In 2005, Matthew Boland’s gut told him to leave his job at a design firm so he could launch his own studio in Scottsdale, Arizona. Since then, he’s ditched a number of traditional business methods, opting for a more fluid, flexible approach that allows him to go deep with his far-flung clients, get more done and build a nimble, do-it-all team.
What was the inflection point in your career that helped you spring ahead?
There were two, but the first was in 2005. I worked for another firm for nine years prior to that, and I really enjoyed working there—I certainly could have stayed my entire career. But that year, I wanted this particular project. The couple was interesting, and they had hired an interesting architect, too, but I knew that what they were doing would not be a fit for the firm where I was working. I thought, “You know what? I need to go for that project.” I had three months to get my shingle up and present my firm well to be able to interview for the project.
Did you get the job?
I got it, and Architectural Digest ended up covering it, which was nice. It taught me early on that I always have to go for the client that I want—but also, that I always have to wait. I never take on a project that I don’t think is a perfect fit. Was that risky in the beginning of my career? Yes, because you never know when your next project is coming. But I think a lot of firms load their basket with things that they maybe don’t think are that delicious because they feel like they need to have them so that they can stay in business.
Right, the firm has to pay for itself.
Totally. And I’ve gone the opposite way. But when I make the investment that way, I get it back tenfold. I establish these relationships with my clients such that they trust me exclusively, and they end up doing multiple projects because they love the relationship. These are design-centric clients, so they love being involved. I’m not the designer for someone who wants to get the whole thing done in five meetings. That’s not me. We’re going to travel, we are going to do immersion and we are going to really get into the nuts and bolts of what makes you unique, how to fold your house not only into your aesthetic lifestyle but your functional lifestyle, your dream lifestyle. That’s what I’ve become known for, especially locally. A lot of architects will recommend me for projects where they’re like, “OK, this is weird.” And for me, I’m like, “Yes. I love the weirdness. Let’s dive deep into that. Let’s really figure this out.”
It sounds like you’ve found your niche less in a certain aesthetic, and more in a specific process. You’re something of a visual psychologist for your clients?
I think that’s part of it. I feel like interiors are really a mental game because you’re dealing with relationships. I’ve finished projects where at the end the couple got divorced, and then I did projects for each of them separately. I’ve also done projects where we are preparing for one of them to lose their partner from illness. I think what we do when we dive deep is heavy. But when you work this way, it makes you vulnerable to starting to erase the lines of, like, what’s a working day? What’s a non-working day? What are your hours?
In what way?
I always tell my clients, “If you have an idea, you don’t need to wait until Monday to download me on that idea—because by Monday, you’re going to either have rethought it too many times and it’s going to lose its sizzle, or you’re going to start to second-guess yourself and you’re not going to present it at all. So whether it’s an email, a text, a call—whatever it is, just throw it out there and let me think about it, and then I will respond based on how urgent it is, but always get the information out there free and flowing. That’s what I want: clients who aren’t afraid to put their ideas forward.
It’s funny, because there are so many designer groups I’m involved with, and some of the past topics of conversation have been about how to set better boundaries for your clients. But I think that when a client you’re really engaged with all of a sudden has to deal with these boundaries, they’re going to look at it as a dismissal. We’re involved with the most intimate details of these people’s lives, but we can’t give them the time that they need? Look, is it important to have boundaries? Yes. But I think “boundary” is often too harsh of a word. I think that more designers need to mentally manage their time and their client interactions better. They would be happier if they did, because those client behaviors aren’t going to change—and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
What’s the difference between the two, to spell it out really clearly?
I think of a boundary as, “You can’t call me after this time, and you can only text me during these hours, and blah, blah, blah.” Those are very harsh. I’ve seen people do it, but I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to respond. We’re about breaking barriers down—having people think more creatively, more freely. The way that I look at it is, these are all relationships—and a lot of them are longstanding relationships, or they’re new relationships that you want to evolve—so why would you throw up boundaries? These people are trusting us with everything—we literally represent what they are projecting to anyone who enters their private space, and that’s a big deal. Why wouldn’t you change the way you’re thinking about it so that everyone can have a better experience?
My approach is: If I can’t get to a text, email or phone call immediately, it’s all good, as long as I get back to them within a reasonable amount of time—and that’s different for every client. There are days when I get calls from clients and I’m like, “Oh, I’m not ready to take that call right now.” So I don’t take it. I let them leave a voicemail or send me a text. And then I think about it, and I return it when I’m ready. That’s one of the things that I’ve really learned—you should never take a call just because someone’s calling, and responding to a text or an email immediately often means you’re not putting your best foot forward. You’re just trying to check a box and get something done, but that doesn’t make it useful or effective.
Some of that thinking stems from the fact that I travel pretty much every week. I’m either going to the West Coast, I’m going to the East Coast or I’m meeting in the middle. All of that travel is actually what led to my second pivot point: I really had to embrace my life on the plane, because I had gotten to the point where I was starting to have a little bit of anxiety about spending so much time going to the airport, then flying, then getting to job sites. I was like, “Where is my free time? Am I losing my life to travel?” But instead of having boundaries, I decided to start thinking about my time differently.
When did you make that shift, and what did it require?
After I started my own business. I did a lot of travel at my previous firm, too, but I had a team. It wasn’t until it was just me that it really became an issue. To be totally honest, there were points when I was looking at my schedule and I would start to get angry.
Because when you were traveling, the firm was effectively not making money.
Exactly. How do you make that travel time effective, and also mentally embrace that this is part of your life? Some people don’t define travel time as work time—but if you’re driving to the airport and you’re thinking through a detail, or if you’re on the plane doing drawings, are those billable hours?
Right. Well, is it for you?
For me, ideas in the car are not billable time. But once I get to the airport and I get those ideas on paper, that is billable. Now I look forward to a flight because no one can call me. They can text me, but I don’t have to respond; I can just focus on what I’m doing. So when I get off the plane, I feel accomplished and refreshed. I’m ready to conquer whatever I need to get done. I’ll often have a client call me right before I leave, and then I’ll think about their question as I’m going to the airport, and then I get on the flight and I process it and I’ll do a couple of sketches. And then I’ll call them back once I’ve landed, and I can really talk intelligently and give them my critical thoughts, rather than just an off-the-cuff response. I think a client also appreciates that because it wastes less of their time.
How did loosening up your approach to time management impact how you ran your business?
I always like to be slightly overstaffed to have maximum flexibility. I want everyone to be cross-trained. I want people to be able to shift. Sometimes you’re in a role or you’re doing something, and then you may no longer be enjoying that particular position anymore, but you’re still a great team member. What’s the next opportunity for this team member? Allowing for flexibility in the studio allows me to go to different people for different things, which is really nice. And it allows people to take vacations and not have to feel like they’re going to be stressed when they get back because there’s no one else who can do what they do. And so, again, it’s thinking more flexibly and it’s allowing for things to evolve.
When did you realize you needed to have more people to make that flexibility possible?
It was later. In the beginning, I couldn’t afford it. I was also old-school, like this person does this, and that person does that. Now, I don’t love a job title. People should know what their general role is, and I know that people like titles because it gives them a sense of security and all of that. But at the same time, I think it can mentally limit you. Sometimes, the word that’s associated with your job doesn’t necessarily mesh with something that I want you to do, or with something that you even think that you can do—mentally, it just doesn’t check that box. I find that being more creative and having the office work more interactively is far more interesting.
Homepage image: Scottsdale, Arizona–based Matthew Boland has found that much of his work—like this home
for a professional rodeo roper—takes him outside of the resort town | Courtesy of Emily Minton Redfield