A successful design firm needs the power of people

Two emails — one personal and one professional — recently popped into my inboxes. In some ways, they couldn’t have been more different, but both raised important issues about setting priorities, understanding people’s capabilities (especially given the changes the pandemic has wrought) — and finding success with the help of others.

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The personal email was from my church’s national association. We are in the midst of a search for our next minister. As the body that guides the search process, the association cautioned search committees and congregations against setting unrealistic expectations for ministers to excel in every area of ministry. No minister can be the most rousing preacher, reassuring pastor, inspiring leader, successful fundraiser and capable manager, all while growing a congregation. The takeaway: Pick a couple of aspects of ministry that are most important to your congregation and find a minister whose skills and passions can best support those. Then assess your priorities and find ways to rely on others (associate ministers, other staff, volunteers, interns) to focus on other areas that are important to you.

The other email announced that the Denver-based Pearl Collective (formerly known as Gail Doby Coaching & Consulting) was releasing the full results of its survey of owners of interior design businesses to a broader audience. (Topline results came out last fall.) Done in conjunction with Interior Talent, the “2022 Interior Designers Survey on Fees, Salaries and Competing for Talent” contains interesting findings about salaries, staffing and hiring. Because it arrived around the same time as the email from my church association, I was particularly struck by some of the findings about challenges designers are facing — and how they plan to address them.

Respondents — a mix of residential and commercial designers, as well as those who have retail operations, too — reported they are experiencing several key challenges:

  • Landing new ideal projects of the desired size
  • Attracting more ideal clients
  • Project schedule and product delivery delays
  • Product availability
  • Rising costs
  • Settings fees and/or earning more revenue

To meet those challenges, respondents said they were considering or pursuing several strategies. Top among them:

  • Maintaining contact with current and former clients
  • Increasing networking with local building and real estate professionals, contractors and service providers
  • Increasing their social media presence
  • Raising fees or changing billing practices

The challenges are wide ranging. The strategies designers want to use to address them are broad, too — and time consuming to implement. Attracting more ideal clients and managing project delays require different skill sets. Improving social media marketing is much different than building relationships with local contractors and real estate agents.

And by and large, interior design firms are not, in fact, very large at all.

“According to data compiled by the American Association of Interior Designers, there are approximately 15,000 interior design businesses in the United States. Of those, around 8 in 10 have zero to four employees. … In our survey, 28% of respondents had no employees, 32% had one to two and 23% had between three and five — for a total of 83%, more or less in line with the industry percentages,” Pearl Collective writes in an analysis of the survey results.

Just as congregations can’t expect ministers to do everything well, small design firms may not be able to expect their tiny teams to excel in every area. But what does that mean about dreams for greater success? Should a church congregation decide they can manage without excellent sermons or pastoral care? Should a design firm continue doing projects that aren’t satisfying? Should they absorb rising costs instead of increasing profitability?

High expectations

Complicating matters is how expectations — of both congregations and clients — have changed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite our church association’s cautions, most congregations want their next minister to do everything well, from preaching to fundraising to comforting congregants during difficult times.

Expectations are high among design clients, too. The Pearl Collective survey asked interior design business owners if their interactions with clients have changed since early 2020. About a third said they hadn’t but those reporting changes said their clients had become less patient regarding project delays and less understanding of price increases. Many reported clients being more demanding overall, according to the survey.

Is bigger better?

The Pearl Collective notes that its survey results show a strong correlation between the size of an interior design firm and its overall performance. Not surprisingly, bigger firms have higher sales, but they also charge higher fees and higher mark-ups, and are more likely to be bothered by project delays than they are to have trouble attracting ideal clients. (Smaller firms, on the other hand, are more likely to have difficulty landing the clients and projects they want.)

“There are many reasons why there are so many small interior design firms. Some are small by choice; some by necessity. Our experience working with clients, however, is that more small firms could be doing more business and earning more revenue by developing business plans to grow their staff and/or using other personnel support,” the Pearl Collective says.

But only one in four survey respondents said their top strategy for improving their business would be to expand their team. “A few more were considering increasing the use of outsourced services. It may seem counterintuitive to be thinking of adding more staff when you are trying to attract more business or increase your revenue, but if done properly it can be the boost you need,” the survey report says. “…Think people power” (emphasis the Pearl Collective).

Don’t go it alone

It is tough for one person to do it all — remember, nearly 30% of survey respondents are solo designers. It’s tough for even a couple of people (another third of designer firms just have an employee or two) to do all that needs to be done to create beautiful interiors, on budget and on time, while attracting new clients and improving profitability.

And given the added stresses of the past few years, including the uncertainty and the bust-boom cycle of 2020, it is no wonder many designers feel burned out and tired.

It may be time to rethink workloads, to focus on the areas of the business where designers do best and to find ways to tap the talents of others. That may mean hiring full-time employees, though both I and Pearl Collective acknowledge that the job market remains tight and finding the right talent may take time.

But it can also mean outsourcing some work, like social media management, to contractors who specialize in such things. It could mean merging your firm with another design firm or partnering with a related business (like a real estate agent or contractor) on just some aspects of your business. It could mean joining a buying group to reduce costs and improve delivery times. Or it could mean networking with other designers to see how they’ve streamlined and made their businesses more efficient, giving them time to focus on what really matters.

People power can take a lot of different forms.

Whoever my church chooses as a new minister, that person will need a lot of assistance from the congregation to carry out the work of the church. The minister can’t do it all.

So too does a design firm need to rely on the power of people to carry out its mission of creating interiors that support clients’ lifestyles and, dare I say it, nourish their souls.

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