S/23 Keynote Series: “Designing a Business You Love” with Joanna Gaines, Amber Lewis, Jean Stoffer, Julia Marcum from Chris Loves Julia, and Carrier and Company's Mara Miller and Jesse Carrier
Every moment the Design Manager team spent at Spring 2023 High Point Market was time well spent. We saw new products, met with wonderful friends and colleagues, and got what felt like a mini-masters degree in the business of design after watching so many thoughtful panel discussions amongst illustrious speakers. While narrowing down the list wasn't easy, we’re recapping our four favorite educational presentations from Spring 2023 High Point Market for our readers.
All of our chosen presentations champion three principles:
- Formulating and documenting a standard way of working
- Knowing your strengths and weaknesses
- Being true to yourself.
“Cultivating a Firm Culture”
Brian Yates: Principal Designer and Co-Founder of Yates Desygn
Lorna Gross: President & Principal Designer of Lorna Gross Interior Design
Morgan Farrow,:Principal Designer of Morgan Farrow Interiors
Culture is the collective sum of your team’s actions, thoughts, decision making process - everything you do together and alongside one another. Here’s how the panel has worked to create the firm cultures that makes their companies successful:
- Lead by example: Lorna says culture starts at the top and you have to be intentional about how you develop it. Be upfront about how you work and what you need from a team member, for example, she works really fast and needs a team that can do the same. She also believes it's important that her team feels loved, and she has learned to give hugs and affirmation.
- Interviewing strategies: Choosing the right people to join your team is important. Brian and Morgan’s strategy for hiring people that fit in with the whole team culture is to get outside of their own personal views and have the first interview be with a senior designer instead of him, making them the gatekeeper. Lorna also has interviewees meet the whole team.
- Utilizing personality tests: The panel agrees that certain personality traits are better suited to specific job functions. Lorna relies on the CliftonStrengths Assessment finder system, Laura uses the Bird personality test, and Morgan likes the Enneagram test.
- Start with an employee trial: Brian gives all new employees a 60 day trial on which they work hourly. Lorna does the same but with a length of 90 days.
- Fire gently: Morgan believes it's what you do when you are in a difficult position that defines you, how you respond to hard moments. She is always generous to employees who are leaving by giving references and a severance.
- Host bonding time for your team: Everyone on the panel agrees that having fun with your team is key to creating a supportive culture and familial bond and hosts at least weekly drinks sessions, in addition to field trips, spa days, and other exciting perks!
- Be authentic: Brian says he is authentically himself in all parts of his life, and the firm culture follows. Everyone agrees that giving your team members a voice helps them be authentic, too, which inspires creativity.
"Interior Design Unplugged: How to Build a Business That Lasts"
Michelle Jennings Wiebe: Founder, President and Principal Designer of Studio M
Tom Wiebe: CEO and Business Strategist of Studio M
Michelle and Tom are married and run Studio M together, which was founded by Michelle thirty two years ago. They have consistently grown their business and are recently taking over new territory and increasing their pricing and are still in love with their business.
- Know your ideal client: Define your ideal client and type of project, and stick to that mould. For Studio M, it’s new construction in the $5-20M range. They're looking for $1k per square foot. Their ideal clients are in their 40-60s, age wise, and have built businesses that are worth $500M and upwards. In their new market, Atlanta, they are cultivating a client base of athletes.
- Vet potential clients: Make your first client meeting a free consultation and treat it like a two way interview. If your radar is going off, then listen to it. They even vet over the phone before that first free consultation. Next, they do an internet deep dive.
- Have a process for learning about your clients: They follow a standardized process for learning about what their clients want and how they live, starting with a detailed questionnaire that includes questions like if their pet sleeps with them. They take copious notes. Clients are always impressed that they remember the small details, because they wrote them down.
- Present a detailed budget proposal: If you show them a potential budget that includes a $20k rug, and they balk at spending that much on a rug, specifically, then you have a better idea of how to allocate the overall budget in a way that your client approves of. Once you have their buy in, you don’t have to talk about money again.
- Words to live by: Be excellent at what you do, listen to clients, and be curious!
"How to Build a Team and Avoid Burnout"
When it comes to the business of interior design, Melissa Galt is the guru. Not only has she run her own successful interior design firm for the last twenty years, she is also a premier interior design business coach.
- Interior design is a lifestyle business: You need to integrate all parts of your life because as an interior designer, you're always working and you are running with the designer mindset 24/7/365. Your business needs to deliver the resources to have that amazing life. For example, make every trip a buying trip, and write it off. Mary believes sacrifice is a choice, and an unhealthy one at that.
- The ideal firm size: Melissa believes boutique sized firms suit most interior design businesses, which she describes as 1 to 10 in staff, at most 15. Team members can be a mix of boots on the ground locals and outsourced, which creates the opportunity for a low overhead/high income business.
- Create the team that suits your exact needs: Identify what you are good at and what you like to do; your “zone of genius” in Melissa’s words, and either delegate or outsource the rest. Not every team member has to be in person or full-time. Only hire a full-time employee if you have full-time work for them. The composition that worked for Melissa is bookkeeping and accounting as first tires and a lawyer to follow, all outsourced. In person employees are next, which for her are an intern and design assistant. She doesn't need a senior designer at her firm, so she doesn't have one.
- What can be outsourced: Admin assistant, bookkeeper, accountant, legal, graphic design, and public relations are all functions that can be outsourced. Even drafting and rendering, space planning, and purchasing can be outsourced. Pick the functions in your zone of genius and that's what you should keep to do in-house.
- Document your process: Write down exactly how you do things and how you want other people to do them so there is no confusion. Have your employees write down their processes. Together, this becomes your standard operating procedure manual.
- Have a meticulous hiring process: Get detailed and realistic job descriptions up quickly- rapid action is the key to getting things done. If the position has flexibility or room for growth, state that. When interviewing, assess their presentation skills. Let them know the video will have to be on for zoom interviews without a blurred background. Check their skills with tests and check references. If a position involves handling money, do a background check. It’s worth it. Check their social media presence to assess their discretion and judgment.
- Hire slowly and fire quickly: The longer your toxic employee stays, the more they will poison the well.
- Send clients weekly updates: It shows that you are thinking of them, even if you do not have anything major to report, and it helps to mitigate any surprises or breakdowns in communication
"Keynote: Designing a Business You Love"
Joanna Gaines: Co-Founder of Magnolia
Amber Lewis: Founder and Principal Designer of Amber Interiors
Jean Stoffer: Founder and Principal Designer of Jean Stoffer Design
Julia Marcum: Author at Chris Loves Julia
Mara Miller: Co-Founder and Co-Principal Designer of Carrier and Company
Jesse Carrier: Co-Founder and Co-Principal Designer of Carrier and Company
Media stars come together to talk about their untraditional start in the interior design industry, how they play to their strengths and work around their weak areas, and how they make their dreams a reality.
- Dream big: Almost everyone on the panel started small and built their successful, multi-faceted businesses one step at a time. Jean recently expanded her business into speciality kitchens, which felt like a daunting undertaking. She used their downtime during Covid to go through the painstaking details necessary to launch her new initiative the right way.
- Communicate, even when the news isn't good: When you’re expanding your business quickly or introducing new lines of business, sometimes there are bumps along the way. When Amber’s ecommerce business grew so fast she was struggling to keep up with it, she not only had to figure out how to scale quickly but also how to let clients know their products were delayed in a way that wouldn’t alienate them.
- Fight feelings of imposter syndrome: Joanna recalls how she studied broadcast journalism and then planned to take over the family tire business, so she wasn't expecting to become an interior designer. She joined up with her husband, Chip, who was in construction and they started working together. All of the TV coverage that followed felt overwhelming because she didn’t go to school for interior design. Eventually, she learned to not judge herself.
- Hire the skills you don't have: Many people on the panel did not go to school for interior design, but most of the people they hire did. They lean on their team to fill in any gaps in their expertise.
- Have courage: Jean says that anytime you do something that you don't have experience in, it takes courage but it strengthens you. When you commit to doing something well, with consistency, and with integrity, it will work.
We really enjoyed all of the many excellent presentations at Spring 2023 High Point Market. We came away with the message that succeeding in the business of interior design requires acting with intention. Know your core values and be true to your authentic self when conducting your business and you can achieve anything.
We look forward to High Point 2024.