Other designers- and small retailers or businesses-ask me this frequently- How did you get started and how long did it take to be successful in interior design?
When did you hire people? How did you know when to go into retail? Is it successful?
This is certainly not my autobiography and may not be interesting to anyone and that is the great thing about a blog- does not matter. But I hope it might give people starting out especially after a life changing divorce, some sense of empowerment that YES you can do this.
But to define success, one has to really be cognizant of how they value their achievements
For me- yes it is all successful because I make a good living, I love what I do (almost always) and I look forward to a new day. To me, that is success.
My background is in sales and marketing so this is not my first career – but I firmly believe everything I have done is what got me to where I am today and contributed to the growth and achievements of my firm. Every experience, both good and bad, is part of the mix. I have always been a creative thinker – some might say that was a generous way to say- I am a storyteller of sorts. Let’s just say I letted in Drama in high school ok? ok. Now you know. But truly my first career required a lot of sales, creativity, problem solving, working with diverse people, and being persuasive. All elements I embody today too.
It was a shit ton of hard work, self education, long nights, tears, fears, and failures. But there was no other option but success because I had two little people that depended on me and they thought their momma was the best.
With that motivating you, you can pretty much do anything.
The take away-
**Sales and marketing is essential to owning your own business. It is ok if this is not your bag but you will need to have a working knowledge of sales. But get help in this way if you are not skilled and that is ok. But you need to understand principals of sales in order to do pretty much any business- no one told you that in design school did they?
**Except for a few instagrammers it may seem lucked into success- This is hard work and please do not let anyone tell you it is not. Do not get discouraged. It takes some time to make money and to figure out where all the bodies are buried. But keep learning, asking questions, and working the puzzle.
“CK Ideas”- The original business
This was the first name I had- when I was still married and the idea of taking my skills in home design, my education in the arts and my sales and marketing savvy -and putting them into a business. It all began on the tennis court when a friend of mine- Linda – said hey you need to do this as a business- you are good at it and it fits your background perfectly. At the time, I did not know my “hobby” business was about to be a means to gainful and necessary employment.
Another friend, Louise Videau, took a chance on having me design her kitchen- for free mind you- I needed the hands on experience working for someone besides my own remodels- and I advocate this for new designers too. I did paint consults, plans, consulting only- whatever someone wanted. I wanted any work I could get to keep learning and advancing to the next stage of business. I turned nothing down in the early days. I loved every minute of it and especially the business end- it was fascinating to me.
The take away-
**Figure out what you need to do to advance your position. Actually doing the work is the best way to get good in this industry- no amount of schooling or webinars will take the place of hands on experience. So make an actionable plan and be strategic in executing it.
**Be prepared- one never knows when one might get a shocking kick in the teeth.
In Detail Design and Create, Inc-
The big girl company is born
Sometime in 1999 I sat on my recently divorced friend Harriet’s sofa in another part of East Hill panic stricken thinking my life was not going as planned- I had a 4 and a 6 yr old, a pretty brutal divorce and damn- I was so scared. The kind of super scary that wakes you up at night saying WHAT ARE YOU DOING-YOU HAVE NO CLUE-WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU CAN DO THIS CHERYL- It took me a long time to really believe I was DOING it and not just a poser.
And you know how you do not recall much from yesterday let alone 19 years ago but you can vividly recall certain things- and as I sat in her cute little house with our kids generally the same age- I began what were the first steps in healing- although did not really know it then- but it felt right somehow.
I can do this.
This will be ok.
We will survive.
We will thrive.
The take away-
YOU can do anything. Gather your posse of support, your tribe, and do it. But no expectations that anything will be easy and if something does go better than planned then this is what we call in the south- lagniappe.
Fear and inertia holds most people back. Let the fear propel you forward.
I hated the CK Ideas name and was incorporating the business after some great advice from a mentor- and brainstormed for days on names- I sure wish I still had all of my notebooks from then! I settled on In Detail – because I knew the details are what mattered to me and what had made me stand out thus far- and the Design and Create – because that is what we were doing!
But we actually only use this name legally as is pretty long- I deliberately did not use my own name- I had big dreams even then and wanted to be sure it was not about ME but about the firm I wanted to build. At the same time I had a second company that was more retail and focused on the K and B that I did well- and I used this for the first shop- we carried both companies for awhile but was a little ridiculous to keep two sets of books so closed In Detail K and B in 2012. We developed 1514 Home as branding for the shop in 2014 and use DBA’s for that and for In Detail Interiors.
The early days
My first office was in a bedroom in my new little house with a side entrance but it grew too small almost immediately especially when I hired Cara as my assistant. So I moved to an office in an old house near my current building- but it was too depressing – and lonely. I think I have known all along I enjoy being around a team. I have really never known anything different- my days at Gannett I had a stellar team and it just was loads more fun and inspiring. Plus I have always loved to teach. After the depressing building I began thinking of bigger things. It is a curse and a blessing- my overactive mind- it never stops and wears people out but is what keeps me going.
But one thing I discovered for certain- I am a better person working for myself.
I love all the aspects of running a business even when am whining about the same!
The take away-
**Think carefully about using your own name- if you want to sell it one day it becomes about you but more importantly if you have a team- most people would prefer to work for a firm with a name that is not linked to the owner- plus every job does not then need to be about you- this extends your reach greatly and allows others to take a lead.
**Know how you work best- if you have small kids it might make sense to work at home- it just did not work for me. I love having a team and brainstorming and sharing ideas. But some people work best alone.
The early days of In Detail Kitchen and Bath-
The First Retail Shop
Many people do not realize we had a kitchen shop in 2002 that was cute as a button along with our design business and it was very much liked by all- yet I lost my ass on the shop end pretty much. Why? Because I did not not know enough to hire well and tried to manage everything including my young design firm myself- all with two small kids and going through the divorce. It was a not always a great time but I learned so much and felt very alive. And I was getting stronger every day. ( And god knows I was going to need it to deal with contractors and subs!)
In those times there was not as much support for small businesses and you had to muddle along- I am a strategic thinker so it helped- but I still could not delegate worth a crap then and the market was so different at this time- very hard to buy direct and minimums much higher. I realized this was not my time for a retail shop and went back to the basics of design and worked continually to refine my skills and those of my team.
The take away-
**Retail is not a cake walk and you must have a plan, capital, a good location and good help. Essential. And that is another very hard thing- hiring.But when you get great people it is a glorious thing!
Live and Learn-So many lessons!
Government street on Seville Square-more gifty retail and design
It was also a different time in our communities- I originally had not a single item in my shop that was made in China either- it was important to me to not contribute to the slave wages people were paid in China and the crappy quality.
I was a bit more of a rebel than I am even now. It took me a year to realize this was not going to work- because too many kitchen and bath household items and accessories were made in China. But I stood firm on this for most of the time we had this shop. My ideals were big and will be the first to admit to run a business sometimes your initial ideals have to give way to practical matters if you want to turn a profit.
The take Away-
**I did not fail per se but lost some money in the first retail shop. This tells you even a cool shop can not make it- you have to sell a lot of candles is my stock phrase at the shop now- and is true- think about how many small items you must sell to make a 2000.00 rent payment plus utilities, your pay, the pay of an assistant- it is a LOT OF CANDLES- So what to do?
**Have bigger ticket items and a built in customer base- your clients- and create a shop with a story- a personality that is bigger than you.
Give people a reason to come in that is more compelling than the next place.
209 Zarragoza- Mini showroom
I regrouped and went smaller on showroom size and focused on just design and fixture sales and had a mini showroom of sinks, faucets and such. It was disappointing to leave my beloved retail but it worked well for us and we did a lot of custom cabinetry too. I realized I could not grow the business the way I wanted without more product sales- you simply cannot charge enough to cover overhead and all that goes into it with hourly fees alone unless you have super low overhead or are a super star.
Most people realize this and some even today- do not. Not just clients but designers too- they focus on hourly rates and not on where they want to be in 5 years and if you want to grow you cannot do it on fees alone and that is a fact. But even more importantly specifying products makes you a better designer- you have to know so much more. This benefits your clients in a way that many do not realize.
This time period at Zaragoza was probably some of my most stressful. I think the kids getting older and having those sorts of divorced family issues was tough. I do not have great memories in this shop- other than my future husband installing a working tub for me! Will never forget that!
The take away-
**The business will ebb and flow and the MOST important thing is to keep forging forward- even if feels like going backwards. Get out of the ruts we all get in and try something new. Talk to people- get a good business coach who will analyze YOUR business and not just say raise your rates. You MUST get honest feedback- Even if you do not want to hear it.
We did ok-was not getting rich- but growing as a designer and a firm- working on processes, hiring and finessing more interior work
The firm was doing well but I was not making a killing for sure. It was important for me to keep on a growth progression so I put back a lot of my income into the business. I was in a position to do this and live lean and mean and not everyone is- but we kept very busy doing just kitchens and baths and then ancillary rooms too.
I had a couple of employees by this time. I was active in the NKBA as a chapter rep and actually got published quite a bit back even then- I credit my first career marketing skills- and my sales ability to get in front of editors- my secret sauce was that I gave them the angle and it worked every time. At this time I had two kids under 10 and their activities were a priority for me so it meant working after they had gone to bed. They were troopers and absolutely hated having to go to job sites but they did:)
More of our more recent media here.
The take away-
**Get in front of people in any way you can- you have to work it but making connections is the best way to get published and do not discount being in manufacturer catalogs, speaking engagements and things like this as well. It is all visibility. I could write many books about getting visibility! You never know what will lead to something bigger.
Hurricane Ivan was a defining moment
I think we really began to hit our stride from a design perspective in 2003- right before Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004 and sort of changed everyone’s lives. We were in the middle of 7 jobs- several took big hits and then of course after that we were swamped. I also became an “expert” for many insurance claims helping clients and others get more money than the otherwise would have gotten- it was a wild time for sure.
The take away-
**You never know what is around the corner. Ivan really took a big hit in our community and we all were scrambling to not only get back into our own homes but to take care of our clients. We were lucky to have much of our processes set by then and able to handle more work. It is essential to record your processes and procedures and not wait until you are too busy to do so.
My own kitchen had just been done and photographed for Better Homes and Gardens- two days before Ivan hit and we had to evacuate quickly- and left the Perrier bottles and all the styling as it sat- and did not move back into that house for 9 months! When we got back a week later when they allowed residents back on the beach, the quilt I had tossed over the copper countertop made a permanent imprint!
801 A and B on 9th Avenue
First two buildings we purchased!-No retail but small hardware and lotta people in 1400 sq feet!
A little before Ivan we bought two tiny 700 sq ft buildings to house the studio in one and the fixtures in the other along with several employees! It was tight but we still own those buildings and was a good investment. I have always been cognizant of the business side of things and did without in order to put money back into the business. We grew a lot here and were doing large homes. Busy! And we started to show more revenue on the bottom line.
The take away-
**Be very frugal- no extra money spent unless you see a strong ROI
**Take the jobs.
Do what you need to keep your pipe line full and never mind the “experts” that say raise your rates if you cannot command them with VALUE TO YOUR CLIENTS. This is a huge mistake and it makes me crazy to hear it especially when I go to websites and see a demonstrated lack of skill or knowledge.
FOCUS on being of service and growing your business and the rest will come. I am living proof of it and am a working designer with a team, a shop and a healthy bank account. Some like to teach but are not really in the trenches and in our world today you lose the pulse on the market quickly.
**Learn something new everyday. You must know about taxes, contracts and so many things that I feel many do not. Owning a business is not for everyone and most fail. I am proud of what we have done in 19 years but it has not been easy but we have always been profitable.
**Watch your debt carefully- I do not advocate for anyone having too much debt unless you sure you can handle the payments. I have never had debt other than paying a friend back for some of the losses of my first shop. I have no debt now except for the three buildings and land our company owns and where our shop and offices are located.
**Diversify into other areas of making money as you can- adding product sales, special types of consults, E design, affiliate marketing, anything that can be a revenue stream. But remember the key ingredient here is to be the best you can be as a designer ( or whatever it is you are doing if not a designer reading this) and should hone your craft first and foremost. Do not worry about keeping up with everyone else.
You do you.
59 East Gregory- In Detail Interiors is renamed
It was not until late 2009 ( you know- right about when the recession was in full swing- I was too busy to pay attention to notice I think!) that I decided we needed to diversify more- it was hard to do the extra spaces we were asked to do because we had no design center and just needed access to more products that were not dependent on K and B which the internet was killing.
We carried just a few lines of upholstery and a more lighting and mirrors at first. I am old school in that if I am going to sell something I need to KNOW IT and UNDERSTAND it. I am not one for relying on Suzy Q at the local furniture store, tile store, wherever to order correctly, give me timely info, handle it the way it should be done. Call me a control freak- I will own it.
Have a strong financial plan!
I do not think I am a big risk taker but of all the years in business this was my biggest risk- but I had a plan- because if nothing else I am a planner. And I financed this with profits from the company- I did not get a loan. Is ok to get a loan but just know what you are doing and have a strong plan to pay for it.
**I leased a building for 3 years and had cash in the bank to pay for it.
**I built out the old building with an eye to adding others of similar business if things got tough- it never did. Again don’t think I am saying I made a boat load of money because I did not. Hard to even know how much really as so much went back into the business but was enough.
**Think about this if you want to open retail or an office- find others who might go in with you- a contractor, a mortgage banker, a video guy- anyone who can share costs- even if retail you can do this- find someone who can help pay the rent but will not impinge upon your turf.
Brand Collaborations began around 2009-2010
This was a cool new aspect to add to the business. I did not know much about it until I was asked to be on the original Brizo trip to NY for fashion week. That was an epic opportunity and so much fun. Not to mention I met friends who remain very close. From that event in 2009 Brizo asked me to speak with Jason Wu and Judd Lord on one of the earlier panel discussions that are so prevalent today. I will never forget some pretty awesome media people in the audience including Margaret Russell who at the time was the editor in chief of Elle Decor.
NKBA, DXV, Silestone, Blanco and others followed after- but it started with the first Brizo event.
Hopefully what is the last move for In Detail! 1514 North 9th avenue
Moving is a bitch and I am hoping to let me kids be the ones who have to deal with all the stuff once I am gone! We are now on 3/4 of an acre on a 4 lane road that people whiz by- an old 1910 home that we love so much plus our restored carriage house and the 900 sq ft warehouse we built to look like a cottage. Two 500 year old oak trees round out the natural beauty.
Our shop is downstairs and the offices upstairs and besides our resident ghost, we cannot think of a single thing we do not love about this beautiful home now commercial studio!
Interested in learning how to build a successful interior design business? Join Cheryl and Liz, the dynamic duo of visionary and integrator, balance all the moving parts of a full-service design firm in their no-nonsense and thought-provoking podcast, the Damn Good Designer. Click here to listen on Audible!