year in review | Dec 27, 2023 |
Top business lessons divulged on the Trade Tales podcast this year

For many in the design industry, 2023 was the year of thinking big. For some designers, that meant taking massive leaps in order to achieve the next level of growth. Others turned inward, asking themselves: What values matter most to us, and what would it take to build a firm that’s aligned with that vision? On the Trade Tales podcast, they chronicled their accounts of business transformation with the show’s host, Business of Home editor in chief Kaitlin Petersen, digging deep to unpack the mindset shifts and impactful decisions that allowed their firms to move forward in a major way.

Here, we’ve curated some of the best insights designers divulged on the podcast this year. If you’re not already a listener, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to get new episodes every other Wednesday.

Unexpected Ventures
Growth manifests differently at every design firm. For some designers, it involves channeling creative energy into an entirely new product or venture, independent from traditional design services. As a former Buddhist monk, Colorado designer Matthew Tenzin knew he wanted to launch a side business that gave clients a deeper understanding of the environmental and energetic impact of their spaces. The answer, he discovered, was establishing a holistic design consultancy called Home Within. “For me, holistic design is a more intentional process of building a home, where it’s not just like, ‘I get a home, and I get all the stuff that I want, and who cares how that impacts everybody else in the world,’” says Tenzin. “It’s about how this can be a win-win for everyone—for the land, the home, the occupants of the home, the future occupants.”

Chicago designer Sarah Goesling also set out to produce a mindset shift, though she directed her attention toward her industry peers by launching a brand development and trend forecasting agency called Goesling Group Brand & Trend. Stepping out of the fast-moving trend cycle, the agency (led by the designer’s sister) examines the long-term patterns that lay the groundwork for rising design movements. “It’s pretty ethereal for people in the design world in general—they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, green is in this year,’” she says. “It’s so much more developed than that, and laces into what we do pretty perfectly in that we are always pressing and researching and trying to know how to future-proof homes to give them the most longevity.”

Early in the year, designer Jenny Wolf shared the story of achieving a long-held dream of launching her own retail business. Opening The Huntress in Pound Ridge, New York, proved to be the perfect opportunity for Wolf to unleash a creative side that didn’t have the chance to break through in her projects for clients. It also required a shift in priorities, as she restructured her design firm and scaled back its operations to allow the retail arm of her business to thrive. “I would love to tell everyone that there’s a shortcut, but I don’t believe in shortcuts,” the designer says. “This life is a journey—these businesses, these roles that we take on, you have to go through them to get to whatever is meant for you next.”

Readying for a Recharge
As fruitful as moving forward can be, some designers have found that the most rewarding aspect of success is the chance to finally slow down—a decision that often unlocks new business benefits as well. Washington, D.C.–based designer Byron Risdon shifted his firm’s processes in order to cut back on after-hours work, employing tactics like delegating more tasks to his newest hire and taking a break from photographing projects to wait for the spaces that best capture his design style. “If tomorrow, the ultimate, most wonderful client came along, that would be great—but if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, I’m still going to keep working on the things I have today, and I’m happy with that,” says Risdon. “I’m happy to allow things to happen on their own time.”

Los Angeles designer Christine Vroom described a time when she seemed to be operating on all cylinders: fielding new clients, new collaborators and an expanding project pipeline that kept her constantly busy. What many couldn’t see was that she was quickly approaching a mental health crisis—an experience that would require her to embark on a road to healing. The personal transformation that followed came hand in hand with a business one—she emerged with a new emotional toolkit to help her better understand and meet her clients’ needs as well as her own. “When I got healthy, I started to change not only the way I spoke to clients, but the way that I was working,” says Vroom. “I realized that spinning my wheels and working myself into oblivion was not beneficial.”

Katie Monkhouse was also at the top of her game—welcoming new team members, new projects and a new retail venture—when the Marin County, California–based designer came to a startling realization: She didn’t know exactly where her firm was heading. To figure it out, she enlisted the help of a business coach, who prompted her to look inward and identify the core values that mattered most, in life and in business. “When you work for yourself and you don’t have a boss or someone holding you accountable, I found that I would do things—like signing a second lease and opening a store—and no one is going, ‘What’s the plan? What’s the process? What do the financials look like?’” says Monkhouse. “I needed someone to help me navigate that. How do we grow sustainably? That was the main question.”

Scaling Up With Scaled-Down Services
In response to an influx of inquiries, several podcast guests explained how they introduced a new kind of service in order to maximize their business. Along with taking on full-service clients and providing design services on The Expert, Washington, D.C.–based Zoe Feldman launched a lighter-touch service called Design Anywhere. “We saw that we were getting inquiries that maybe couldn’t yield the full-service fees and experience but were very robust and healthy budgets [from] design enthusiasts, so we figured out a way to work with that sect of people as well.”

For Leslie Murchie Cascino of Bonnie Wu Design, rolling out a limited design consulting service also allowed her to tap into a wider client base without burning herself out. “It’s taken me a little while to work through and figure out, but this is the way that it has to work for me in order to not feel like I’m pulled in a thousand different directions,” says the Ann Arbor, Michigan, designer. “It’s forced me to look at my business in terms of what kinds of projects motivate me to get out of the house and spend time on. What’s the best use of my skills? And what do I find most fulfilling?”

In her own pivot to incorporating small-format design projects, Denver-based Miranda Cullen of Inside Stories realized that the only path to profit was to focus on volume—fielding a lot of assignments and employing a large team of design associates, with a focus on compensating her team fairly for their skills, time and experience. She has also developed a framework to franchise the model so that other firms can tap into the same structure and successes.

Meanwhile, Aly Morford and Leigh Lincoln, the designers behind the Newport Beach, California–based firm Pure Salt, took the concept one step further—setting out to educate would-be clients on how to craft their own spaces. Earlier this year, they launched Design School, an online platform where fans of the firm can pay to enroll in courses where the duo instruct homeowners on how to remake their spaces in Pure Salt’s coastal, naturally inspired aesthetic. “Our overall goal from the beginning of Pure Salt was: How do we create more of this lifestyle brand, this way of helping people live a certain way—both functionally and in a calm, relaxed, comfortable space?” says Lincoln. “In an effort to try to become a lifestyle brand, we thought, ‘How can we also serve more people, even if we can’t physically be designing that many people’s homes?’”

Thinking Big
In the fourth season of Trade Tales, the theme of finding purpose allowed designers to dig deeper into their client work and their impact on the world at large. For Amy Kartheiser, the intersection of design and her personal life took on a new form after a shopping trip to France in 2017. The Chicago designer had recently lost her brother to suicide, and had previously participated in fundraisers for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. During the trip, she decided to use her sourcing prowess to launch a series of pop-up auctions in the U.S. and raise even more money for the organization. The venture, Under the Same Sky, began as a way to process pain and foster connection; but it soon grew much bigger, becoming an essential piece of her business and bringing new meaning to her work along the way. “I’m sad that this happened in my life, but I’m proud of the fact that I’m doing something about it—and hopefully giving other people a voice, and touching other people in a way that they find they’re able to work through their grief or connect with someone who has experienced the same thing,” says Kartheiser.

For Blair Moore of Warren, Rhode Island–based Moore House Design, everything goes back to her upbringing on a cattle property in Australia. There, her family grew accustomed to building the household items they needed—and in order to care for their land, they made sure that the things they constructed could biodegrade without introducing toxins or waste to the environment. By launching her own furniture company, Roweam, Moore hoped to introduce a similar ethos by creating quality decor products that cut down on the waste that plagues the design industry—and providing equally high-quality, long-lasting pieces for her clients’ homes.

Closing out the season, Marieanne Khoury-Vogt joined the podcast to share her experience as town architect for Alys Beach, a coastal community in the Florida Panhandle. From an aesthetic standpoint, the town is stunning: Constructed out of white masonry and configured in intimate courtyards with a lush green landscape on one side and the turquoise Gulf of Mexico on the other, it appears plucked from the seaside cities along the Mediterranean. But Khoury-Vogt and the city planners had an even greater goal in mind: building a community that sustains its residents over a lifetime. “You’re always going to find those people who want to live away from everything, but there are a lot of people who don’t want that,” Khoury-Vogt tells Petersen on the latest episode of Trade Tales. “They want to be part of a community and a larger neighborhood, where you get to know your neighbors, where you can age in place and you don’t have to be forced out.” Over time, the concept of building systems and processes that foster community changed the way Khoury-Vogt approached relationships within her firm, among her clientele and throughout the industry at large.

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