business advice | May 21, 2024 |
I’ve outgrown some of the people who helped my firm succeed. How do I move on with grace?

Dear Sean,

My business has evolved dramatically in the past few years. Recently, I’ve begun to realize that not everyone I’m working with has evolved in the same way—and while I appreciate how our partnership helped me get here, I’m not sure future work together makes sense. How do I move on from collaborators who haven’t grown with me as my business has become more high-end?

Growing Pains

Dear Growing Pains,

It takes Bentley over 200 hours just to complete the interior of one of its cars. A Mercedes—the whole car—is manufactured in a day. Nobody would think Mercedes is an inferior product in the car market, but all would agree it is not a Bentley.

As you have evolved your design business to serve more high-end clients, your story needs to change. I am never the person to talk to about how to get potential clients to your door, but am absolutely who you want to talk to as you decide who is going to actually answer the door and, more importantly, what will happen when they walk in. That said, you need to have consistency of vision and refinement level if you want to attract the client your design business is built to serve.

To paraphrase author and former business executive Seth Godin, I very much believe in serving the smallest viable audience, as they are the ones who will pay the most, in every sense of the word: financially, with trust and support, and ultimately with a shared vision for success. Fish with a spear, not a rod and reel—and definitely not with a net.

The focus required to cultivate these clients means that you have to have a team that supports and understands your one-of-a-kind vision. I am forever a fan of the caterpillar-butterfly analogy when it comes to business: When you started, you did whatever you could to eat enough leaves to allow you to build your chrysalis. You took whatever opportunity you could to build your name. Those who supported you as you were coming up invested in and highlighted you as the rising star.

Butterflies remember their caterpillar days, but they see the world entirely differently from the sky. Oh, and they cannot eat leaves. It means that as much as you come from your history, the story of your design business today is entirely new. Your clients hire you because you are the star—not for your potential, but for the stage you now stand on. It’s unlikely that those who celebrated your potential are the same as those who can celebrate your stature.

Please see this process as less of a moving-on and more of a choice to embrace your current reality. It’s not about passing judgment on those who worked to bring you here, and, more importantly, it’s also not about maintaining misguided allegiances. Those who got you here did their job incredibly well. Now is the time to allow those who know how to get you there to step forward.

One more metaphor for you to keep in mind: Rockets need booster engines to get out of Earth’s orbit. However, if they are not jettisoned after that, the rocket will not be able to fly as it might. Letting go of the booster rocket is neither mean nor an act of survival—it is merely necessary to achieve the future success that awaits. Your design business is no different. Holding on too long to an outdated “caterpillar” identity is a sure way to starve the butterfly.

The beauty of sunk cost is not that the past is meaningless—it is just that the past is complete in providing its value. Bought and paid for. Be grateful, be humble, be inspired—just do not be indebted.

Seeing the world from the sky requires support from those who have already experienced the view. Let that be enough as you learn the power of creation, the essence of transformative change and the gravitas that comes with obsession. You have earned the right to yet again chart an uncertain future with those who see as you now do. Let that be enough to allow you to say a gracious goodbye to yesterday, while embracing all of the tomorrows that await.


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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