50 states project | Jul 3, 2021 |
Why an on-staff librarian is this Montana designer’s secret weapon

The 50 States Project is a yearlong series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Bozeman, Montana–based Abby Hetherington tells us about the creative thinking that goes into second, third and fourth homes; how she puts mentorship front and center; and why she chose her billing structure so that clients can never tell her who can come to a meeting.

When did you know that you wanted to pursue design as a career?
I grew up in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, then moved to Montana when I was a junior in high school. To be honest, I wasn’t really career-driven at the time. I’m really fortunate that I had parents that pushed me to go to school, and to do something that I could excel at and be excited about. They said to me, “You’re a creative. Why don’t we write down a bunch of creative jobs that you can make a living doing?” So I went and met with a family friend that was an interior designer, and then I met with other people in the industry.

You went on to study design in college, right?
I went to LDS Business College in Salt Lake City for an associate degree in interior design, and found that the design part came easy. I was trained the old-school way: true-blue high-quality, bishop shades, and fluffy Ralph Lauren–y welt trims.

Where did you go after graduation?
I moved back to Montana, and I was 22. Big Sky was just starting to blow up, and there is a place called the Yellowstone Club—it’s a private ski resort, and I was working with this woman that was super outside the box, an awesome mentor in the sense that she was super creative and “no” was never an answer. She wasn’t good with the business side of it, but she was an incredible designer. It was just like, “Hey, this is right for the client. Who cares about the margin? Let’s just do it. Let’s blow their minds.” It was a really cool experience in the sense that it made me more risky.

How often was she right?
Probably 95 percent of the time.

How long were you there?
I worked for her for more than a decade, and then I went out on my own.

How did you know it was the right time?
I was starting not to agree with all the business decisions happening in the office—I was starting to question things. It was just time, you know? To be honest, I didn’t want to be out on my own. I mean, I was about to leave town when I got my very first client, who called because she had heard that I knew how to antique mirrors.

You do?
I had a project where the antique mirror was going to take eight weeks to arrive—but I didn’t have eight to 12 weeks to wait for those mirrors to come in, so I went on YouTube, looked up tutorials, and then convinced the glass guy to antique some mirrors in his shop. We were sitting there with acid, burning mirrors trying to make antiqued glass, and it totally worked. That’s the story my client had heard.

When I walked into her apartment, it was so cool—and the client was cool, too. She was like, “Hey, I need mirrors.” What is really cool is that the job turned into my first solo project—and it got me the cover of Mountain Living after they saw pictures of it on my cell phone.

I had worked for a woman that was a pretty big name here at the time, and so we had exposure—I didn’t really know at the time that it wasn’t normal to have a cover of the magazine. It’s a good example of the fact that I’ve just been really fortunate. I’ve had so many people believe in me and give me so many incredible opportunities within the industry.

Why an on-staff librarian is this Montana designer’s secret weapon
Abby Hetherington used a honeycomb-like tile to anchor a warm, welcoming kitchen in this condo renovation in Bozeman, Montana.Lucy Call

Did the work come once you were on the cover of the magazine?
It wasn’t even the magazine. I think it was just being out and about, and creating energy. I never went into it for, “Oh, this is going to sustain me.” I always went into it because it inspired me and I find it interesting and fun. But I also went into it bare-bones-ing it—and I was still doing it that way until a few years ago. When I first went out on my own, I saved my money to get a printer on a Black Friday sale, and I still had that printer, with a duct-taped tray, until not that long ago. My team was like, “You can throw that away—we have a whole printer room.”

When you made that shift to launching your own firm, how did you approach the business side?
I worked for a really large firm called Harker Design in Idaho, and something I learned from them is that you need to focus on the things you’re good at. Even when I started my own firm, I never did any of my bookkeeping. I’ve always had an accountant. I’ve always had a bookkeeper. I have project managers. My senior designers don’t manage their own orders—we write up the order and we price it, but then we hand it off to a team that does all of our ordering. We really home in on each other’s talents and what we do best.

Did you start with a team, then?
My mom did bookkeeping for a really large company in town and she had just retired when I launched my firm, so at first it was my mom and I. Back then, I would write up orders and she would put them into Studio Webware; I would place them, and then she would take care of organizational stuff for me. Then I was the paper pusher, the designer, and also a therapist for my clients.

My first employee was going to design school; she had seen a space I designed, and she came to me and was like, “I want to work for you.” I told her, “Well, I can only pay $10 an hour, and I can only have you five hours a week.” But after a week, it turned into 15 hours—and after her, we had our second employee within three weeks. Then we had three employees, and then we just kept growing. That first employee just left a few months ago, which was really sad, but she was here a long time.

Were you growing because there was enough work to go around?
Yes, totally. I created like one powerful, complete team: I hired a junior designer, then a project manager. Then we needed a design architect, so we hired a design architect, too.

What does that team look like today?
Right now, we have two senior designers, two designers, one junior designer, a design architect, two project managers, an intern, myself, and a librarian. I also have a store, so I have a whole staff over there, too. There’s probably close to 15 of us.

As you grow, how do you decide how hands-on you are able to be with the projects that are coming through? What do you give away and what do you keep?
My job is to mentor my designers and watch them grow in their positions—because if you’re not growing in your position, you’re going to get bored. I really work hard with all of my employees to make sure they have room to grow. I’m constantly training. I mean, six months ago, I had two junior designers, but now they’re not junior designers—they’re just designers. Everybody’s always evolving.

The clients are hiring me—my name is on the door and they’ve heard about me. But now I’m starting to get phone calls where people are like, “I want to hire you, and I know you’re going to have a senior designer on the project, so I want so-and-so.” People are actually wanting to interview the whole team before they hire us, which I think is a really cool compliment, because that means people are talking about my other team players. Even when I get written up in magazines, I will include the senior designer that worked on it with me. I give them credit, because they’ve earned it and they deserve it. They work hand in hand with me on projects, and then if I get a client that I know I don’t need to be involved with, and I feel like they’d be a really good fit with one of my seniors, then I normally give them that project on their own.

When you think about growing, is it about more projects? Is it about bigger projects? Where are the opportunities when you look ahead?
The growth is not a number for me; it’s project-based. It’s clients calling—and we actually don’t really interview for projects anymore, because they basically call and say, “Hey, I’ve heard about you, I’ve seen your website, and you’re the person I want to work with.” That’s just happened in the past couple years, and it’s a trip. I still want to try to sell myself, but that’s super cool. That’s the kind of growth I want to keep going.

And is that just word-of-mouth and almost like referral plus a bunch of information?
We don’t spend a lot of time on social media, we don’t advertise, we don’t do any of that. I’m not above that at all—I wish one of the young people on my team would take over our social media, but nobody wants it in my office, so our Instagram presence is me at 3 o’clock in the morning when I can’t sleep. I think the right people are calling because they’re going to their friends’ houses. At the same time, a lot of clients don’t want to share us—for them, we’re theirs. I’ve heard my client be like, “Abby’s awesome, but she’s got too many projects right now,” and it’s because I’m working on their project.

Left: The designer carved out ample space for an adventurous client’s gear. Lucy Call | Right: A “no fuss” bedroom for a client’s Yellowstone Club abode. Lucy Call

Can you tell me a little bit about the market for design in Montana?
We’re in Bozeman, Montana, and we are primarily designing homeowners’ second to fourth properties. It’s definitely more vacation homes—we don't do very many primary residences. What we’re doing is creating legacy properties for families. When we’re working on a living room, we’re saying, “Where can a game table be, and where would grandma sit?” At your main home, you’re running everywhere, but these families are spending time together when they use these properties that we’re creating.

It’s a different objective: A lot of the design that we create is all about function, because they’re sometimes going to have 20 to 25 people in a room and they want multiple things happening within these spaces. It’s important, because they probably get to be this close to their whole family maybe two or three times a year. But then at the end of the day, they’re often like, “Why do we like to go there so much?” So then we actually get hired to do their primary residence afterwards. That’s why about 60 to 70 percent of our work is outside of Montana right now, which is crazy.

That’s an interesting shift—from creating this moment for leisure and togetherness to meeting the demands of a primary home?
It’s really cool because they get to come here and live a different lifestyle. Everything we touch has a sense of humor—it’s casual, it’s a little inappropriate, but it’s still really chic at the same time. It’s kind of like the person wearing $400 ripped-up jeans, but nobody knows they were $400 unless you know what they are. That’s the kind of home we create for people. I think what our clients learn is that their house doesn’t need to be a showplace—it just needs to be really cool and customized for them.

A long time ago, I said to a client, “Let’s do linen sofas, white cabinets and marble countertops.” And she was like, “Girl, I’ve already had that house. I didn’t hire you to have a house I’ve already seen before.” And I think that’s what happened across the board—they come to these homes and have such a great experience, and then they’re like, “Why aren’t we living with this every day?” And so they want to bring it home.

I think COVID has helped people embrace that idea of a home that’s truly tailored to their tastes and needs. But it sounds like you’ve been thinking that way for a long time.
I think we’ve always designed like that. My clients are hiring us to be creative, so we have to go about it that way. Everybody’s like, “Oh, you get to do so many cool, off-the-wall things.” But honestly, it can be challenging! It’s hard trying to come up with something that somebody hasn’t seen before.

What kind of resources are available locally?
There are many amazing craftsmen out West because there are so many really cool projects happening here. But our team also goes to a lot of markets—we go to Salone [in Milan], and I just went to Round Top [in Texas] a couple months ago. You have to hit it all.

What about the design community?
A lot of my really good friends are designers here locally, so I have a lot of support from friends. I just had a friend text me today—she was like, “Hey, what percentage are you guys billable? And what do you feel should be standard?” She’s from a really large architecture firm in town—they’re 20 times bigger than me—but we’re all just trying to figure out how it works.

How’d you answer that text?
I was thinking about it today, and for us, I was thinking it’s between 60 and 70 percent. A lot of people would say that’s low, but we are always going to have times where I say to an employee, “Hey, let’s go over your presentation.” Clients shouldn’t be paying for us to be learning. So I think 60 percent should be design time, and another 10 to 15 percent should be training. I also think a good 5 percent should be good old tricks and fun. The biggest compliment for a boss is seeing that your employees are friends. I want to see them grabbing somebody else and going to get a coffee together.

Going back to billing for a second, how do you approach that?
We bill hourly. I don’t break my team up to different fees—we’re one set fee for an hour, because I want them to know that we are thinking about what’s best for their project. I never want the client to be able to tell me who can come to a meeting. The only time we charge for more than one employee is if we’re traveling or doing an install. In those cases, I’m obviously the most senior, and then everybody else has a different pay structure.

So you mean that if there are three of you in a meeting, you’re billing for one hour of time, not three?
Exactly. If we’re at a meeting, I don’t want the client to be like, “Hey, I don’t want her to have a seat at the table because I don’t want to pay for it.” These employees are assisting me in this, and I don’t want the client to ever question that we’re not valuing their time or their money by who we decide will be at a meeting.

How often are you in touch with a client in a given week?
Probably two or three times a week, and then the senior designer on the project is constantly emailing back and forth with them.

Is that at every phase of the project?
We send out ETAs every two weeks to clients, so they know where everything is.

They want to be that involved?
Some do and some don’t, but you’ve got to have some kind of liability with your business. If they want to look at their ETAs, they can look at them. If they don’t, it’s OK. We’ll bring up things if we feel like there’s going to be an issue. Some clients want it all. Most of our clients are in the finance world, so we do a lot of shared Google Docs with them, where we’re just communicating through spreadsheets.

I feel like in some conversations I’ve had, designers have said, “Oh, we send this weekly update on Friday.” But then there are some weeks where there’s just nothing to share. Would you just check in with them anyway and say, “No news is good news”?
I have set hourlong meetings with our clients each week. We have found that if we meet with a client every Tuesday at 3 p.m., that also takes away the client needing to talk to us throughout the week—they know we’re always working up to that meeting, so nobody feels like you’re not working on their project. Some weeks, we might not need to talk, so we’ll email and be like, “Hey, we’re taking care of this, this and this.” But then the next week, we might ask to meet in person. But most of the time, it’s a Zoom call.

Why an on-staff librarian is this Montana designer’s secret weapon
Quilted red chairs from the Italian manufacturer Saba provide a jolt of color and high style in a room made for relaxing.Lucy Call

I saw you have a librarian on your staff, which feels like a role that is becoming less and less frequent in design firms these days. Why is that so important to you?
First off, I’m a total creative, and for my brain to think, I need to have complete organization all around me. There is nothing more awesome than going into your library when you’re starting to pull for a project, and everything is neatly folded and where it needs to be. That is the best thing in the world.

Second, our librarian, Betsy Smith, is a woman that I’ve worked with before. When I was 20 years old, we worked at the same firm. She’s a badass designer herself, but mostly retired, and everybody in the office just loves and adores her. She’s almost like a Prozac for the whole office—she comes in and asks everybody how they’re doing. The team will also keep the office clean for her.

Betsy makes sure everything is in stock. She orders all of our samples, meets with all of the fabric reps, and makes sure that everything is current on the floor—and then also just keeps us completely organized. Some designers will say that design firms never look clean because it just shows that you’re busy, but I can’t handle that. I want to know where all my samples are, where all my countertops are. I love it all neat and tidy. It is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Is she also helping to point you in the direction of some of the new things because she has taken those meetings with reps?
Totally. I’ll go, “Hey, Bets, here’s the deal: I am doing this living room and the client likes green, they like velvet, they like mohair.” I’ll give her some ideas, and then she’ll do a full pull for me. Then I get to go through and edit what she’s done. We recently had a project that needed plaids, which we didn’t have on hand—and we don’t have any showrooms here. She got on the phone with all of our showrooms or got their websites, and soon she had a whole table of plaids for me.

How does the lack of local showrooms complicate the day-to-day work of the firm?
I don’t think it complicates anything, but it does mean that we have to be more savvy—we have to go to the markets and shows, read articles, search the internet. We’re in the middle of nowhere, but there are [some high-powered people] with ranches about 20 minutes from us. We’re very much in the know about what’s happening, which is cool.

Left: In a small bunkroom, Hetherington created ample space for both guests. Lucy Call | Right: A poster collection and colorful cabinetry lend a moment of levity to the room. Lucy Call

I also wanted to ask you about your retail shop. What made you want to have a store?
Now, Bozeman has some great stores, but when I opened the store seven years ago, there was nowhere for clients to shop. When I called vendors to open accounts, the brands were like, “Where are you?” When I said Montana, they were like, “You don’t even need to have an opening order—we just want to be in Montana.” And that’s kind of why we’ve opened it: We wanted to create a world where our clients can sit and touch, so we curated about two dozen lines that we love for the design firm.

It also gives me the buying capabilities for my clients, so I can be way more competitive. I might go up in an interview against another designer in town—I have better buying power for my clients because I’m buying at wholesale and she’s buying at a designer rate. I give my clients a great price point, but I also get to make great margins. It also makes it easier for me to use a $450-a-yard mohair on a chair, because I’m buying that chair for $600 instead of $1,500. In that way, it helps elevate my projects, which in turn helps me get bigger projects.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome?
I’ve lost a lot of really good employees because I wasn’t ready for them yet. People have always wanted to work for me, but being a business owner and being a senior designer are two different roles—I’ve lost people because my business wasn’t where it needed to be for them to be part of it. But at the same time, I appreciate that they saw something in me that they wanted to be part of.

With running a firm and training these employees, you run the risk of people starting their own businesses, going out on their own. At the end of the day, that’s the biggest compliment. Besides, I can’t hate anyone for doing what I did!

What is the biggest thing you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning when you launched your firm?
There’s no way in hell I would ever do this again. Sometimes, I still feel like I’m going to go work for somebody else someday—it was never in my heart to start my own firm. What’s so cool about it is all the people you get to meet along the way. My mentors have become my friends. We’ve created our own world here, and we get to work within it. It’s long hours, I do nothing but work, but at the end of the day, I get to create really cool worlds that people can live in.

I’ll let you go—I know you have a big install tomorrow.
Yeah, we’re getting on a plane and flying to Cody, Wyoming, for a seven-hour install—a little cottage that’s part of a bigger ranch project.

Is that a normal install for you?
No, not at all. Normally, we’re living there for a week. But it’s a good example of how each day is something so random like that.

A seven-hour install is kind of wild.
Totally. Our team is taking a plane over there—we have to fill up a plane, and just have to be back the next day for another meeting with a client. I think that’s what makes it exciting. I look at the people that I have met in the industry, the travel that we’ve done, the cool things we’ve been able to see, and I would never go back. I don’t think I’d have it in me to do what I’ve done for the last 10 years again, but I would never take back the experiences and the people that I’ve met, and that keeps me going.

To learn more about Abby Hetherington, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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