“I like to think of myself as a little bird on your shoulder—your conscience about the business side of your enterprise,” said Steve Nobel, founder of Nobelinks, who presented on the topic of running a successful design business last week at the D&D Building.
Clients have money to spend, but what they really want is time for themselves, to be with their families, and to enjoy life. “Time is the ultimate luxury and what clients are spending on is experiences,” said Nobel.
Clients want to know that the designer understands their wants and needs and that they will create an entirely custom space for them while still respecting their time and money.
“Use this fact to market your brands,” he said. “The way you talk about yourself on your website, and the way you talk about yourself with others."
Nobel challenged attendees to create what he calls a “relationship map,” which will help designers connect with potential clients.
“All of you started with one great client, then you got another one, and then maybe that one introduced you to someone else, and that someone else had a daughter-in-law, and your relationship map is a series of connecting the dots, really,” he said.
He explained that the referral process is the best way to get new clients. “Your former clients know your message and know your brand,” he said. “They can help to connect you with similar people who you will want to work with.”
In order to make this work, Nobel explained that designers must keep strong relationships with former clients, which he called “clienteling.”
“It’s that process of staying in touch with those best customers with a phone call or a hand-written note. Receiving a hand-written note on a nice piece of stationary is like a luxury gift in and of itself. ‘How about lunch? or It’s been too long, we should catch up.’”
Another idea he suggested is to have a big “reveal party,” where your client can show off the space to his or her friends, who are potential new clients for you.
Other marketing musts, according to Nobel, are participating in show houses and having a great website. Social media and blogging are a maybe “Don’t waste your time on blog posts and tweets if you know you have older clients who aren’t there to read them,” he said.
He also suggested providing a “letter of agreement” rather signing a contract with the client. “A letter of agreement is much more inviting than a contract,” he said. “The wording is very important. Within the agreement is a great place to get them to commit to doing a reveal party, or to have the place photographed, or have them do a testimonial. Lay it out in the beginning so you don’t spring it on them at the end and get ‘no’ for an answer.”
So what can designers do to develop their businesses beyond interiors? Nobel summed it up with “the three Ps—product, partner and publish.”
However, designers must weigh their options, time and expense before committing to a new line of business. “Licensing and books take a lot of time and effort, and have a small pay off,” he said. “But definitely think of partnering. Get involved with real estate development, merge with another designer, merge with a non-designer—the possibilities are endless.”
Nobel wrapped up with these final pieces of advice for design entrepreneurs:
- If something feels like a bit of a stretch, go for it. You must have confidence in yourself.
- Draw a “self-portrait” of your success. Know your goals.
- Become a concierge for your client. The project is never over, and you want them coming back to you for advice on holiday decorating, new projects, etc.
- Be realistic with your time management. Don’t pretend like you can run your business 365 days a year. Pick a number, i.e. 250, and stick with that.
- Also, be realistic about your income goal.
- Be a good leader. Good leadership promotes good followership. People will follow you if you have a clear vision of what you’re doing.
- Find “virtual” help. You can’t do it all—hire freelance accountants, web developers, photographers, social media managers etc.
- Do lectures, consult, create videos, design online, do e-commerce. Get your brand out there.
- Go international. There are hot markets overseas that are dying for Western design.