business advice | May 22, 2018 |
I was just offered a huge project, and I’m terrified—help!

Dear Sean,

I’ve been in business for about five years after working for a big-name designer in my area following design school. Most of my projects are local and on the smaller side: living areas, kitchens, bathrooms, guest bedrooms and even a master bedroom. I’m really happy with my projects; I like to work with a lot of clients every year and on many projects at once. A friend of one of my clients has seen my work and now wants me to do her entire beach house, which is located about an hour and a half from my office. It is a great project and she has a very healthy budget. But I am terrified, because I’ve never done a whole home at one time and don’t want to mess it up. Help!

Dear out-of-my-comfort-zone designer:

Many of your peers and friends would tell you to jump at this opportunity. I would say, “not so fast.”

You’ve built a nice business for yourself and you’re working as you like. Provided you’re as happy with your clients as you say you are, making the money you would like to make, and feeling proud of the work you are doing, shifting to bigger projects poses real risks. There are three that I can see: (1) It is outside of your geographic area and will, therefore, be a large distraction; (2) your staff is not set up to devote as much time to a single project as this one will demand; and, most importantly, (3) you may alienate your core clients, who rely on you and your design business to have the focus it’s always maintained.

Of course, if this is the direction you would like to head, by all means take the leap. However, I would say that to leap without intention and direction dismisses these very real risks. You might find yourself lost with a huge client that creates a bigger wake behind them than the opportunity it creates in front of you. Ask yourself and your team what taking on the big project will require of your business, how you will delegate time and resources between existing clients and this new one, and how you will integrate this new area of business into your core value and vision as a designer.

Bigger is not always better. Knowing your lane—both the minimum budget you will work with and the maximum—is the best way to define who you are and who you are not. Within that definition, you can be the best in the world at what you do.

If you see this opportunity as too far of a stretch, too much of a risk, I would specifically recommend that you do not lie to your potential client. You are not “too busy” to take on the job. Instead, communicate the fact that this is not what you do best.

If you can make a recommendation, do so, and do more than just give a name: Make a call—describe the project and why it would be a terrific opportunity for the designer you are recommending. Just because a client does not hire you, does not mean they are not your responsibility from the moment they come through your door. Own the idea that every client deserves a designer’s best, even if that designer is not you, and the benefits of this relationship will come back to you in spades.


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 monthly EAL COLUMN, he answers designers’ most pressing business questions. Have a dilemma? Shoot us an EMAIL—and don’t worry, we will keep your details anonymous.

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