50 states project | Jan 26, 2024 |
Why this Connecticut designer bucks conventional wisdom about avoiding client refresh jobs

The 50 States Project is a series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Norwalk, Connecticut–based designer William Lyon tells us about making his own career rules, boldly asking for what his business needs, and how he became known for his styling prowess.

When did you launch your firm, and how did you know it was time?
When I was in college, they asked where we wanted to be in five or 10 years. When I graduated from High Point University in 2013, I told myself: “In five years, I want to start my own business.” But I kept that inside—it felt too egregious to say out loud. I wasn’t thinking about that when I started the company, but it was almost exactly in that time frame. I started my business in 2019, then turned it into an LLC the following year, so it’ll be five years in June. I feel like every year has brought one big accomplishment, though I didn’t really try to do it that way.

What was it about wanting your own firm that was too hard to say out loud?
I didn’t have an example of what that could be when I was growing up. Everyone in my family works for someone else. My mom works in administration for a school system. My dad passed in 2020, but he worked for Nortel, traveling all over to set up phone towers. I came from the general [mindset] that you find somebody to work for, you stay in that role your whole career, and then you retire.

What made you feel ready to go out on your own?
After I graduated, I worked for a family firm for six years, and I worked all the way up to becoming a senior designer. At that point, it was like, “Well, what is there now?” I had learned the retail side and how to run projects to a certain extent, and had hands-on experience with the money [side] of things. I decided that I wanted to work for a designer that does it on their own so that I could learn from them and see what it was like when you have your own business. I figured I’d take a job somewhere as a junior designer.

I reached out to a couple designers that I knew here, and I was like, “Look, please do not say a word—I’m looking to go out on my own eventually, and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’d love to learn more about how you run your business. Can we meet up for drinks?” At the same time, I actually interviewed with a few people in the area. One of them was Amy Aidinis Hirsch. She told me, “I’d be thrilled to have you [on my team] as a junior designer, but I know that you can do this on your own. Give it a month, and come to me if you need me.” And within a month, I was swamped.

Tell me about your big milestones each year.
I went out on my own, and it worked—I did it, and it felt so good. But almost immediately, it was the pandemic. So the first year was really just working through Covid and my dad passing. The second year was turning the business from a sole proprietorship into a [limited liability company].

What changed for you at that moment?
I was just trying to do everything by the book as best as I could, but I was learning as I went. Becoming a full-blown LLC really just caught my brand up to where my brain was. Even though people don’t see the “LLC,” and it’s really just for taxes, it made me feel so much more legit.

In the third year, I hired an intern. And last year, I got a studio and had the big blowout opening with New England Home. By October, I had hired my first employee. But that kind of counts as this year, because the way I think of it: Last year was more about the preparation for the studio, and this year will be more about learning how to work with my new employee. Right now it’s like, “Well, this time last year, I was putting the finishing touches on my studio. Now I’m standing in my studio, having a phone conversation with Kaitlin Petersen, who I listen to on Trade Tales, and I’m waiting for my employee to come back from her trip. This is crazy!” It’s just wild to see how things unfold.

Why this Connecticut designer bucks conventional wisdom about avoiding client refresh jobs
Warm wood on a kitchen’s lower cabinets creates a striking focal point amid the gleaming white wood and quartziteJulia D’Agostino

Where did your early jobs come from?
When I left the firm I was working for, I tried to tie up loose ends. But unlike other firms that say that you can’t reach out to people [you know from work] within X amount of time once you leave, there was no non-compete clause. So when I left, I emailed some of my contacts—upholsterers I liked working with, or clients if I felt like they clicked with what I wanted my brand to be. I’d reach out and be like, “Hey, I just want to let you know that I’m no longer with that company, but I have started my own. And if you would trust me to move forward, I have everything in place.” It was about building trust with people I’d worked with before—and then all of the business came from that word-of-mouth.

Was it the former clients themselves who gave you those early jobs, or were they more of an engine for referrals?
A lot of past clients were like, “I have this friend who came over for the kids’ party and loved this space that you did. I told her you went out on your own, so she might be calling you.” Now, out of the amount of people who said that, how many people actually called? Not a lot, to be completely honest. It was two or three people. But from those two or three, it grew.

I also reached out to every local publication that I had met with. The company I had worked for had a trade component, so I had met [editors] at fabric showings, industry events, and sip-and-sees. I reached out to them and said, “Hey, I’m no longer with that company, but I would love it if you wanted to publish a little snippet about me going out on my own.” Everybody has their own section—“Up-and-Coming” or “Now Open.” One had a category for new neighbors, so I reached out. And it worked: I got published by three different publications just because I was new.

When I got the studio, I reached out to brands to say, “Hey, I now have more space if you want to bring more of your collections.” Some of them donated fabrics so I could upholster pieces in my studio. Then I reached out to magazines and said, “I’m opening a studio space. It’s not open to the public, but it’s open to clients, and it is shoppable.” I gave them the address, told them how excited I was about it, and just asked, “Can you cover it?”

I took the approach that ignorance is bliss, and I just asked. I also said, “I’m planning on having a caterer and a bartender, and I have people who are already saying they’re coming—would you put your name on this event and help me with RSVPs?” And New England Home jumped in with me.

The whole time, business has been strictly word-of-mouth. I’ve tried to get projects through Instagram—and one person did come through that way—but it’s harder when it comes to social media, because most people are looking at it more for DIY and inspiration. You have to hit the nail on the head for someone to want to work with you via Instagram.

Left: Wood paneling adds visual interest on a whitewashed stairway Julia D'Agostino | Right: Circular motifs echo in a dining room Julia D'Agostino

What is a full plate for you today in terms of project load?
You know, this time of year slows down a little bit coming off the holidays, but by February, everybody is going to start jumping and things kick off again—at least, that’s been my experience. I’m starting to feel it even this week, that people are all over me again.

At any given time, we have six to eight projects. Right now, that’s three whole homes, all different stages, and then the other projects are smaller jobs for clients that I’ve worked with before. Those aren’t renovations. It’s like, “We need you to redo our two kids’ bedrooms, and we would love a refresh in the dining room.” Six to eight has always been my max. But now that I’ve had my project manager, Dany, on board since October, we’re seeing how the chips fall when we’re working together.

How did you know it was going to be a good fit?
I actually found her through a local upholsterer. I thought, “Oh, she worked in an upholstery shop, so she knows about design—I’ll interview her.” Her family were all huge contract builders in Brazil, so she worked with her dad’s company to bid for government jobs. Then someone from a competing company poached her, and by 25 she was managing 20 people and bidding on jobs for this other company. She took time off, and during that time she brought her younger brother to the United States for a vacation. She loved it so much that she moved here not knowing English, and she’s been going to school here to try to get back into design because it’s totally different here than where she worked before. She worked at the upholstery shop because the upholsterer knew her husband, knew what she used to do, and was like: “If you want to run and restructure my business, come work with me”—because she’s really good with back-end [logistics]—“and while you’re here, you’re going to meet so many people in the industry that I’m sure you’ll find somebody you’d love to work with.” And she found me.

For me, it’s another lesson in knowing people and asking for what you need. The same thing happened with finding my studio. I was not even looking for a studio space—and in that case, I didn’t even ask for it. I was working out of a small space in my apartment, and whenever I wanted to switch laundry, I just opened the closet behind me and did it. It was small, but it was workable. I came to a bar in Norwalk that I like to frequent, and one of the people who owns the bar was like, “Hey, a photographer just moved out of [the office space] upstairs. Are you looking for a studio space for your business?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t want to spend more money.” But they said, “Come upstairs and take a look.” I grabbed my drink and walked up, and when I saw the space, something in the back of my head said, “Just ask.”

I asked for the management company’s number. Two months later, I was signing paperwork because they were able to work out such a great deal. I’d already been planning on moving from my apartment—I want to start looking at homes and settling down because things are going well here—so I realized that at least this way, I don’t have to move my business too. If I could move my business out [of my home] now, I’d just have to worry about my personal life.

How did getting the office change your business?
When I moved into my studio space, and none of the contractors were around, I lay in the dust on the tarps on the floor, just putting good energy out. This might not have been something I dreamed of, exactly, but I knew it was going to become something that would further William Lyon Designs. And the more it came together, the more I was like, “This doesn’t feel like it’s my life.” Even now, walking in, it feels like a second home. I have a seating area in the center of the space so I can lie down and take a five-minute break from my brain sometimes. I have custom built-ins for our samples. It’s incredible. The whole space feeds my soul, and now it’s feeding Dany’s soul too.

I know you’re still figuring out how your bandwidth changes now that you have a team, but what did you hand off immediately, and how are you hoping to evolve your workflow?
I went a year knowing that I needed someone but not knowing how to [hire]. I waited until I absolutely was about to break. I think it was meant to be that I have her on my team, because I interviewed so many people and it just didn’t click. Then she interviewed, and I was like, “She’s the one I’m comfortable sending to a client’s house when I can’t make it.” I was mostly interviewing college students, to be completely honest—I was looking for someone young and up-and-coming who wanted to learn, because I thought that the only person who’d be willing to start off part-time was a student. But for Dany, it makes so much sense. She is going to school at the same time, but we’re both in our 30s.

One challenge for me is that I’m very much the person where if I don’t do it, I don’t trust it. And this business was built with my two hands. But the whole year that I was looking for someone, I kept a list at my desk of things I would be comfortable giving away. Initially, it was things like moving money from bank accounts, sending out proposals, meeting a client at their house for a quick touch-up, being a key holder to someone’s home. Dany’s title is project manager and client liaison, so she also fields inquiries from people who are interested in working with me, she’s handling contracts, and she’s handling scheduling to a certain extent, checking [with vendors] and sending status updates. She’s keeping the ball rolling on the back end of the business, and it’s been huge.

From her first day of work, I felt like we’d already worked together for a year. We had an email address set up, we synced all our files, we put everything onto Google Drive, and she started immediately working on statuses. She went through my system and familiarized herself with all the vendors and their email addresses so that when I said, “I need to contact so-and-so to see how much the fabric is,” she’s like, “That’s Lynne, right?”

Left: A striking yellow ceiling is the perfect finishing touch in a nursery and guest bedroom with crisp navy furnishings Kathleen O'Reilly Poirier | Right: A textured wallcovering complements the client’s artwork Julia D'Agostino

How have you approached your relationship with your clients?
One thing that I’ve heard from my clients over and over is: “I know we finished the job a year ago, but my cleaning person came through and it’s not the same—can you come and give it the William touch?” And they all used that phrase: the William touch. At first, I thought it was so weird that they were all saying the same thing. But as I started thinking about what that means, it’s really about listening, caring, and just the overall feeling I bring.

When I’m working in a client’s house, sometimes I’ll come early with the presentation, and I’ll tell them, “Don’t look at for me for the next 20 minutes—I’m eliminating things that I don’t even want you to see, because it’s going to look like crap in here.” Sometimes what looks good to me in the studio will look too green in their house, or something is off. To them, that’s the William touch. Or that bookshelf—I tell them that I’ll work on it until it feels right. But two months later, when everybody has been dusting and the kids have been playing, and it just doesn’t have the same feeling, they’re like, “We need the William touch.” I charge for the hour, or whatever it’s going to take, and the client and I laugh and joke as I move things from shelf to shelf.

Is it about replicating the way it was?
I’ll put it back together, but it might not even be exactly like they had it before. But that’s the magic of it, and they love it.

And by staying in contact with those clients, I’ll bet they’re also so much more likely to tell their friends, “He came back, and look at how good it looks.” So often, I think designers feel pressure to close out a job and move on, but you’re actively staying in their orbit.
Sometimes, when I look at it, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re going back to their house again.” But then you get the call that’s like, “I’d love for you to take a look at my daughter’s room now that she’s moving to college. We want to revamp it—make an adult space for her, but not change it so much that the sentimental parts of the room are gone when she comes back.” So, I’ll come and do that, and they’ll be like, “While you’re here, do you mind revamping this room in here?” So, we’ll add it to the contract and keep going. The way I work with clients—I know it’s not really the traditional way, but it’s hard for me to be like, “Oh, no, I’m done with that and we’re finished.”

Why this Connecticut designer bucks conventional wisdom about avoiding client refresh jobs
A pinboard with project inspiration is the backdrop for a sleek, stylish seating arrangement in Lyon’s studioWilliam Lyon

How have you approached talking about money and billing for your work?
I feel like it’s become easier over time. Listening to designers on Trade Tales has really helped, and hearing more about how other people became comfortable. I think at the end of the day, design comes easy to me, but it doesn’t to clients. You have to know that they want to pay you for your time—and if they look at you like you’re crazy and the fees are too high for them, then they’re not your client. I’ve found that it gets very dicey if you try to bend your own rules.

For me, the main thing is just to be completely honest and straightforward. I bill hourly and charge a commission, which I call an administrative fee because I don’t really like the term commission. It’s hourly for any of the research and for the work at the beginning or the end of the project; when we’re placing orders for products, we charge the administrative fee [as a percentage of the cost of product]. And if it’s something from a big-box shop, I send clients the links to those pieces, and they can buy them at their convenience. If there’s a Presidents’ Day sale and they’re going to get a great deal, great. A lot of retailers unfortunately don’t offer great trade pricing, and I don’t want to put an admin fee on it if it’s not worth it for the client. But for anything that’s special-ordered or going through a workroom or custom made, I’ll handle it, and I explain that we charge X amount on that piece, which is for following the fabric to the vendor, covering any additional shipping charges that we might have missed when we estimated it, and Dany’s time checking in on the status of the order.

Can you tell me a little bit about the design community in Connecticut?
It’s very tightknit. Everyone is so supportive, and it seems like everybody moves in the same loops—I can walk into any showroom and see somebody that I worked with 10 years ago. People move, reps go from company to company, but you always know who they are. It makes it so easy once you get started. But that’s the key part: You have to get started.

What does success mean to you?
Oh, I love when you ask this question. Success to me means the best possible life-work balance. When you first start a company, you put work over everything—you want to make it work so bad that you throw yourself into it, and I can definitely speak to that. Now finding a flow means that I have the projects I need to sustain the business but also the time away from it so that I can take a vacation or have the weekends to myself or be able to decide that if nothing’s on Tuesday, I’m taking Tuesday off.

You have to take time to find inspiration. Sometimes clients think that if you’re a designer, it just comes to you all the time. But that’s not how it works. Success to me means feeling accomplished with work while still being able to do things that feed me.

To learn more about William Lyon, visit his website or find him on Instagram.

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