business advice | Sep 5, 2023 |
I’ve been a successful solo designer. Should I hire a team to grow my firm?

Dear Sean,

I’m a solo designer with a successful business, with enough work to keep me busy and a healthy pipeline. I also see the opportunity to grow my business—to cultivate more work and hire a team to help me execute my designs. I’m finally getting serious about writing a business plan and setting goals, but I’m stumped by that very basic choice: to grow or not to grow. Both sound appealing in some ways, and both have clear drawbacks. How do I know which path is right for me?

Growing Pains

Dear Growing Pains,

You are asking the wrong question. Skip the business plan unless you are looking to start a whole other kind of business—something that includes consulting, styling, retail or the like. By definition, a business plan requires looking in the rearview mirror and figuring out how you will stand out from the crowd. Instead, ask yourself whether you make enough to feel good about what you are doing. Money is energy as much as it is dollars. Are the projects the right size and scope to challenge you as a designer and reflect your creative mission? Do you make enough dollars to live your life as you would like? And is the volume enough to keep you engaged but not overwhelmed?

If the answers to these questions are yes, then stop reading and keep doing what you are doing. The world will always judge you, so let that go and stop worrying about what success “should” look like. You alone have to live in your skin, and if you are happy and proud of your work, please let that be enough.

However, if there is a bigger fire, then by all means acknowledge the allure of ambition. Just know that the price will be a change in how you approach the work fundamentally, not just being a manager. If you want to build a team, there are two paths forward: hiring employees or developing a network of freelancers. Both come with their own unique challenges.

There is no question that your team should be able to help you expand your firm’s size, scale and volume of design. And as much as you think you might know about managing people in theory, you do not. Learning these skills will take time and, in that sense, will feel like when you first started your firm. You will be faking it until you make it. Building an internal team is where culture lives, but doing so is not for those who do not wish to do the work of being a teacher or a parent.

Meanwhile, the beauty of the gig economy is that help is available when you need it, and not when you do not. Another key benefit of outsourced assistance from contractors is that the job is done well, or they do not stay. Not so much with employees. When managing an internal team, you have to be in the business of not only setting the bar, but accepting nothing less than the willingness of everyone to risk their job every day. Anything less, quite frankly, demands that you stick with outside help.

Which brings me to my next point. You assume that growth will require hiring a large team. It does not. I have had clients with multimillion-dollar firms and exactly three team members (including the principal). You have to ask how those dependent on you for their livelihoods will be champions of your culture. If you have no clue, then please outsource until you do. Firing anyone, including your most toxic employee, is no fun at all. And it all comes at the price of the freedom you now enjoy.

Last, growth can be defined as doing more of what you are currently doing, or digging deeper for those clients who already love you. You are focused on the former. That’s fine, but know that doing more of the same might not bring you what you seek—financially or, I dare say, spiritually. Finding new and more profound ways to serve those who already love you is the bigger opportunity. Maybe it is about bigger projects for them, or maybe it is about an entirely new endeavor with them in mind. By all means, dip your toe into the new opportunity or size and scale of project. Then commit if it is where you want to be. The irony of scaling up is that it requires an ever-narrowing focus and the willingness to say yes to only the shiniest apples. Let your team, if you choose to acquire one, know the power of going there fully. Then see where it takes you.

Never forget that art always transcends its medium. Just ask Ralph Lipschitz, the former tie salesman from the Bronx. He now calls himself Ralph Lauren.

Homepage image: ©Josefmicic/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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