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Sorry – Grateful

Posted on: September 8th, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

Three years ago, almost to the day, I started this blog to create interest in my upcoming book, Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer.  At the time it wasn’t quite finished and I knew I would be looking for a publisher.  As many of you know all that came about and I published a second book with Allworth Press in June of this year.  All in all a very successful use of the internet, social marketing and a desire to share the knowledge I have gathered over the past 38 years. I have enjoyed the comments I’ve received and the response to both of my books.  The second book, Interior Design Clients  The Designers Guide to Finding and Keeping a Great Clientele, has done very well in sales and was just reviewed by the Library Journal of America.  Starting Your Career was named on of the ten best “how-to” books in America in 2009 and I hope The Designers Guide will be as successful with them.

Now, however, is the time to stop this blog.  I’ve found writing once a week a challenge and very rewarding.  I will continue to teach, mentor and offer my services as a private consultant even though I will no longer be blogging about the business of interior design.

To all of you my very best wishes for your continued and future success. I continue to believe now is the best possible time to get into this business.  The numbers can only continue to increase.  Get out there and show them how it’s done in a professional and exciting manner.

If, at any time, I can be of help just email at design@hale-williams.com and I’ll be happy to talk with you about whatever you want.

Good Luck

Tom Williams

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Tell It Like It Is

Posted on: September 8th, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

It happens to all of us at one time or another.  The fabric we had on reserve and just ordered is now on back order and will be delayed for another eight weeks. What to do?
A – reselect and hope the client doesn’t notice
B – Don’t say anything to anyone and pretend it hasn’t been delayed
C – Notify the client of the change and offer to help them reselect should they decide the wait is too long
I certainly hope you selected C.  This is not the time to put your head in the sand.  It is a great opportunity for you to strut your stuff.  As a professional we know there is always more than one solution to our design challenges and the re-selection of fabric can, in some instances, improve your already beautiful design. And it’s not just fabrics.  Furniture can be delayed because of cutting schedules.  Accessories delayed because the vendor runs out of a certain trim or finial.  All the things that can delay the delivery of goods to clients.  This also points out the need for your office to maintain some sort of process of follow up and management of goods on order.
During our weekly staff meetings we discuss the status of each client we’re working on at the time.  We run through all open proposals, take a look at each and let the other staff members know what the status is of each order    attached to that proposal.  Should we discover a delayed shipment date or some other reason for delay it goes back to the designer to decide how to handle the problem.  It’s important to inform the client as soon as possible.  It’s also a great time to make contact with the client in this time we call “the twilight zone” of the process.  We contact our client once or twice a month with a status report on the goods ordered.  A great way to touch base and an opportunity to find out if other items might be needed and give you a chance to create an add-on sale.  So, there are those times when being upfront with your client is the best choice.  Actually, it’s always the best choice.

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On A Clear Day

Posted on: September 1st, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

What is it about running your own business that keeps you on your toes?  I kept thinking about it and decided it’s all about how to keeping focused and ” clear of thought” is what separates the winners from the has beens.
One of the keys to running any successful business is being able to maintain a clear thought process at all times. This may look easy from the sidelines but in the heat of battle you will find it harder than you think.  Clarity of mind (and it’s partner, clarity of action) will help you at every stop in your design career.  From objectively seeing when a job has been done right (or wrong) to knowing when to bring in outside help to improve business, a “sharp eye and a sharper mind” are two killer designer attributes that will never, ever go out of style.

But contrary to what some of your professor’s may have told you, “success” isn’t determined by how many “attributes” you have on your dossier.  It’s more mysterious than that.  Of all the intangible factors out there, the four that will weigh heaviest in the early part of your career will be: staying sharp, being resourceful, playing to your strengths and knowing how to compensate for your weaknesses.

How does one go about doing all this?  Begin by developing the clarity of mind to see what you do well and what needs work.  Once you know the holes in your game, you can address them through self-improvement or by partnering with other design specialists who are experts in areas where you are not.

For example, if you find you aren’t very good at organization, partner with someone who is.  If you can see you’re having problems with color, bring in a color specialist.  If you’re a control freak, learn to delegate.  This is (frankly) the reason why so many of us designers go the partnership route.  Smart designers are aware of their limitations (before starting their practice) and know that, to succeed, their business must be able to do it all, even if they (as one person) cannot.

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All Alone Am I

Posted on: August 25th, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

I was, for a few months, a sole proprietor working alone out of my apartment in Philadelphia.  I did it all.  Sales, project management and follow-up.  I couldn’t wait until I had the income to hire staff.  It all came to pass, I rented a space and began to hire employees.   Oh, that was another kettle of fish.  Still someone had to take care of all the details of operating a business.  I found the creation of purchase orders and the follow up to be the hardest part of the job.  Just getting a quote for clients could take all day.  I finally decided to assign a single employee the responsibility of that particular part of our business.  Since early 2000 Robert and I have, again, operated as a two man firm.  We do it all in house and I still find the follow up tedious.  Alone we may be but it doesn’t have to be that way.  There are firms out there that specialize in  supplying an alternative to in-house staffing.  As a matter of fact, it is sometimes more cost effective to outsource the staffing than to hire and maintain staff on your premises.  One such firm, Gibson Design Management, www.gibsondesignmanagement.com offers quotes, pricing and purchase order placement and follow-up to members who join their collective.  For some firms this might not be the best choice but I believe for sole proprietors and small firms this approach could mean a more efficient use of the principals time and a savings to the firm.  By outsourcing and sharing the complex task of purchasing and follow-up through delivery you, the designer, now have the time to get out there and sell, sell, sell.  I have also looked into outsourcing other aspects of your business.  Certainly using an accountant wouldn’t be effective for the day to day operations of the business but a bookkeeper who works outside the office as an independent contractor and not as a full time employee can save you thousands in time and dollars.  Drawings, renderings, working drawings for custom product and electrical plans can all be outsourced.  Some to places as far away as Asia.  Ah, the joys of the Internet.  Still, very cost effective when applied to our business.  We use people as close as San Francisco and as far away as Bangkok.  Gibson Design Management is in Virginia.  So, start thinking about ways to save money and time and get those big new clients in the door.

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Never On Sunday

Posted on: August 18th, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

Robert and I were talking the other day with our writer about working with clients and I remembered that when I first started I would see clients whenever they wanted to meet.  I was, after all, new to the business of sole proprietor and felt I needed to meet every expectation of each and every client.  That meant late nights, weekends and early mornings.  I remember one particular occasion when I was asked to meet with the clients early on a Sunday afternoon.  It would mean I would be driving out to the construction site which would take about 50 minutes each way.   I was excited about doing the whole house but the client had yet to pay the retainer I had asked for the project.  They told me the check and signed letter of agreement would be with them on that Sunday.  So, without another thought about it, I made the appointment.  The day dawned bright and clear and I was looking forward to seeing how the project had progressed since our last meeting.  At this point I already had about 2 hours invested without seeing a dime of income.  It had also been my practice to meet with clients the first time at no charge.  But, that’s another story.
I met the clients at the appointed time and we went right to work.  We spent about 2 hours going through the roughed-in 4,500 sq. ft. home and I was lavish with my ideas for the job and very open about resources and the like.  After all, I had the job, didn’t I?  At the end of the meeting the clients thanked me for my time and started to get into their car.  I asked about the letter of agreement and they said they had decided to use another designer and, although they liked many of my earlier ideas and would incorporate them into the working plan, just wanted to hear more of my ideas in case they wanted to share them with the new designer selected.  Well, I was dumbstruck.  I didn’t have a snappy retort and simply stood there as they drove away.  I considered torching the place but decided better.
What I did decide was Never on Sunday.  I also decided not to let myself be walked on again by prospective clients.  It became the policy of my firm not to meet with prospective clients except during our standard office hours.  By demanding the respect I and my team deserved as professionals we were able to more accurately qualify new clients.   As the years have rolled by I have certainly met with clients on Saturday, early evenings and early mornings.  Just never on Sunday.  It has given me the time away from the business I need and, at the same time, made me far more aware of the value of my time when working with clients.   Clients have far more respect for those of us who set certain parameters as to how we will do business.  Consider how you might use the same principal in your business.

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I Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted on: August 11th, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

What! You don’t keep your ear to the ground listening to the jungle drums of gossip and word of mouth?   Most designers will tell you they depend on word of mouth for promoting their business but most also do nothing to make sure the message people hear is the one they want for publication.  It’s up to you to make sure what they hear is what you want them to hear.  When you are out at industry functions be sure to keep on message.  It isn’t always about how busy you are or how many clients you have waiting in the wings.  It should be about your corporate story.   How you see your position in the community.  Be sure to be consistent.  Tell the same story but maybe in a different way from time to time.  Make sure the people you talk to will pass along the information to other people.  Let your clients know what your firm is doing in the community.  Have you recently been published?  Have you joined a board of directors of a service group?  These are the type of things that will make great ” grapevine ” talk.  When you make sure your clients know what is going on that is the same message they will pass along to their friends.  So, word of mouth is a wonderful way to market your business, just make sure you are in control of the message.  From time to time it is also a good idea to get out there and see if you can’t hear what they are saying about you.  I have found one of the best sources for that kind of information is the advertising sales agents for shelter magazines and those people who write about design in your area.   Ask them what they’ve heard about your business.  You still need to make sure you are getting the right message out there.  Listen to the “grapevine” and hear the words.  They will have an impact on your business and you want it to be positive.  Start the word now and keep feeding the vine.  I can’t wait to hear from you what happens.  Or, maybe I’ll hear it through the grapevine.

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Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Posted on: August 4th, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

Cash Flow.  Boy, what a bother.  Trying to manage cash flow when the cash doesn’t come in the door in a consistent manner is one of the many things we, as entrepreneurs and self employed business people, must deal.  Certainly keeping back a certain amount of money we receive as deposits is one way to make sure the money is there when we need it.  By creating our own reserve we insure the bills will get paid.  Another way most of us insure cash flow is to borrow the money; usually in the form of a line of credit against the business.  Quite often this line is guaranteed personally by the owner.  What fun.  So, when the cash is flowing in we pay the credit line off.  Either the whole amount or the minimum interest payment.  The problem with this is, of course, the cost of the money.  Depending on how the loan, and that’s what a line of credit is, is secured the interest can get to nose-bleed levels very quickly.  Especially if it’s attached to a credit card.  So, we need to make sure we aren’t paying so much in interest we are loosing money even when we borrow it.  Crazy, huh?  Work with your banker or credit adviser to discover what would be best for you and your business.  Usually credit cards are not the way to go.  The cost of money can exceed 20% per annum and run thousands of dollars or more a year.  Money that will never, ever, get to your bottom line.  Do you own your building?  Yes, that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?  If not, and you rent, are there assets in the business against which a loan could be secured?  Try to figure out how you can prove the cash will be there when the bill comes due on the line of credit.  Rather than secure the loan personally try securing the loan through the assets of the company.  Borrowing money to run your business is still a sound business decision.  You just want to make sure you spend the money on the business.  Don’t spend those deposits on anything but the item ordered and get those client invoices paid before delivery.  Then you will see an easier time with cash flow.

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Day by Day

Posted on: July 21st, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

One time Robert was invited by a client to Maine to work on her summer home.  He flew up on a Thursday and planned to return Sunday afternoon.  He had agreed on a day rate for the time he would be out of the office and his expenses would be paid.  We thought, what could be bad?  Answer: everything.

I won’t go into details but, upon his arrival, he realized, to his horror, he was there for their entertainment.  He had hardly gotten seated in the car when the design questions started.  They didn’t stop the entire weekend.  What had he gotten himself into?  These people sucked free advice from his non-stop all weekend and didn’t even provide lively conversation or good company!  They were plain boring and he was plain bored by the end of the weekend.

Once he returned to the office, we reassessed our travel procedures.  Now, we insist our accommodations be a small hotel or bed and breakfast.  At least that way, we can get away every evening.  We also try, as often as possible, to limit out of town work to one business day during the week.  No weekends.  We know, it’s not always possible but we certainly try.

I once even flew roundtrip from Baltimore to St. Paul in the same day!  An early morning departure and hour time change helped make the day work out very nicely.  A long day, yes, but very profitable and I didn’t have to tap dance on stage for days on end.  The client was pleased to have me visit the new home and it helped with selections as we moved into the full design phase of the project.

As I said last week make sure you aren’t killing yourself traveling very little or no return.  At the same time give your client your full attention when on site.  All the way around a good deal.

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You Gotta’ Run

Posted on: July 14th, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

Long distance travel, whether to another city or abroad, brings with it another whole set of challenges like cost of shipping, exchange rates and the like.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  Something else to consider is the office hours it will take to locate sources in the destination city, arrange for meetings and showings, etc.  All prep-work must take place before leaving for the trip.  Despite what you hear, an international trip really isn’t all that glamorous.  A designer should not be blinded by first class airfare.  It is still work and should be treated just like any other part of the job.  I prefer the client not come along on buying trips, but there are occasions when it’s just the ticket, so to speak.  In those instances, if an eager client is on hand to cover all out-of-pocket expenses as well as make on-the-spot decisions regarding purchases, all the better.  I always insist on separate accommodations when traveling with clients as the last thing a designer wants is to be on stage twenty-four hours a day.

When traveling for a client, the tendency is to charge less hourly because of the large number of hours involved, especially when traveling overnight or on multiple overnight trips.  I reduce my rate for extended travel time since it is almost impossible to rationalize normal hourly billing when you are spending time in your hotel after hours.

Remember, when you are presenting your travel estimate, success is predicated on being completely open with the client.  Start by explaining your point of view.  If the designer is a sole-proprietor, there is the question of missed opportunities at the office if away for an extended period.  In addition, who will oversee the operation until the principal returns if he or she has a limited staff?  If you are living right, these concerns might be offset by payment from the client.  If not, it probably wasn’t worth your time in the first place.

Here are the terms I request from clients before making a commitment to travel:

  • Cost of airfare: business or first class if the trip is longer than four hours
  • Separate hotel accommodations
  • Meals and taxi/car rental expenses
  • An hourly fee

You will be able to create your own practices when it comes to travel and I hope you make it profitable and enjoyable.  No matter what, travel should still be fun.  I hope you work with your client to make it so.  Next week I’ll share a small story about learning the ropes when it comes to client travel.

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The Ladies Who Lunch

Posted on: June 28th, 2010 by halewilliams No Comments

Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer: The Business of Interior Design

I am always amazed at how many “ladies” spend every work day having lunch with their clients.  Not only are they in the design center working with the client in tow they stop for an hour or more to have a bite.  Is that a good way to use our very valuable time?  Is it a good way to spend our clients design time dollars?  Well, I think not.  Interior design is a business, not an avocation.  We, as professionals, should use the design center to source our projects, not as a testing ground for clients reactions to certain furniture and fabrics.  We should be secure in the knowledge our decisions will meet the design criteria for the project and we need not produce more than two, three or four selections for any given element.  As the “ladies” spend hours in a social whirl with Mrs. GotRocks instead of producing the given project it becomes evident to all concerned the project will probably drag on forever.  Decisions are delayed and selections not made.  For the client, who generally doesn’t know any better, frustrations may build to a point that a confrontation is inevitable.  For the “lady” designer profit slips through her fingers and she just can’t understand why the bills aren’t getting paid.   I would advocate this “lady with taste” move on to the bridge table and let some of the very talented young designers show her how it’s done.  As a teacher of Business Practices for the Interior Designer I find more and more young designers getting the message about business.  Yes, Green Design, is all the rage but without a profitable business none of that “green” is going to grow.  So stop having lunch with every client that comes down the pike and produce the project in a timely and profitable manner.
Repeat after me, Interior Design is a business.

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