business advice | May 16, 2023 |
The economy is scaring off my clients. Should I pull back on business too?

Dear Sean,

It’s finally happening: I’ve had several clients pull back or cancel projects this week due to uncertainties about the economy. What should I do now?

Recessionary Rut

Dear Recessionary Rut,

I am not naive, and I do know that there are major recessionary concerns in the U.S. economy—the looming debt crisis, inflation, higher interest rates and so on. So when I say that I think you should go the other way and step on the gas, not the brake, it is not without knowledge of the challenges all designers face when the economy becomes uncertain.

To remind you, the fundamental premise of the design business is this: No one needs what you do. Yes, we all need shelter, but everything beyond necessity is an exercise in the frivolous and, for many, the absurd. The only question is: What is your lane of absurdity? No one buying a Bentley thinks it is absurd to spend far more than the cost of an average house on a car; for them, it is value paid for value delivered.

Therein is my advice. Double down on value paid for value delivered, and know that it is your lane of absurd. That is where true transformation lives. It means you have to live in the purity of what you do, and there cannot be even a whiff of desperation in your work itself (even if you might feel it as a business owner behind closed doors).

If you are running close to the edge and do not have at least five months of working capital, plus an available line of credit of the same value, then you ought to figure out how to make that happen. Why you did not make it happen already is a question for another day, but you need it now. Why? Because you need the freedom to be able to tell any existing or potential client that you do not need their business, and to mean it when you say it.

Next, you need to further tighten your design and production process so that your outrageous promises and outrageous demands are seamlessly entwined, with the latter begetting the former. For example, if you allowed some leeway in production payments, perhaps now it all needs to be paid upfront. This process tightening needs to be equally matched with the purpose of what you do, which is the one thing that matters—always, but especially at a time when clients are more inclined to scrutinize how they spend their money. Is your art designing generational homes? Profound expression of family? Sanctuary? What is the one thing that matters in your business? This is no time to hide.

The reason I am suggesting doubling down rather than compromising your vision is twofold. First, you and your design business only exist to serve those that care the most. You need to make sure you are doing everything possible for these clients to recognize who they are to you and you to them. Second, there is a temporal mismatch that clarity will correct.

While no design is permanent, it is certainly a long-term investment and will, hopefully, have a profound effect on those who receive your work. Yes, some market fluctuations are longer-term than others, but almost never match the horizon of how long a client will enjoy your design. In other words, there is an irrational, emotional response happening among clients because of the economy. Sure, some clients may truly now not be able to afford what you will do for them. However, the vast majority are just reacting to circumstance, not their economic reality. This means you have to be even more clear as to your purpose—meaningful change is always worth the requisite investment regardless of circumstance.

No doubt, what I am advising is controversial and not for the faint of heart. However, it is where integrity and the depth of your own voice lives. You and your design were never a means to an end and never will be. You live in your place of absurdity because that is the grace of art and artistry. Giving into the fear of circumstance is a surefire way to confuse the issue. Please do not.

Homepage image: ©Nuthawut/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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