I’m joined again for the third week by special guest Paulina DuPain, a fellow designer at Affordable Interior Design by Uploft. She has an extensive background in the interior design industry before coming to the firm seven years ago. She is the perfect person to help answer all of your business questions. If you are wondering who Paulina is, check out Part 1 of this series to learn more about her background.
Last week, we talked about creating an apartment space that not only felt cohesive but distinct as well, item sourcing issues, how to deal with upset clients because of those issues, and so much more. Be sure to listen to parts 1 and 2 before diving into this week’s episode with more questions from the mailbag about the business side of interior design.
This episode, we discuss…
[2:10] Sticking to a client’s budget when designing (Lisa)
When designing for clients, how do you make sure to meet their budget? I can imagine it would be very easy to get carried away and go way over.
Budgeting is crucial. You always want to start with the budget and how much your client wants to spend. To the best of my ability, I try not to go over budget, but if there is a piece I love and want them to see, I will give them that choice. A good rule of thumb is to start looking for those essential pieces first, like the sectional or any other larger piece, to spend most of the budget there. For example, I don’t want my clients to have a sofa from places like Wayfair or Overstock because a quality piece like that will be from a nicer store. From the leftover budget, I will then source those smaller pieces like side tables or rugs because, for example, if they have a dog, then maybe you don’t want to spend so much money on a nicer one that will get messed up.
That’s where you can save money.
Staying within a budget is so important. Regarding budgeting, I do the same thing Paulina does to ensure everything is right where it needs to be. Some things you also need to keep in mind are taxes and shipping. Those things get too complicated for me when designing because I don’t know the zip codes or sales tax in a particular area. So I try to always go under budget, so later, when those things are added on, it will be right at the correct budget numbers. I make sure to point that out at the end of my presentation, too.
However, if there’s something I want to show the client, I’ll make it an option two or option three. I’m not going to build that expensive option into the preliminary list and have it factor into the budget when it’s just a splurge. That could be fun, but I don’t know if they will be willing to go there with me. So think about those priority pieces, as Paulina said. There may be other priorities you don’t personally have but that the client has. So every now and again, I’ll have a client who works from home in a very stressful, intense job, and I want them to have a big executive desk, something expensive with drawers, that will be very important for them. Whereas a different client, the desk is not as big of a deal. I don’t just, by default, assume that this item is a priority. I ask what the priority functions will be, what they want to do, and then that first or second priority function they share; I know I need to spend more money there.
Also, certain items just are going to be more expensive. Bar cabinets, hutches, and dining rooms are costly. I can find you an affordable table, but a hutch, we’ll have to splurge a little bit. For dressers, you’re not going to find a good quality dresser for under $800, in my opinion. So there are things that just by their very nature need that extra allocation of funds, and I will start there, as Paulina mentioned.
[6:01] Having bad experiences with sourcing companies and ways to avoid that (Francis)
Are there any furniture stores, or companies, that you have had really bad experiences with and that you would never work with again? What is the best way to avoid these companies beforehand?
I don’t want to throw any companies under the bus here because I have a limited range of experiences with them. Maybe some of these businesses I don’t love will get their act together and be great businesses moving forward. Three years ago, I said something naughty about a company, so I’ll watch myself this time.
I share with my designers that if it’s a company you’re not familiar with or have never ordered from before, you definitely want to avoid getting expensive pieces there. They might not be the quality you were looking for. So before you do anything, take the company name and search for reviews on Better Business Bureau to see what people say about this company.
There have definitely been instances where I have recommended a unique piece from a store I didn’t know that much about, and I let the client know I’ve never ordered from the store before and can’t find this wallpaper anywhere else. So let’s take a flyer on it or use your American Express, where you can have the charge reversed quite quickly if you need to. If a client isn’t willing to take this leap with me, I’ll find a different option. That’s how I feel, Francis. I don’t know about you, Paulina, but I find that the more small companies popping up seem to have gorgeous inventory but not-so-great reviews.
I would also add if something just sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you see a company that sells stunning quality pieces from the pictures, but the price tag doesn’t reflect the quality and uniqueness, I would probably stay away from that brand.
[9:00] How to become an interior designer and find confidence (Virginia)
My dream is to become an interior designer. I have no background or experience in it, but I have been watching webinars and HGTV. My question is, how did you find confidence to start? Do you all have a degree in interior design? Do you have experience prior to working for yourself? Where should I begin?
I think we all come from different backgrounds. I have an education in interior design, but some of the designers at the firm don’t have degrees. So some education in that field like a course or getting a degree is totally up to you and depends on what you want. We touched briefly on that question in our previous episodes, but I think it just depends on what you want to do. You still need some education, but it depends on what you want to do with your degree.
I think you have to get yourself out there to build your confidence. You have to back it up with some knowledge. Without knowledge, you will never be comfortable and confident. The clients will ask you questions you know they will expect you to have answers to, and you will not be convinced if you don’t have those answers. What is the proper height of the dining table? How high is the dining chair that should go underneath it? What are those standard sizes, right? You need to learn a lot of things to be confident first. Then, as Betsy said, you just need to get out there and practice. You also want to manage your expectations, and HGTV is probably not the best source to help you because everything happens so fast, and it’s just not the reality of the industry. Getting to know the industry a little bit better and understanding the timelines in the real world will also help you be more confident in the future to become a better designer.
I’m not exactly sure what education you are getting from those webinars, but I will warn you that HGTV, as most of us know, is not representative of how design works. I fell in love with interior design by watching shows like While You Were Out and Trading Spaces back in my day. I was in for a rude awakening when I went to work at a large firm and saw that it took six to twelve months to complete a project. The handyman team isn’t just at our beck and call, camped out in the front yard for a week. So I must say I built my firm to most closely represent and interpret the HGTV timeline as we design quickly.
From the day we meet our clients to the day we present a final presentation is two weeks. The actual implementation of that design, which at our firm, we mostly stay out of, like getting the handyman, getting the paper the wallpaper installed, getting the paint applied, and making sure that you sample first, all those steps are really on the client because those were steps I didn’t particularly enjoy. I enjoyed that fast process. So think about how you want to work with clients. What types of clients do you want to work with? Again, there is that quiz at Uploft Interior Design Academy.
It all goes back to what Paulina says about your ultimate goal as a designer and what you want to be. If you want to work with high-end clients, go shopping, and build custom furniture from scratch, in my opinion, you need that more traditional education. But, on the other hand, if you want to work with clients in their homes or shop retail, I don’t think formal education will get you there. I’ve hired many designers with that background, and they don’t know the first thing about standard sizes of rugs, shopping at Pottery Barn, and what lengths of window treatments you can expect in terms of blinds and drapes. So I have to re-educate them, which is why I created the academy.
You also asked about confidence. I’d say this is the number one issue that I come up against with people who are new to the field and may have some education but are still scared. Or maybe they’ve already started taking clients, but they don’t feel like they have that education foundation. My answer is that you need both. You can go to as many schools as you want, undergrad, graduate programs, supplementary courses, and webinars, but you will not feel confident until you take your first client. Then, when you take your second client, you can apply what you’ve learned in real-life circumstances. I went the other way around. I took lots of clients before I had a foundation of education.
I learned at the school of hard knocks. I had to reverse engineer my education, which did not make me feel confident. So in my opinion, you need both education first, but don’t over educate yourself. So many people hide behind extra degrees and extra courses. If only I knew that, I would feel ready. You need some education, and then you need to apply immediately. You are not brain surgeons here. You are not rocket scientists, but if you are a brain surgeon who only ever read about the surgery and never actually did the surgery, I don’t think you’d feel confident. You could read about it for decades, and I still think you’d be missing that piece. While I am not a surgeon, I feel the same applies to interior design.
[17:42] Finding more clients to consistently have something to work on (Susie)
I am having some trouble finding more clients. I have had a few, mostly within my sphere of influence, friends of friends and such. What is a good way to market out now and begin looking for more clients? I would love to consistently have something to work on.
At our firm, we ideally need 40 clients a month, and we close 24% to 33% of our leads, meaning we need a lot of leads to get 40 clients. There are a lot of strategies you can use, but as a new designer just starting, you want to ensure that you have a Google My Business listing page, and you want to make sure that you have a website. The website does not need to be robust and have 20 pages initially, but it needs to share who you are, your background, showcase pictures of your work, and how people can contact you. You don’t have to put your pricing or plans on there right away.
Then, you want to get some business cards to spread the word about your new venture. It doesn’t have to be a business card format and could be a postcard or brochure, but something you can hand out to friends and family to pass along. That way, when you join your local chamber of commerce, or when you’re at business meetings, or when you’re out at a soccer game with your kids, and another mom or dad asks you what you do; you can just hand them this brochure and say this is what I do.
So you do want to start initially with that word of mouth. You do want to get those successful clients who are friends of friends, friends of family members to then write you reviews. You will need those reviews on your Google My Business page to build your credibility. It could start slowly, but it could also snowball quickly, too. That’s why you want to ensure that your clients have outstanding experiences with you and why you want to have that foundation of education so that they will be so excited to refer you when people come over to their house and want to know who designed their space. So make sure you set people up for success by handing them extra brochures and giving them a fantastic experience. This will make people want to rehire and refer you. Paulina has a high ratio of return clients at our firm.
I love my return clients, and it’s nice to work with somebody you’ve already established a good connection with and who already trusts you. Connecting with your client and meeting their expectation is the key to having them as a returning client. Meeting their needs or being responsive to their needs is the most important, in my opinion.
Of course, you have to get to know that person, right? You get to know them personally, which is also really important because you’re designing for their life. You want to connect and build that personal relationship with them. Make sure that you listen, too. If you listen, you will hear more than what they just say. That’s the secret to having a return client. Do a good job, be responsive, and read between the lines.
[24:30] Learning to design in a style outside of your comfort zone (Renee)
How do you learn to design in a style that is not your own? I am starting my own business and want to appeal to many different clients, but I only enjoy designing modern farmhouses. Do I need to change, or should I do what I love and wait for the perfect clients to find me?
The modern farmhouse style is so popular and has been for a while. But I don’t know. It is a very personal decision because you don’t have to appeal to the general public. You can build a business around your style. Many companies develop their businesses this way, which is the traditional way of working as an interior designer; you have your own aesthetic, and people come to you because they enjoy your style.
One way to go is just to embrace your style and go for it as a modern farmhouse interior design firm. Another way to go is to design in more styles. However, that could be more tricky because you really have to get to know all the styles out there. You might have to take a deep dive into the traditional interior design. There are a lot of different styles, and people blend their styles. So if you’re not comfortable with it but love your modern farmhouse, just stick with it.
I would warn that modern farmhouse is a little bit trendy right now, as Paulina mentioned, but I would worry personally as a designer that that design style is probably going to be out in a couple of years. You want to ensure that the design style you love will have longevity. I think it’s a great idea to ideally focus on the modern component of that, rather than linking it with farmhouse or the farmhouse component of that and focus more on those rustic spaces and eliminate the modern. Like Paulina said, honing in on traditional or a more all-encompassing style will give you more to play with rather than make you obsolete when the trend is over. I do feel like the modern farmhouse trend is nearly over, just looking at my crystal ball, so I want you to be malleable and flexible enough that it doesn’t completely wipe out your personal fan base.
I’m so glad that you all wrote in with these delicious business questions, and thank you to Paulina for joining me to answer them.
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