business advice | Apr 27, 2021 |
I need to hire my first employee. What tasks should I outsource first?

Dear Sean,

I’m getting way more inquiries than I can handle, and I know I need to make at least one hire—probably two or three—but I need help prioritizing what to outsource first. What roles should I be hiring for, and in what order?

Growing the Team

Dear Growing,

First, congratulations on a booming business. It is thrilling to have the good fortune of having to choose the best way to grow—definitely far superior to the alternative.

To start, I would point you to a column I wrote in February where I wrote about the business book The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, which uses a Scout troop going on a hike to demonstrate the theory of constraints. In the story, the group can only move as fast as its slowest member, Herbie, who is struggling to keep up with the others. Their solution is to distribute everything in his backpack to the other Scouts to carry, lightening his load, and to put him at the front of the line to set the pace. You are Herbie, and the entire point is to first make the firm better by leveraging you as much and as permanently as possible.

Think about design as follows: The idea comes to life, meaning it comes out of your head and then onto the page. This is your design process. Then the idea comes off of the page and into your clients’ house. That is your production process. The overlap is filling in the details of design and then installing your work.

Your first order of business is to leverage production, which can also include the details of design. This means hiring very competent people to run with your ideas once they are out of your brain. The way they run, however, is in keeping with your culture and idiosyncratic desire to do things as only you would to create your very best work, always. It is one thing to bring a competent person to do the work, but if their philosophy is opposite of yours, you will find the weight coming back into your proverbial backpack at exactly the wrong time. The entire point is to have not just help, but permanent transfer of responsibility and authority for what you are giving over to your new hire. That’s much easier said than done, but is oh-so-important.

Next, you want to improve the biggest asset in your business—your brain. Flooding your world with incredible ideas by incredible artists has never been more important. While you might want to limit yourself to the design community, I suggest you also look outside to theater, fashion, and even advertising to discover those who might improve your vision as a designer. The better your ideas, the more you will be paid. This is the equivalent of getting Herbie a personal trainer, and is also where so much of your true profit lives.

Don’t believe me? When I ran Preston Bailey’s event design business, he had one employee with an MFA in set design and another that was a mixed-media artist on his design team; their sole jobs were to feed Preston interesting approaches to design problems, and they helped him produce some of his best work. Similarly, Es Devlin—one of the world’s best set designers—has had up to 14 architects on her team. Getting those with the ability to help designers be better designers may not always be hires that come from within the industry. Once you’ve taken care of production, designers have an amazing opportunity to expand their universes in profound ways. That’s where true growth is going to come from, I promise.

One overarching element you’ll need to figure out is how you will seek to grow. Chasing revenue alone is not enough—the opportunity lies in the right business, not the biggest business. I am a fervent believer that sometimes you need to leave money on the table in the pursuit of a new world order where talent, wisdom and experience are expected to upend the status quo.

The interior design industry has been transforming in response to technology for the better part of two decades. The only thing the pandemic did was to compact the coming five-year transformation into this year and next. This means that you have to once and for all extinguish the idea of a factory model for your design business.

The factory model says, effectively, that you should buy low, sell high—that you should keep your overhead costs as low as possible and charge as much as you can for your product. This was always a silly model for creative businesses (which are based entirely on the subjective, discretionary desires of clients), but is completely nonsensical today. Simply put, your clients would rather you pay for the very best in order to ensure that their project is a resounding success, than have you save a few dollars to only have the staff you can “afford.”

Which, of course, is the real answer to your question: If you are committed to only doing your best work—the kind of work that you are willing to stake your entire reputation on—then who will be responsible for making that happen? What you can afford, or what is necessary to do the work? Focus on what is necessary, and then demand to be paid appropriately and unapologetically. If you do that, your backpack will indeed become lighter, and you will grow faster and stronger. The rest will take care of itself.

Homepage photo: ©Lightfield Studios/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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