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, Fishers, Indiana–based Sunshine Brooks of Shine Design tells us how opening a retail store changed her design business, why her clients are mostly hands-off, and the reason she just started using a contract for the first time.
What were your earliest moments when you knew that you would be a designer?
Like many others, I’m sure, I rearranged my bedroom almost weekly growing up—I always liked to try new, fresh things, and I’ve always been creative in general. But I actually have a degree in social work and worked with the homeless population right after school before deciding to be a stay-at-home mom. I did some odd jobs here and there, and one happened to be in retail. I eventually became a visual merchandiser for a very popular home store here; we would have customers come in and ask who did the displays, and a few asked me if I would be interested in coming to their homes. It got me thinking, “Maybe I can actually do this on my own.” And I slowly but surely started doing that.
What was that evolution?
I started with just friends and family, and then it grew into a much bigger business. I’ve been doing this now for 15 years, but it’s been more of a full-time career for the past five or six years.
Was that shift a conscious choice? Was there a moment when you were like, “OK, I’m all in,” and what did it take to get there?
It’s been a very organic business from the start. I’m not one to do a lot of marketing, and a lot of our clients come from referrals. But it was kind of a choice. I think that when you don’t go to school for something, it takes a lot of confidence—and maybe it should take that much time to have the confidence—to do it. I was very fortunate that I could let the business grow slowly.
I think confidence is the key to everything—it allows your clients to trust you. I’m happy with where I am, but it has been a very slow growth, and I think I could be at a very different point in my career if I would have listened to myself sooner.
You launched the interiors business first, but you also have a retail store. Where did that fit into the trajectory?
For years and years, I was shopping for clients at retailers like Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn. About four years ago, I looked at the numbers and I was like, “This is so silly.” I saw that there was so much revenue to be made in opening my own accounts and doing it on my own. We’ve been open now for three and a half years—my design business has two designers that I contract out to work with me, and I’m the sole owner, but the two of them bought into the retail store and are my partners for that.
You mentioned that you were able to open your own accounts. How exactly did it change the way you shopped for the design side of the business?
It was the moment that we moved into [using] more trade brands in our designs—it really opened the door to a whole new possibility. The first stage of my business was very much like, “Let me see what we can do with your space to make it feel better, let’s work with what you have, let’s be very cost-conscious and have design be accessible to everybody.” That is not a bad thing by any means—we are firm believers that your home can really impact your well-being and everybody should be able to have a well-designed space. But in the very beginning of my business, I was doing a lot of DIY and really trying to give our clients the biggest bang for their buck. Now, things have evolved a little bit. I don’t want to ever be a designer that doesn’t think about budget or money—I still have the mentality that design should be accessible—but we also don’t shop at Wayfair for our clients anymore. Our business has grown, and now we can offer them these amazing, beautiful, unique lines that feel a little bit more curated and polished.
Does that change a repeat client’s experience in any way?
Some of my repeat clients are from 10 or more years ago, and so while I love working with them because the trust is already there—they almost feel like more of a friend than a client—there’s also this expectation that I’m going to spend three hours on the internet to find the best, cheapest light out there. Which is fine—but that’s not really how we work anymore.
That’s hard to communicate, I’m sure.
On the one hand, I feel guilty about it. But on the other hand, it’s like when your hairdresser raises her pricing. It’s just part of it.
You’ve grown in 10 years. That should be a good thing for your client!
I think some of them are so proud to see how far we’ve come now that we have a brick-and-mortar. But some of the clients I’ve had for years, maybe they can’t all afford me anymore. It’s this relationship that is pretty intimate, you know? So to refer them somewhere else—it’s tricky. But I feel like with design, it’s not just your rates that have changed, it’s also the way you do your work. The haircut is just better, but with design, the process and the experience also change.
How do you approach talking about what design costs with your clients?
It’s so different for everybody, but I do recommend that they come to us with a budget. I think that if you’re not in the industry or if you’ve never worked with a designer before, it is surprising how expensive things can be. Even if you are being cost-conscious, to redo a whole space all at once—most people have done it over time, so I don’t think they look around a room and think, “How much did all of this stuff cost?”—it’s shocking to be like, “OK, everything in this room is $20,000.”
How do you talk them through the design process?
We meet with a client in their home to talk about how that space needs to function for them, what design aesthetic they’re looking to achieve, and what their budget is. We come back to the studio and pull together a plan for them, and then they approve that plan, and then we execute it. There’s not actually a lot of collaboration with our clients. They can obviously step in at any point and give us direction or feedback, but it’s typically pretty much been a hands-off working relationship.
We’ve developed clear processes that make sense and that we can explain to our clients so that they feel good about it from the get-go. That’s so important, and it’s evolved for me over time. I feel like I’m just now getting to the point that—I mean, just this past year, I’ve made my first contract.
You never had one before?
No, I’ve never had a contract until this year—and I still don’t use it all that much. Knock on wood, I’ve never run into a situation where it was an issue.
What made you want to get that?
For me, it’s a way to explain how the process works. Because a lot of times, clients will research on their own—you say, “Here’s what we want to do, and here are the chairs that we want to use for your dining room.” And then they’ll go on Google and try to find another chair that’s cheaper. Or they’ll be like, “What about this option? I found it on this website and it’s free shipping,” or whatever the case might be. This contract allows us to say not that they can’t shop on their own, but we recommend that they don’t. [You] hired us for a reason, and we ask that you don’t shop on your own.
The contract also has a return policy—stuff like that we needed to have in writing. As we start to buy more and more from our vendors and less through other suppliers, it just seemed like something we needed to do. And I mean, it’s something everybody should do from the very get-go as far as [outlining how] payment goes and all of that. Again, we’ve been fortunate that we’ve never run into any issues with that.
How many projects are you typically working on at one time?
We have about 30 projects going at a time. Especially with furniture taking months and months to arrive, a lot of those are kind of on the back burner while we’re waiting for things to arrive.
What are the parameters of what you take on?
I would say the majority of our projects are just one room. We do have a couple of whole houses, but it’s a room-by-room situation for most of our clients—we’ll finish the living room, then move on to the master bedroom. I think it’s less overwhelming for them—and honestly, a little less overwhelming for us, too—to do it one room at a time.
That also means you have this long working relationship with your clients.
We do. And maybe that’s another reason there’s not a lot of interaction—you build that trust. I have worked with some of these clients for years and years. Once the house is done, they still have us back to freshen up the space.
How do you divide up the work between the three of you?
For our design clients, I’m the first point of contact. I talk to everybody, learn a little bit about what their project entails, and then try to decide who I think would be best for that project. The three of us, although we are all similar in design, we all have our own nuances in terms of what we’re drawn to and what we might be best at. I try to pick who I think would be most successful for that project.
When a potential client reaches out, how do you decide what you say yes to?
That’s the million-dollar question, right? I’m still trying to figure that out. Often, it’s a one-time phone conversation that I’m having with these potential clients, so knowing if they’re going to be a good fit is really hard. We do have a minimum, but it’s pretty minimal—it’s only $2,500, and that’s for a full-service package. We offer our clients three different packages to choose from, so even if they just want a designer for a couple of hours, we can offer that at our starting package for $400, or a design board [that the client executes on their own] for $700.
That starting package—what does that entail?
It’s a paid consultation where I try to answer all of their questions, whether it’s about paint colors or the room layout. I think that people are realizing how helpful it can be to pick somebody’s brain for a couple of hours—somebody that kind of knows the ins and outs of what makes a room work. To be able to have access to that for even a couple hours is extremely valuable to a lot of people.
Our team has been talking about those kinds of consultations quite a bit lately. Why are they rewarding for you, and is that a valuable addition to your business?
There are times that we walk away from those and think, “Oh, my gosh, that was so helpful and they got so much out of that.” We were able to offer them so much within that two-hour window. And then there are times that we walk away thinking, “Why did we do that? They’re probably so mad that they just spent money on that time.”
Is there something those bad ones have in common?
Sometimes people think they want a designer, but they don’t really. Like, you have to be open to hearing changes, you know? And be willing to execute those changes. I do think sometimes people just want you in their home for you to say, “Yes, it looks good.” But that’s just not what our job is. Our job is to be 100 percent honest—to tell you what’s working and what’s not working, and how to make those changes. And some people don’t want to hear it, even though they’ve hired you to do that. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.
That has to be so frustrating in the moment, too.
It is! It definitely feels better to walk away from a job thinking that they’re going to execute the plans that you shared with them.
Do those consultations become lead generators for bigger projects?
I would say 50-50, honestly. It started off as a separate service—the whole point was to be able to serve people that didn’t have a huge budget or didn’t want to go ahead and do the full deal. But we might go into someone’s house and have that connection right away, and then they might say, “You know what? We really love you, we love your ideas, and we want you to be a part of this and for you to execute it.” In other cases, we leave and that will be our only interaction with them.
How did you approach pricing and billing from the get-go?
I switched back and forth quite a bit—at one point, my fees were a percentage of the project, and then it was hourly. I’ve done it both ways, and hourly is what seems to be working best for us. Those first two packages—the consultation and the design board—are for set rates, but for the full service, it is hourly.
Talking about money is hard—it takes a long time to feel comfortable saying, “You know what? This is a value that I’m putting on this,” and I think it’s extra-hard to do that in a creative field, where you don’t always have as much value placed on your work. That value is a hard thing to wrap your head around, but once you start putting value on it, your clients will start putting value on it, too. That’s been a big lesson for me.
What changed for you in the way that you approached those conversations?
I’d been doing this for so long, but I wasn’t really making any money. Even if you love something so much and it’s a fun job and you get so much satisfaction out of it, work is still work, and you have to be paid for it! I don’t really know where it all clicked, but I will say not all projects are great, not all clients are great, and those bad ones can make you reevaluate your business. For me, it made me think, “I’m not doing this anymore for X amount of money. I need to raise my prices.”
The reward of designing one’s home is huge—I believe that it completely changes our well-being and how we live our lives. If your home feels good to you, the price of that, to me, is invaluable. But sometimes I feel like even my closest loved ones don’t understand the work that I do. People will say, “You charged what to do that?” They don’t understand that it takes knowledge, talent and experience—and even the mistakes you’ve made along the way. All of that goes into what you’re worth at the end of the day.
Is there a price sensitivity around design that you encounter on a regular basis?
I think so. For most of my clients, it’s their first time working with a designer, so they don’t even know what that looks like.
Is there a set of misconceptions that they bring with them?
Oh, my gosh, yes—you totally nailed it on that. I think most people are getting their knowledge of the design world through TV, and that’s just unfortunate, because that’s not the way it works. HGTV portrays people who redo their room for a thousand dollars—it’s completely unrealistic. I don’t know that they’ve done design any justice, because it’s not a real-world [look at how it works]. They don’t talk about how much the furnishings cost or how much the labor costs.
Are you doing that big HGTV-style reveal at the end?
We try to do the big reveal. We try to encourage clients to see the big picture and wait until everything comes in—but right now, with such long delivery times, it’s harder to do. Some people want it as each piece arrives, and we try to talk them out of that. Let’s say a rug comes in—then they’re just staring at that rug, and they don’t understand how it’s going to make sense with everything else. That’s when they’re like, “Sunshine, I don’t know about this rug. It’s not really working.”
You’re in Fishers, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis. Can you tell me a little bit about the design scene where you are?
We are in Hamilton County [just north of Indianapolis], and as far as retail goes, it’s been really great for us. There’s not a lot here as far as selection and stuff to choose from. Indianapolis, in general, has a really good design scene, though, and there are some great designers there. I love that, because I get inspired by them, and it’s nice to have a relationship with people that you really look up to, or people that I’ve followed for years. With that said, there’s a lot of competition, too. The designers that I really admire are also very expensive, so that bends in our favor a little bit, because I think that our prices are a little bit more in reach for a lot of clients. I honestly think we’re at that sweet spot of not being too expensive but also offering really good design.
Where do you see the most opportunity to grow?
I hope that we continue to get bigger projects with clients that have a good budget and are open-minded—where they don’t have a lot of opinions and they just trust us. I take it really seriously to go into someone’s house and to transform it—I think it is a huge responsibility—and my greatest wish is that my clients know that. I want more client relationships where there’s so much trust there, and where they hand over that power to us, because I do think that’s when it really looks beautiful.
In terms of building that trust, is there a moment or a question that you ask that really helps you understand what they’re going to need?
I think a good indicator is just going to their home and seeing how they currently are using that space. I often ask them to show me the space they’re really proud of, or to show me a room that they feel the best in. Is it the lighting that they really like? Or are they surrounded by things that are important to them, like pieces that they’ve gathered on travel? Or is it the functionality of the space? There are so many ways to determine what it is about a room that makes somebody feel good.
On the other hand, sometimes I go into someone’s house—and this sounds terrible, but you have a judgment, right? I’m thinking, “They have a very traditional house—they haven’t upgraded anything for 20 years. What made them call us?” On the one hand, I’m thinking, “They reached out because they wanted something new, right?” But at the same time, I’m thinking, “This is going to be a very dramatic change for them. Are they ready for that?”
Is there a nice way to ask that question? To say, “Are you really ready?”
Just yesterday I visited a new client’s home that was really, really traditional—like, the kind of traditional where their dining room is always set with china—and we are just not that at all. She found us after coming into our store, so I was really curious what she had liked about it. Like, “Help me understand why you called us.” She was very specific—there were a couple pieces of art in our store that she really gravitated towards, and then we have these minerals and crystals in our store, and she’s a science teacher so she gravitated towards that.
It was those specific items in our store that sparked some type of emotion in her that she liked. But while that was helpful, it also didn’t answer my question of, “Are you ready to de-formalize your house and make it feel a little bit more approachable?” I think it will be interesting to continue to have those conversations with her—and I do think she will be ecstatic about how it makes her feel, because I think she wants a home where people always feel comfortable.
How much of what you do is showing people that there’s a different way to live in their homes that they hadn’t ever imagined?
Oh, I think it’s like that every single time. Every single project.
Homepage image: Sunshine Brooks | Ashlee Kindred