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How A Unique Approach to Cash Flow Has Helped This Architect Construct Her Business

How A Unique Approach to Cash Flow Has Helped This Architect Construct Her Business
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Leslie Saul & Associates, Inc. is an architecture and interior design firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts that primarily services the greater Boston and Miami areas. The business focuses on renovations including offices, restaurants, retail stores, senior living facilities, private homes, universities, churches, and synagogues, among many other building types. Founder Leslie Saul says that having such a broad practice has helped her maintain a business for more than 26 years. Additionally, her attention to quality and value have brought back return customers and helped retain long-term employees.  

Why did you start your business?

I went to Rhode Island School of Design. When I applied, I wanted to be a painter. I took a gap year and realized that I’m a people person. I got my degree in architecture. Even when I was in school, I was really focused on interiors, partly because of my painting background.

I worked my way up in the architecture business, working for various firms. I talked to a friend from a big firm who mentioned a model shop they didn’t really use. He mentioned that maybe I should start my own firm. Once I had that space, I asked my previous firm to buy me out. I wanted my firm to be family-friendly, with flextime and things like that. Those things are very common now, but at the time, I had a four-year-old and I felt limited by not having them, even though I was a principal at my old firm.

How did you fund the business at the start?

I used my savings. And, in 1992, American Express gave me credit even though I had no income. My husband worked, so we had one income, but we gave up everything, from newspapers to dinners out. Within six months of starting, we were cash flow neutral.

How do you manage cash flow?

We ask for retainers from our clients. It needs to be enough money to show a seriousness of purpose, even though it might not necessarily cover the costs for the first month. When we get inquiries, we sometimes do some initial low-cost services that get clients comfortable working with us

To help with cash flow, I don’t take a big salary to keep a lot of cash in the business. I’ve never missed a paycheck over 26 years, except for my own. I’ve learned that people will stick with you if you stick with them. If you lay people off at the start of a slow down, you may not be able to hire people when you need them. Though that may negatively impact cash flow, we have the benefit of keeping our team together and being able to produce very quickly when new clients bring us on board.

What’s the most challenging thing about running the company?

Continuing to grow the quality of projects and clients. I’ve never focused on quantity. When I worked for larger firms that do focus on quantity, it felt like I was just keeping the underlings motivated versus getting my own satisfaction from any of the work.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running the company?

Seeing the successes and development of the people who have worked for us over the years. Not only the long-timers, but also the people who move away and call me and say, “I always say to myself, what would Leslie do?” That’s very rewarding and I feel very proud of them!

There’s no better gratification than seeing a finished product and knowing how you’ve fulfilled a client’s needs and wants and overcome their challenges. Just this morning, we were talking to an old client who said, “I’m not sure if I ever told you how much we love this and how perfect everything you did was!”

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What’s the biggest mistake you made when starting out?

We’ve made some economic mistakes like setting a fee too low or not really understanding the scope before starting a project. I was and probably still am easily bullied when it comes to money, especially when it comes to doing work for larger firms.

What’s the smartest thing you did when starting out?

I asked a friend to help me and he said I needed a good phone number. It was so memorable! People still say they call that number when they try to reach us, even though we moved 19 years ago!

Also, I hired people who filled my weaknesses. I think a lot of entrepreneurs hire themselves, especially in my industry. The smartest thing you can do is to be honest with yourself about what your weaknesses are and hire people that are good at those things. Together, you’re better than anyone individually.

What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?

You will do great! Always believe in yourself! Always do the right thing. Always stay true to your values and remember your reputation can’t be rebuilt.

What’s next for Leslie Saul & Associates, Inc.

I’ll be turning 65 and I want to keep this going. I really enjoy what I do. I like the idea that design services should not just be the exclusive benefit of wealthy people. I feel like there are others who have needs that we can help meet. So, I feel like I haven’t finished and there’s a lot in our future.  

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Ashley Sweren

Ashley Sweren

Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing (http://www.fireworkwritingonline.com/), located in San Jose, California.

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Continue reading How A Unique Approach to Cash Flow Has Helped This Architect Construct Her Business

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On the Move: Recent Top Promotions and Hires

FLOS

Roberta Silva (pictured at left) has been named CEO of Flos. She was selected by the group’s shareholders together with Piero Gandini, the entrepreneur who sold Flos to Design Holding. As CEO, she will carry forward the brand’s history of excellence and guide the company into a new phase of growth.

York Wallcoverings

Vincent Santini has been named vice president and general manager of York Brands. He will oversee all sales and support for York’s residential and commercial businesses. The company, approaching its 125th year in 2020, hopes to grow its reach in over 85 countries.

WeWork

James Slade has joined the design team at WeWork as VP of architecture. He will work with SVP of architecture Michael Rojkind and chief architect Bjark Ingles on all ground-up projects. Slade co-founded Slade Architecture with his partner, Hayes Slade, in 2002, and has built projects in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Ware Malcomb

Joshua Thompson (pictured at right) has been promoted to studio manager, interior architecture and design in Ware Malcomb’s downtown San Diego office. He previously served as senior project manager for the past five years in the Phoenix office. He will lead Ware Malcomb’s interior architecture & design studio in San Diego and manage select projects.

R&A Architecture & Design

Culver City-based R&A Architecture & Design is rebranding their firm to OfficeUntitled and expanding the leadership team, made up of principals Christian Robert, Benjamin Anderson, Shawn Gehle and Lindsay Green. Recent projects include Woodlark Hotel in Portland, The Cayton Children’s Museum in Santa Monica, and the Harland in Beverly Hills.

The Switzer Group

Sabrina Pagani has joined The Switzer Group’s Manhattan team as principal. She will oversee a number of high-profile workplace interiors out of the nationally ranked interior architecture firm’s New York studio.

BDG Architecture + Design

BDG Architecture + Design is opening a new studio in New York, expanding into the North American market. BDG’s global chief creative officer, Colin Macgadie will provide creative direction for the studio. Kelly D. Powell and Rebecca Wu-Norman will be studio leads.

TRIO

Ericka Moody has joined TRIO as regional vice president. Moody is a 30-year veteran of the interior design industry and has overseen hundreds of successful national and international projects. TRIO has expanded its work in California significantly over the last several years and has recently completed dozens of projects, including work with Touchstone Communities, Shea Homes, and Simpson Property Group.

Perkins + Will

Maha Sabra has been promoted to associate principal in the New York studio of Perkins + Will in support of the healthcare practice. In the past five years at the studio, she has transitioned from a design practitioner to project manager. As a senior project manager, Sabra plays a central role leading the studio’s healthcare teams.

HOK

Kimberly Dowdell (pictured at right) has returned to HOK as director of business development in Chicago. Dowdell is a licensed architect with a wealth of expertise in strategic planning, design, project management, housing policy, and real estate development. She previously worked in HOK’s New York studio from 2008-2011.

Wilson Associates

Kathleen Lynch has joined the Dallas studio of Wilson Associates as operations director. Lynch has 15 years of professional experience as a LEED-accredited interior designer and field manager. She will oversee teams on a roster of hospitality projects in Nevada, California, and other areas across the Southwest.

WRNS Studio

Kevin Wilcock has joined WRNS Studio as associate principal. He brings 25 years experience leading affordable and market-rate housing projects. He will be based out of WRNS Studio’s Honolulu office, guiding the studio’s multi-family housing practice with a focus on the Pacific region.

Read more: On the Move: April’s Top Promotions and Hires

Continue reading On the Move: Recent Top Promotions and Hires

BEST PRACTICES TO TAKE YOUR INTERIOR DESIGN BUSINESS TO NEW LEVELS

Fernando RodriguezFernando Rodriguez of Stewart Rodriguez and ASH Home shares his insights on best business practices for interior designers

Editor’s Note: Fernando Rodriguez, of Aaron Stewart Home (ASH) and Stewart Rodriguez is the newest blogger on Furniture, Lighting & Decor. Come along with him as he shares best practices for interior design businesses and home furnishings retail, sharing what he’s learned along his journey with partner Aaron Stewart. 

How It All Began

When we started our interior design business six years ago, I had no idea of the many competencies and skills it would require of me. Of course, there are the basic interior design skills we all have and acquire from design school or from personal experiences. But what about tenacity, resilience, persistence, analytical skills, organizational skills, management skills, selling skills to name a few.  

I wish I had a magic wand when we started to see the road ahead, or  someone to give me advice based on their own personal experience building a firm. The interior designer of 2019 is very different from the interior designer from 1960s or ‘70s. Why? Because our profession keeps evolving, progressing and growing. That is thrilling.  But it can also be daunting.

So Many Skills, So Little Time

It is impossible to be a master at so many skills, some more complex than others. In 2019, an entrepreneur requires a high level of discipline, vision and self-motivation.  Before Stewart Rodriguez was created, I lived in New York City and worked for a very well-known women’s fashion brand. One of the most valuable lessons I learned working for her was the importance of creating a “best in class” team and surrounding yourself with people who know more than you do. It is a humbling reality that we are not experts in every area of our business.

The ability to visualize a space or decide what furniture pieces go in a room might come naturally to you. How about managing the pressure we all feel about having the perfect Instagram board? I am always intrigued by how other designers manage their finances, a work day or the best way to manage a project from the inspiration boards to the installation.

How do you present and sell your services during a presentation to a prospective client? We are all not wired to be great speakers, yes you might be one of the lucky ones that can sell your passion for the project but what about the people that have a bit of anxiety presenting in front of big groups or board members? Are you charging enough for your services? I often wonder how other designers do it?  

Sometimes I wish I had a mentor or a colleague that I can reach out to for advice or direction. When I first spoke to Diane Falvey, Furniture, Lighting & Decor’s  Editor-in-Chief, about this blog, it was clear that there is an abundance of articles on trends, color stories and new product designers. But what about a place where we can all learn about the intricacies of the many business skills our jobs require. Our days are long, full of meetings with clients, and then there’s time spent visiting construction sites and calling vendors to get an estimated arrival time for a piece of furniture. Time is precious, and we don’t have too much left at the end of the day.  

Breaking Down Silos

Interior designers usually work in silos. That means people, teams or firms are working toward the same objective, often in close proximity, but not sharing information or addressing concerns about the challenges of others using your creative drive. This happens in every profession, but in ours it tends to be a big issue, especially in smaller markets.

I am always fascinated to learn how people stay on top of their game. How do you become successful at your craft?  How do you stay relevant? How do you keep learning and mastering all the diverse traits we need to succeed?

The objective of this blog is to share best practices and daily habits that have been helpful to me as a business owner.  After all, we all want to succeed and be the best we can be for our clients and our team. In this series, we will talk about different topics that are essential to the success of your business—from team management to the art of selling your services.

Feel free to send suggestions of topics you would like to read about in future blogs. My purpose is to create a safe platform to learn from each other and share as much as possible, because at the end of the day we all need mentors, industry friends, collaborators and experts to take you and your interior design business to the next level.

Fernando Rodriguez

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Designing a home office that gets the job done while keeping family life in balance

Working from home has become as ordinary as having a job in the first place. No one blinks at a request to go remote part time, because traditional separations between work and home are softening.

But what if you must live and work under the same roof full time? If you need a work surface the size of a ping-pong table, or you need running water, or your boss at the headquarters out of town just plain doesn’t want to pay rent for your office anymore? How do you meld your working space with your home?

Continue reading Designing a home office that gets the job done while keeping family life in balance

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