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Scaling Your Interior Design Office From 2 to 10 Employees

In the earliest days of your interior design business, you toiled day and night as a do-it-all solopreneur. After working hard to plant the seeds of growth, you took the plunge and hired your first team members. While being an employer is a big responsibility, your loyal and assiduous staff of 1-2 employees have helped your firm flourish and your project pipeline grow exponentially. Now that you have traction as a successful interior design firm, it’s time to devise your ideal team of 10 and engineer a hiring plan to ensure your company is ready to seize on every new business opportunity coming its way. 


Key Positions in a Mid-Size Interior Design Office

Growing from a small team of 2-3 to a mid-sized office of around 10 can be a daunting proposition, but just like your masterpiece interior design projects, the key to success is thoughtful planning, attention to detail, and patience in execution. As you begin to develop the schematics of your ideal future team, understand the key positions that comprise the foundation of a mid-sized interior design firm to determine your end goal before planning your pursuit. Note that these positions are not mutually exclusive, but represent roles that most small to mid-sized firms (approximately 10 employees) need to fill. 


Chief Executive Officer (CEO) - In an interior design firm, the CEO is typically, but not necessarily, the business founder and lead designer. The CEO’s primary responsibilities are to lead the team, make all of the major business decisions, and to oversee the management of operations and company resources.


Lead Designer - This role is also typically held by the interior design business founder and is responsible for the creative vision behind all of the company’s design work. The lead designer usually manages the design assistants to produce all necessary drawings and client presentations.


Designer(s) - This role supports the lead designer in all creative, design-related tasks and can include designations of experience and/or managerial responsibilities, such as Senior or Junior. Sub-categories of design duties you may need to hire for specifically include:

  • Draftsperson - He or she produces technical drawings of floor plans and elevations, either by hand or in computer programs such as AutoCad and Revit.
  • Renderer - This person creates drawings and illustrations of proposed designs by hand or in computer programs such as Rhinoceros, Sketch-Up, V-Ray, and 3ds Max
  • Graphic Designer - This role composes presentation and marketing materials by hand or in computer programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.
  • Materials/Color Expert - He or she provides expert knowledge of materials and/or creative talent for composing color stories.


Project Manager - The project manager implements the correct order of operations for each project, from the conceptual stage, through the ordering phase, to the final installation. The project manager oversees the workflow and ensures each step of every project is completed within the mandated budgets and timelines. This role is a hybrid of creative and operational, as it requires a deep knowledge of the design process but is fundamentally a business-oriented role.  


Chief Operations Officer (COO)/Business Manager - The COO is responsible for managing all of the functions related to business management, accounting and finance. This person is in charge of everything that is not design related and works closely with an interior design company’s extended team of lawyers, insurance agents, accountants, and other consultants.This role may also oversee the bookkeeper, office manager, marketer, HR manager, and administrative assistants. 


Bookkeeper - This role records business transactions and coordinates financial reporting requirements.


Office Manager - He or she oversees all administrative functions such as managing the company calendar, keeping supplies in stock, planning events, making sure working environments are clean and safe, and continuously searching for cost and efficiency savings for supplies and utilities.


Administrative Assistants - This position supports the office manager in administrative tasks such as managing the schedules of the design team and key operational managers, answering the office phone, and managing company-related logistics. 


Marketing/Business Development Director - He or she develops and executes a marketing and sales program that increases the profile of an interior design firm and brings in new clients and other revenue.


Human Resources (HR) Manager - The HR manager works with the CEO to establish and implement a personnel structure, hires and terminates employees, oversees payroll and benefits, and mediates employee relations.


Developing a Hiring Plan

Now that you understand the key functions that make up the foundation of a mid-size interior design firm, you can start planning how you will approach assembling your very own dream team. While, in most cases, each of the roles described above are important to an interior design company of any size, a single employee can assume more than one function in the early days of your business. To design a logical and realistic hiring plan, you will have to first determine your business priorities, forecast sales as far into the future as possible, and consider the cause and effect of hiring staff across different areas of your interior design company. 


The first thing you must determine is, what are your immediate staffing needs? In which areas are you currently struggling to meet your responsibilities? The next question is, what are the most valuable components of your service to clients? You have to prioritize which positions you are going to fill first, hiring only one new employee at a time, inline with the growth of your profit margins (see Part I for guidance on knowing when you can afford to hire additional employees). While both design and administration are equally important to the success of your business, there will be junctures where your staff will be weighted in one area versus the other. If producing all drawings in-house and providing clients with multiple rounds of photorealistic renderings is vital to your value proposition as an interior designer, you will have to prioritize hiring design staff over a dedicated marketing or HR person, instead taking on those responsibilities yourself, bundling them into other in-house operational roles, or outsourcing them until a later time.  


Also, understanding cause and effect in hiring is critical to ensuring you scale your team in step with growth. For example, if you hire a marketing/business development manager, you must also hire, or have a near-term plan to hire, additional design and/or administrative staff to support the increase in business generated by a professional marketing initiative. The same principle applies to engaging an external Public Relations firm. Think about the future implications of your hiring decisions and ensure you have the infrastructure needed to provide high quality service as your number and scope of projects grow. 


Avoid Scaling Too Quickly with Proper Financial Planning

The most important part of your hiring plan will be aligning the timing of new hires to passing growth and profit milestones. Prudent planning is an absolute necessity when developing a realistic hiring plan that scales in step with your bottom line. Work with your accountant and a financial planner to understand your business’s current financial status, projected future earnings by month based on projects that are formally under contract, and potential earnings that would come from additional projects and the opening of new revenue streams, like product lines, for example. 


Plan how you can convert potential revenue into guaranteed income with the team you already have in place by determining where and how you can maximize employee productivity. Industry specific software, like Design Manager’s accounting and project management tools, can go a long way in keeping a lean team organized and efficient. With the help of your accountant and financial planner, formalize financial goals, when and how you will achieve them, and what passing each goal post means for your hiring plan. Also analyze how you are charging for your interior design services, and consider adjusting your billing structure in a way that helps track income to employee productivity, like adding a time billing component to your current system.


Once you have a carefully crafted, financially sound hiring plan, you are ready to begin building out your team from 1-2 members to a mid-sized office of 10 employees. Be sure to keep a diligent eye on your finances, reconciling your forecasted to real earnings on a monthly basis. Adhering to your hiring plan will require patience and resourcefulness while you work to raise your profits to pay for additional staff. Hiring employees is a long-term investment and large responsibility, and scaling your team too quickly can cause major financial problems for your company, so don’t rush the process. Next week, we will share insights on how to retain talent, develop managers, and maintain core values as you grow your team to support your ever-growing, smashingly successful interior design business. 

Lindsay Paoli
Lindsay Paoli
Lindsay is in charge of the Sales and Marketing team at Design Manager and has enjoyed growing the DM company for the past 10 years. In her spare time though, you can find her taking care of her two adorably demanding little rugrats, traveling, enjoying new restaurants or cheering on her beloved Philadelphia sports teams with her friends and family.

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