If your business has been slow of late and your revenue projections are off for the year, don’t feel too bad. You are not alone. Selling design services is getting harder and harder these days. Selling design management even more so. A handful of designers are doing really well, but many are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. As I see it, the choice is diversify or die.
In my previous blog, I counseled that if you have some available cash consider investing in real estate or perhaps as a silent partner in a promising business where you don’t have to be involved in sales or the day-to-day management. You want to make sure you will be available when the next client comes along.
That’s right. I’m not suggesting you shut down your interior design or architecture firm. My advice is to seek additional sources of revenue to get you through the dry spells, something to help pay the bills while you drum up more work.
But what if you don’t have money to invest? If you can’t diversify your investments, then diversify your offerings. One strategy is to reposition your services to appeal to a niche clientele. An obvious one these days is to focus on aging in place modifications. Most young, first-time homebuyers are married couples who are starting or planning to start a family. You could advise them on preparing their home now so that it can be adapted easily as the family grows and grows up, also on making the home a safe and supportive environment for children.
A different strategy is to add a sideline, such as partnering with real estate agents to conduct walkthroughs with prospective higher-end homebuyers to point out the issues and opportunities in a property, or creating virtual interior environments for retailers’ or service providers’ websites. What other talents do you have that you can combine with your interior design expertise to offer a new service and potentially attract new design clients? Do some research to see what today’s homebuyers and homeowners want. Then use your creativity to offer it to them in a unique and compelling way.
Clients more frequently are seeking design consultations and advice, rather than hiring designers to design and manage projects, often resulting in lower fees and fewer billable hours for the designer. This is making it tough for sole practitioners and smaller firms to remain profitable. In the past, when designers wanted to increase their revenues, they would focus on selling clients more products. Those opportunities are becoming harder to come by now, as more and more clients choose to go online and do their own purchasing. Designers need to be looking for other sources of revenue to sustain their businesses and maintain their incomes.
Some designers have sought to enhance their revenues by creating products to sell to clients and others. As I advised in a recent blog, however, without ample contacts and an aggressive marketing effort, diversifying into product design or manufacturing is not likely to substantially increase revenues and could end up adding to expenses with little or no return.
In recent conversations with clients struggling with the changes going on in our industry, I have been counseling them to consider pursuing alternative sources of income to supplement their design revenues. By alternative, I mean sources outside of the interior design industry. Depending on where you reside, there are, for example, at present many good real estate investment opportunities. Since designers frequently have good contacts with residential and/or commercial real estate developers or sellers, this seems to me a fruitful avenue for designers to pursue. Of course, as with all investments, there is a certain amount of risk. You need to decide how much risk you are able and willing to afford, and do your homework thoroughly before investing.
If you’re contemplating what you should be doing to grow your business or enhance your revenues, please contact me. I’ve helped many designers to develop strategies and plans that have allowed them to transition to their next level of success.
For keeping fit or building a skyscraper, having a strong core is essential. When the core gets weak, the rest of the structure begins to suffer, and that eventually leads to problems. The same is true for businesses. If you neglect your core, eventually your business will decline. And as anyone knows who’s struggled to get back in shape, rebuilding your core is a lot more work than maintaining it.
What does it take to keep your business’ core in good condition? First, focus on your core business. Review your projects from the past several years. Where do you excel or have something to offer that is unique and in demand? Are you in the business of providing design services or selling product? Do clients hire you for your design expertise or to manage their projects? What types of projects do clients seek you out for – kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, custom spaces, whole house design or remodel, vacation homes? Where you find the greatest sustained demand and profit is your business’ core. Now, what can you do to strengthen your core business – attract more clients, more projects, or larger or more profitable projects?
Second, focus on your core market. Where is most of your business coming from? You may aspire to working with wealthy clients, but are they your ideal client, the one that is going to hire you and refer you to others? Is your business mostly local and through word of mouth? If so, how can you increase your number of contacts with prospective clients? If you receive a number of inquiries through your website, social media pages or designer referral services, how can you enhance your online presence?
While it’s good to diversify your business to increase your opportunities, be careful not to neglect your core business in the process. If you accept whatever business comes your way, you run the risk of getting distracted, losing touch with your client base, and diluting your brand. Especially in time of increased competition, maintaining a strong core gives you a firm foundation upon which to grow your business and expand your market.
A common diversification strategy for interior designers is to create products. On the face of it, this appears to make sense. Aside from designing interiors and managing projects, what most designers know a lot about is product. Certainly, many designers have successfully launched their own product lines, some quite famously. In the current market, however, if you are looking to diversify your business, product may not be the right direction in which to go.
With globalization and new production technologies, the amount of product available to designers and their clients has grown exponentially in recent years. And along with it, the number of distribution channels have multiplied, especially on the internet, which is where most clients are searching for product. It is a challenge for anyone selling products these days to attract a profitable share of those eyeballs. If you think it is difficult marketing interior design services online, try promoting products. It requires substantial effort and resources, and constant vigilance.
On the other hand, if you have a sizeable and active clientele and/or network of designers interested in purchasing your products, or have access to bespoke retail outlets, creating products may work for you. Preferably these would be distinctive products that could be provided on demand or manufactured in small enough quantities to minimize your initial investment and overhead costs. They should also be easily scalable, so if demand increases you can quickly ramp up to meet it.
If you’re thinking about diversifying your business, whether with adding product or new services, contact us. We can advise you on what may be your best options and help you avoid missteps by developing a realistic transition plan to keep your current business thriving while you grow into your new one.
Think back three or four years ago. Would you have predicted that your business would be where it is today? So much has happened in our industry in the past several years that it seems a challenge to plan just a year or even six months ahead. Nevertheless, I encourage you to consider taking the long view and develop a five-year plan for your business.
Yes, I know it sounds absurd, given the fast pace of today’s business environment and continuing economic uncertainty. Here’s why you should do so. Without a long-range plan, you can easily begin to drift, tossed about by near-term trends and fluctuations in demand. While you can’t know for certain what the next six months, year or three years may bring, you can anchor yourself to your desired future for your business by planning ahead and allowing for contingencies that may occur.
Start with the obvious question: Where do you want your business to be five years from now? Ideally, do you want it to grow in size or expand into new markets? Do you want to be more diversified in your offerings or specialties? Would you like to do more selling, client development, and/or consulting and less design work? Or perhaps you are looking forward to retiring or selling your business. Those types of changes don’t happen overnight in most businesses. They require research, planning, cultivating contacts and enlisting expert advice, possibly hiring and developing staff so that they will be ready to take over some of your current duties when the time comes. Some scenarios may also require amassing a certain amount of capital.
Even if you can accomplish your goal in less time, it helps to take the long view. Like standing on the top of a mountain, you can see the lay of the land clearer and not be distracted by incidentals. Your plan does not have to be detailed at this point; it just needs to include the major objectives and milestones. Then, if something occurs you did not anticipate, you can maneuver around it or adjust as necessary, and keep moving toward your goal.
With competition from so many quarters, designers, it seems, are having a difficult time maintaining a unique and viable proposition for their business. Perhaps you’re thinking of expanding into new areas of service, designing products, or adding a design specialty or subspecialty to your menu of offerings in order to set your firm apart from your competitors. It’s always a good idea to adapt your business model to changing market conditions. But how can you know if such a move will be successful?
When markets are in flux, sailing into uncharted waters can be risky. Will there be a big enough market and sufficient demand for what you intend to offer? How should you price your new services or products? You will need to take time away from your usual activities to ramp up for the change, identify potential clients, and promote the new offerings. Quite possibly you will need to hire or outsource additional personnel and have to seek additional capital to fund the expansion. All this before you have secured even one new client or project.
Before going all in on modifying your business model, take your idea for a test run. Just as you would for a new design concept, develop a prototype of your new service, product or specialty area and seek out by word of mouth a client or two you can try it out on. This allows you to minimize your investment and exposure while gaining invaluable knowledge and experience. You will quickly learn if you have hit upon a viable new business proposition, and, if not, whether you need to modify it or change strategy.
If you need help structuring your business proposition or determining how you can better position your firm in today’s market, contact me. I have helped many designers to grow and advance their businesses by showing them how to retool their business models to make them more competitive and profitable.
It may seem like a rhetorical question to ask interior designers if there is a market for design. From what I am observing and hearing from designers whose businesses are not performing so well at present, I think, on the contrary, it goes to the heart of why some firms are so busy while others are struggling to attract clients.
What there is not as much demand for these days is shopping and decorating. Consumers looking to stretch their project budgets can find lots of decorating ideas and tips online or on TV. They can research and purchase many of the products they want the same way. Perhaps those products won’t be of the quality you would recommend, but frankly, most of them don’t care. They expect to have to replace them in a few years anyway. Is it any wonder more of them are trying to do it all themselves, going directly to contractors or engaging a designer for only a few hours of consultation?
Here is the question you should be asking yourself every business day: What do my clients need me for? The answer may vary somewhat from client to client, but the essential answer to that question ought to be (better be, or you’re in the wrong business), DESIGN. Clients may know what products they want and what kind of look they like, but by and large they know squat about designing interiors. They need you to do that.
Don’t assume that just because a potential client calls you they understand everything you can do for them. Since clients are not yet aware of why they need you, it is up to you to show and explain it to them. Designers I know who are really successful spend a lot of time doing that. It’s called marketing. Most designers don’t do enough of it or enough of the right kind of marketing.
Yes, there is a market for design. But you have to go out and look for it—or, be satisfied with whatever comes your way.
One of the biggest challenges for any business is keeping up with what is going on in the marketplace. It’s especially difficult for sole practitioners or small business owners who perform much of the work themselves. You get so caught up in the day-to-day demands of running a business, designing and managing projects, and dealing with clients, suppliers and service people that it’s hard to find time to lift your head up and take a look around at what’s happening out there in your community or in your field. Hard, yes; but for a business it can be fatal.
I am thinking especially of those designers who have seen their clientele dwindle in recent years and yet want to place the blame on the clients who don’t want to do business the way it used to be. It goes without saying that interior design is a service business, and thus designers need to provide the services their customers want. These designers have been reluctant to change their business model to adapt to the changes in the marketplace. As a consequence, they continue to lose market share and risk becoming obsolete. Their designs may be “timeless,” but their business practices are antiquated.
The number one reason businesses fail, according to entrepreneur and start-up advisor Eric Wagner, is not maintaining a deep dialogue with their customers. Instead, says Wagner, business owners have a tendency to “retreat to a cave,” that is, to become locked into their own thinking about the business and expect customers to come around to their way of doing things. That’s a big mistake, notes Wagner, “Your customer holds the key to your success deep in their pain, behavior, dreams, values and [what] they are trying to accomplish.” You need to stay in constant contact with them and really listen to what they have to say. The more personal the contact, the better.
How long has it been since you’ve gotten out of your cave and had a deep dialogue with your clients or potential clients? You may be surprised by what they have to say and what you can learn from them. Perhaps even more important, you may find yourself re-energized to try new things and rev up your creative juices, which will be a boost to your spirit as well as your business.
Do you have trouble with pushy clients? I’m talking about the ones who want to take charge of their project and use you as a product database and sounding board for their great ideas? They are the unfortunate offspring of today’s DIY culture, who have not yet grasped the truth of the old adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
You, however, have a lot of knowledge, and, believe it or not, that gives you the advantage. Think about it. Why has the client engaged your services? Not likely because they want to impress you with their design expertise. They need and want your help. The trouble is, they are afraid of giving up too much power to you, the designer. So you have to set them straight.
When a client begins to get too assertive, you need to take the lead and reassure them that you are both in this together. You as the design professional are in charge of the project. It’s your job to see that everything goes smoothly. They, the client, are the ones paying the bills and who will have to live with the final result. They are in charge of their choices. You will make recommendations and give them expert advice, but the final decision is always up to them. You have what you want; they have what they want. And you can get on with the business of delivering them great design, for which they will be extremely grateful. If, on the other hand, they refuse to budge, it’s time to part ways. Never work with a client who does not respect your professional expertise.
Would you like more help dealing with difficult clients? Join me for my presentation,
“A New Conversation—Evolving your Business with the DIY Consumer” on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from 5:30 to 7:30 PM at Arizona Tile and Stone, 5800 Venice Ave NE, 87113, sponsored by the ASID New Mexico Chapter. Go here for more information. I look forward to seeing you there.
If there were one big change that would make a significant improvement in your revenues this year, what would it be? The folks at Houzz asked that questions of professionals in the design and renovation industries, and here’s what the majority of interior designers said: bring in larger projects (59%), increase marketing/sales efforts (56%), and increase prices / mark ups / margins by 5% (47%).
Those are all great goals. They reflect the renewed optimism many designers are feeling based on recent forecasts that this will be a good year for the economy as a whole, and even better for the most affluent citizens. So my question to you is, what are you doing now to realize your goal? Have you identified a new market or clientele from whom you expect to land those larger projects? Have you developed a marketing plan and set aside extra marketing dollars in your budget to achieve it? Have you tested the waters to see if your clients will accept a fee increase and developed a communications program for how and when you are going to roll out that increase?
All businesses need goals, but goals without strategies are just good intentions. And we all know what those are worth. So before your year gets really busy, take the time now to develop the strategies, create the budget, do the networking, and engage the creative team that will help you make that goal a reality. If you’re not sure how to get started, where to find those larger projects, or what kind of marketing plan you need, contact me and let’s talk about it. Together we can make this the year you achieve your game-changer goal and possibly more.