magazine | Nov 16, 2020 |
Is a comprehensive to-the-trade software the next evolution of the A&D industry?

Take an informal survey of which programs and platforms designers use to power their businesses, and you’ll find the results are all over the grid. There are many interior design project management platforms, but there is no single, all-encompassing software that everyone in the industry uses. That’s the opportunity, and it’s why, despite a crowded field, entrepreneurs continue to enter the space. A new crop of programs all look to beat the competition by being more: bigger, more comprehensive, easier to use. And, in the classic story of innovation, they were all founded by designers who got frustrated with the options on the market and decided to take matters into their own hands.

“I was getting really fed up with how much paperwork there was in this business—the hours and hours of administrative work and manually entering the same information in different places,” says Los Angeles–based interior designer and product designer Erinn Valencich, who founded trade-only marketplace and design management platform StyleRow in 2018. “This is a platform built by someone who is a designer, has a furniture line and has owned a showroom—I know this business inside and out, and our software is more intuitive because of that,” she says. “There were so many lines of communication between designers and showrooms, and designers and clients. All the while, technology is becoming more prevalent in our lives, and I just felt that the design industry was very behind.”

Rachel Simone, an interior designer in New York, was experiencing similar frustrations with the platforms she was using to run her firm. One she liked for its accounting functionality but found to be largely unintuitive otherwise, while the other was more user-friendly but required too many tabs and was often glitchy. Her boyfriend, a software designer, encouraged her to create her own system that would streamline her firm’s operations. A few months ago, after a year and a half of working with engineers, she began testing Simone, which she describes as a dashboard or command center for interior designers that could ultimately replace an administrative assistant. She hopes to open the initial tools in beta in the next few months, and for the software buildout to complete in about a year. “The next wave of designers are going to crave paper-free, digital means of business,” says Simone. “They’re going to want everything to be in the cloud and won’t be willing to deal with the administrative run-around in this business. I think this will help designers lean more into the creative process.”

While software that manages the day-to-day operations of a design firm is nothing new—there are thousands of devotees of platforms like Design Manager, Houzz Pro (formerly Ivy), Mydoma and Studio Designer—some of the latest innovators in the space are pushing into uncharted territories. Simone even imagines her platform progressing to voice activation.

The concept of automating the industry also intrigued Clifford Caplan, the chief operating and technology officer of San Francisco–based interior and product design firm Jiun Ho Inc. Like Valencich’s business, Jiun Ho stretches across interiors, showroom distribution, and product design and manufacturing. In addition to having a clear-eyed view of the entire to-the-trade ecosystem, Caplan’s background in software engineering shaped his vision for how the brand could operate more efficiently—namely, by connecting every step of the design and selling processes to the same data sets. “To me, this business is very antiquated,” he says. “In today’s world, it doesn’t make sense to have your website running on WordPress, your catalog on another database and your invoicing somewhere else.” For six years, he’s been pioneering a central Cloud-based software from which the entire business could run, consolidating the firm’s CRM, CMS, and finance and administration programs into one synergistic platform. “Everything that makes our company valuable is set up in this one database,” says Caplan.

Caplan’s platform streamlines Jiun Ho’s product and textile businesses, centralizing everything from manufacturing status and memo sampling to trade account records and lookbook production. If one change is made, like an inventory modification, it updates across the entire system at once. Showrooms that carry Jiun Ho have access to their own portal on the platform, which gives them the ability to do things like request quotes, check stock and prices, download tear sheets, track shipping, and make electronic payments.

The system also logs information like what samples have gone where—a data set the company has found to be a powerful sales tool that the industry has largely neglected. “All of this information creates KPI [key performance indicator] reports based on colors, trends, materials and more, which can be used for sales opportunities,” says Caplan. Designers can also sign up for their own portal on the site, which tracks everything they’ve purchased from the brand. (While the software has already been powering the product side at Jiun Ho, a new arm of the platform that runs the interior design side of the business is in development and will launch in beta in 2021.)

Part of maximizing the software’s effectiveness was knowing where not to reinvent the wheel. Instead of creating a proprietary accounting system, the platform integrates with established programs like QuickBooks. And while Caplan created the software for Jiun Ho, he also sells tailor-made versions of the platform through his own company, Leon Invent Inc., customizing the system to meet the needs of showrooms like Sandra Jordan, Dennis Miller Associates and Christopher Farr Cloth. “The more the industry works together and stops seeing each other as competitors, that’s how we are going to survive,” he says.

For her part, Valencich built StyleRow with a combination of project management and sales tools that ultimately help designers get products in front of clients faster and then place orders more seamlessly, easing the friction of transactions with showrooms and manufacturers. “Our goal is to build a completely integrated suite of tools that can power a design team, a showroom and a furniture brand, so that everyone can have more time to do the valuable part of their business, which is the creative work,” she says. “Designers don’t get into this profession because they want to stare at Excel all day.”

On StyleRow, designers have access to a trade marketplace that currently has more than 13,000 products from some 160 vendors, where they can access designer pricing and share pieces with clients in just a few clicks; clients can then communicate with the design team via a dedicated dashboard for their project. (Soon, they’ll also be able to pay electronically within the program, as well.) The service also features business management tools, including budgeting and proposals; product libraries, which allow designers to clip or upload and store product images for future reference; and project tracking features that allow designers to easily monitor shipping and receiving. On the showroom and manufacturing side, the software includes digital storefronts and marketing tools.

“I see it as a place for the entire industry to connect and work in a smarter way,” says Valencich. “You shouldn’t have to hunt for answers to simple questions like ‘Did that invoice go out?’ The platform automates parts of the process that would usually require a bunch of phone calls. It's about pushing interactions between all moving parts—showrooms, manufacturers, designers and their clients—so they can connect, share and save time.”

Valencich knows that the industry is evolving and that StyleRow will have competition. “There are going to be a number of platforms like this out there,” she says. “If you’re looking at the luxury furnishings industry alone, it’s a $30 billion a year industry—there’s room.”

Homepage image: Courtesy of StyleRow

This article originally appeared in Fall 2020 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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