business advice | Nov 3, 2021 |
I’m an established designer, but I lack the confidence to steer my firm. What do I do now?

Dear Sean,

I’m an established, educated, talented designer, but I lack the confidence to match my work. Part of the problem is that I have no formal training in how to run an interior design business. I’ve never had an internship or job at another firm—when I couldn’t find a paying job in the industry after design school, I got a full-time job elsewhere and started doing interior design on the side. After about three years, I was able to quit and move to full-time design work, which I’ve been doing for seven years now.

I’ve had my work published and recognized locally, nationally and internationally, but I still feel like I have no idea how to grow my business into what it could be. I’ve also had multiple employees who have stolen from me—be it money, clients or intellectual property—which has left me fearful of growth to the point that I haven’t hired any new help for almost two years. I feel like I’m treading water and on the verge of drowning, and I know I’m making so many avoidable mistakes, but have no idea where to get the help to fix them, learn from them, and grow.

How and where do I learn how to do my own job?

The Expert Novice

Dear Expert Novice,

I am quite confident that you are not alone and that most designers are like you, making it up as they go along.

Before talking about what you can do to feel confident about the story of your business and how it is supposed to run, a few thoughts. First, congratulations. You clearly have a strong business, and your force of will has made it so. Second, know that what got you here will not get you there, so start with letting go of all that was and embrace what is to come. Third, keep in mind that creative business is different from other businesses. How you do what you do is unique to you, and what works for you may or may not work for another designer. There is no magic wand or winning formula.

That said, the path from idea to installation is a known path. It begins with creativity (a trip through the Wonderland of your mind), continues to the production of what comes out of Wonderland, and finishes with installation and manifestation of the idea. How you get paid and the decisions you require is the story of your business and what you need to embody so that your feet are always on the ground, pointed where they need to go.

I would like to stress that there is a ton of great information out there for you to continue to learn about the design business. Business of Home’s educational workshops can help show you what is pressing and valuable in terms of running your business. In addition, there are amazing peer groups—in person or online—that you can join to find those who might have been through similar experiences. In short, there are resources out there that can provide support for you as you navigate your design business.

Along with general resources and support, you should consider a consultant like me—someone to could give you one-on-one guidance to coach you through where you are and where you would like to go with your business. Because of the long and winding road you have already gone down, the first step of any consulting relationship will be to clear out the proverbial gunk in your pipes (like barnacles on a boat) that continue to live in your business even though they have no value (and are likely detrimental). Make no mistake, this will be a very heavy lift. We all get used to dysfunction, and after a while, come to accept it as normal no matter the pain. Shifting to more solid ground for your business will feel wholly uncomfortable and wrong at first, and you will have to persist. This is the essence of working with any consultant or coach—not just suggesting change, but working with you to see it through.

Once the gunk is gone, you will be able to see clearly. Clarity brings opportunity, always. We all make the mistake of leaping at an opportunity with the hope that the opportunity will bring clarity, but it never does—you have to find clarity first. New opportunity will demand further change, and you will likely find yourself leaning on all of the support you have put in place to work through the transformation.

To that end, once you find yourself steeped in ongoing education, part of a peer group you trust, and working one-on-one with a consultant, you can finally invest in a board of advisors. I suggest inviting your favorite member of your peer group, possibly your consultant, and two other professionals outside your design business. (Perhaps you love fashion—find a fashion professional you respect, and one other of a similar sort.) Meet with your board quarterly and provide a specific agenda to go through with them. The idea is to get 360-degree feedback for you to absorb and use as you will. You can be creative in the ways you might compensate your board, and I leave that to you. You are a designer, after all. If the board does its job well, you will be able to see outside the bubble of the design industry and use that wisdom to make your business that much better. (Gaming technology, for instance, will have more influence on interior design in the next five years than AutoCAD—who will help you understand if there is something for you to embrace in that realm now?)

The real answer to all of the pain you have endured is not simply education, but also culture and community. The collective allows you to find and express your identity as a designer and business as only you can. Education is a necessary foundation, but be committed to the work of finding your own voice—as a business first, artist second—and to embracing the fact that both can be equally creative.

Homepage photo: ©Cagkan/Adobe Stock

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Sean Low is the 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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