, and pulling that all together showed my aesthetic to prospective clients.
What does your team look like today?
There are four full-time employees. I am the creative director, visionary-type role. My husband, Alex Gage, joined us in January of 2020. He is the integrator—he manages our construction, speaks with our contractors, handles our HR, our taxes, our health care, back-of-house bookkeeping, all that stuff. And then we’ve got a junior designer—that’s Nicole Mullany—and Molly, our project coordinator, who have both been with us for about two years.
How did you land on that structure?
The first hire I made was a remote CAD person for three hours a week—it was so scary. But that was what I could do at the time. And I saw what a huge, monumental help it was. So I hired someone to work part-time, and then I eventually made my first full-time hire. Alex left his mechanical engineering job in January of 2020. It had become clear that the business was getting so large, and he knew it so intimately, and no one was going to care about it more than him. January of 2020 was horrible timing—we had heard whispers of a recession coming, and we had a plan in place, but we had no idea what a pandemic would look like.
Obviously, everything shut down two months later, and we couldn’t be in clients’ homes. At the end of the year, we hired an additional role to focus on customer service and project coordination, which was so needed, and it’s still needed in the COVID era, where we have so many logistical issues, so many damages, and more touch points with clients. As we got larger, I didn’t want to lose the customer service aspect of what we offer to clients. So we added that role, and we feel really good as a team of four right now. We’ll probably make another hire next year, but right now, the way we’ve segmented our work allows us to all work in our zone of genius.
Who would you add next?
We want to add a design assistant, who would assist my junior designer and project coordinator so that they can continue to level up. Alex and I have recognized that in the last two years that they’ve been with us, they have been doing progressively better work, and we really want to encourage them to grow into the next level and have more responsibilities. Everything we’ve been throwing at them, they’re knocking it out of the park, so we really want to encourage our employees to stay with us. Even though it’s a small business, we want to show that there’s a path to promotion, a path to growth and more opportunities. We’ve identified that the next step is to have somebody under them that they can manage and to help with some of their lower-level tasks.
That’s amazing to create that path for growth.
It’s been a hard three years—Alex joined, and then the world shut down. We moved into a commercial office space, and we hired a new role, and we had our junior designer leave and got a new one. It’s been constant change and grind and pressure. Luckily, everyone’s really risen to the occasion, but I was listening to The Business of Home Podcast this morning with Suzanne Kasler, and they were talking about how everything’s coming in damaged, and logistically, your furniture’s getting bounced around a lot, and projects that used to take one to two years take three to four years. We’re trying to balance all of that and say OK, projects take longer and things are harder, but we still want to provide a high level of service to our clients. That’s where our project coordinator role came in—she’s very customer-service-focused so that clients don’t ever feel in the dark about what’s happening. Even if we are a little in the dark trying to track down this sofa that shipped three weeks ago and is nowhere to be found, we never want our clients to see those things that we’re being paid to manage, frankly. So adding the extra support on our team has increased our bandwidth.
How many projects are you typically working on at a time?
It’s usually about 10 to 12.
How hands-on are you with each?
I am fairly hands-on. I’m trying to let my team run things a little bit more. I’m the creative director, so if I haven’t sourced every single item, which is usually the case, I’ve approved every single item. I let the team share the site-visit responsibilities. We do a kickoff meeting when we land any project, and we invite clients to our downtown studio and they meet all four of us. So no one’s showing up to your house that you haven’t already shaken their hand or put a face to the name.
We’re usually two people on-site at a time. We try to get people out on the job site so everyone has a sense of where the project is at. I am at the early stages of the consult; I’m at the mood boards and measurements meeting, which is the next step where we do a site visit to home in on their design concept and take measurements. I’ll go to installs and site visits after that presentation, but you will also see my team instead of me sometimes.
Can you tell me a little bit about the housing market and design scene in the Philadelphia area?
We are really lucky that there are a lot of great old homes here, and that is something that we really try to attract. I’m winding down my own full gut renovation. We have a couple projects right now that are really old homes, and we really try to work with homes with a lot of character and maintain that original character. In the city, there are old homes and new builds. So we’ll take a new build, which is usually just decorating, not renovating—which we love, because renovations are hard right now. If we can decorate and bring in great furnishings and lighting and wallpaper, we’re all for it. But it’s a mix of old homes in the suburbs, old homes in the city and new builds in the city.
Does it seem like the housing market is shifting?
It seems like it’s slowing down a little with mortgage rates increasing. It was pretty steady for a while, but as we’re heading into the end of the year, it seems like there’s some hesitancy, which we have seen come and go over the last few years with the pandemic and inflation and whatever the client’s concern was at the time. We’re still getting interest and inquiries, but there are a lot of people who are kind of doing their research and deciding how they want to proceed with their project in the future. So it’s not what it was at the height of the pandemic, or even earlier this year.
Where do you shop?
We go to High Point every year, and I go to a lot of showrooms in New York for really special, artisan items, whether it’s furniture or fabric and wallpaper. We just presented to a client in Pittsburgh, about four or five hours from us. The week before we started their design, I was at a little boutique showroom in New York looking at wallpaper and fabric to bring back for our library in our studio, and we wound up incorporating a lot into their project. It’s just so much more magical than shopping online, though we will do it in between showroom hopping. I was in Paris earlier this month, and we went to Maison&Objet to try to find some really cool, special things. I also went to the flea market there and found some art and decor items. So we’re always trying to bring a worldly experience to our clients.
How did you land on your approach to design fees?
I charge hourly, and it’s probably just stuck with me since my Homepolish days—they had us charging hourly. I’ve toyed around with a flat fee before, but clients will add to the scope or drag things out or change their mind, and I don’t want to have a bitter experience on either end. So we’re very upfront when we have our initial kickoff meeting. A lot of our clients are lawyers, so they understand hourly billing—it just makes it really easy for our team to track what we’re working on for which client and be compensated.
And then you’re charging a markup on the product as well, for project management?
We do. We don’t charge a project management fee, that’s all in our hourly. We do charge on product; we charge retail pricing, so we’re purchasing it at a different price than our client is getting, but they’re never paying over retail.
Have you had any pushback on that model, or are clients receptive?
I have had pushback, and sometimes that determines if the client is a good fit for us. I’ve had people push back more from an “educate me” standpoint, and I am more than happy to tell them exactly how this works. A lot of times they’re like, “OK, great, that makes sense.” Every now and then, we’ll get somebody who thinks that they could do it on their own and wants to purchase [outside of our system], and it’s not a good relationship off the bat. We’re laying it all out there, saying this is how we work, you reached out to us, we’re telling you how we work, take it or leave it. If that fits well with them and they move forward with a couple of questions, that’s fine, we’re happy to answer them.
But if the questions are coming from a place of thinking that we’re hiding something, we’re absolutely not—we spell it out in several documents. Because I’m not having the initial discovery call, it’s easy for me to come in and stand firm in how we operate because I have not had a conversation about how your kids are going to come home from school and hang their backpacks up and how you’re going to be able to lull your baby to sleep in their nursery. Molly had that conversation with you; if I have to have the tough conversation, that needs to be had in order to run the business, and I feel confident in standing my ground there.
What is the biggest thing you wish you had known at the start of your business?
Something along the lines of accepting things that are outside of your control. I have grown so much as a person, as a business owner—in all relationships. I try to control everything, but I’ve realized, especially with the pandemic, that you don’t control everything. Within my business, I try to be accountable for everything. If there’s an issue that one of our vendors is causing, or an issue with our logistics or our tradespeople, it might not be something that I have personally done wrong, but if you hired our firm, I try to take accountability. So I’ve had to learn how to take accountability in situations that you don’t control. The further along I get in my career, it doesn’t mean I’m going to get more control, it just means that I’m going to get more comfortable with that discomfort.
How do you get used to that?
Well, I moved my office out of my house, number one. That was a huge thing for me. At the end of 2020, I was like, “This cannot be my everything house anymore. I can’t have my date night here, my work here, my exercise here.” Our houses became everything to us. So I moved the business out of the house, and that separation was huge for my mental state. The other thing is, I’ve really instilled in our employees that there are some things that we cannot control, but we have to react in an appropriate, calm way and appear in control to the clients. We have to remain accountable, but don’t beat yourself up over this thing that you did not cause. And that’s been helpful because as I say it to them, I’m saying it to myself. We share that weight, where, like, if something [stressful] comes through our inbox or a bad phone call happens, those inevitable things, we can lean on one another and say, “Hey, you didn’t fuck up here. You didn’t cause this mess. Let’s figure out as a team how we can fix it. But don’t let that sit and eat away at you.” We’ve identified the problem; let’s identify a solution. So we try to be really solution-oriented here, and I think just having a larger team to share that emotional burden has been very helpful for me.
What does success look like for you?
Before the pandemic, I burned out very hard. Since then, success has looked like my team working nine-to-five. It looks like everyone being able to take PTO. It looks like no emails and phone calls on the weekends. My husband used to work with me at 11 o’clock at night when he came home from his other job to help me balance my books, and we’d go to Panera on a Saturday to talk about projections. Success honestly looks like having a personal life. There’s a lot that I want to achieve in the business, and I have no doubt that we will achieve it, but I also want to have a really full life. So if my business can support having a full life, that is what success looks like to me.
How do you pass on those values or boundaries to your clients? How do you make sure that they know we’re not going to email you back on Saturday?
We tell them at our kickoff meeting, and we have a document that [explains that] you can email us at any point that is convenient for you, and we will answer during a specified time period. We each have a work cell phone that we lean on, and as our client, you have all of our information, but if the call can go to the work phone so that we can answer it during work hours, that provides a lot more boundaries for my team. We work really, really hard. But I’m a big believer in diminishing returns after a certain point: If you’re here for 10 hours a day, every day, your work is going to suffer. I’d rather you go home and rest up and come back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning and kick ass. I don’t want anyone to burn out.
It was so hard for me to crawl out of burnout because I was working all the time and answering to everyone. I was talking to my husband the other day, and I realized I had thought that that burnout came from workload, from working too many hours—but in reality, there was an emotional aspect. The roller coaster is the emotional ups and downs that come with running your own business, and the related stress and pressure. So we structure our fees in a way that you really get our attention, but you get our attention during business hours. And we’re absolutely available to our clients, we answer every email, if not within hours, within a day. And we are super attentive, but we’re also focused, and we’re accurate in the information we’re giving you—we’re not giving you quick flip things just to get it off our plate and move on. We really want to attend to our clients in the way that their project deserves. That requires me to get sleep and eat right and work out and see family and friends and vacation.
You can be a whole person.
Exactly. You hired an interior design human, not an interior design zombie. And I’m a big believer in that, and my team likes that, too. They have all expressed to me that that’s something that’s really important for them as well, and I don’t want to lose them. So I’m not going to run everyone into the ground. There’s no such thing as a sofa emergency. So we’re gonna do our best work when we’re supposed to be working, and we’re going to rest and rejuvenate so that we can do our best work.