business advice | Jan 10, 2023 |
Is it time to leave my senior designer job to start my own firm?

Dear Sean,

I have worked for the same midsized interior design firm for the past eight years. I am a senior designer, and I design and manage my own high-end hospitality and residential projects under our principal. As I have grown and honed my craft, the type of projects and design I am personally drawn to is becoming less aligned with our firm’s typical projects. With my creativity craving another direction, I have been contemplating starting my own firm. I’m not blind to the luxury of not needing to worry about selling work, collecting fees or fine-tuning contracts—there is a beauty to my consistent bimonthly paycheck—but my gut says it’s time to go. Does this itch need to be scratched, and if so, where do I begin?

Freedom Seeker

Dear Freedom Seeker,

Being an entrepreneur is having the conviction (delusion) that you can persuade others to see the world as you do. Whether that means convincing them to trust your creative vision, buy a product or anything in between, you must go all in on the path you choose. There can be no hedging. Quite frankly, I am not sure you are there yet, or else you would have been gone long ago.

You may not be blind to the benefits of being an employee, but I’m not sure you see that you won’t just be losing those luxuries—you’ll be acquiring a whole new world of responsibilities and risks. While you might, for instance, be able to quickly be hired by the level of clients you now serve, those clients will have an expectation that you will be able to serve them—and this is far from a given.

Before I suggest a middle path for you, let me lay out what you’d need to do if you choose to go. First, I highly suggest talking with a consultant who can help you set up shop the right way. This means having all of your legal, billing, accounting and, of course, business practices in order. Do not cheap out here. There are many awesome consultants who will work with you one-on-one (no group or mentoring-type situation, please) to make sure you are doing things as someone at your level should from the get-go. Given that you’re a senior designer with high-level experience, your situation is akin to the sous chef at a Michelin restaurant leaving to start their own eatery. It has to be done right.

Next, capital. You need at least six months, if not nine, of working capital to make sure you are not starving for clients. You must have time to build things the right way with the right clients. Even if you have clients who are coming with you from your current firm, you should still have working capital at the ready. Again, if you were seeking to serve a different market, you could get away with less. But you cannot, as you are no longer young and dumb to what is necessary at this level.

Hopefully, now you can see what lies ahead, and if you are ready to leap with conviction and integrity, by all means do. If not, here is another path: Why not approach your current employer and ask to start working with the clients you most want and set up an equity component such that the firm principal can invest in you as you grow? You both can agree to scale back your current workload to make room for the new client base. In exchange, you would get access to all of your firm’s back-end infrastructure. Effectively, you are creating a firm within a firm, and the hope is that you will be successful enough to go on your own, with your current firm always having a piece of your business. And if ultimately you find that running your own ship isn’t for you and want to abandon the effort, you will still have your job.

This practice happens all the time in all kinds of businesses—I have seen it with real estate brokers, public relations companies, money managers and advertising firms. The notion is that supporting growth is almost always better (and more profitable) than an employer losing a resource or an employee leaving with no resources.

Your challenge is to own the work you must do as opposed to what you would like to do. Framing anything as a “would like” makes it an indulgence. Unless the design work you seek is or can become a delusion that allows you to stop hedging and go all in on your vision, leave your situation alone and enjoy the value of all that you currently have.

Homepage image: ©Worawut/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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