50 states project | Sep 25, 2022 |
Why this Oklahoma designer has separate teams for finishes and furnishings

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, Oklahoma City–based designer Kelsey McGregor of Kelsey Leigh Design Co. tells us how she stepped into a mindset that allowed her to charge her worth, how she empowers her team to develop their own aesthetic and why proper staff training is a painstaking but worthwhile investment.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a designer?
When I was little, I did love decorating my room—and when I look back, decorating my dorm was also important to me—but I don’t think anyone in my family understood design as a career. Instead, I went to school and got my degree teaching modern language education. So I can teach you Spanish—which has actually come in handy on job sites, because I can communicate with some of our trades.

How did you make the pivot from teaching to design?
I had the good fortune to marry a home builder. We have four children, all two years apart, so I was in this state of eternal pregnancy or nursing for eight years of my life, and I was home with all of them while they were little. But I don’t really like to sit still for very long, so as my husband was starting to make selections for some of his spec houses, I was like, “Hey, can I help with that?” It was so fun for me, and I learned a ton—it was this little petri dish of experimentation, and you learn what not to do pretty quickly—so it was a good training ground. Then we started winning some awards, and by the time our fourth child was born, I knew this is what I wanted to do—and I wanted to take it further than just the hard finishes of a house and start doing the furnishings and accessorizing. So that was the birth of Kelsey Leigh Design Co.

I’m completely self-taught as a designer—and when I say self-taught, it’s literally hours and hours and hours of reading, studying, buying the software, watching YouTube videos to figure out how to use it, all that stuff. I thought about going back to school, but then I found out some of the designers that I love and respect like Shea McGee or Amber Lewis are not formally trained either. My approach has been to hire out the technical skills that I don’t have within my firm, and I’m more of the creative director and editor behind the business. I’ve realized that having a skill set doesn’t make you good at business. You can be really talented as a designer and do nothing with it, but you have to be good at business to be able to do this job.

Is part of your business still making the selections for some of your husband’s projects?
McGregor Homes is his business, and Kelsey Leigh Design Co. does the design for McGregor Homes. Since I started the firm in 2018, I’ve hired a team of eight women—nine, including me—and we each have a separate specialization, so there’s one person on our team who is in charge of facilitating the McGregor Homes selections. I also pick a couple of houses each year that are my babies, where my husband lets me do pretty much whatever I want, and generally we try to make them the showcase house for the annual parade of homes. I like to push the limits a little bit on those—like, if I’m having a hard time pushing a new color on a client, I’ll do it there.

Why this Oklahoma designer has separate teams for finishes and furnishings
A large-scale wall mirror maximizes incoming lightEmily Hart

That’s a lot of growth. How has your team evolved?
When it started in 2018, it was just me and my laptop at my dining room table with a free, three-page website. I was trying to catch anybody who would call the number. But that same year, Scott and I also started building our very own McGregor Home [for our family]. Everyone would always come to us and be like, “It’s my dream to own a McGregor Home,” and we’d always be like, “Yeah, ours too!” They’re not cheap. In our own home, I really got to do my thing, and I poured myself into that project. That’s the one with the green kitchen—it got a ton of love on social media, and then Magnolia Journal picked it up and published it in 2020.

I’m guessing that changed everything.
It was a whirlwind on Instagram, which became a huge driver of business for me. My first hire was someone who could help me with the bookkeeping, invoicing and ordering—all of the right-brain stuff, if you will. It was the middle of the pandemic, and I needed help; at the same time, one of my best friends was ready to do something [new], and I knew how good she is at keeping things financially organized. So she was my first hire.

After that, I brought in another designer, and then another and another. Then we hired someone for marketing, and then a content creator. Now we have a design director who helps lead the design teams—we have a team for furnishings and a team for new construction, because it’s really hard to be super specialized in both.

Does that mean clients work with two sets of teams throughout the course of their project? How did you land on that approach?
Yes. I think it started with noticing strengths in the different designers. And then, obviously the ones who are formally trained have all the CAD knowledge, and all the different programs and software knowledge. So they were really good at new construction—cabinet elevations, electrical plans and that sort of thing. You know how they say baking is a science and cooking is an art? I feel like decorating, or furnishing and styling a home, is like cooking—there’s a lot more freedom and creative expression. Art is subjective, so what we do is pleasing to our audience—we’re trying to curate what we love for people who have the same eyes as we do. But then, when you’re doing new construction, it’s a lot more of a science and there are rules that you cannot break.

Yes, you can pick your hardware, paint colors, lighting and countertops, and those have a little bit of freedom to them, but people are looking to us for our technical knowledge to supplement the work of the builder or contractor. [My firm has] carved out a niche as a valuable team addition whenever someone is trying to build a house, because we understand the intricacies of the construction process, especially when it comes to cabinet design and floor plan layouts.

How do you talk about the strengths of your two teams to a new client, so that they understand why they’ll be seeing different faces throughout the design process?
I’ve tried to shift the way that we talk about ourselves. I don’t want to use my name—I want to say “the KLD team” or “Kelsey Leigh Design Co. is a team of women.” I want it to be we and us. That already clues people in that it’s not a one-woman show here.

What has your role in the firm become?
I’m the ultimate editor, and everything that we do passes across my desk before it goes to a client. But clients have a meeting with me first and then I pass them along to a lead designer, who becomes their point person in terms of communication. Because you do not want to text me. You do not want to email me. I will get back to you in a week, maybe. To help keep things efficient, you want to talk to these people—they are the ones who have the availability, and they have access to me day to day.

Where else do clients see you during the process?
At the initial consultation, we review the scope of work and their inspiration images. After that, they will see me at every point of presentation—at the design direction meeting, then at the design presentation. Then I’m there for installation, and occasionally for site visits, depending on what’s needed.

What does your day-to-day look like, and how have you designed your role around the pieces of the business that are most meaningful to you?
I really love sales. I love people. I love getting to sit down and understand the task and the vision for the project. So after we have the client consultation, I carve out an hour to meet with the lead designer and say, “I’m seeing this—let’s try to do this.” I’m sketching and saying what I want to do—that’s the fun part for me. It’s been really difficult, to be honest, to let go of some of that—to find people who can do it like I do it and delegate to them. And also, in the same breath, learning that the way I do it isn’t the only good way to do it.

Sometimes I’ll see things, and I’ll be like, “Gosh, I wouldn’t necessarily have done it like that—but I like it, and it still looks like us.” It has that lead designer’s flavor to it, but it still looks like Kelsey Leigh Design Co. I’m actually really proud of that—of what is evolving here and of being able to let go of control so the team can shine and grow. They’re doing amazing. I’m really proud of my team.

What is the secret to delegating effectively?
You have to shift away from the mentality of, “I could do it faster if I just did it myself.” I had to be like, “Yes, but in the long run, it will be better if someone else learns how to do this.” It means painstakingly carving out time—maybe you take on less so that you can really get that person trained—and sitting side by side and explaining, “I would do this, and here’s why.” From the design perspective, they’ll take a stab at it and then we’ll sit next to each other and they watch me edit and delete. Sometimes it’s painful in the beginning, but then they get it—if I can talk through why I’m making the changes, that can be really helpful.

To be honest, it’s an inconvenience to train people—it’s an inconvenience to say what you’re doing and why you’re doing it out loud instead of just doing it. But in the long run, it creates such an opportunity for scalability, because you can’t scale if you can’t have other people do what you do.

Why this Oklahoma designer has separate teams for finishes and furnishings
McGregor’s home, including this living room, were published in Magnolia Journal
Emily Hart

How many projects are you working on right now?
We have about 20 projects at various stages. We take on about two new consultations a week, depending on my travel schedule, which ends up being anywhere from six to eight new consults a month, and then I would say 60 to 75 percent of those actually end up working with us.

How do you decide what to say yes to?
Well, we had a ripping year after the pandemic, but we’re starting to notice the shift now. Market rates are changing, the housing market’s changing, and it’s not the same as it was for the past two years. We were incredibly selective for the past two years—we wanted whole-home furnishing jobs and the flashiest projects we could get. Now, we’re saying yes to things that we wouldn’t have said yes to in the last 24 months, but it’s good.

When you fill out a project inquiry form on our website, we’ve outlined the pricing and the process so that people can self-filter—for example, you [can’t proceed to scheduling a consult unless you meet our] our budget minimum. We also have an investment guide that gets automatically sent to you once you fill out our project form, which is where we talk about having a three-room minimum for furnishing projects and give them an idea of what they can expect to spend, room by room. I’ve done a lot of work to know that we are profitable when we have these X, Y, Z factors in place—if we don’t, then it’s just a hobby. And we’ve got nine mouths to feed over here, so I can’t do this as a hobby.

We’re also expanding our product offerings, because I don’t want to be attainable only to the super luxury client—I want everyone to be able to have a piece of whatever it is that they are attracted to about what we do here. I want people to have access, whether you shop at Target or Restoration Hardware, so we’re working on some product lines and an e-commerce shop. We’re also working on some downloadable offerings—we’re calling them “build recipes”—where we’ve prepackaged selections based on some of our McGregor Homes projects. If you’re building a house but you can’t afford to hire a designer to help you make these selections, you can buy it for this price.

Do you expect that to be substantial passive income for the firm?
I’m hoping so, but I honestly have no idea. It’s still in beta right now, and we’re about to launch in the next month or two, and then I’m going to listen to feedback on how the process goes. But I’m hoping it works.

You mentioned the shift in the housing market. How is that impacting your business?
As people are tightening their budgets, they’re not spending as much as before. For a lot of people, these are luxury items that they don’t need. I think the luxury client is still out there and unaffected by this, but getting in front of those people is something that we’re still trying to nail down from a marketing perspective.

Can you tell me about the design scene in Oklahoma City?
At least 50 percent of our business is national—we take on a lot of projects outside of the state. But locally, oil and gas is big—and those industries are strong right now, so Oklahoma has done really well. As a state, we’ve got an abundance of land, so we’ve got a lot of new construction projects here—anywhere from 3,500 square feet, up to 6,000 or even 9,000 square feet.

Can you talk a little bit about design aesthetic—both yours personally and that of the firm, but also what’s trending?
Oklahoma’s style is kind of glam and flashy—I like to call it Vegas. The designers who have been here a long time and made a name for themselves use a lot of bright colors and metallics. I think we bring something different than what the local market has been loyal to until now, and our aesthetic is a little more neutral, natural and organically inspired, with earth tones and vintage elements. We recently tried to name our style, and what we’ve come up with is “vintage modern,” where we’re juxtaposing things that look old with some modern element or contemporary lighting—combinations that feel interesting side by side. The whole look is grounded in traditional roots—things that look like they’ve been around for a 100 years and could be around for another 100 years going forward.

How have you approached billing for your work?
I’ve followed LuAnn Nigara [of A Well-Designed Business podcast] and Michele Williams of Scarlet Thread Consulting. They all talk about pricing without emotion and of the [importance of having the right] mindset. I had to realize that you don’t just all of a sudden arrive at being a luxury designer—you step into it. You decide. You have to say, “This is what I’m worth. I know I’m worth this. I know it because I know what I need to make to be in business minute by minute, and what we’re spending to do the work.” When you look at it that way, it really just becomes a math problem, and working backwards from “I know I have to make this.”

Are you an hourly-rate person or a flat-rate person, and how did coming from the construction and material side shape your approach?
Over the last year, we’ve started time-tracking through a program called Harvest. We are hourly, but we give our clients a proposal with an estimate based on the scope of work and our hourly rates. I want to give a really clear expectation, but I also don’t want our firm to lose money based on bad estimating on my end, so Harvest has been really helpful in helping us track the data. When our designers are entering in their hours, they’re also reporting what they were working on, trying to get as specific as possible so that we can look back and be like, “How long did CAD work take for this project?” We can actually see how many hours were spent on CAD, procurement or installation. We want to be able to really analyze exactly how much time each task took. That way, we can look at past projects, past square footages and projects with similar scopes, and use those to inform our estimates as we go forward. We’ve gotten pretty good at getting realistic estimates for our clients.

You mentioned that you also have a content creator on your team. Why is that an important piece of your business?
Because of Instagram and how well that did for us in terms of generating leads and business. It’s what we spend our marketing budget on. You have to spend money to make money, so we’ve decided that this is valuable. Instagram is so much work—it really is a full-time job, so we are legitimately paying someone to be our Instagram manager because it’s such a beast—but it is a powerful lead generator for us.

What percentage of your business comes from Instagram?
I’d say about 80 percent, and then the rest is word of mouth and web search. And we’re still so new. We’ve had local clients come to us and be like, “I followed you on Instagram. I had no idea you were in Oklahoma City.” So weirdly, we almost did it backwards. A lot of local designers try to break out nationally and we’re trying to still break in locally.

How do you say, “We’re here”?
We’re working on that. I’ve got so many different things that I want to put my attention toward as a business owner, and right now I’m focusing on some of these product lines that we’re trying to get going, but another goal is local advertising, building local relationships and awareness. Places like private schools [for our kids] could be a great place to find clients and people who resonate with what we do. There are ideas and levers that I want to pull. It takes time, but I’ll get there.

When your home was published in Magnolia Journal, what changed for you?
Well, to be honest, it changed my mindset. You wrestle at the beginning—there’s such a stigma, and it’s that whole “fake it till you make it” thing. We’re all out there wondering, “Am I good enough?” But having our house published was such an affirmation of, “You are legit.” Me, with my little Spanish degree and my four kids in tow—like, “Yes, you can do this.”

Since then, we’ve had several other publications come along too. House Beautiful picked up one of our projects, and we have another one coming out soon, and some local stuff too. But with that first project, that’s when I started hiring and really thinking, “This is a thing. Let’s do this.”

What do you know today that you wish you had known when you started your business?
Comparison is the thief of joy. We’re always looking at each other on Instagram, seeing what everyone else is doing, and thinking, “Oh, I should be doing that.” I feel like contentment is a big thing—if you have clients on your calendar, you’re doing great, and more will come. I wish I would have been better at letting the process unfold and trying not to compare.

How do you balance your goals for growth with personal life and family? Do you build that into the firm’s culture?
A big part of what we do here involves the flexibility of being a mom while having a career. We are super mom-friendly here. I have nine women on my team, but I could probably do it with five if they all worked a normal eight to five, but I’m like, “Hey, if you need to get your kids at three, then you can leave.” And moms are the best multitaskers—we are so efficient. I think there are like 27 kids among all of us, and we get it done. I don’t care when, I don’t care how: If you’re in the bathtub, or at a coffee shop, or at your kid’s gymnastics—you can do your work whenever, wherever, as long as it gets done. There is this visceral pull to be with your kids, and I feel like our society and culture has said that you have to choose. I’m trying to create a place where you don’t have to choose. You can do both, and you can do both well.

What does success look like for you?
I’m still trying to define that. I’m such an achiever, so I’m always reaching for the next thing, but I’m also trying to shift my perspective of what that actually looks like. I think it’s quality of life—having work-life balance, time for my kids, time for my family, vacations, a happy team and a profitable business. That is success for me.

To learn more about Kelsey McGregor, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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