magazine | Aug 11, 2022 |
Why this designer stopped hemming and hawing over billable hours

Eschewing hourly rates or flat fees, New York designer Alvin Wayne simply charges a percentage of the total project budget for his design work. It’s a move that eliminates complications—and ensures that he’s in control of where to save and splurge.

Why this designer stopped hemming and hawing over billable hours
Alvin WayneCourtesy of designer

When do you feel like you started charging what you’re worth?
It took time. When I first started, I charged $150 for a consultation. As I got more experience, I began feeling like I wasn’t getting paid enough for all the work I was doing. I started going up with my price—at one point, I was raising my rate with every phone call. I was naming ever-higher rates to see if people would pay it. And they would pay it! Now I know that I had to set the bar higher to get the clientele that I want. I’m at the point where my fees help me weed out the projects I don’t want.

How do you approach those conversations about what design costs?
I have the money conversation right off the bat. I ask, “What’s your budget? How much do you have to spend for this project?” When they tell me, I’m very upfront if it’s not enough—I have the experience to say, “That’s not going to work. You need to add about $20,000 to that budget and then we can do some- thing.” I can break it down and explain why: A sofa’s going to cost this, a chair is going to cost that—and then you’ve still got to pay my fee, which is 25 percent of the overall budget.

What made you want to charge a percentage?
It’s very clean and clear. People don’t get confused. They know from the beginning, “This is how much I need to pay Alvin,” and then they’re going to get a link from QuickBooks to make that payment. I ask for that retainer fee, and then two weeks later the remainder of my money is due, even if we haven’t started the project—unless it is a very large project, in which case I need a payment on the first of every month.

When it’s time to buy the product, the client is still paying a markup, but it’s a very small margin. I entice my clients with the fact that I get discounts everywhere, and I want them to know that they’re getting a discount, not paying the retail price.

Did your relationship with clients change for the better when you reworked your approach?
Absolutely, because everything is transparent and upfront. And I’ve found that a lot of my clients actually love paying me my fee in advance. If a project stretches longer, they don’t have to worry about, “Gosh, I owe Alvin money.” Now it’s just waiting on furniture to come, but they’ve already gotten paying me out the way. They’ve told me, “I feel so good. I don’t owe you anything.”

I handle the business first, then go into the creative and work on the design. And everything really starts with the budget, even when I do the design plan. Once they give me that budget, I say, “This is the design plan based off the budget you gave me.”

When you’re presenting that design plan, are you breaking down the costs of each line item, or is it more about hitting that agreed-upon budget?
I present it and say, “This fits within your budget.” I don’t break it down, but I do know the numbers. If they say, “I love that sofa. How much is that?” I tell them how much it is. But I’ve learned that if I stay within the budget, my clients don’t care how much each thing costs individually. Or they’ll ask once it’s done— they’ll ask, “How much was that?” And then I’m like, “Half of your budget.”

There’s got to be so much creative freedom in that—not adjusting the mix to someone else’s idea of what things should cost.
I once did a design presentation for a client and they said, “I like that but it feels safe.” So I said, “You know what? Let me show you the first design I did.” That was the version where I did not hold myself back—before I thought, “Oh, maybe that’s too expensive.” The second time, I showed them the version I loved. From that experience, I’ve learned not to count a client’s money. Don’t do it! They hired you because they like your vision and they love what you do, so give them the best possible thing. Now I let them pull me back and say, “Geez, can we find a less expensive version of that?”

I recently found the perfect mirror on 1stDibs—and although it’s only $2,300, it’s coming from France, so the shipping is double the price of the mirror. I showed it to the client and she loved it. But when she found out how much ship- ping was going to cost, she told me, “I cannot pay that.” We tried and tried to find other mirrors, but we finally ended up buying that mirror and sucking it up with the shipping. It fit within the budget, and she loved it.

Homepage image: A graphic wallcovering in Alvin Wayne’s New York apartment sets the stage for a layered, textured space that exudes warmth without straying from a black-and-white scheme. | Nick Glimenakis

This article originally appeared in Summer 2022 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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