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5 Ways Small Firms Can Stay Competitive in a Down Economy

Sept. 29, 2022
Two small firm owners share how to stay afloat when times are tough—by building and maintaining a strong community of supporters.

Owning your own business is never easy, so finding ways to keep your name in people’s minds and mouths can be very low on the priority list at times. But being an effective marketer is a necessary evil, especially when the money isn’t flowing the way you’d like it to.

The good news is you don’t need hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers in order to be one (although if you have them, you can probably stop reading now). It’s more about staying connected and staying creative throughout the inevitable ups and downs your career will throw at you.

“I’ve been in business 18 years and never done a single day of marketing,” said Holley Henderson, founder of H2 Ecodesign. Rather, Henderson has devoted her time to developing a reputation built on trust—and that doesn’t require any social media savvy. It’s a game plan that’s always kept the work steady.

Similarly, Fauzia Khanani, founding principal of Studio Fōr, says her firm kept moving in part over the past couple years by relying on former and current colleagues and clients to point them in the right direction of communities in need of good design—which led to the inception of a nonprofit called Design Advocates that’s still going strong today.

With almost 30 years of experience between Khanani and Henderson, we drew from their stories to compile the following tips that will help you stay relevant no matter the state of the industry.


“What people don’t realize is that their work ethic really comes through in volunteering. It spotlights your dedication and willingness to deliver. It says ‘This person isn’t going to leave me hanging. They’re going to go the extra mile.’ And that sticks with people,” said Henderson, who began doing so for her localU.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in Georgia about 15 years ago. She went from just seeking sponsorships for the local regional board to gaining a spot on the National USGBC LEED Steering Committee, which was responsible for the direction of LEED for the entire built environment industry, giving her major exposure. The experience she garnered led her to working with former Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) in rolling out their branches with a LEED Portfolio Retail rating.

Go Pro Bono

Studio Fōr experienced a brief lull in their commercial projects during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and spent it cold calling to see if clients were aware of any organizations, nonprofits or businesses in need of pro bono design work. The rest of the founding board members did the same, and that’s how Design Advocates was born in April 2020, growing from six small firm owners to approximately 200 volunteer designers, engineers, product vendors and contractors today.
“We did a ton of work for small restaurants trying to figure out how to keep open without indoor seating. We worked with social service organizations that couldn’t do that indoors anymore and helped homeless shelters in addressing reduced capacity issues,” Khanani explained. This initiative placed them firmly on the map, proving their ability to find solutions to some of the toughest challenges the industry has ever faced.

Be a Connector

Set others up for success by connecting them with the right people—whether that monetarily benefits you or not. “Something that has served me well over the years is to admit when I’m not the best fit for a job and tell the client to hire a competitor,” Henderson admitted. While it might sound counterintuitive, it’s another way to build significant trust that can lead to future billable hours.

Henderson has also developed a paid referral system for when she’s unable to take on a project. She’ll send potential clients to whomever she deems best for the job and receives a minor fee in return if the connection solidifies into an actual working relationship.

Think Outside the Box

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a trend forecaster was to download three pieces of music you’d never listen to and go buy three magazines you’d never read,” Henderson recalled. This openminded approach leads to ahead-of-the-curve thinking that clients will always crave—something Studio Fōr provided by quickly diving into focus groups and research dedicated to future of work, enabling them to get busy with those projects as early as September 2020.

Trends might be approaching, but from a completely different direction than you were expecting. But perhaps more importantly, taking yourself out of your own little bubble can open one up to new revenue streams. Henderson’s main client currently is the Chemical Insights Research Institute in Marietta, GA, where she’s helping with partnerships, research and education (in other words, not traditional design.) She also provides small pro bono gestures each year that help clients with elements like product certifications or award submissions, which encourages them to come back to her for bigger jobs.

Also consider vendors and specialists you wouldn’t typically work with, something Khanani was pushed to do more during the pandemic, and recently thanks to longer product lead times.

Seek Aid

Band together when times are tough, Khanani advised, and trade your most important tool: information. During the pandemic, “I would get on Zoom calls with other small firm owners and see how they were surviving,” she recalled. “There were Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans we qualified for, which a lot of people didn’t know about,” she said.

And while that program is over, there are current resources to take advantage of, including those dedicated to helping underserved communities. Reach out to your local U.S. Small Business Administration office to see what they offer in terms of business development services, training and loan assistance.

“Another result of the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder was that the availability and accessibility of grants for social and design justice work increased a lot,” Khanani said. “Foundations and corporations are now making it a priority to fund these types of initiatives, including grassroots ones, which was not necessarily the case on such a large scale before 2020.”

While the current economic outlook is still uncertain, small design firm owners and sole proprietors can weather the storm by doing what they do best: building relationships and doing creative work that benefits others. Good intentions and great design are a win-win, as these small firms have demonstrated.

About the Author

AnnMarie Martin | Editor-in-Chief

AnnMarie has been covering the commercial design space since 2005 and has been on the editorial staff at i+s since 2011. Her style and vision has helped the brand evolve into a thought leader in purpose-driven design and cultural movements shaping the way we live and work. She returned to the role of editor in chief at the start of 2023 and her journalism and fiction writing background have helped to craft bi-monthly issues that don’t just report the latest industry news, but tell a cohesive tale of some of the biggest topics facing designers today.

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