I’ve had a successful design business for over 30 years—I’ve been published, won design contests, been in showhouses—but Covid hit my business hard. Before the pandemic, I often networked at my husband’s legal industry events to find most of my clientele; we stopped going to events during Covid, and I have been having trouble finding a new client base since then. I still have my repeat clients, but it feels as though their second-home cycle has dried up.
My design is very unique: modern, warm and organic. My projects have received a lot of recognition. I do believe I am a cut above most designers, as people have told me my homes are the nicest (not largest) and most creative they have been in. Now, I need advice on how to get back in the game. Can you guide me?
Hi Second Act,
First, congratulations on getting back in the game. 2024 is going to be a remarkable year, in my opinion. As for marketing and public relations efforts, I leave that to those far wiser than I in the matter of how to get your clients to your door. Though, I will say that given how specific and remarkable your work has been, your efforts should be incredibly targeted to those you most seek to serve.
Starting over does not mean working your way back up. Not everyone knows how to spend a million dollars (or, in your case, likely far more), and having to prove that you can also successfully spend a fraction of that does not help in any way to define your ability.
Here is another way to think about it. If Meryl Streep showed up at an open audition of a local production of Fiddler on the Roof, you might initially be impressed. But quickly, you would likely think, “What is Meryl Streep doing here? If she wants this part, wouldn’t she just have her agent call?” If you know yourself to be at Meryl’s level, then you must act like it. Which is to say, regardless of who comes to your door thanks to the marketing, public relations and social media efforts you make next, make sure that Meryl is the one answering.
You no longer need to prove that you belong on the stage, even if you have been away from it for a while. What you must do is demonstrate what you will do while you are on it. The expectation is transformative: How will you do the work that matters to those clients who might choose you today?
Your industry expertise is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you have the talent, wisdom and experience to design for your clients—and they know it. The curse is that because you’ve been in business for three decades, I am positive that the vestiges of the dying parts of the design industry live within your business: Pricing models, markups, discounts, and overall blurriness in how your business operates are all absolute hindrances to your success. If you cannot define the value you provide, when you provide it, and why it matters, you will lose to those who can.
The interior design business has revolutionized itself since the pandemic, and AI will only speed the transformation. Access to the club used to be a designer’s calling card. The value and exclusivity of the club diminish every day. Replacing it is your ability to provide a vision for how your clients wish to live their lives in a way that moves them. Yes, money still matters, but the path to the unknown matters more. You are a guide, not a salesperson. The irony is that you would likely be brilliant at this game if you gave yourself permission to upend how you do business and why.
You seem to believe that if you just get in front of the right clients, your resume will carry the day. It will not, as there are too many designers with equally valuable resumes. Defining who you are (don’t miss this column about how to show your client that you are Wonder Woman underneath the appearance of Diana Prince) is everything to the right client. With that in mind, I leave you with one question: What is the single thought that must pervade every aspect of your business? It is the pillar to which you always return, the basis of your process, and the kindling that will reignite your success.
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.