50 states project | Nov 17, 2023 |
Why this Utah designer got rid of junior designer positions in her firm

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, Salt Lake City–based designer Marianne Brown of W Design Collective tells us why she renamed her firm, how hitting rock bottom with her business inspired her to change her approach, and why she would rather lead than be a manager.

What was your path into the design industry?
I was a political science major, and then I worked in advertising, and then I was out of the workforce while I had my first two daughters. But right after my second daughter was born, I was like, “I cannot stay home.” I had remodeled my home—and when I did, I remember thinking, “I really like this, and I think I’m actually good at it.” My husband is a real estate investor, and he was like, “Some of these residential flippers could use some help.” I thought that might be a good way for me to get out of the house.

That was in 2011, when the world of blogging was big, so I had been keeping a blog that documented my remodel. Then I started documenting the flips, and I got a couple clients that weren’t flips. Obviously, school is cool, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I taught myself to draw—there are so many tools online, and other designers helped me as well. There were some people in the beginning who were willing to be like, “Here’s how you do this, and here’s where you buy things.” And it just built over the years—I definitely tell people that design found me.

That golden age of blogging was such a magical moment for the design industry. What role did the blog play in helping bring in new business?
I do miss the blog community. You would link to other people in the sidebar, and you would guest-post on other people’s blogs. The big blogs for the time were Style by Emily Henderson and Design Mom. I was on [Jenny Komenda’s] Little Green Notebook blog, and she had quite a following at the time. But with the blog, I was documenting flips, where you’re doing inexpensive things. That was good blog content, but not great for getting high-end clients.

You were teaching them how to do it themselves.
Totally. It was “how do you get the most out of your money?” type of things. But it was a good community, and that is where some people found me and were like, “Hey, could you help me with my house?” Those were very small projects at first—and then suddenly, I was doing a lot of small projects. I also wasn’t charging a lot for my time because I was really insecure that I hadn’t gone to design school—I had major impostor syndrome because I’d never worked for a firm.

About four years in, I was working pretty much full-time. I had office space and was being very professional about things when I got a couple of good projects—full-home new builds with some furniture. At the end of the year, I think I’d made $12,000. I knew that was horrible. That was the moment I realized, “This is not working.” It was me doing everything, so I hated the work, and it was so stressful, and I wasn’t making enough money anyway. I thought I was trying to build a business, but I wasn’t. I was missing the business side of it—the impostor syndrome was directing my decisions, so I wasn’t billing enough, and it was really sad. But I guess sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to ask yourself, “What am I doing? Why am I doing it?”

When I started asking myself those questions, I realized I didn’t really have the processes in place—I had been acting more like someone’s sidekick than their designer. I had no boundaries. I learned a lot about boundaries through design; being an interior designer is probably better therapy for me than anything I’ve ever done, because it’s so dynamic, and you can be such a people pleaser—it’s really easy to get wrapped up in trying to be everything for everybody. I think that’s what attracts a lot of designers to the business, if I’m honest: I loved that people were asking my opinion, and I wanted to be helpful, and it was such an honor that they wanted to hire me. But that also made it hard for me to say no, because I just wanted them to like me and want me to be there.

Why this Utah designer got rid of junior designer positions in her firm
For a client who preferred closed storage, the W Design Collective team designed a floor-to-ceiling pantry outfitted with ample spice racks, shelves and drawers to keep dry goods organizedLucy Call

How did that $12,000 year inspire you to make changes to your business?
I was so burned out and miserable. I remember going to the grocery store to buy yogurt, and I literally could not pick which yogurt to buy. [Burnout] truly shuts your brain off. So I told myself, “OK, I’m not taking on another client until I am more thoughtful about who I am, what kind of work I want to do, what I want to make, and how I want it to look.”

I didn’t take any projects for three or four months. Instead, I sat down and wrote my why, wrote what my policies were, and hired someone to do my books. I also hired another designer to work with me. I remember thinking, “I might not make any money again this year because maybe I’m hiring more people than I could technically pay, but I’d rather do it right, or I don’t want to do it at all.” I decided to give it one year with these policies and boundaries and see how it went. That was about six years ago, and it’s been amazing.

How did writing down those ideas and policies drive your growth?
I switched gears. I’m a designer? No, I’m a business owner. I need to go home at the end of the day to be with my family, and I’m not going to answer your call on Friday night. When I decided not to be that person anymore, my clients respected me more, and things went better.

Where did you look for guidance as you were making these adjustments?
It wasn’t the typical resources within the industry. I was reading Brené Brown’s books, and a book called Boundaries [by Henry Cloud and John Townsend]. For me, it was more [about reading] self-help books.

Burnout is really serious—it’s serious depression. I had to dig deep and go, “Why? Why am I here? What would make it worth it? Why do I care about helping people with their homes?” I got a lot more intentional and less reactionary. Because what was holding me back was more of a personal problem—you have to feel like you’re worth it. I had to believe in myself and understand why it would be worth it to me. Looking back, it was good that I had a breakdown, basically, because then I rebuilt. Now, because of the work I did six years ago, I really think that we can grow as much as we want to.

What does your business look like today?
We are a team of 16 people—it’s me, seven designers, and the rest of the team is on the administrative side. We recently shifted so that we have a lead designer and a project manager on every project. There are no junior designers—we actually got rid of the junior designer position a few months ago. I think it’s kind of a problematic position, because we tend to have them doing the spec sheets and things like that. It’s all admin-type work, but they went to design school, and they’re so anxious to get there. I just felt like they weren’t ever fully happy, and then I’m not loving that they’re not happy—I want my team to be happy with their work. We’ve been in business long enough that we’re able to hire a lead designer, to [recruit] that talent. So I decided that I’d rather have [the second team member on each project] be an admin person who’s happy to take notes and do the spec sheets, not hoping that one day they’ll be running the project and doing the CAD drawings. That means we’ve become a lot more 50-50, because we need a lot of admin support so the designers can stay creative.

What does it take to be a lead designer?
It means that you’re running the project. You are the person the client is communicating with the most. I’m on every project with the lead designers—I think we’re running 25 projects right now—but the lead designer is the one who is consistent throughout, and the project manager with them.

What I’m looking for in a lead is the [confidence] that they could be in a meeting without me and would have enough knowledge and competence to run it. I think a big part of it is being able to communicate with the client confidently. To me, that means you have at least three to four years of experience, because you’ve had to have finished a full project at least a few times over. The fact that it can take two and a half years to finish a project—I think that’s what can make this a frustrating business [for young people]. It’s such a slow start. You want to get to a certain place, but it’s such an experience-based industry. You can’t read enough books, or get some specialized certification or degree, to fast-forward through those years; it’s experience.

Left: A gracious arched doorway leads into the living roomMalissa MabeyMalissa MabeyMalissa MabeyMalissa MabeyMalissa Mabey Malissa Mabey | Right: In the primary bathroom, a soaking tub was sited to maximize the lush viewsMalissa MabeyMalissa MabeyMalissa MabeyMalissa MabeyMalissa Mabey Malissa Mabey

How has your role evolved as your team has grown?
I actually work a lot behind the scenes. I meet the clients, but I’m more involved when they don’t see me, when we’re going over ideas. The lead is doing all of the executing—building the CAD plans and selecting fabrics; and then the project manager is getting pricing, putting it in our system, and making sure nothing gets missed or dropped. And then it goes to our ordering team—oh, I forgot to tell you, we also have an ordering team!

I’m the creative director, so I’m super involved in setting the vision for each project and for the company. The other big part of my role is leading the team—I feel like I’m the culture officer. We have an HR person, so not that part of it, but things like our book club, where we read a new book every few months. It’s more about setting the tone and making sure we have a healthy workplace where everyone is growing and learning. I try to leave the nitty-gritty financial and HR things to other people, but my role is to answer the big questions: Where are we going? Why are we doing this? What do we think the future looks like for us? Who’s a good fit when we’re looking for new clients? I want everyone to feel like they are able to do their best work, so I’m always trying to foster that.

Does that come naturally, or what do you have to work on internally to get that right?
I think some parts of leadership are natural—it does not feel uncomfortable to be a leader. I’m naturally interested in people. I also feel like it’s pretty simple: How would you want to be treated?

My observation of the interior design field is that it can be a very toxic workplace. Maybe it’s just [because it involves] so many creative people who start a business but don’t know how to lead a team. I think hiring and training designers is hard for a lot of people. I also feel like there’s the whole name-on-the-door thing, where you get these amazing, talented people who work their heart out, but their names are nowhere on the project. Every time it’s published or posted on Instagram, it’s just the principal designer’s name. What you see on my Instagram is that we tag everybody—the stylist, the designer. When you’re a creative, I think it’s really important that you feel seen on some level. And look, maybe some people do [acknowledge their team’s talent] really well internally, but they’re just like, “Sorry, this is the brand,” and that’s the understanding. But I think [there’s also hesitation] because people are worried that someone would poach their team.

Is that something you worry about?
In seven years of having employees, one person has left—and it wasn’t to go to another design firm. I encourage them to have their own Instagram accounts [for their work], and some of them do one-hour consultations on the side. Listen, they’re super-talented, wonderful designers. I’m so grateful to have them. They should have all the success that they want. I don’t own anybody. I really hate that scarcity [mindset] of, “I’m so afraid they’ll get really talented and they’re going to leave to start their own thing.” If they want to start their own thing, more power to them. It’s freaking hard. So I’m more like, “What can I do to help you?” I’m just not threatened by it. I love to create with people, and if they want to do it with me, they should be seen and heard.

Was that part of your thinking in naming the firm at the beginning?
It actually used to be White and Gold Design. That was the name of my blog, and then I did my LLC under that name as well. About a year after I started hiring people, I realized I was kind of embarrassed by the name, and it felt limiting. So I said to the team, “Let’s be more intentional and name it something else.” We turned White and Gold into W, and W Design is sort of like “we design,” but we didn’t want to call it that. And we really are a collective. So now it’s W Design Collective.

I had a little bit of a vision that I would work with other people, and I didn’t want it to be about me. I know it helps to know a brand by the person that’s the head of it—I understand that—but I also think that limits you in a way, and I just wanted to have flexibility. I’d rather lead than be a manager, if that makes sense. I would love to sell my business one day, or have one of my designers take it over and not have it feel jarring, like, “Oh, it’s Marianne Brown Design but your name is Georgia?”

Why this Utah designer got rid of junior designer positions in her firm
A secret door joins the library and the primary suite. An eerie portrait the design team picked up at Round Top was placed to discourage guests from peeking inMalissa Mabey

What does a typical project look like for the firm today?
We have a $2 million minimum for construction, and then our furniture budget’s a little bit lower—about $150,000. Sometimes we’ll take on a $1 million remodel because they have a $300,000 furniture budget, which makes it worth it. I’m trying to break into the really high-end [market].

How have you approached billing for your work?
We’re hourly—and I would say our fees are 3.5 percent to 9 percent of the total project cost, depending on the budget, and your percentage gets higher the lower the budget is, simply because with some things, it just takes the hours it takes [and there’s no savings from smaller square footage]. At the beginning, we estimate [the time]—500 hours, or whatever—to do the whole project, but it’s not a flat fee. We bid everything upfront: This is how many site visits we think it’s going to take, and here’s the stipend for the site visits; here’s what the install would cost; here’s where we expect our hours to be. That way, they have a good idea of what they need for the design portion. But at the end of the day, it’s all hourly, so we can adjust with the project. Having a flat fee is why I lost so much money in the beginning.

The $12,000 year?
Yes. I had no idea how to set the flat fee, and I was scared they’d walk away, so I’d be like, “Yeah, I can do that for $5,000.” I mean, I was way underbidding it. Then I did an hourly project. I asked for $6,000, and the clients were like, “That quote is a little high; we’d rather pay you by the hour”—and then I ended up billing them $12,000 in hourly fees, and they didn’t blink an eye.

With a flat fee, you get hurt by so much you can’t control. The builders can be the biggest wrench in the project—they either help you or hurt you, and in ways that you can’t predict. It’s just so hard, because I don’t ever want to throw someone under the bus, but sometimes [I wish I could tell the client that] the reason we’re way over hours is because I’m doing the builder’s job. I wish I could be like, “I won’t give you a budget until I’ve interviewed the builder and gotten an understanding of how they work.”

Are there jobs coming in where you could advise on the builder, or are you usually hired after the builder is already under contract?
I don’t get to choose the team very often. Sometimes they’ll ask for recommendations, and sometimes they’ll go with who I suggested. But it’s hard, because a lot of the builders I recommend are very honest—which means they’re usually the higher bid. And then the client goes with someone lower.

And ends up paying more anyway?
They do. Honestly, I wish I could tell them that there’s no such thing as saving money in the custom build process. Everything that you’ve tried to save money on, you’ll pay for somewhere else. Obviously, on furniture, that’s different. But with the build, if you try to save on the labor for your tile installation, you’ll pay for it when it’s horrible and you have to rip it out. And then there’s the time that it took, because now you’re delayed two months, and you’re paying for your rental. The “savings” aren’t real, so don’t try to save money; try to do it well.

With such a big admin team, are you billing for those project management hours?
Yes, we’re definitely billing for that. Honestly, in some ways, that’s the best part about this approach: We help people stay on budget because of the admin work we do. If I’m going to present a light to you, and you have a budget, I have to know how much it is. We’re going to have to inquire, and that time adds up so fast. If people don’t have a budget, it’d be super easy to run the design business—if you’ve got flexibility, we can do it fast. But when people are like, “My lighting budget is $65,000,” I have to be very aware of every cost.

Are you also charging a markup on furnishings?
We have an average of a 30 percent markup for furniture. We don’t bill hourly for our ordering team, so that markup covers the time to order it and track it. That means that even when we buy retail, they’ll pay more than retail with us. In those cases, I tell our clients, “You could order something from Restoration Hardware yourself and pay $1,000, or you can order it through W Design and pay $1,100—and if you do, you’re paying for the W Design guarantee that we will fix it, we will manage it, and you don’t have to worry about it.” It’s a service, and you’re getting a guarantee from us on top of what the company guarantees.

When I explain it that way, clients totally get it. I always say, “I could create links for anything that’s retail and you are welcome to order it, track it and inspect it; and if it’s cracked, you can call the people.” I really don’t care. What we’re offering is a service, and we’re proud of the service that we offer, so it’s 30 percent. That’s what that service costs. And we’re very transparent—I will show you any bill.

Left: Brown encourages clients that bigger isn’t always better—as with bedrooms like this one, where she recommends preserving a more intimate scale Courtesy of designer | Right: For a client that wanted pattern and color, a paper ceiling preserves a study’s sense of quietude Lucy Call

You do consultations with The Expert and offer digital courses. How do those fit into the scope of your business?
I felt like I didn’t have a lot of information when I was remodeling my house, and I realized that there’s an underserved population in the design community: the upper middle class. You don’t have enough money to hire a design firm, because that’s super expensive, but you do have enough money to do a custom home. You’re not painting your own walls like HGTV—that DIY community is definitely being served—but maybe you don’t have $100,000 to furnish a house. And in that middle area, it can feel like no one will help you. I wanted to find ways that we can help, and the one-hour consultations with The Expert have been awesome for that.

Similarly, one of my courses is on how to work with contractors—because even projects that I’ve worked on where they had big budgets, they’re not going to call the high-end builder who did their house if they had, like, a flood in their basement and just need to redo that one bathroom. I thought, “How can I help them know who to hire and how to go about it?” Whenever I feel like there’s a hole in understanding, I want to be able to create a course for it.

We also are on Substack now, which is kind of like blogging. Some of the content is free, and some is just for paying subscribers. We scheduled days where I’ll answer people’s design questions—in that way, it’s almost like a more watered-down version of The Expert. It has kind of been the return to blogging that I’ve been missing.

What role has social media played in growing your business?
I wish it wasn’t, but it’s definitely a huge part of my business. I don’t care how talented you are—if no one can see you, it won’t really matter. Like, yes, word of mouth happens. But these days, everyone turns to the portfolio on your website or your Instagram page. We have 70,000 followers on Instagram and a couple thousand people on Substack following our newsletter, and it’s important to keep them engaged because that’s how we get a lot of our business.

What is the strategy on Instagram especially?
I’m really sensitive to the ego side of the design world. We’re building homes for people, and that’s not where ego should be—it’s more of a spiritual place. And I am so not a fan of the “look at me” part of the design community. So my strategy is: Are we helpful? Are we a resource? And when we finish a project, are we giving sources?

Giving out sources can be so fraught for so many designers.
We do it. If you go to my Instagram, you’ll see how much we give sources—we actually have a post that’s like, “We don’t gatekeep, and this is why.” Now, we do have to ask our clients’ permission first. They’ve paid for our time, so if they don’t want us to share a source, that’s up to them. But I don’t think I’ve had one client ask us not to share a source, because they understand how grateful everybody is when someone responds to them online. So if someone is like, “Hey, where’d you get the table?” Here’s where we got it. “What paint color is that?” It’s this one. We answer almost everything—so much so that I have had people on Instagram send me pictures of other people’s work and say, “Do you know what paint color this is?” I’m like, “This isn’t even my work!” But they are so grateful that we actually answer and that we’re generous in that way, that I guess they’re like, “Well, maybe they’ll answer this one too.”

Left: Brass accents on the sink and a marble mosaic tile make a primary bathroom shine Lucy Call | Right: Rustic touches on a Utah ranch project connect the interiors to the landscape Malissa Mabey

Tell me about the design scene in Salt Lake City.
It’s the Utah Renaissance. People are paying attention to us finally! We’ve always kind of been like the kid sister, where everyone thinks, “Utah doesn’t have good architecture and design.” Now, they’re like, “Why are there all these amazing designers and influencers coming out of Utah?”

Utah has always been trendy. I feel like we’re really up-and-coming, and it has been fun to be part of that. I think we have the opportunity to set the tone for the next 50 years of design and architecture. Here in Salt Lake, we don’t already have a strong [design] culture like you see in Atlanta or New York—where you’re kind of fighting against what’s been done for the last 80 years [if you want to do something new]. We can ask, “What do you want to be doing for the next 80 years?” I’ve been collaborating a lot with architects, talking about events we would like to have here to educate the community on good design. I think that could be an important part of our community, because I think people actually care. They don’t always know they need to pay for it, but that will come with more education.

Where do you shop?
Our design districts are in Denver or Los Angeles, but we don’t have a ton of resources that are local to us. So everything’s online, or you’re flying somewhere. My favorite place to source unique items is Round Top. To see vendors, I’ve gone to Atlanta Market or Las Vegas Market. A lot of how we shop is also client-driven. In the past, I didn’t have the budget to buy from [high-end manufacturers]. Now we do, but I’d rather [use that budget] to make something custom. We’re designing the dining table, we’re doing custom upholstery—when we do that, we’re often working with Los Angeles or North Carolina vendors.

How much is custom in an average project?
Half, maybe? As much as the budget will allow us to, but the tables are almost always custom. For upholstery, we’re not always designing the profile, but it’s usually COM.

Left: Creamy walls and draperies, warm wood hues and a medley of organic shapes and textures create a moment of respite Malissa Mabey | Right: Textured walls and a statement tile silhouette add depth and dimension in a bathroom Lucy Call

What does success look like to you?
That’s a really good question, because I was recently feeling very frustrated. I’m about to invest in a new office, and I’m going to take a little bit of a pay cut. We’re doing really great, and business hasn’t dipped in the economy, but inflation is so hard. We’re paying our employees more, but not necessarily making more money yet.

The design process is so long that even if you raise your rates, it’s for the next client, not the work you’re doing now.
Exactly. So we’re just feeling that squeeze. It’s almost like before, where I was like, “OK, do the dollars line up with the amount of effort and stress and thought I’m putting into things?” I was feeling that same burnout again—that sense of, “Why am I doing this? Why am I missing stuff with my family for this? Why am I so exhausted on the weekends? For what?”

I got through it by asking myself this very question: What does success mean to me? I realized that if I am not enjoying the process, I can’t control the outcome. As much as I want to, I can’t. The economy will happen, or the client will end up not building, or they’ll adjust their furniture budget because something else happened. You can have all the best intentions, but things just happen—like, there’s always someone pregnant on my team. You’re just constantly pivoting. Your budgets, your timelines, everything. So success for me is legitimately liking the process. You hope that comes with the dollar, but if I make that my focus, I think I just end up getting burned out.

No one owes me anything for hard work. There are so many people who work hard and don’t get compensated for it—the idea that you deserve more the harder you work is a myth. So instead, I hope I like what I do. If I’m upset about the money, it’s because I’m not liking my Monday. So what do I need to adjust? I think I wasn’t being grateful for what I have and who’s sitting in the chair today—the team and the clients that are here. I was so busy looking forward—how can I pay my employees more, or how can we grow?—that I was missing what’s happening now. So now success is being present, and enjoying it, and really getting the most out of it.

To learn more about Marianne Brown and W Design Collective, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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