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.
If you follow the real estate news (and you should), you’ll know that the luxury home market is in something of a slump at the moment. That’s never good news for interior designers, but is it cause for concern? The answer, in part, depends on where you practice. Some markets are performing better than others. Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture.
Nationwide, it is a buyer’s market for luxury homes, especially for those at the higher end ($5 million or more). Supply is outpacing demand. Prices are dropping. And it is taking longer for homes to sell. However, you should consider several mitigating factors. First, the market is not the same in all parts of the country. Premium markets such as the Hamptons, Aspen, and Los Angeles have experienced a double-digit drop in sales. Even red-hot Silicon Valley is seeing some softening. Other areas, though, such as Austin, Anne Arundel County in Maryland, Charleston, Memphis, and Vail report robust activity.
Second, the slow down has been highest among speculators and investors who purchase properties in the hope of flipping them in short order and making a nice profit. Sales among more traditional buyers who want a luxury home to live in continue to do fairly well. These are the individuals who are more likely to become your clients in the months ahead.
Third, competition may spur homeowners who are looking to sell to undertake some redecorating, redesign or remodeling projects to make their properties more attractive. Especially in the high-end condominium market, demand continues for staging or refreshing services.
Finally, keep in mind that real estate sales are not leading indicators but lagging indicators of a changing economy. If the economy continues to perform well, and if policies change that provide the wealthy with more favorable earnings, investment and tax conditions, the luxury real estate market should experience a rebound later in the year.
In my last post I pointed out several indicators that suggest business is likely to increase for interior designers this year. You may be thinking, therefore, that perhaps this is the time to raise your fees, before those inquiries start coming in from clients. The start of a new year is often a good opportunity to implement a fee increase. But before you do, consider some other factors as well.
While clients are accustomed to businesses raising prices or rates at the beginning of the new year, they are not always willing to go along, especially if they feel the increase is not warranted. They may jump ship and decide to try another retailer or service provider instead. So, one question to ask yourself before you announce a fee increase is whether your clients feel that your value to them also has gone up. Since we are not yet in the peak spring design season, it may be too early for them to envision or recollect the many benefits they will reap from your professional skills and expertise. It may be better to wait a bit longer until the design media helps by creating a greater sense of urgency. Then, when you meet with the client you can inform them about your fee increase and the reasons for it.
Another factor to consider is competition. Today designers are not just competing with other local designers. There are online designers, designer listings on platforms like Houzz and Pinterest, design software and apps, retail designers, and contractors and remodelers—all competing the for the same pool of potential customers. If your clients perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they can get the same service or result for less, why would they want to pay more? However, if you know that your clients value your work and want the look and/or service only you can provide, then you have an edge and can charge a higher fee.
Whenever you decide to raise your fees, be sure to give clients plenty of advance notice. Never attempt to apply a fee hike retroactively. And do not raise fees exorbitantly all at once—a good rule of thumb is between 10 and 20 percent, depending on market conditions. Clients usually will accept a reasonable increase, if it is presented properly.
Whatever your political views, there’s little doubt that the incoming administration will be good for the design business. Stock markets have already hit record highs in anticipation of a more business- and investment-friendly environment. With extra money in their bank accounts and home prices on the rise, affluent homeowners will be more likely to invest in redesigns, remodels and upgrades, as well as new and second homes. Now is the time to prepare for what could be a busy spring season.
If you have not already done so, here are some steps you should be taking to get your business in order:
- Review and refresh your marketing material, including your website, Houzz portfolio, Facebook page, and whatever other social media platforms you use. Keep in mind that many of these prospective clients are likely to be in their 30s or early 40s. Your outreach efforts need to reflect their tastes, preferences and wants.
- Reconnect with former clients and others in your business network. Let them know you’re available and remind them of the range of services you can provide. Arrange a non-business, face-to-face meeting, if you can.
- Spend some time getting up to speed on the latest trends, products and technologies for the home. You don’t have to employ them in your design, but you want clients to know you are aware of them.
- Check in with vendors to get updated information on product availability and delivery schedules. With a shortage of skilled labor in many areas, it’s also a good idea to keep in touch with contractors and tradespeople as to their availability.
In addition, assess your capacity to take on more business if the opportunity arises. Do you have freelancers or colleagues who can share the load? How quickly could you bring on additional help if you needed to? A bit of planning now may give you a competitive advantage later.
You’ve seen the postings: such-and-such a firm seeks Senior Interior Designer, with an emphasis on experience, management ability and proven track record of satisfied clients. Over the past couple of years I have seen a good number of older independent designers who have successfully operated their own businesses for decades apply for these positions because their client pool is dwindling. In most cases, they never even make it to the interview stage. Employers are looking for “senior designers” who are much younger.
On average, in human resource lingo a “senior designer” is one with around 10 years or more of experience. Some postings will specify, for example, bachelors’ degree in interior design or interior architecture and 8 years, or 10 years, or 12 years of experience. That would place the bulk of candidates in the age range of mid-30s to early 40s—far younger than the independent designers in their 50s or even 60s who hope to compete with them. Especially if the employer or partners are thinking of selling or transferring the firm to this individual eventually, they can anticipate another 15 to 20 years of work from them, as opposed to maybe 5 to 10 from an older designer.
In addition, some employers are looking for a minimum combined years of experience, but others, particularly commercial firms, are looking for number of years practicing a particular specialty. That can be another handicap for independent designers who have done primarily residential projects. The same applies to aesthetics. A firm that has branded itself to appeal to affluent urban dwellers has no interest in hiring a designer with 20 years’ experience doing traditional or country interiors.
If you are an older designer looking to make a career transition, you still have options. For guidance with your career, please contact me online or give me a call at 212.777.5718 x6 for an informal conversation about how we might work together.