When is the right time to take a leap of faith and open your own design firm? That was the question of the hour at the D&D Building in New York City last week as Darrin Varden of Darrin Varden Design, Jennifer Cohler Mason of J. Cohler Mason Design, and Jennifer Beek and Georgie Hambright of J&G Design shared personal tips and lessons from their own experiences.
From left: Hambright, Beek, Mason and Varden
Moderated by Tori Mellot, Traditional Home’s senior design and markets editor, the discussion began with the question of panelists’ greatest fears when stepping out on their own.
Varden, who cut his teeth as a senior designer for Jamie Drake, was afraid he wouldn’t be perfect. “But it’s not about perfection, it’s about progress," he said. "It’s human and a natural thing to make a mistake, and it’s all a learning process.”
Mason, who worked as creative director for her brother, interior designer Eric Cohler, was most afraid of not being able to call in sick. “It’s a 24/7 job when it’s your business, there are no days off," she said.
Beek and Hambright trained from the best with stints at Albert Hadley and Harry Heissman, and Celerie Kemble, Bunny Williams and Blair Harris, respectively, before launching J&G. Their biggest fears? “Being able to gain the respect of the industry and clients,” said Hambright. “We are so young that we couldn’t take our clients with us, so we really just had to take a leap of faith,” added Beek.
Tori Mellot with the panel
Mellot’s next question to panelists was how to convince clients to hire you when you don’t have a portfolio and you are truly starting from scratch?
“We swallowed our pride and got ourselves out there on social media and at events in the design centers and asked for referrals,” said Beek.
“It’s totally a referral business,” added Mason. “All you need is one to get you started and it's a snowball effect from there.”
The next topic focused on the nitty gritty of running a business. All panelists agreed that forming an LLC is critical, as is having a great lawyer to create a basic contract, and most importantly—staying on top of your taxes.
“It’s really 80% business and 20% design,” said Mason. “Everyone wants to do the design but if the business aspect isn’t strong you will crumble. The LLC keeps your personal life and business separate.”
Since taxes for business owners can get crazy, Mason recommended that designers open a business savings account and put a percentage of everything they make in there, so when it comes time to pay taxes that money is there.
The conversation then transitioned to the amount of money it takes to launch a business and the not so friendly topic of taking a hit.
Varden shared that he would estimate having $30,000 - $50,000 saved before even thinking about launching a business. “In the past 10 months of my business, I’ve made enough money to pay my bills but I’m not living a life of luxury,” said Varden.
“You must be lean and mean in the first year,” said Mason. “You can’t spend a crazy amount of money on things you don’t really need.”
Hambright and Beek explained how they designed their own website by using Four Square (a web development site), and their company blog and social media platforms were free forms of advertising.
All of the panelists save by not having an office and working out of their homes.
“You don’t need a fancy office,” said Mason. “It’s a job in a bag—invest in a really good tote. All you need is your laptop, a smart phone and a tote bag. Make relationships with showrooms at the D&D Building and with vendors and you can have your client meetings there, or at their homes. Put the money into the nuts and bolts of your business. The office should be the last thing.”
“There is some sacrifice in wanting your dream,” said Varden. “It’s really about investing in yourself and you must think that you are worthy and that there is a place for you in the industry—that’s when you know you are ready.”
And, what if you’re in need of some good business and design advice? According to Hambright, you should always keep strong relationships with other designers and people you used to work for.
“Never lie or make anything up,” said Beek. “It’s okay to tell a client, ‘I’m really not sure, let me check and I’ll get back to you.’ Then call on your friends for advice.”
Some final key takeaways and pieces of advice from the panelists included:
- If you can have a partner, have one. It makes the hard decisions a lot easier.
- Hire someone under you who is a direct reflection of you. Working well with that person is crucial.
- Be careful how many ideas you give out at an initial consultation. People will just use your ideas and not hire you.
- Do not do any work for free, even to get you started. It’s a slippery slope.
- Don’t say yes to all projects, you can decline a project if it’s not right for you.
- Don’t have multiple meetings if a contract isn’t signed. Your time is valuable.
- Get good at educating your client about how you charge and why you charge what you do, you must make them understand.
- Be clear and concise in your contract. Be upfront about everything and have your lawyer draw up a contract with great bones that you can plug different things in and out of for various clients.
- Listen to your intuition.
- Be loyal and honest. That goes a long way with clients and will get you referrals.
- Go hard or go home. It’s a 24/7 job and you must be ready for it.
- Check your ego at the door. Success won’t happen overnight.
Finally, circling back to the first question—when is the right time? The panelists couldn’t pinpoint any specific moment when they knew they were 100% ready. They agreed that it is scary, and if the finances are right and you are willing to sacrifice, you must take a leap of faith.
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