business advice | Nov 24, 2020 |
Is it OK to break my own rules about project standards when business is slow?

Dear Sean,

For more than a decade, I've had a rule of thumb in my practice that I only take jobs that will either showcase my work editorially or result in high revenue but the client insists on an NDA. In other words, I get paid reasonably well and photograph the project for potential publishing, or I get paid really well and do not get the chance to promote my business. Most of my projects fall into the latter category.

Recently, I was approached by an acquaintance who is interested in my work, but whose budget tells me the resulting project will not necessarily be something I will want to photograph for my portfolio. On the other hand, the client seems easygoing—and that has value, too! Things have been slow recently, so I’m wondering if I should just take this project. I have the time to complete it, but I know it will feel like I’m going back to my first year in business. Am I overthinking it?

Reconsidering the Rules

Dear Reconsidering,

It sounds to me that you have honed a well-deserved reputation for bespoke work: You only do projects you believe to be editorially photoworthy. The NDA work is still photoworthy, you’re just not allowed to show it. Before we dive in, a moment of congratulations—I know there are many designers out there who would like the position you now occupy.

My question for you, then, is: Are you willing to risk your reputation for this project that so manifestly does not fit your photoworthy criteria? And, if you are willing, how exactly are you going to isolate this project as an outlier?

First, let’s look at why you are considering this project: Business is slow and the money would be welcome. However, this work is not what you do, and therefore you have absolutely no chance to do your best work. If you need $10 to complete the project, making do with $8 will not suffice—and unless you want to live in the $8 market (which, clearly, you do not), then we all need to agree that this project is wrong for you, your art and your design business.

While I appreciate your desire to earn money when things are slow, let’s start with the injustice you are showing to both your acquaintance and the designer for whom this project would be perfect—the designer who, if they got this job, would be afforded the opportunity to do their best work. The idea that 75 percent of you is better than 100 percent of another designer just does not fly with me. Your apple to their orange when the client’s budget dictates oranges is a nonstarter.

Even if you disagree with me, consider this: As someone who deals in apples, you do not care as much about this project as a designer who works with oranges—and the second you get a photoworthy client, how can you not resent this one?

Which brings us to what lies underneath your question: fear. I hear your fear, and I can see that you are letting it talk you into doing work that you will not ultimately be proud of. (What, after all, is the definition of “not photoworthy,” if not that?) While the client might be lovely—and that certainly is important—having the means to give you permission to do the level of work you do is also critical. I might value the Bentley and wish I could afford one, but it is not a choice I can make, regardless of desire. Bentley trying to figure out how to sell me the Toyota I can afford is not really worth the effort, mostly because they risk alienating those that want and can afford the Bentley. The only real thing Bentley can do is to strip its core to a level it is comfortable with. I am just not sure you are there.

I would never tell you not to take the client, only to be very circumspect before you do. Yes, you have to eat. But eating crumbs all too often means the proper meal just gets further away; by taking on the wrong client, there is a risk that the right one never shows up because you took the wrong one. (If there is even a 5 percent chance that the right client—one who is, say, worth $100,000 in fees—does not show up, then taking the wrong client just cost you $5,000.) When you do that math, the wrong client, whom you are usually making less on, does not look so good after all.

Last, if you choose to provide the Bentley stripped to its bare core, then you have to be prepared to explain that to this client, and they are going to have to decide that your stripped Bentley is better than another designer’s Toyota. If you are not willing to be truly outrageous in your demands of this client—for instance, perhaps there is only one option if you usually provide several, and the design has to be completed in a month as opposed to three—then so be it. If you take this client, look for a way to isolate the experience and make it plain that this project is truly an outlier.

All of which begs the question of whether you truly would like to be in this kind of business on an ongoing basis. If not, then you are just chasing your fear and doing this work is not something you should consider. If yes, and this opportunity shows you the way to distilling the very best of your photoworthy work to a tier below, then perhaps this is the start of a new chapter for you and your business.

You asked if you are overthinking this matter—but if anything, you may be underthinking it. Your decision will have consequences far larger than just filling in a gap in business, and you are right to give it the strategic gravitas it deserves.

Homepage image: © Worawut / Adobe Stock

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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 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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