year in review | Dec 27, 2022 |
The best tough love and tips from business coach Sean Low in 2022

As the year winds down, we’re looking back at the best stories of 2022—including tough love and shrewd strategies from Business Advice columnist Sean Low, who not only answers reader questions, but also unpacks the underlying business (and occasionally existential) quandaries that created the problem. Here, ten of his smartest pointers on standing your ground as a designer, being shameless about billing and charging, and how to keep business robust during a relocation.

Want to read more from Low? Start here. Have a question of your own to ask? Drop us a line.

STANDING YOUR GROUND
On handing out design concepts for free: “Although I can sympathize with your frustration that a potential client seeks to use your concepts with another designer, I can also tell you that it is self-inflicted pain. The implication of giving away design is that potential clients must infer that you do not care about it—only what you do get paid for. By providing that first concept for free, you are communicating that instead of your vision, it is perhaps your time, your styling skills or your ability to sell product that matter most. So please do not be shocked when they ask to use freely what you gave them gratis.”
» Read more here.

On sticking to your decisions: “I believe in binary choices, not multiple choices. The temptation will be to compromise, sacrificing yourself in some way in the process for the sake of the client relationship. But that should never be an option—not if you believe in your work as you must. Otherwise, you will spend time seeking validation from your client that will never come. A slippery slope, indeed.”
» Read more here.

On disappointing a client: “You will always disappoint someone. Making everyone happy is a fool’s errand and an impossibility. The question has to be who you choose to not disappoint (or at least try not to). In this case, the choice is between a designer disappointing herself or her client. We have enough sacrifice in this world, and a designer need not compromise their integrity.”
» Read more here.

On raising your rates: “You cannot control who will walk through your door no matter your marketing, history or even referrals. The only thing you can control is the way you will respond. You now know that star clients exist and are willing to pay you what you need to do the kind of work you are most proud to do.”
» Read more here.

On not getting shopped in a new city: “If you want people to see you as an artist, you have to be paid for more than sketches, mood boards, ideas or inspiration. It is up to you to ensure the unique impact of your work by creating a business model that honors the idea that design is about the relationship spaces have with each other. The size and scale of that relationship is up to you, but it is not a single idea or even a single space. From there, you can ask for the fee you need to deliver that vision, and you and your clients can find alignment in sourcing upcycled items in a way that works for you both.”
» Read more here.

MASTERING BILLING
On charging big upfront: “Your talent, wisdom and experience have intrinsic value and deserve to be recognized (and compensated). Your willingness to dedicate the time necessary to fulfill your two promises needs to be appreciated and paid for. That’s where an engagement fee comes in. It’s not a deposit or retainer; it is a fee for your talent and attention that goes against nothing and is nonrefundable.”
» Read more here.

On reassessing what you’re actually getting paid for: “No matter what, kill the idea of transparency—and saving clients money, for that matter. You get paid what you need to spend their money better than they ever could. Effective spending is far more important than efficient. You are in the transformation business, which means you deserve what’s necessary to make that transformation happen—no more, no less. To get what you need, however, you do not need transparency. What you need is clarity in what you are paid for each of the efforts your firm undertakes (design, production and installation).”
»Read more here.

On reframing markups: “It’s time to retire the term ‘markup’ unless you are a retailer. It is a back-of-the-envelope way to calculate production that represents a commission or an agent fee. What it can no longer be is leverage into earning more for your design work—a shortcut for those who were undercharging on their design fees and using a markup to make up the difference. You have to get paid for design, then get paid for production. Design is irrational, meaning that its value is what the designer says it is. Production is rational, in that there is a defined market for it—and if you cannot define it, you will not be paid for it. Clarity matters here, and in today’s environment, you have to do much better than trying to guesstimate anything.”
» Read more here.

On pricing transparency: “Who cares how much you may or may not be making as a commission on the purchase of product? The real question is whether you are making the right number to justify the client’s expense of production: what it takes to get the design from your head to their house. To be crystal clear, this should have nothing to do with a designer retailing product. Designers are in the value-maximization business, not the value-engineering business.”
» Read more here.

On sending a hefty bill: “Send the bill, expect to be paid and move on. Ironically, the more you make an issue out of it, the more you infantilize everyone. Your clients can read—they signed your contract and know what they are responsible for. Nobody is arguing (yet) that you are entitled to be paid what is due, and you disrespect everyone if you allow the notion that the money is not earned until you bill for it to permeate the conversation.”
» Read more here.

Homepage image: ©diamant24/Adobe Stock

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