I wrapped up a big project this summer for a terrific client. They have now inquired about holiday decorating. That’s not a service I offer—but I am a little short of my revenue goals, and this would get me over the threshold. Should I make an exception and accept the job, or am I setting a bad precedent by doing something outside the scope of my normal design work?
Dear Seasonal Squeeze,
I have said it many times: You only make two promises as a designer: to do only your best work (not your best work under the circumstances), and to be willing to stake your entire reputation on the project (such that, if it were your last project ever, you would be thrilled to be known for it). Clearly, your big project over the summer more than fit the bill. The holiday decorating, not so much.
There are a few reasons I would never encourage you to engage in this work for your terrific client. First, they probably will not be by the time you are done. Sure, you might knock their socks off, but there is just as large a chance that you will not—I’m not saying that you’re not capable, but there is certainly someone out there who cares more and will do better, and you run the risk of not being in it enough. I’ve seen it too many times: Something goes wrong, the designer feels put upon, and the big client gets angry. Besides, do you really want to be known and judged as a holiday stylist? I’m guessing not. So you will not care enough to do the work as if you did. As you stated, the reason you would be doing this is for the money only. You can talk yourself into the idea that it is because you want to serve your terrific client, but we both know it is about the money—and so will your client. When they see right through you, you will have to deal with the fallout. Is that really worth it?
Risk is never about the past. It is about knowing what could lie ahead and acting accordingly. Here, you stake your entire reputation with your terrific client over work that is not your passion. You will never make enough money for you to rise to the level of those that do just what is now asked of you. And, in the end, your client will be left to judge you for this and not on what was accomplished in the summer. For me, that’s a hard no.
The larger point, however, is to appreciate the difference between a capital asset business and the design business.
A capital asset business is a use-it-or-lose-it business. A great example is a hotel. The hotel does not care why a guest stays there; they just want heads in their beds. They will do whatever it takes to make that happen, including discounting in the slow season, trying to cater to different types of clients (corporate, personal, social), and on and on. If there are revenue goals to be made, a hotel will react accordingly to get guests to stay. This is not your business.
A design business is a scarcity business. You exist to serve only those who care the most about what it is that you do. I do not know many design firms seeking 100-plus new clients a year—let alone 30. Most design businesses want fewer than 20; some are happy with five. The purity of having all know what it is that you do is sacrosanct. You might have more than one line of business and that is fine, just skim off the top and make sure it is an actual business, not just a dabble or an accommodation or, worst of all, a “pop-up” to meet a revenue goal. Clarity is your ability to have the right clients know they are home when they find you, and for the wrong clients to move away. Both are equally valuable. Remember two things: Great clients are made, not born; and great clients invest the most because they care the most. Mess with that vision at your own peril.
Finally, scarcity business values rest where a capital asset business never can. It means that taking time to rest and recharge is not a luxury; it is a necessity so that you can honor your two promises for all of your future clients. The surest way to fill a revenue gap for this year is to do better work next year. Fast money never is.
Homepage image: ©Spiroview Inc./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.