Launching an interior design business is not for the faint of heart, some people want to get it up and running in a matter of weeks and others can spend years before they feel like they can hang their shingle. I see designers get stuck in the process needlessly because they become paralyzed with decision-making. Keep this in mind - you can always change it later. I tried to give the steps in order that I would go if I was starting from scratch, but the thing is many of these steps can and should be done simultaneously. You can't build a great brand without first knowing who you want to sell to and vice versa. But that's what I mean about changing it later, you can always go back and refine what you've got.
Get Your Ducks in Order (Insurance, Licensing, Accounting)
When you are first starting a business, there are tasks and hoops to jump through so that you are a "business" in the eyes of the government. This means that you need to look into getting the proper licenses for your area, as well as figuring out how you will structure your business (LLC, S-Corp), and get some insurance. Insurance is not optional, never set foot in a client's home without it. Yes, there will be an initial financial investment, you can learn more about that in this article - Interior Design Business Start-up Costs.
But as much of pain it is to do this stuff in the beginning, it is even much more painful to do it when your business is in full swing. I know many participants of The Golden Blueprint tell me that they wish they would have gotten their ducks in a row first. So if you are just launching your business, heed the advice of those that have come before you.
Work for Free
If you have zero work experience I suggest doing some free or low-cost project for friends or family first. But the truth is I am a little hesitant to give this advice because while doing projects for a low or no fee can get you some experience and portfolio images, I also believe in getting paid for the work you do. So, you're going to have to walk the line on this one, be sure that you are getting something in return for your work and that is clear from the outset. Let your free or low-cost projects know you are doing it in exchange for something - beautiful project photos, a testimonial, a recommendation into their country club - something. And always let them know that is the exchange that you are agreeing to. Because while you may not be getting paid with money, you should still get something in return.
Remember it's a Business, Not a Hobby
Getting stuck in the limbo between business and hobby is usually because of fear. It's easy not to go full-tilt and holding something back means that if you fail (fear of failure is normal!), you have the excuse that you weren't all in anyway. It feels less of a failure. I get it.
So it is okay to have a business, even a side-business and it is okay to have a hobby, or a side-hobby. But it is not okay to run your business like a hobby. If this is what is going to sustain you and you have people counting on you, you need to upgrade your hobby to at least a side-business. You still need to hustle, you still need to do all the things on this list. You still need to look like a professional. A business makes a profit, a business has a CEO, a business is separate from your personal stuff. Go full-tilt, because if you fail (fear of failure is normal!), you can always say that you gave it your all.
Create a Brand
You want to be known for something. Creating a brand involves not just figuring out what colors, fonts, and logo to use, it also includes your service branding (think punctuality, efficiency, or luxury), what your specialty is, as well what makes you stand out as an interior designer. I've written a ton of articles on branding, so start here: Developing Your Brand for Interior Designers
Know Who You Are Selling To
You can sell to someone unless you know who you are selling to. If you are trying to get people to buy your interior design services you can't just broadcast "interior design for sale" you have to know who you want to listen. Find a target, set up your business to "speak" to that person. Let them know that you have a service they are looking for. You will waste a lot of time and effort unless you narrow down your ideal client and try to attract them. I promise you, you do not just want to take any project that comes your way. Have a point of view and a personality that works with the kind of client that you want to work with. Once you know who you are selling your services to, it'll be much easier to book those clients. Learn more about how to find clients here.
Price Your Services
The first lesson in pricing interior design services is to charge more than you think. I've never spoke to an interior designer who was charging too much. Most everybody is not charging enough. There is a cost of running a business and being self-employed. Pricing interior design can be complex and frustrating for both the designers and clients. So why not make it easier? I whole-heartedly believe that you can use any pricing model that you'd like and be profitable, as long as you charge what you're worth and price with integrity, clarity, and transparency. Here are some more pricing resources:
- Pricing Strategy Course
- Why Discounts Are Hurting Business
- How to Make Money as an Interior Designer
- (There are dozens - too many to list here - just use the search box on the left and search "pricing")
Build a Website
Finally, something a little bit creative and fun! Here is another design secret: it's okay that your first website is a little sucky. Mine was. I still consider it a work in progress. So the lesson here is that it is better to have a passable website than no website at all. Designers want their websites to be perfect and often take years to get one up and running. Don't do this. Get a simple website up. Buy a domain for your business name, something easily remembered and easily found online. Get your contact information up and some portfolio images or if you don't have those (here is an article for that) hire a professional to take some lifestyle shots of you in your town or city. It is easy to get a simple website up with a minimal financial investment. Use a DIY site like Squarespace or Wix, buy a domain, and put out your open for business shingle. I promise even if you think it's crappy, most design clients won't be as picky and you can always keep working on it. But you'll put it off for far too long if you wait until you think you have all the things you need for that perfect website.
Market Market Market
Now is the time to get the word out about your services. You have a great home online (your website) and you know who your target market it. Start being active on social media, start a blog and write regularly, send out postcards, start a newsletter, record videos, volunteer, do anything to be as visible to your target market as possible. Marketing is all about getting your services in front of people who need them. (FIY - The Golden Blueprint has over 100 marketing ideas.)
Network Network Network
Part of marketing is networking. The more people you know, the wider your potential client net is. Go to every industry event and talk to people, say hi when you see them again, remember their name, talk to showroom reps, go to local networking events, talk to parents at your kids school. The more people who see you regularly and let them know about your business, the wider your net. Referrals are one of the top ways designers get clients and that can happen for you when you let people know you are taking clients. As an introvert, this was still one of the best ways I build my business in the beginning. It opened many opportunities for me because of the people I met.
Common scenario: you work 7 days a week, answer client emails at all hours and on weekends, you work into the early hour of the mornings thinking that you'll be able to finally catch up and never do, and you take client and vendor meetings on the weekends. Then you get so burnt-out that you have a breakdown and think that you can't do this work anymore. When you work for yourself, you feel the weight of the business and client expectations and the inclination is to work until that feeling lifts. Here is a secret - it doesn't go away. Here are some more things I wish I knew before I started an interior design business.
You have to be the protector of your boundaries to avoid doing too much and damaging your drive and creativity. You deserve time to recharge. I suggest taking regular time off, keeping regular business hours, and setting boundaries with clients. You can also take time for a business retreat.