My firm is less than a year old, but I’m already exhausted by all the lackluster projects I’m taking on in hopes that one will lead to a good referral. I hear established designers say that this is a phase you have to go through before building up enough business to pick and choose the right jobs—and I do still need the work right now—but is there a way to accelerate this phase?
Mired in Mediocrity
Like any artist, you do what you have to do to get on the proverbial stage. This is where you are now: You are sacrificing it all to show the world that you are worthy of the stage, even if it means smaller projects, smaller budgets or less trusting clients than you might like. OK, fine.
Just please kill hope.
Hope relies on a third party to validate you in a way you have no control over. Instead, you have to define why you need to be referred. The passage of time and the willingness to do the work no one else will do does not magically turn into the “good” referrals you seek. In fact, it’s far likelier to lead to more of the same. I have talked about killing hope on my podcast, and you can check out that conversation here. But for our purposes today, let’s focus on what you should do to get to your business’s next phase.
To paraphrase the entrepreneur and executive Seth Godin: What could you do so that your clients would miss it if it were gone? What do you obsess about that you share with them? Perhaps it is something literal about design elements or style, or perhaps it is about an overall lifestyle—the choice is yours. Once you land on it, though, start figuring out how to incorporate it into every single project, no matter what.
The beauty of the world we live in today is twofold: Not only is there room for everyone, but obsession is also eminently accessible, easily communicated and deeply desired. But something that is simply pretty is no longer enough. If you love design, so what? All designers love design. Success will come when you identify what really matters to you within that love and seek it out.
How does this help you progress? Your exhaustion is because you are in service to your clients—you exist to do as they say and desire. Instead, you must seek to be of service, meaning you become the guide, capable of seeing what your clients cannot. But that does not magically happen, no matter how long or hard you work. Instead, you must first find your own singular creative purpose, and then infuse that vision with integrity.
So, yes, I am telling you to go geek out—and then commit to that geekiness. Once you do, it will be easier to find those who love your design aesthetic, obsessions and approach. Quit searching for the diamond in the manure. Instead, turn inward and do the work of creating something remarkable for your clients to live by. Then you will see that those who care the most pay the most—and not just in dollars. For them to care, though, you have to go first.
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.