business advice | Jan 24, 2023 |
I don’t want to be the boss anymore. What now?

Dear Sean,

As I’ve been thinking about my business and setting my goals for the new year, I’ve realized something major: I don’t want to be the boss. I was a solopreneur for years and have slowly built a team of eight, but what I really want to do is design, not run a business and manage a team. Is it too drastic to do something like hire a CEO? (And how does that work? Do they make more money than me? If I don’t want to be the boss, does that mean I have to have a boss?) Most of all, what does it take to keep my role creative without running my business into the ground?

Creative Calling

Dear Creative,

You will always be the CEO of your business. It is your business, after all, and you will always be the one deciding your firm’s strategic vision. That said, what you are looking for is a chief operating officer—someone to take control, run the business and manage projects on your behalf. To put your mind at ease, I’m happy to report that I know several designers who operate their firms this way, where the principal is focused on design and marketing, and the team executes the work under the auspices of a principal in charge of making it all happen.

Now, how you set that up—whether your COO is a partner or just an employee with some sort of performance bonus structure—is up to you. The transition is easy to discuss, but much harder to put in place. The reason? Ego and habit. You are accustomed to running your firm, and your firm is accustomed to you running it. When you bring in someone else to handle the business and execution end of things, you are going to have to respect personality while at the same time maintaining culture. What you cannot do is flip the proverbial keys to someone new and tell them to have at it—unless you are truly willing to live with their vision of the culture they will create instead of your own. (I’m guessing that will be a hard no for you—as it should be, by the way!)

My advice, then, is this: Before you go looking for someone to run your business, first define your firm’s culture, then your own creative process in the context of that culture. Why do you do what you do, and when and how do you do it? I am sure you have your process in writing somewhere, and likely some gobbledygook mission statement, too. But I am talking about your outrageous promises paired with outrageous demands. An example of getting outrageous: We do not provide line-item prices because we want clients to see the whole picture, not focus on the brushstrokes. Great, then what are you promising them in return? How do you persuasively present the power of the whole picture, and how does your team make that happen? If you go through every outrageous promise and demand you can think of in your firm, you will have the foundation of your company culture outlined plainly for anyone to see. And once you are able to describe and honor that, you can leave room for the person in charge to make it their own.

One caveat: If you are thinking of bringing on someone as a business partner or elevating one of your current employees to the role, money must change hands. Sweat equity is great, but it is not enough. Think of great partnerships, like law firms—new partners have to actually buy in, even though they can likely earn out the investment over several years. This keeps the transaction much cleaner and the opportunity that much more ripe for all involved. Without this crucial step, the tendency to revert to an owner-employee relationship becomes overwhelming and inevitably leads to frustration on all sides.

Last, if you are to become truly free to focus on your work as a designer, how will your business recognize that? Will you be willing to add a zero to the price of your creative work alone? You are literally saying that this will be your only role, and is therefore the only value you seek to deliver to your clients. You seek to deliver the essence of your humanity to your clients: your ability to see their world that does not yet exist but always could be. How freaking awesome that it will be your only mission. However, the price for this work has to be as you define it (and worth so much more than you charge today, because you’ll be giving it 100 percent, not diluting your energy with other business pursuits). When the price of your designs makes you a little queasy, all involved will understand the premium—you most of all.

Homepage image: ©momoforsale/Adobe Stock


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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