ask an influencer | Feb 22, 2023 |
Sarah Weichel is having fun on TikTok. In 5 years, she expects to find clients there

In Ask an Influencer, Business of Home explores the creator economy. This week, we spoke with Sarah Weichel, the designer and content creator behind Swike Design.

On TikTok and Instagram, designer Sarah Weichel is the number-one authority on the homes of “hot rich girls.” Playing into the latest incarnation of an age-old cultural fixation, she offers a deadpan report on the shopping carts of affluent clients with impeccable interiors. In real life, the start of her own design journey was a far cry from the projects she navigates today.

Back in 2018, Weichel and her wife pooled their savings to purchase their first home, a fixer-upper in Los Angeles. The ensuing renovation was a nightmare, with a leaky roof, moldy walls and loose joists nearly driving them out of the property altogether. Instead, Weichel dug in, redesigning the space herself and documenting the process for her friends and family on social media. By the time the project was completed, it was clear to Weichel that she could parlay her passion and experience into a career—and in 2020, Swike Design was born.

But for Weichel, building a social media presence to complement her design business wasn’t an afterthought or a side project; it was her professional domain. Up until her pivot into design, Weichel worked for nearly a decade at an entertainment agency for content creators, helping others chart a path to lasting success on social media. Just a few years into her second career, she’s established her own online presence, offering what she wishes she had when she started designing her own home—candid advice on how to set contractors’ rates, plan a painting schedule and break free from big-box sourcing—to an audience of 49,800 Instagram followers and 31,400 TikTok followers. Ahead, she shares how she captures content without crossing clients’ boundaries, why she expects to meet the next generation of design clients on TikTok, and how witnessing the “wild west” of social media has informed her growth strategy.

How did you get into design?
When I bought my first house five years ago, I felt really disappointed by the experience because I’d worked so hard, and I went to go buy something that I could feel proud of, and I just didn’t have any options. I’m in Los Angeles and the housing market is really challenging, but it’s [also] tough to be a millennial in this country and do the thing that you think you’re supposed to do—the American dream—which is get a good job, make a decent salary and then start a family and buy your house. My wife and I ended up buying something that we knew we had to put work into, and we were excited about that, but we also knew nothing—you don’t know what you don’t know.

We hired a general contractor who was recommended by somebody, and the long and short of it is he was just the wrong person for the job. He didn’t know what he was doing. After he [renovated] the house, as soon as we moved in, the first rains in Los Angeles came and the whole roof started leaking. Then we repaired the roof, and the roofer was nice enough to say, “Hey, have you checked out the mold in the house?” And we were like, “Oh, no, there’s no mold—we just moved in two weeks ago, the house was just [redone] in the last six months, there’s no mold.” Cut to March of 2020, both of us are getting sniffly. It went from “Oh, my God, we have COVID,” to “You don’t have COVID, you just have mold all over your house.” Then the mold remediators come in, and they’re like, “Hey, have you checked out the joists? They’re a little unstable.” Then after the joists were repaired, it was just one thing after another.

It was truly a nightmare. We ended up having to go to litigation. We’re totally not the kind of people who would sue anybody, but we had to because we had no choice—we had no money and we had to fix the house. We went through that whole process and got a little bit of money back, and then we rebuilt the house again. So we renovated this house twice.

My design company, Swike, and its content were born so as not to let that happen to any of my friends. Being transparent about the design process stems from me trying to learn everything that I possibly could because I spent all my disposable income on a down payment. I would have loved to hire an interior designer and an architect, but we just didn’t have the financial resources to do that. I was scouring the internet trying to learn about, like, what windows Amber Lewis uses—that’s just not information that was being offered within the design community. My skill set isn’t finding vendors. The people who are going to hire Swike are people who don’t have the time or energy to invest in the process. There’s still a massive market for people like me, who are design-obsessed but need a little bit of direction. I think that market exists and that’s who I hope I’m talking to when I make all these silly little videos on the internet.

Sarah Weichel is having fun on TikTok. In 5 years, she expects to find clients there
A Greenwich, Connecticut home designed by Sarah Weichel, the designer and influencer behind Swike DesignSwike Design

What did your career look like before you launched Swike Design?
I dropped out of college—which was, I’m sure, thrilling for my family—and started working at an entertainment company in Los Angeles in 2010. It was very early in what we now call the creator economy. It didn’t really even exist in those terms, but that’s what I did for a decade, working with influencers.

The beginning—and honestly, the whole journey—was a lot of fun because in so many ways, it was like the wild west. There were no gatekeepers, no rules. I feel so grateful for that career because it gave me a front row seat to creative people who didn’t necessarily have access to traditional means of finding an agent or a manager or a casting director. They would just make things and then post them to the internet, and organically they found their community, [and then] the traditional gatekeepers started to pay attention.

That is also my philosophy with Swike Design. I know a lot of people have a negative association with the word “influencer,” and I understand where that comes from. But I don’t really think you should categorize people’s ability or talent by the platform that they’re choosing to perform on. I think that anyone who’s a creative person, who’s making things and releasing them for the public, is a really brave person. It’s really hard to do, but it’s a good opportunity because then hopefully people who are like you will find it and gain something from it.

Did you have an online presence before you started your design business?
Not really. I was behind the scenes doing talent management stuff, but I was lucky that I got to work with some of the best and biggest names—for many years I managed a comedian named Benito Skinner, who is Benny Drama on the internet, so comedy creators were kind of my niche. That’s also why I try to make content that feels funny. I like comedy, but I also think the design community could use a little bit of levity. We all take ourselves really seriously, but for me, it’s not really that serious. I want people to have a great experience when they choose to work with our design studio—I want them to be engaged, I want them to learn, and I want them to have a good time—but it doesn’t need to be so heady. Tonally, that’s what I hope comes across.

When did your audience begin to take off?
[The business and the social media growth] kind of happened at the same time. I really prioritized [social engagement] because that’s my story. Once I decided to change careers, it really was about documenting the process of my own home and making sure that I share as much as I can about the design studio’s work. A big difference between being an influencer and an interior designer with a studio is, it’s not like you’re documenting your own home. There’s people’s privacy to keep in mind, people’s personal belongings, people’s preferences about how much you’re peeling back the curtain on their personal space. We have to be super mindful of that.

I’m trying to take what we do in the design studio and make it digestible and fun, and hopefully [our audience] can gain something without us exposing our clients’ private spaces. That has been a little bit more challenging than I [expected]. I went into it thinking, “Our clients will love to watch the process of designing their home unfold on the internet.” But when you’re working with high-profile people, or with high net-worth people, privacy is important to them. So I’m trying to make sure that I honor that while also making sure that I’m able to help people and educate people who might not have the means to hire the design studio.

How did you find those boundaries with clients?
It’s a conversation right up top. Before we take on a new client, I try to be pretty candid about our studio and how we prioritize storytelling as part of our studio’s DNA. I will say, most of our clients, at this stage, understand that there is a social presence. They probably found us through Instagram, and they’re open to it. But in the beginning, it was a little bit of a balance of posting something and then having a client ask you to take it down. It’s not a great feeling. Now we just have to have really clear boundaries about what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable.

I also totally understand why a lot of the bigger interior designers in town aren’t leaning into content as much, because when I was just a consumer of design content and a lover of design, I was like, “This is so silly—why can’t you just tell me more about your process so that I can be a fan, I can engage, but I can take something from it?” Now I understand a little bit more. It’s also just hard—it’s kind of a separate brain: You have to think of the content format and what you can share that’s not just a house tour.

What’s your approach to making content?
When I first started working in the social media space, I would follow people because I wanted to be a part of their community. I don’t personally interact with content that way anymore. I follow people who are going to give me information that will better serve my lifestyle. I love to follow this fashion influencer Courtney Grow because she’s so candid about what she’s wearing and including shoppable links, and that’s something that I can take from following her. So that’s what I try to do: [offer] great access and great information about all things design. I want Swike to be a go-to resource for all things design for design-obsessed people like me. Hopefully, you don’t think I’m the most annoying person in the world, but also it’s not even really about me.

How does social media factor into your design business?
I think about the content business and the design studio as two separate-but-equal businesses within the Swike entity. The design studio is what I wake up and love to do every day. But I also understand the importance of content, and I really see the two businesses going hand in hand: One services the millennial first-time homeowner through the content, and then the design studio services a different [higher-end] demographic.

Left: Weichel prefers a candid approach to producing content Swike Design | Right: With private clients, she's had to great creative about what makes it onto her social accounts Swike Design

Does your social media generate revenue?
We do brand partnerships, and we look for brand partners that are most authentic to the company’s DNA. We have a couple of exciting ones coming up in 2023 that speak to our ethos around vintage furnishings and upcycling and sustainability that I’m really excited about.

How do you manage those relationships?
I feel really lucky that for my first career, that’s what I did for a living. I am also represented by Brand Identity PR, so they help with a lot of that also. I will say that a publicist or a marketing agency is a good first step to help you regulate your rates. There’s a really good, great TikTok account called @pigmami—her name’s Heather, and she also just did a fun exercise where she posted a video saying, “Hi, I had a meeting with an agency and this was my experience, and this was this other person’s experience with that agency—should I hire them or not?” I think that’s so telling as far as the direction that we’re moving in with content and our community, which is very, very authentic dialogue and conversation. I thought it was a fascinating exercise because normally that would be something where we would hide or protect our rates, and she just had a very open dialogue around that.

How does your background in social media translate to what you do now?
The short answer is I’m not really that precious about my content. A lot of my design friends start to feel paralyzed by what they should or shouldn’t post. My advice would be don’t worry so much about the final product—focus more on the journey of how to get there. That’s worked for me so far. I think with a lot of bigger design accounts, they’re constantly churning out these beautifully styled, expensive shoots that have a styling budget and a photographer, and you’re trying to keep up with that which is expensive and hard to do, especially if your client isn’t open to letting you photograph their home, which happens all the time. If that isn’t accessible to you, try to think about a different content format that will work given the access that you have. I’ve personally found that more people are more interested in the process than in a beautiful “after” photo.

How does that inform your content?
I think about our content in like a couple different buckets. The first bucket is how-tos and 101s—I’ve done “Drapery 101” and “Paint 101” and “Art 101.” Those are someone whose contractor is asking them for their paint schedule, and they’re like, “I don’t even know what a finish is.” So it’s answering those kinds of questions.

I just started this new series with one of my builders, and the root of that is to help women—or anybody, really—fact-check their bids. I want to do more of that, but it’s a little hard to do it on a national scale because rates are so different depending on your location. I think it’s so important that we have more clarity on what rates are acceptable, so I’m trying to figure out how to do that—my silly “Designer versus contractor” video was one example of that.

I try to profile small businesses and also do vendor spotlights, helping people understand there are other options outside of just the big-box furniture companies that are marketing to you over and over and over again. I did this one little post a year ago now called “Where to shop that’s not CB2” and “Where to shop that’s not West Elm.” By the way, I do shop at CB2 all the time, and it’s not a knock on West Elm either—it’s more just, if you’re a fan of this kind of style, here are some other places to consider.

I also like profiling other designers, and that’s something I plan to do more of this year. I did a video in response to the AD100 list, and it was just about profiling other designers who aren’t necessarily like those globally recognized design names that make that list often. Other designers who are coming up and I think deserve a little bit of recognition. And then of course, I also do some before-and-after stuff, and the construction chaos that happens all the time.

Sarah Weichel is having fun on TikTok. In 5 years, she expects to find clients there
Weichel finds inspiration in the home habits of Gen Z on platforms like TikTokSwike Design

When it came to growing your audience, did you have a strategy in mind?
I don’t really worry too much about follower [count]. The right follower is more important to me than the number of them. If you had asked me this question five to seven years ago, I would have said, “Yes, post a video at least once a week to grow your following three times over the course of whatever.” I think the truth is, if you make good content, then people will find it. With TikTok now too—I try to be active on that platform because I’m really inspired by Gen Z and their love of all things vintage, whether it’s fashion or furniture, and by what they’re doing in their rental properties. I think designers can really learn from that.

Do you share your personal life on social media?
I’m married to someone who doesn’t love to do on-camera stuff and doesn’t love to be a public person. That’s a great reminder of boundaries because I’m kind of an open book. If you were to meet me in a bar, I would probably talk about the lip filler that I got that day. But [my wife] keeps me focused on boundaries and privacy in a way that I probably wouldn’t naturally think of. I try not to be addicted to social media, and I’m really grateful that I run a design studio because I’m forced to spend nine to five focused on that, and when something comes up that somebody can learn from, I’ll make a video about it.

How have you dealt with algorithm updates?
It’s a bummer when you make something that you feel excited about, and you feel like it didn’t reach its intended audience. It feels like you did a bad job at work. But as far as metrics go, I try to put less emphasis on the quantitative value of what I’m making and put more emphasis on how much my friends are talking about it or if people are sharing a piece of content. I know that “hot rich girls” is going to be the format that gets the most views because people think it’s funny and it’s topical right now. But I hope that people are also saving a 101 video for when they go to paint their house, and they need somebody to ask.

What would you consider your main platform?
Instagram certainly is where most of my peers are, and it’s definitely the platform that girls who are buying their first house are still on. I feel more creatively inspired by TikTok at the minute. I just think it’s funnier over on TikTok, so I’m playing around with that. I hope that investing in that platform now will pay off in a few years from now. All my 30-year-old friends are on Instagram, and if they’re design-obsessed like me, they’re probably opening up Instagram first. That’s where the people who actually need the content are. But when Gen Z is starting to enter the housing market, or if they decide that they want to start investing in their rental a little bit more and start spending some of their disposable income on furnishings, Swike will kind of be a mainstay in the design world on TikTok already.

What are you analyzing right now from a business strategy perspective?
I’d love to find other designers who might be having a hard time with their content strategy, but who understand the importance of growing your audience and who would be interested in collaborating more. I’d love to find other designers who are like, “I have to focus my attention on my design studio efforts, but I’m down to make content,” and I’d like to figure out a way to work collaboratively to help showcase their efforts and help build the Swike content pipeline so that it also serves the Swike community of followers. That’s something that I’m looking forward to this year as I think about growing the Swike efforts and reaching more design-obsessed people.

Homepage image: Sarah Weichel | Swike Design

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