On Starting An Interior Design Business

Published: May 10th, 2021
Heather Garrett
Heather Garrett D...
from Durham
started January 2001
market size
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
210 days
growth channels
Organic social media
business model
best tools
Pinterest, Instagram, trello
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
42 Pros & Cons
1 Tips
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In 2001, I moved to Durham NC from New York City, where I had attended Parsons School of Design while working as a fly on the wall for the firm of French architect and interior designer Robert Couturier. The geography change prompted me to fine-tune an ability to merge a variety of interior styles and settings. This required a shift from my work for urban clients needing careful space planning for compact city apartments to a Southern traditional client trying to fill rooms with furniture that didn’t look like it was all purchased at once. As Raleigh and Durham have gained attention and attracted transplants from the West and Northeast coasts for their pace of life, opportunity, and cost of living, it feels like the genre of my work (and of the area) could easily be called The Modern South.

The cornerstone of my business is full-service “Turn-Key” design, which is exclusively available for projects of at least 1,200 sf or more needing design, furnishing, and decoration. The name "Turn-Key Service" is derived from the idea of a project so carefully managed that a client could (and often does!) leave town and return to a fully finished, furnished space. This service is definitely not of value to the DIY home-decorating maven, but is of great value to one who needs a trained eye and hands-on manager to plan and deliver a beautifully integrated design for any space – no matter its challenge. Beyond this, our firm offers the full range of design-build-realty services for clients in every stage of living at home.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I grew up with an entrepreneurial father, and his influence can’t be understated in terms of the path I’ve taken. Even further, he was a serial entrepreneur, and so failure wasn’t a thing that discouraged him. He saw it as a necessary part of eventual success, and with each idea that didn’t develop, there was a next-generation idea that was a slightly better mousetrap. Risk-taking was a very natural part of life for our family, as was the art of unplanned adventure. At age 80, he still lives this way.

To deliver predictable results, I’ve found that you just simply have to nail down your approach and methodology so your clients can count on a consistent outcome.

I remember one summer our family took a road trip, with each of us packing a small duffle bag that would fit under our seats. We ended up driving 11,000 miles over 6 weeks, one decision at a time. We drove to Denver. How about Steamboat? Next - anybody interested in Utah? Then we remembered a beautiful trip to Oregon...let’s do that next! We ultimately drive down the entire west coast, stopping in all the cities you’d imagine along the way, ending in Tijuana - with a quick stop at the Grand Canyon before heading back to our home in St. Louis. Things like this weren’t unusual for us!

I don’t think I was ever told to “be careful”, so fear of failing wasn’t a real part of my formative experience. I studied art history and studio art in school and got my first job in New York City working for a fine art auction house, but was laid off almost as soon as I arrived, and made 4 subsequent career approaches before I landed on interior design at age 29. I’d always had a natural interest in the interiors of places and people I loved - what made a place feel special, cozy, or dramatic? I wondered if I could combine my love and knowledge of art with my curiosity about how people could live well in their environments, so I enrolled at Parsons School of Design with hardly enough money to cover the bills. I believed studying with the best I could find would pay dividends in knowledge and connections, so I interned for a designer while going to school. Those were dog days!

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

My first tax return showed revenue of $18,000, with me answering the phone and doing all the drawings, choosing all the decorations while writing the emails, and being the face of every business aspect. All while taking care of 2 toddlers!

For my first marketing effort, I took the best photos I could get of my own apartment and made marketing flyers with the pictures which I stuffed in the mailboxes of realtors in the area. I placed a tiny ad in the local newspaper. I tried to spread the word with moms at my kids’ preschool that I was doing this work. Every step was incredibly difficult, and it was several years before things really changed when I decided to invest in doing a room in a designer showhouse. This was a huge decision for us because it would mean spending money we didn’t have to pay for renovations of an old home to market my design style and business. I loaded up my credit card and hoped for the best - luckily for me, it worked. Clients interested in my particular aesthetic toured the house and picked up my card; I began getting calls from clients who were a better fit, and fewer calls from those who weren’t. The requests were no longer just for paint consultations or recovering furniture, but where now for decorating and designing spaces that felt like my showhouse room.

This was all good news, but then came the tough part of learning how to make money. I went through many iterations of determining how I could know which clients were ideal, which would be the best way to charge them, and how I should go about building my business. Because there’s really not much of an industry standard for this, I had to live by experimentation, charging an hourly fee and small markup on my wholesale prices, then no hourly fee and a retail markup on purchases, then a fixed fee with varying markup, etc. Getting this balance right has been one of the great challenges, and over time I decided that determining my fee for service by the size of the job would be the best approach for us. I like the freedom (and responsibility) that a fixed fee provides because I’m rewarded for efficiency but the client is not penalized when it takes me longer than expected to accomplish a task. Time management is up to me, and it’s only in doing this well that we can be profitable.

20 years later, we’re still operating on this fixed fee model of service, where I get to preserve relationships with my clients by not entering into battles overtime billing. My firm has expanded its full-service model to include a staff of 5 supporting all of the activities surrounding interior decorating and design. My firm now offers full design-build-real estate services, which allows us to support a client’s journey from finding a property, designing it for the way they want to live, then building or remodeling that property under one roof. Then we’re ready to turn the property again for them as they find a new adventure.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Covid has certainly brought the value and focus for many people back to the home. Home as a cocoon, sanctuary. So many clients we’ve heard from were suddenly staring at their interiors going, “how have I lived like this for so long??”. It’s brought tremendous growth to our whole industry, and for us in particular, it’s meant an opportunity to capture clients in all phases of their search for finding and improving their experience of living at home.

Our firm now offers a full range of services, from real estate buying and selling to interior design to building a new custom home for clients. I think that as people continue coming here from more crowded areas of the country, a service helping people relocate and find their fit at home is going to be more valuable than ever.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

First of all, there’s no question that I’ve benefited from moving to the Raleigh-Durham area before the onset of what has clearly been a huge boom - so many companies and families moving here to enjoy the climate, cost of living, access to the beach and mountains. We now live in the middle of a biotech startup hub, and the downtown areas of Raleigh and Durham have experienced so much activity, so without a doubt, I’ve benefited by being an early presence in design. But I rode the housing and stock market wave up in 2006 and rode it back down again with the crash and recession following 2008. I lost a great deal, as I’d opened a showroom in downtown Durham which morphed into a retail store and was sitting on a lot of inventory while customers were losing their jobs and stock portfolios and homes. It was a difficult time. But I leaned into my training and experiences, all of which helped me remember that my greatest asset is my mind. My creativity, ability to innovate, tighten the belt, and get down to business were on my side. I closed the store and went back to work exclusively on the interior design services behind it all, creating new e-design services for the DIY consumer (this was on the very early side of what is now quite a normal offering) and reducing my minimum project size to make it through. I think you just have to be willing and ready to pivot as a business owner; if you’re too invested in your idea or your method, you won’t be able to see the trees changing in your forest.

I’m big on systems. We have a process or a template for nearly everything we do - and the refining of these systems never ends. I’ve accepted this! To deliver predictable results, I’ve found that you just simply have to nail down your approach and methodology so your clients can count on a consistent outcome. Everything is so fast-paced that it’s tempting to break with routine and skip important steps in the design or pricing process, but discipline now keeps me from this. We’re rewarded for our approach in the end.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Instagram is our most powerful marketing tool, as is the case for most designers I know. One thing I did, as soon as I could afford it, was to hire a publicist to reach beyond our local market (which was struggling at the time). This brought great national exposure to my work and introduced me to a great photographer, John Bessler, who is still my sidekick today. I always say he is the reason I’m in business.

The power of images dominates this industry, for sure, so whether the photos of my work are seen on Instagram, Pinterest, in my website portfolio, or magazines, directing how the viewer experiences one of my interiors through photography is important to work.

To stay organized, we use the online project management tool, Trello. We can collaborate, and also with clients, in a centralized project hub. Email has just become so difficult to wrangle, and we’re busy in the field, so this has been a game-changer for us.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The Business of Home (BOH)podcast and newsletter is the most important tool I have for staying up to speed on what’s going down for designers and consumers! Especially now during Covid, when we’re all so isolated, this has become an even more valuable tool. None of us are traveling to markets or trade seminars, so I think many of us really lean into this resource.

I’ve been a member of several local entrepreneur groups over the years, but as an introvert, I’m first a reader. I love to read about how I can improve as a leader and entrepreneur - regardless of my industry. Books by Jim Collins have been invaluable, and right now I’m reading his latest, “Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0”. I recently finished the short read The Obstacle Is The Way, which was a real boost.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

Find a successful mentor. This can be an author, a person in your industry, or someone you can learn about and model your behavior after.

Prepare for the worst, knowing you believe in the best. It’s easy to get swept up in believing the best case scenario will unfold, and sometimes it will, but be shrewd about your limits and resist the urge to expand too quickly. A few tumbles are inevitable and remember that failure is a critical step to success. As Brene Brownwould say, “Normalize discomfort”!

Where can we go to learn more?

Want to start an interior decorating business? Learn more ➜