I've put off writing this post for a while. I get emails on a weekly basis asking for career advice, and honestly, I’ve just not felt adequate enough to answer. But, I figure, maybe you’re just wanting to know my experience and not specific advice for your career path. I can do that.
How I Got Started. . . .
I actually went about it backwards and started my blog first, which grew into my design business. I thought about design all of the time and what I could do to make my own house look better. So, on a whim, I decided to start blogging about things I liked and ideas I wanted to remember. Never in my wildest dreams did I think thousands of people would actually want to read it every day. The Internet is a funny thing.
The only “experience” I had was a stint as a design consultant at Ethan Allen for a while before I became a full-time mommy. They hired me based on my sales experience, and I had the good fortune of working for a store manager and visual manager who took the time to teach me lots (how to pair patterns together, how to do floor plans, even how to pronounce the names of certain pieces of furniture. . .). It was a crash course in design, and I loved it. I didn’t love the hours of working retail but it gave me experience working with real clients, going into their homes and listening to what they wanted.
Work for Free. . . .At First
When I decided that I would start working for myself (almost) two years ago, I basically just put myself out there. I honestly just hoped to get two (non-family/non-friend clients) within the first three years. (I’m not a great goal-setter. . .) I worked really hard on my house, knowing that it would be my best portfolio. And, I volunteered my services to a few friends, making them swear I could post the progress on my blog. It was great practice and gave the illusion that “real people” actually thought I was good and reliable.
(One of the first idea boards I did for a friend.)
Setting Your Rates
When I actually started charging, my rates were low and I made no money. I think the specific price you set has to be a personal decision. It should be competitive with other designers in your area to a point, but it’s really a personal decision based on your experience, demand and ultimately, what your time is worth. A wise designer once told me that your hourly rate should also take into account the time you spend getting ready, driving there, paying a sitter and ultimately being away from your family. If you’re making zero profit and working non-stop when you could be spending time with your family instead, you might want to reevaluate.
The other thing I’ve had to learn is that hiring a designer is a luxury, not a necessity. Your time, your ideas and your input are worth something. It’s not your obligation to work for every single person who asks for help with their home. The client/designer relationship has to be a mutually beneficial one. And, most likely, you’ll be more excited and interested in those projects that you feel are worth your time and effort.
Blogging: My Best Business Tool
I didn’t have any specific marketing plan when I started, but it turns out my blog—more than anything else—has been beneficial to growing my business. I’ve done no local advertising, yet most of my clients come directly through the blog. Blogging is almost a side business—definitely not an afterthought at the end of the day, but I do love it. The great thing about a blog—compared to just a web site—is that it’s an on-going display of your work and style, mixed with a good dose of your personality. It can give a potential client a good idea of what it will be like to work with you and if they feel you’ll “mesh” (style and personality-wise) before the project ever starts.
Besides blogging, I would strongly encourage you to have an online presence on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the best opportunities and exposure I’ve received have come through online relationships I’ve made through these outlets. Even if it seems like it some days, it’s not a waste of your time in the long run.
Back to School?
This is the question I get the most by far. Should you go back to school? It’s 100% completely a personal decision, but for me, it just wasn’t part of the plan. I don’t even think my school offered a degree in Interior Design, and if they had, I probably wouldn’t have been interested at the time. I got my degree in Public Relations and it hasn’t been such a bad thing. A huge part of growing your own business centers around PR/marketing and my mind is constantly spinning with ways I can get the word out.
I’ve said this before, but I think you either “know” design (even if you don’t know all of the terms/methods/history/etc.) or you don’t. I think there are certain things you can learn, but at the end of the day, we each have our own sense of style and a sense of what works and what doesn’t. I think a lot of people assume school (a design degree) will give them credibility. And, it probably will. Will it give you complete confidence when you hit the working world? Probably not.
I remember feeling like I could literally throw up in the bushes before I went into my first client’s home when I worked at Ethan Allen. It actually went really well, but it’s just that fear of the unknown. I’m not sure a degree from a design school would’ve made me feel any differently in that situation.
Have I ever had a client ask me about my degree prior to hiring me? Once. They asked, I told them. That was that. Again, this goes back to the blogging thing. . . It’s a great way to show what you can do, regardless of what your degree is in. Technically, I’m a decorator and not a designer, and I’m good with that. And, my clients seem to be, too.
Balance (or Lack Thereof)
This is the second-most asked question I get. How do I run a business, blog and be a mommy all at once? Well, I try to be pretty real with you because I’m not a fan of those who aren’t just to make the rest of us feel bad. So, go back and read my post here, and you’ll know I struggle. Oh, and just to make you feel better, you may like to know that my house is a mess 98% of the time, I do laundry at the last possible minute and we eat a lot of cereal and grilled cheese. Feel better?
“Live and Learn”
If I were going to have a motto for my business over the last two years, that would be it. Ask those around me, I say it during and after every project. Starting any business is, after all, a huge learning curve. Hopefully, each project I work on looks better and goes more smoothly than the last.
There have been tears, sleepless nights and several stressful moments, but the excitement of seeing where this is all going outweighs that for me. I’ve learned that it’s very little about glamour and a whole lot about being able to keep up with 384 details all at the same time. It can make me feel crazy, but it also makes me feel giddy. I love that I never know what the next week will bring my way.
I guess the bottom line is to just try. If this is what you want to do, then as with anything else, quit being scared and see what happens. That, my faithful readers (who have made it to the end of this way too long post), is my career advice in a nutshell. I hope this has helped to answer some of your questions.
Would love to hear any other thoughts you have on starting your own business. . .