How We (Mother And Daughter) Started A $1M/Year Boutique Design Firm
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Well, to make a long story short, my mother and I started this company together in 1996. I was working as a staff interior designer at a private firm in NYC, and my mother, Rosemarie was the manager of the Estate and Trust department at a large Law Firm. We both HATED our jobs and dreamed of doing our 'own thing'. We had no idea what that looked like, and so we turned to our passion..antiques and design.
I wish I could say we had a cohesive business plan with solid ideas, an infallible product, and brilliant business training...we had none of that. What we had in spades was grit, determination, and passion!
That passion has morphed into a boutique design firm that boasts over 1M in annual revenue and has completed hundreds of trophy projects.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Our journey over the years has had more ups and downs, twists, and turns than I can count. We began by just selling antiques but our showroom and window displays were award-worthy. We had clients drive by late at night and would find messages the next morning listing which pieces they wanted to purchase.
Rosemarie had a business degree and a legal background so that structure was invaluable. We both attended small business seminars and understood the basics of start-up costs and pitfalls to avoid. But at the end of the day, we had pretty much made up our minds that this is what we both wanted and we just moved forward with our plan, such as it was!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our funding budget initially was approximately 50K from personal funds from both of us which wasn’t much considering that the start-up costs were high. To minimize expenses, we decided to rent a small retail store of approximately 1500 square feet on a very busy street in the proximity of a movie theater and fast food location. The decision was based more on the price of the rental than brilliant marketing but we knew that we clearly had to make the location a destination to lure customers to our showroom.
Websites, as that marketing tool, was in its infancy stages in 1996. We focused on print advertisements and growing our customer base through referrals. Our monthly events in our showroom, consisting of food, cocktails, and design seminars became legendary and added to our successful reputation and business growth.
Not every customer must become a client and it’s okay to refuse a project.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We learned a great many things over the last 24 years, but two things stand out above all the lessons we learned…..it’s the passion of loving what you do that is critical to success. And just as important is the ability to recreate yourself; whether forced to do so because of economic conditions or because of what you need to do to increase your client base.
We started out with a small showroom and morphed into a 20,000 sq. foot landmark building in Garden City. I thought I never would do interior design again; another wrong assumption. Rosemarie went back to school for an interior design degree to meet the growing demand for our design services. And before the economic turmoil of 2008, we changed our business model once again and focused our business on interior design only.
So yes, a strategic business plan is very important but the ability to recognize that change is necessary and to implement the change is a survival technique that all business owners and entrepreneurs must embrace.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our company has evolved over the years and currently, our portfolio of projects consists of 50% custom luxury residential, and 50% Hospitality. That balance has allowed us to laser focus on each project individually, without creating ‘cookie-cutter’ designs. For residential builds, we can really dig into the client’s lifestyle and how they want to use the home and then each space within. We push the homeowners’ ideas of design to a higher level so that the finished product is uniquely theirs.
For Commercial and Hospitality, we really dig into the analytics and demographics so that the product we deliver is relevant, exciting, and assists in sales.
As for our future, I would like to continue the mix of projects but would like to expand outside of NY Metro area and create a team that can work up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Determination to succeed and failure is not an option. This phrase may sound like textbook jargon but it's the only thing that matters. The hurdles that we faced and the problems that we had are not harder than other business owners face every day. But it's your attitude and approach of how you find the solution and fix the problem is what counts. Remember, you are tested every day.
Forging good relationships within the industry, even your competition is the basis of being respected by your peers. We all want to be better than our competitors, but remember that they started out just like you did and they have sleepless nights too.
They worry about payroll, or sales tax, staffing issues, and thousands of details that keep us up at night.
Treat your clients fairly with respect and honesty. Be as transparent as possible without compromising proprietary information or intellectual property. Not every customer must become a client and it’s okay to refuse a project. It’s a good business decision to realize that sometimes personalities just don’t mix or that you can’t possibly meet a client’s expectation or time-line. Suggest other industry partners that may be a better fit and wish them well.
Respect yourself as a professional in your field and never downgrade your services to meet a price point. Compromising your standards or negotiating a fee that is ultimately not profitable will only turn a good project into a bad one.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Architecturally, of course, we utilize AutoCAD for our drawings, with the occasional SketchUp for dimensional drawings.
In order to communicate inter-office, as well as for our outside teams, we have switched over to a cloud-based system utilizing Microsoft 365. The platform works for us because it allows us to push out drawings, specifications, or documents to the entire team simultaneously. Gone are the days when a subcontractor uses the excuse that they were working off an old drawing!
Our website communicates our most recent projects and is always evolving. Completed projects, both residential and commercial are featured with many photos and details
We are actively on Instagram and post photos daily. We occasionally use twitter and Facebook as well to post photos of our projects.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
It may sound hypocritical but have a well thought out business plan. Advisors in the legal profession, banking, and insurance industry play a pivotal role in formulating a good business plan.
Know as much as possible about the product or services you want to offer and the methods of distribution or delivery.
Funding is important but without research and understanding of fixed costs (rent, payroll, insurance, utility, etc.) and a healthy reserve for all the possible things that can go wrong……...welcome to the sleepless night club.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At this time we are fully staffed with incredibly talented individuals and their interaction with each other makes for a very cohesive work environment. We are truly lucky to have staff that cares about each other and is always willing to do more than what’s expected.
There are official job titles of design assistants (two full time) a part-time office manager that’s also a family member and have been with us since we started the business; a part-time bookkeeper; and Rosemarie and I are the two senior designers. But we are smart enough to realize that a successful business would not exist without a dedicated and passionate staff that makes your life so much easier.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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