I’ve recently started my own firm. Is it ever ethical to reach out to clients I worked with at my old firm to let them know that I’ve struck out on my own?
And what about vendors I worked with—contractors and upholsterers that I developed great working relationships with? Is that fair game, or am I infringing on my old boss’s territory if I use the same fabricators?
Dear Unfamiliar Territory,
Let’s get the technical bit out of the way first: In your new firm, you may not use proprietary information that you learned of and/or used at your old firm. Your old firm paid you to do work on their behalf, and as a result they own whatever it was that you did; any project that is midstream is definitely off-limits. That said, unless you have a non-compete agreement (which are notoriously hard to enforce), you are free to use anything that is in your brain or that is public knowledge.
I come down pretty radically on the notion that, other than the caveats above, you are free to talk to whomever you like once you start your own firm. Yes, noses will likely get out of joint at your old firm, but that is their issue, not yours. If your relationships with clients, contractors and vendors is personal to you and does not hinge on your old firm, it was their decision to rely on you and your wisdom instead of developing their own culture and ethos as a firm, and they did so at their own peril.
Here is the thing: If your old firm had built systems and processes that established a deep relationship with clients, contractors and vendors, you talking to them once you are no longer part of the firm would be a non-issue. In that case, you would have been one piece of a machine that drives value for the firm, not a primary source. Clients, contractors and vendors would never choose to abandon your old firm in such an instance—and if they did decide to go with you, they would do so with the full knowledge that your new firm is not capable (yet) of what your old firm brings to bear.
On the other hand, if you were the primary driver of value for your old firm, doing all of the work with very little principal input, then you are fully capable of handling these clients, contractors and vendors as well as you did while at your old firm. Why should you be precluded from doing that now that you are on your own? Clients, contractors and vendors deserve the right to continue their work with you as they decide, and it is myopic for your old firm to think otherwise.
The larger point, though, is that if you hope to become your old firm, I would highly recommend that you start developing systems and processes that give your clients, contractors and vendors the feeling of a warm hug no matter who they are speaking with in your firm. To be very specific, invest now in the exercise of having every single communication in your firm (text, phone, meeting, email) answer the following three questions in the context of a project: Where were you? Where are you now? And where are you going? If you can do this, not only will you be fully in control of how you do things, you will also be forced to communicate that to clients, contractors and vendors alike. They will all then come to understand what your firm (beyond any single employee) brings to the proverbial party every moment of every day.
And when the day comes that one of your employees strikes out on his or her own, you will live very comfortably in the notion that the force of personality will never threaten you. You might find yourself even encouraging them to build their firm as you are about to build yours.
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'll keep your details anonymous.