There’s no defined road map when starting your own business in any industry, but add in the variables that come with a creative profession like an interior design business and there’s perhaps even more to learn: From hiring the right people (or knowing when to let go of the wrong ones) to honing brand identity, the path to growing a successful business can often be one riddled with trial by error. Yet, as Stevie McFadden, founder of Flourish Spaces in Richmond, Virginia, explains, “There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel”—plus, a lot can be learned by example. We asked a selection of seasoned design pros for their best tips on everything from billing to client strategy when taking the leap of faith and going out on your own.
“Being in business for 35 years, I believe that the most important part of starting your own interior design firm is to make sure that you have a great support team behind you. The design industry is a very specific industry when it comes to fees and commissions and so I would recommend that from the beginning you should bring on board an attorney and an accountant who has knowledge of the design industry. I would also recommend hiring a bookkeeper to handle the paperwork as it can be a very tedious process which you do not want to devote your time to when you should and could be out shopping for your clients.” —Ellie Cullman, cofounder, Cullman & Kravis
“First things first are a business license and tax ID within your state: This one is obvious. I started day one with a design management software, professional invoicing structure, and outside accounting firm in place. My templates were set up, consistent and branded. I held on a bit too long managing my own sales tax reporting and P&L statements. In hindsight, I wish I had passed off those responsibilities much sooner. In fact, I should have incorporated those tasks into my day-one outside accounting services. You don’t realize how much it means to have consistent reporting from the beginning until you find yourself tracing back years later, patching together growth patterns tracked in several different systems.” —Drew McGukin, founder, Drew McGukin Interiors
“Billing in the design industry is still something I struggle with. It’s one of the few professions that there simply isn’t a standard formula. The biggest thing is to know your worth and don’t waiver on that. As designers, our brains rarely shut down and that is valuable to the client in the work we provide them. Transparency in billing upfront is key. Early on I would place orders without payment in good faith because I wanted to just get things moving. I learned that is not the way to conduct a successful business. You end up robbing Peter to pay Paul, and [this] creates chaos when it comes to orders. Be upfront with your clients. You are not a bank; you are a small business that is providing a service, and products that should be paid for in a timely manner.” —Shaun Smith, founder, Shaun Smith Home
“I did not officially announce my company as live until I had a firm, final logo design and collateral materials (business cards, notepads, presentation folders, etc). It was very important that I was “dressed for success.” Today, the website means something different. Your Instagram feed is your new website and your actual website is your new portal. The first tip is most important: Get paid fast and make it easy. Figure out what your strategy is around credit card or ACH payments and offer that convenience. Tip two is equally important: Share what you do, but only show what’s awesome. I had a “Coming Soon” splash page with Drew McGukin Interiors logo for my entire first year. I was adamant about only showing professional imagery. I needed time to produce the work. Same goes for Instagram nowadays. Elevate your images to something professional or don’t post in your feed. Build your brand via Stories or other media, then tag back to a professionalized IG grid even if it’s meager in the beginning. And, no goofy headshots. Be direct, elegant, and professional.” —Drew McGukin, founder, Drew McGukin Interiors
On creating a vision
“The first thing you have to do when starting a design firm is to really define what your goals and motivation for doing so are. A clear vision is so important. The goals that will define your business and brand should be long term goals. You (hopefully) are not starting a business that will only last two or three years, so set goals way beyond that for yourself. I have always lived by the ‘if you reach a goal, it’s time to set two more’ mentality.” —Shaun Smith, founder, Shaun Smith Home
On managing growth
“When managing growth in my business, for me the key is to assess, adjust, and adapt as quickly as possible. If you ignore it, chaos ensues. The key that has kept me (for the most part) from firing employees, but has also helped when hiring, is setting expectations from the beginning. You have to make each team member accountable. This has taken me a lot of practice, but when I delegate something to someone, I give them a completion date, and remind them I am letting it go and won’t check on it until it’s completed on that date. Of course, mistakes are made; however, it’s part of letting go and growing your business.” —Shaun Smith, founder, Shaun Smith Home
“As to employees, our philosophy is that each person should feel ownership of the projects that they are working on and not feel as if they are being dictated to. Here at Cullman & Kravis we work as teams and each team member is heavily involved in the evolution of the project, from scheming to preparation of proposals to placing and following up on orders.” —Ellie Cullman, cofounder, Cullman & Kravis
On client strategy and relations
“Think about what your approach, philosophy, and your niche is going to be so you know how to sell your services and how you’re going to pick your clients. It’s very easy to say yes to every project and every client in the beginning, but the reality is things you say yes to may be syphoning your time and energy from the projects you really want to do and ones that will help build your portfolio.” —Stevie McFadden, founder, Flourish Spaces
“Be responsive. I rarely let an email sit for more than five hours if I can help it—unless it comes in late at night. I think that sense of urgency is a key to my success, really. People ask me that all the time and I just say, ‘Answer the telephone.’ Not that people call anymore, but back in the day you could always get me on the phone. I wasn’t afraid of it. That’s the key: responsiveness. I have to give credit to Bunny Williams and John Rosselli. I’ve had the chance to work for some real pros and absorbed how they did things and modeling myself after them.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi
“It is important to make sure that you prepare the necessary paperwork for your clients. Once a client decides on a purchase, we prepare a very detailed proposal for them with information in regards to the vendor, style, color, etc. A proposal should also request a deposit. The deposit would be based on what the vendor requires to put the order in process or the timing of when you will need to pay the vendor.” —Ellie Cullman, cofounder, Cullman & Kravis
“The biggest tip [which] has landed me more clients, closed more deals, and cemented long-standing relationships: Send a handwritten thank-you note. I started my company with branded stationary that we use to this day. Two of my first five clients selected me over more established designers because I sent a handwritten thank-you note immediately after our first meeting. I am still working with both of those clients nine years later—multiple homes, multiple large projects, and many referrals. If I had to recap my goals for kicking off business in a sentence or two, I’d say that I was hyper-focused on presenting a professional look, attitude, and overall impression. I wanted every piece of paper and email to exude an elevated sense of style and professionalism in the same way I pushed my finished design work to resonate as measured, thoughtful, distinctive, and above average. In the beginning, I had myself to sell and presented as polished, poised, and professional across all channels. Whenever in doubt, I reverted to the more conservative choice because elegance is closely aligned to restraint and I ultimately desired a wealthy, sophisticated clientele. I live by two childhood mantras from my wonderful mom: ‘Surround yourself with successful people,’ and ‘It’s okay to stand out, but don’t stick out like a sore thumb.'” —Drew McGukin, founder, Drew McGukin Interiors
On outsourcing operations
“You need to learn about all parts of running the business, but quickly decide what to outsource. I spent the first two years doing my own bookkeeping and it’s my idea of the third ring of hell, but I did it long enough to really understand the different levers of my business, so now that I have outsourced it to a bookkeeper, I can look very quickly at the health of my business and if something doesn’t look right. The same for purchasing and expediting. Do everything in a business long enough to learn it, but no longer than necessary. Outsource the stuff that are not your strong suits. Try to get the business to the point where you’re focusing your energy on only what you can uniquely do.
There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. So many people have done this before. I have found other designers to be a bit opaque in terms of sharing how things get done, but that’s not true across the board. Find people who have a different target market and learn from their experience; but I also looked for businesses that were in the same space, but maybe a year ahead of me in terms of growth. Keep yourself open to learning from other industries. I have a friend who is starting a PR firm and I learned a lot of things [from her] that I could apply to my design business. Cast a wide net, be curious, and adapt to what works for your market and your clients.” —Stevie McFadden, founder, Flourish Spaces
On transparency in billing
“I think so many decorators are very vague about how they work; I’m not. I’m incredibly specific, and it’s not particularly complicated, and I’m very transparent. Decorators have gotten into trouble over the years because they’re not [transparent]. It’s easier to be transparent with your markups. You have to keep your clients happy, but you have to keep your vendors happy. Being responsive and sympathetic to their needs is important, and you have to walk a tightrope because you’re trying to get the best that you can from the people who are helping you but understand their limitations and get the best you can for your clients.
I tell the client what [products and services] cost, where we’re getting them from, and the markup. There are certain stores that will offer designers 30 percent or 20 percent or no discount at all, and I’m very specific about everything and letting everyone know exactly what we are getting. I speak in net prices all the time. When I’m in a shop, all the time people will look at you and just talk in net pricing. Decorators work very hard and they’re entitled to the money they make for what they’re doing. It’s certainly not private equity.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi
On starting a business and managing growth
“Part is luck and part is instinct. I am a big believer in finding great people and giving them a long leash and letting them do it. I have tried to do that. Albert Hadley always used to whisper in my ear, ‘Stay small.’ I think there’s so much truth in that. For the most part I have stayed somewhat small. Being direct and being decisive and quickly knowing the answer to solutions helps. I always think of Anna Wintour: She knows she’s incredibly decisive—and so am I, for the most part. It helps in business.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi
“The one thing that was a surprise for me was understanding there’s a difference between being a designer and being an operator of a business. You can be really talented at what you do, but having a really great understanding of the process of business—and this is not the sexy part of design—but how you’re going to manage clients, projects, and vendors. Thinking about pricing in advance and how you’re going to handle things. If you can give some thought in advance to the function of the business, it will help you be more efficient which helps you free up your energy, time, and creative juices to still do what you love to do. If you’re not careful, those administrative things can really suck you into the weeds, and when that happens, I find my creative juices are the first to go.” —Stevie McFadden, founder, Flourish Spaces
“It’s interesting what’s happening to our design world. Honestly, there are way too many people out there wanting to be designers and there just aren’t enough clients. If anyone asks what they need to start their own design firm, I’d say they aren’t ready to start their own design firm! They should spend at least five years learning the ropes about real design and decorating with actual clients with fully developed schemes and not just buying pretty things online.” —Frank De Biasi, founder, Frank de Biasi Interiors
On managing staff
“It’s important to find good people that you trust and who care about the brand. I try to recognize, fairly compensate, be inclusive, and stress how much of it is a team effort and how it’s not just me. It’s everyone. To err is human and to forgive is divine, and not that people make mistakes all the time, but it does happen. I try to see where the mistake happens, and it’s usually in a breakdown in communication, so I try to have as many channels of communication as possible. It’s really tough this day in age.
We’re doing a project on Block Island, and it’s a hard place to get to. There’s one ferry a year it feels like. We just had some box springs and mattresses, and looking at the height of headboards, the headboards could only be 14 inches tall and the mattresses were 30 inches tall. The client ordered them and sent an email to an assistant and didn’t cc me, and I swear if I had seen it, I would have caught it. To the annoyance of some I’m asking, ‘Please put me on all the emails, because I would rather just see what’s happening.’ Now there’s text, DM on IG, phone, email…please just keep it to email because it’s a format where you can document and follow up. If it’s a text, it disappears. Things happen, and it’s best to find a solution for the problem and move forward rather than wallow in the problem itself.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi