business advice | Sep 19, 2023 |
My firm got too big during the pandemic. How do I downsize strategically?

Dear Sean,

I’ve got a problem: I succumbed to the feverish Covid-era conditions and grew my team to accommodate all of the work that was coming in. Now that I’ve taken a moment to pause and reassess, I’m realizing that I have a business I hate, with too many employees to manage and too many meetings eating up my time. I understand my responsibility as an employer, and I genuinely appreciate the talents of each team member, but I also feel an urge to downsize until I feel at peace in my firm again. What’s the most thoughtful approach to take?

Second Thoughts

Dear Second Thoughts,

You are learning the wrong lesson. I understand that you do not want to manage as many employees as you have or to be distracted by endless meetings. However, I question whether you will ever feel at peace again until you finally decide what business you are actually in: that of curated creation or pure production. You took everything that came in and hired to manage all of that flow, which, ahem, makes you a factory instead of an artist.

You might appreciate the talent of each team member, but that is like saying you love an antique Victorian sofa while standing in an ultramodern building. You might love it, but it is all wrong for the space. Same goes for your employees in the context of your business. They might be amazing, but do they do the work you actually care about? Do they espouse the culture you seek? Do they know how to truly communicate with your clients? Do they treat you like a client?

The size of your firm is entirely up to you—and scale can come at any size. The lesson you really need to learn is not about reducing the number of seats (though you might do that); it is about deciding the kind of people you would like to sit in them.

Try this exercise: Think of the most outrageous quality you deeply espouse—maybe meticulous perfectionism, profound communication, extraordinary research—totally up to you. Now ask who on your team really gets it. Ask those who you think are up for embodying that quality to provide their vision for how they want to live their lives at your firm with this quality front and center. They can provide the vision however they like—write it, record it, film it, draw it.

It is up to your team to transcend the straightforward role of carrying out your orders and join you in manifesting a deeper vision. For any who do not wish this quality to be their guiding light, speak with your accountant and financial advisor(s) and decide appropriate severance. At the same time, decide on the work that will shine given the quality. Let the rest go.

You are probably wondering why I am not focusing on the typical business structure—volume, staffing—or advising you to get a COO who can take all of your meetings and management tasks from you. Because do you really want to be managing the manager who may or may not believe in your business and artistic vision as you do?

It is astounding to me how much a designer like you can embrace the idiosyncrasy of design, yet give in to traditional business notions without question. If a single element can be the basis of all of your creative thought, why not for your business? Idiosyncrasy is your superpower. What matters to you has to matter to you the most. That begins and ends with your team if you choose to have one. If reasonability were the measure, no designer (or any artist for that matter) would have a job.

So go be unreasonable in your own outrageousness. Forgive the greed that got you here, and discover that your voice as others would translate it for you is there to provide volume, never distraction. The saying “horses for courses” demands that you define both the course and the horse. Do the work, and the peace you seek will find you rather than the other way around.

Homepage image: ©HappyAprilBoy/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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