4 Tips to Improve Your Design Practice

April 29, 2015

Growing a small business is no easy task

let go to grow
Having grown my own business from a one-man shop, I’m well aware of the pride that comes from building a brand and earning the trust of a loyal clientele. I have experienced both the pros and cons of adding staff, and have had to adjust how I envision my role in my own company. I have also reaped the rewards that come from letting go of the things I don’t do well and concentrating more of my efforts on the things I can do well.

I see a lot of designers struggling to grow their businesses because they want to do it all themselves. I call them “DIY designers.” I’m talking about the designer who’s reluctant to bring on staff because they’re afraid of losing control or just because they believe they have the skills to do it all alone. They’ve created a great brand, but they are limiting their income and their reach because there is only so much new work they can take on. And very likely they are spending a lot of time on unbillable tasks.

It may sound contradictory, but trust me, if you’re a DIY designer, you’re missing out on the opportunity to maximize your firm’s potential by devoting more of your time to your best self. Whether your strength is designing, project management, sales, or marketing and managing your firm, delegating other tasks frees you up to do more of it.

Yes, you could outsource various tasks. But think about how much additional oversight time it will take to manage multiple individuals, each with a fragmented picture of your entire business. If you’re at that stage where you need to add staff, here are some things to consider:

  • Start by making a skills inventory. What do you do well and want to keep doing? What other tasks or roles could someone else assume? What skills and experience would that person need to meet your expectations?
  • Create a position description that encompasses all the tasks you need that person to do. Don’t assume you can’t find someone with the right mix of skills and experience. Believe that they’re out there.
  • Set a salary and rate target. How much will you need to pay a qualified employee? (Don’t be skimpy; this is the time to stretch a bit.) How much will you be able to bill for that person? How will that help you bill more for your time? (The benefit should outweigh the cost.)

The key to expanding is in finding the right person whose skills and talents complement yours—an individual who will be committed to your firm’s success, as well as their own.

take time from social networks to network
To tweet or not to tweet, that is the question. With so many social networking channels, interior design blogs, and designer directories available, where should you be putting your marketing time and efforts? I have two thoughts to share on that subject.

Online marketing experts will tell you that you should be everywhere—preferably, all the time. You have to make some noise if you want to be heard above the roar of the digital crowd. That may be true for companies trying to attract the mass market, but that’s not you. You want to target your “best client.” First, take some time to investigate where your “best client” is going to seek out interior design advice or to follow trends, and focus your efforts there. Try not to get distracted by all the noise. Remember, one good client is more valuable than a hundred “followers” who just want to pick your brain for design ideas.

Social media and online marketing can be effective tools to attract potential new clients, but they are no substitute for old-fashioned networking and personal contact when it comes to developing and maintaining client relationships. Taking the time to call on clients, invite them to lunch or dinner, drop off a little thank-you gift, or send them a handwritten, personal note sends a strong message that you care about them and their well-being, not just their business. It gives you the opportunity to form a stronger bond and to build trust, which are critical to securing future projects and referrals.

Of course, you and your clients are both busy, but personal contact need not be time-consuming, onerous, or expensive. A little goes a long way. It’s also much more satisfying than all that digital chatter. In my book, a client’s gratitude is worth a thousand tweets.

watch for the signs the client is serious
Gamblers call it the “tell.” It’s a bit of body language, usually unconscious, that reveals whether a player is pleased or worried about the cards he’s holding. A player can have the advantage over another if he can spot and correctly interpret that player’s tell.

A good salesman, like a good gambler, needs to watch for the “tell.” How often were you sure the client was going to hire you, and then you never heard from them again? How do you know if the client is in earnest or just trying to find a polite way to give you the brush? Pay attention to their body language. If the client appears to be engaged, is asking a lot of questions, and providing detailed information, that’s a good sign. If he or she makes eye contact, leans toward you when speaking, or lightly touches your arm, they are starting to develop a relationship with you and establishing a foundation for trust. That doesn’t guarantee you’ve sealed the deal, but it’s an indication that you’ve got more than just your foot in the door.

On the other hand, if the client is fidgety, seems distracted, draws back from the conversation, makes little jokes or offhand remarks, or sounds self-defensive, those are not good signs. It means they are uncomfortable with the situation and are not prepared to make a decision. That’s your cue to suggest to the client that perhaps they need some time to think it over. If you feel there is some genuine interest, you can leave the door open by offering to follow up at a later date.

No matter what the client may say, these telltale signs will provide the feedback you need to determine if you’ve got a prospect or a dud.

grow your wealth while you grow your business
There is an art to making money, and there is an art to keeping it. No matter how good you are at generating new business or maximizing your profits, your efforts will be in vain unless you also exercise care in managing your money well. Among the top five reasons the wealthiest Americans give for how they acquired their wealth, the first is hard work, but not far behind are smart investing and frugality.

Managing your business’s money involves more than minding your cash flow and reviewing your P/L statement each month. In addition to having a business plan for how you’ll keep the money coming in, you need a plan for how to keep it from flowing out. You want to minimize your expenses and optimize your overhead. You also need to be hyper-aware of the taxes you pay, how you protect your assets, and how you limit your liability. That includes having the proper insurance and business practices in place to safeguard against possible lawsuits or other damages.

Remember, you are required by law to pay taxes, but you are not required to pay more than necessary! Moreover, as you accumulate cash and other assets, you become a target for people who are looking for someone with deep pockets to sue (or just threaten to sue). There are many legal ways to hedge your assets and shield yourself from spurious actions, take deductions from your taxes, and forestall payment of taxes until a more favorable time to do so in the future.

Most design business books focus on the operations side of a firm’s finances rather than wealth management. That’s why I have teamed with some of the leading advisers in the industry to produce a new book, Designing for Wealth: Four Keys for Interior Design Success. You do not need to be rich to be wise with your money. You will find this book a valuable resource, loaded with tactics to set you on the right path or augment strategies that you already have in place.

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