business advice | Jul 27, 2021 |
I closed my design firm to seek work at someone else’s. How do I convince employers I’m ready to be an employee?

Dear Sean,

I recently relocated to a new state to be closer to family. I had been running my own design firm solo for the past few years, but was looking for a change. I decided to use this move as an opportunity to pivot, and have been looking for a full-time job as a designer at another firm in my new area.

I don’t have any ego about this transition—I would like some autonomy to work with clients, but I know that this arrangement means I won’t be calling the shots. I was doing that before and I didn’t like it, so while it might be an adjustment, I’m open and ready to make that change. But so far, potential employers aren’t. I’ve had some great meetings with local designers who are looking for experienced design talent, but they have all expressed reservations about how I’d handle not being in charge or not having my name on the door.

How do I put these principals at ease and assure them that, in fact, I would be grateful to be a team player?

Ready to Downshift

Dear Ready,

The real question is not how you convince an entrepreneur who had the courage to start her business that you have decided to not be an entrepreneur anymore. Instead, it is to discuss how you will take your own spirit of entrepreneurship and use it to improve their business.

No potential employer wants to believe that, at heart, you do not want to be the one in charge. They think that either you could not make it on your own or that you are just lying in wait until you get the chance to do it all over again. Yes, you could argue and say that that is pretty harsh—but, hey, if it weren’t true, you would be hired by now.

But you have a skill set that most employees do not have: You have been in the driver’s seat before, and you know what it means to have the world come crashing down around you, just as you know what it feels like to soar. You can see problems and opportunities that those just doing the work they’ve been assigned cannot. So give up the notion that you just want to do the work assigned—if that is all your potential employer needs, you are not the right one for the role, anyway.

As with finding the right client, finding the right employer means honoring who you are and what you might do to transform the lives of those you touch in the context of design. The likelihood of any designer being five times as good at their work in five years’ time is highly unlikely. However, the likelihood of the client experience being five times as good in the same amount of time is a distinct possibility. Quit trying to sell that you can do what you are told, and start the dialogue by saying that you hope to solve interesting problems.

And then, please do your homework. Research the firm. Find out what they stand for and how they work. Know everything about the principals and their work styles. Are they willing to see and change, or are they monoliths with a big staff? Ignore the latter. Then set about answering the question as to what you would do on your first day that would add value to the firm—whether operationally or even financially.

Interior design is at an inflection point: The entire industry is about to become hyperfocused on the client experience, with tools like artificial intelligence, 3D modeling and rendering, virtual reality, real-time material samples, and probably 15 more that no one has thought of yet. You are in the unique position to help your new firm travel down this magical road of client experience.

There is a story about a young programmer who wanted to work for a vacation home rental site. On her first day, she said that the radio buttons for reviews should be changed to stars to make for better engagement—a simple change that improved traffic 15 percent almost overnight. These are the kind of changes you are poised to help your new employer make.

The time for being a task rabbit has long since passed for you. There is no going back (thank goodness). Now go be you, and help a new firm become outstanding at what they are already great at. There is no doubt that you know how to do this work—the only issue is whether you are willing to embrace the challenge fully enough to convince someone to let you try. How is that different from getting a client to hire you to work on their home? It’s not. Show up with intention and conviction, and the rest will take care of itself.

Homepage photo: Shutterstock


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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