For most interior design school graduates getting started in the industry, it makes sense to work for another designer before going the solopreneur route. A job at a big interior design or architecture firm is often a prestigious prize for students at the top of their class, and a role that many aspiring designers compete vigorously to secure. Not only can working for a large firm provide invaluable learning opportunities, it can also give the security of a regular paycheck and other benefits, such as employer-subsidized health insurance – necessities that are nearly impossible to get as an inexperienced freelancer.
However, it's almost inevitable that every interior designer working under the wing of another will dream of striking out on her own; it’s only natural for those born with a unique creative vision. The question is, when is the right time to leave a full-time job to work independently? Is it possible to start an interior design business as a side hustle while working for another company? Here, we will explore the many factors to consider when starting an interior design business while working for another firm, and provide a framework for turning an interior design side hustle into a full-time job.
Know Your Rights
As a full-time employee of a company, you will likely be restricted in what you can and can’t do outside of the stated responsibilities of your job. Some companies have policies that makes them the legal owners of any inventions or intellectual property created by an employee. These policies can even include any intellectual property created at any time or place by an employee, while other policies limit ownership to those created on company time or with company equipment. While interior design may not obviously fall into the category of invention or intellectual property, your company may disagree. So, find that out.
The other policy to look for is a non-compete clause. Often, a company will prohibit its employees from starting or engaging in any business activities that could be considered in competition to the company. This means, for example, if you work for an interior design firm that has residential clients, you may not be able to provide freelance interior design services to residential clients while you are formally employed at your day job.
Read your employment contract, the employee manual, and any other human resources policies you can find. If you have an employee contract, it will include very clear stipulations of what you are prohibited from doing outside of work as an employee of that company. Still, going beyond that to understand the firm’s overall policies is a smart investment of your time. If your goal is to start an interior design business, you will eventually need to hire a lawyer. This may be a good time to research lawyers and considering hiring one to help you understand how company policies shape the direction your side hustle can take. Even if the company you currently work for does not have strict non-compete policies, you may want to steer clear of violating the implicit trust of your employer by competing with them in secret. While you don’t have to announce your intention to work on a side hustle, you can carve out a niche for your side hustle that does not directly compete with your employer. You don’t want to burn bridges with anyone in the industry, and you certainly don't want to get fired from your day job before you can afford to live off your secondary income.
Leverage Your Work Perks
You won’t be able to use your company time or resources to work on your side hustle, but there are still creative ways to leverage the professional perks offered by your employer. For one, bigger companies often have a full calendar of events that employees are invited to attend, and networking should be a top priority for you. You won’t be able to advertise your future plans, but , you can work on building your network and forming genuine connections with people that you will want to contact when you eventually leave your firm. Focus on meeting as many people as possible, and then targeting the ones with whom you have a natural connection to invest your time in, like scheduling coffee dates and inviting them to events, where appropriate. A big part of making your interior design business a success will be knowing your brand and building a strong network of like-minded colleagues who align with your core values.
Other areas to explore are software and supply discounts offered through your company, as well as association memberships. Some companies offer discounts on Adobe Creative Suite or drafting programs such as AutoCad. Now is the time to learn these tools and find the ones that you prefer. Just remember, when it’s time to start your new business, to purchase and install your own copies on your own computer, not your company-owned equipment. Likewise, larger firms sometimes offer free or discounted memberships to important interior design associations, like ASID and IIDA. Industry associations are important tools for interior design business owners to network, learn about changes happening within the industry, and get referrals for vendors, lawyers, and other professional support. Lastly, larger interior design and architecture firms often offer free or discounted education to employees. Take advantage of these classes to strengthen your software skills, or business knowledge. If your company does not offer these types of resources, look into your design school’s alumni benefits.
Be Extremely Organized
If you are working on launching your own interior design business while working a full-time job elsewhere, you’re going to be stretched thin. Staying organized is essential to becoming successful while remaining sane. Determine exactly how you will handle your business, including project management and accounting, hire your extended team of professionals, like a lawyer, accountant, and insurance specialist, and put your policies into writing.
Also, invest in tools to help keep you on track. Of course, we’re partial to Design Manager, the leading software for interior designers because it provides an integrated approach to facilitating all aspects of project management while making bookkeeping an easy task that falls seamlessly in line with each step of a project. It also creates professional, branded documents such as client proposals, budgets, purchase orders, and invoices, using data you only have to enter once. Plus, it can produce a wide range of financial reports, which are vital to keeping track of your progress as you work towards making your side hustle your full-time job. And there are also a host of amazing apps for professional interior designers that can help save you time, and ensure you are always prepared as you work on the go.
Take It Slow
Getting ready to start your own interior design business will overwhelm you with excitement, but you still have to put your day job first. In the beginning, try to take on one side project at a time, and keep the scope of projects limited, so you can test your abilities without setting yourself up for failure. Also, you need to leave room in your schedule for unexpected obligations that your employer imposes on you, like a last minute client pitch or a mistake that needs to be addressed in a hurry.
You may want to consider teaming up with a partner to share the workload, although don’t rush into any working relationship without giving it great consideration. Your success and failure will largely depend on them, so vet potential partners carefully. If you decide to join forces with someone, clearly establish the division of responsibilities, put them in writing, and schedule regular (weekly) meetings to review all company activities.
It’s also important to be clear with your clients, especially while you are working with them as you also work a full-time job for a separate company. Set their expectations from day one about what times of day they can expect to communicate or meet with you so that they are not frustrated by your lack of communication during the weekdays. Putting an agreement into writing is essential, and offering clients a detailed timeline with proposed meeting times will also help mitigate any future frustrations.
Plan An Exit From Your Day Job
Once you have your side hustle off the ground with a few of your own projects under your belt, you will naturally begin to think about putting in notice to leave your job at the big interior design firm. While it will be difficult to remain focused on balancing two jobs at once, you will have to keep your day job until you are financially secure. Determine your monthly expenses, and then plan to save enough money to cover your personal expenses for an entire year (ideally) before leaving your day job. You will also need a plan for health insurance, which will cost approximately $500 a month out of pocket, at a minimum. When assessing the income you are making from your side hustle, remember that you have to set around 35% of that aside for taxes. It’s a good idea to make a plan with your accountant and financial adviser to set realistic goals for growth and income that you earn in your interior design business before you quit your day job.
While it won’t be easy, you can turn your interior design side hustle into your full-time job. Keep your eye on the prize, and the necessary sacrifices will be well worth it. If you are ready to begin the most rewarding challenge of your career, read our detailed manual on how to start an interior design business. Bookmark this link and get started today!