From the very beginning of Zoe Feldman’s career, she knew exactly what a top-notch design firm should look like, thanks to landing her first internship (which quickly turned into her first design job) working under Alexa Hampton. The experience made it all the more surprising when Feldman left the firm, moved back to her hometown and tried to find work with a designer in Sarasota, Florida—operations didn’t run quite as smoothly, and she couldn’t recapture the magic. She stayed for less than a week, then decided to go out on her own and landed a project for a family friend in the Hamptons that kept her new business afloat.
That wasn’t necessarily easier. First, there was an over-ordering incident; then, the purchase of a high-end lighting fixture—and the realization that it would be impossible to install it in an apartment with a concrete ceiling. Over time, she moved to Washington, D.C., established a loyal clientele, hired a few team members and began building the learning experiences into her firm’s process, instating weekly check-ins with her team to share tips, mistakes, progress and inspiration. But just when she thought the firm was feeling settled and hitting its stride, she got some startling advice: If she wanted to make it big, it was time to start hiring like crazy.
On this episode of Trade Tales, Feldman shares why she’s introduced a scaled-down option to her design offerings for clients who just want good advice, the many ways she has built philanthropy into the fabric of her firm, and why she insists that clients don’t really want full transparency.
Crucial insight: Roughly a decade into launching her own firm, Feldman was convinced that her team of five was the most she could afford. An outsider’s perspective from her husband, Matt Jantzen, helped her see the situation differently. “He was like, ‘Zoe, you can’t afford not to hire more people. You have way too much work and not enough staff, and you will never be able to deliver good service like this,’” says Feldman. The team now hovers around two dozen, with design, editorial and e-commerce departments. Her favorite hire? Jantzen, who ultimately joined the team as chief financial officer during the pandemic, freeing up Feldman to focus on being creative rather than worrying about the numbers.
Key quote: “I am a firm believer that people only think they want full transparency,” says Feldman. “Nobody in the retail world shows you their overhead and how much they’re making. That’s insane. Why we think this is smart in our businesses is crazy to me.”