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Starting an interior design business is a popular move for people who study the craft of creating a space that’s both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The combination of expressing yourself and executing your vision for clients is tough to pass up, despite the obstacles that small business owners often face.
Interior design requires more than just an eye for decoration, though.
Starting with the fact that interior designers require a degree from an accredited university (otherwise they are simply decorators), they also need extensive knowledge of the materials, software applications, and structural and health codes required to build out a home or business. There is also the matter of business acumen, and the ability to balance your artistic expression with the needs and wants of the client.
“Great design is the marriage of form and function in a balanced and harmonious whole—and staying on budget while doing it,” says Beverly Solomon of Beverly Solomon Design. “So yes, the artist in me can often want to do things that are more challenging, out of the box, and often expensive than the client is looking for, but listening in order to understand what the client hopes you can achieve is the major skill you must develop.”
Solomon’s international firm is based just outside of Austin, TX, on an historic farm where she lives and works with her husband, artist Pablo Solomon. She self-financed the creation of the business after working in sales and marketing for various big name companies, including Ralph Lauren and Revlon.
Though each interior design business has a different focus, clientele, and model—and every state has different rules and regulations for opening a small business—Solomon has a good idea of what it takes to be successful in the industry.
The first step for almost any small business owner is to create a business plan and to make sure you can meet all of your requirements.
This includes being able to put into words the purpose and focus of your business, the state of the current market in your area, your marketing message and tools, financing, and more.
Your business plan needs to include funds for expenses like the cost of legal and accounting advice, miscellaneous expenses for business meals, travel, postage, and other smaller expenditures. Planning your expenses at least 6 months out is a good way to show that you’re financially prepared.
Once you’re ready to get started, you have to make sure that you can meet the regional requirements for opening a small business—and depending on where you are, you might need to meet specific “interior decorator” license benchmarks as well: 24 states have passed interior design legislation to this effect.
Check with the Small Business Administration or the local chamber of commerce to see which city, county, and state permits you need. You might also need a sellers permit and sales tax license, and if you have employees, you’ll need a federal employer identification number for tax purposes as well.
Interior design is a industry of connections. You’ll need them to find your clients, to market yourself, and to establish fruitful relationships with suppliers of materials and furniture.
“I began my business by basically selling the art of my husband to high-end clients. When they began asking our design advice on various projects, I saw an opportunity,” says Solomon. “I decided that I wanted to use my expertise, experience, and connections from working with the major designers to start my own businesses.”
Solomon says that creating connections with the media has helped her in everything from marketing the firm to letting her set the price point.
“In art and design, you’re selling your abilities, but what really sets the price you can get is your name recognition,” she says. “I knew from my days in sales and marketing that the place to focus was on name recognition. So we concentrated on building relationships with those in the media who could put our names out there.”
“One of the secrets to our success has been working with writers, publishers, photographers, filmmakers, and producers to create symbiotic relationships that have resulted in their getting good information, interesting stories, illustrations, photographs, connections, and advice. In return, we’ve gotten literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of free publicity and built strong name recognition.”
Another common way to leverage connections is to form relationships with manufacturers in order to get good deals on products or when buying in bulk. If you find yourself drawn to a company that builds in a similar style to your own, you’re in good shape—but don’t hamstring yourself, Solomon advises.
“Teaming up with various furniture stores and manufacturers can be as tricky as it is rewarding. Make sure that you’re finding a good match, and not just a deal out of desperation. Pushing products that are absolutely the best for your client is a good thing, but pushing crap can ruin your reputation,” she says.
As Solomon’s ranch office shows, you don’t necessarily need to invest in an office space, especially when first starting out. There are other basics that you’ll need first, including:
As mentioned above, what you can charge clients depends on the strength of your brand.
A strong portfolio and name recognition will go a long way in helping you find a higher-end market if that’s your goal—though it might take some time and some tweaking. Some have suggested a starting target price rate of $75 per hour, though the scale varies.
“Test the waters in your area,” says Solomon. “If you charge too much, you run clients off. If you don’t charge enough, you’re not taken seriously. Having been in business now over 20 years, I have clients that will pay in the top levels.”
Solomon notes that, in some cases, the firm charges by the hour for consulting. If supervising the entire project, they usually charge a percentage of the total cost. Travel expenses are often paid by the client, but Solomon still finds travel to be one of the company’s largest expenses.
“We often have to travel to keep up with the latest trends and products,” she explains.
The economy in general tends to go through a cycle of boom and bust, and interior design is very much tied to larger economic trends. In lean times, people are less interested in redecorating, refurbishing, or buying a residential or commercial space at all.
Preparing for that reality is important, especially when first starting up.
“You just have to have money in reserve before starting any business. In art and design, it can be feast or famine. So you have to have the discipline to save and invest when making money,” says Solomon.
When dealing with lulls in the market, it’s important to recognize that time is one of your most valuable resources. When money is low, don’t spend too much time on potential clients who will be more trouble than they’re worth, just to drum up business.
“One of the toughest things to learn is not to waste time. Time really is money. You must stay focused and disciplined when running your own business. You also can’t waste time with people who are really not serious clients,” says Solomon.
“Never forget that interior design is as much about how the client wants a space to feel as how the client wants it to look,” says Solomon.
This speaks to the fact that interior design is a unique business: it asks owners and directors to balance their own need for artistic expression with both practical logistics and the requests of the client. It’s a complicated job, to be sure.
There’s plenty of the usual responsibilities that fall to small business owners in interior design—coordinating marketing efforts, hiring and managing employees, controlling inventory, and monitoring the supply chain. But there’s also the added element of creating the spaces in which people work, live, and play—a powerful form of expression that’s worth the challenges of starting up.