business advice | Mar 5, 2024 |
I just landed my first formal client. How do I make sure my business is ready?

Dear Sean,

I’ve been taking small jobs for friends and family for the past few years, trying to figure out if design is a viable career pivot. I just landed the first client I don’t know—someone who saw my work in a friend’s home. I’m excited about the opportunity, and I feel confident in my design skills, but I worry that my business isn’t ready for this next step. What do I need to do to formalize my firm before saying yes to this job?

Seeking Solid Foundations

Dear Seeking Solid Foundations,

What a remarkable journey you are about to embark on! So many congratulations.

Apart from the business formalities that you absolutely need to have before you begin—a business entity, company bank accounts, contract and bookkeeping practices, to name a few—you will need to think through how you would like your process to flow.

Every design firm has four stages once a client has officially signed on: idea, design, production and installation. You have to consider what is being asked of you as a designer (idea) and what you intend the environment to be (design). With an approved design in hand, you have to make it come to life (production) and then reveal the work (installation). How you transition between each stage is critical, and communicating your identity as a designer is work that you will need to do at every stage of your career. Why not start before you undertake your first project?

The difference between a side hustle and a real business is your perspective and philosophy about how the project will go. You are the guide, and how you move through your process has to be up to you—whether it is your first opportunity or your hundredth.

As soon as your client signs your agreement, I would go over, in writing, two things: important dates representing intended milestones, and a timeline of when money will be due both to your firm and to finance the purchase of materials and labor necessary to bring your designs to life. The dates represent much more than design and installation schedules—they’re also about big moments along the way. Perhaps the floor plan is the first thing that needs to be completed, then interior architecture, then final design—each of those goals matters to you and therefore to your client. The same goes for money, including what has to be paid when and to whom, and how you intend to provide documentation of all of it along the way. While your work will be magical, there is no mystery as to how you get from here to there: That path is yours to define and your story to tell.

Think of yourself as the storyteller for your business—only you know how the journey with the client is to unfold, and if you abdicate that responsibility (or even decide to share it), then you are no longer the storyteller, and your client’s story for your business is not one you will likely want to be part of—let alone be beholden to.

Last and most important: Your responsibility for defining the process through these four stages (and three transitions) is not static. You must share the three W’s—where were you, where are you now, and where are you going—at every point of communication with your client. Do not ever assume that just because you did a good job laying out your plan in your contract and initial meetings that you are finished with storytelling. The plot moves only because you make it move. If I can share only one thing with every designer, it is to own the journey and practice sharing it during every single interaction with your client.

It is quite simple when you think about it: Make a series of promises to your client, let them know what they need to do for you to keep the promises, and then keep them. Rinse and repeat until you are finished. Integrity in all forms is what will determine your ultimate success in the design business. Integrity requires vision, purpose and desire. No better time to start than now.


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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