“The biggest tip [which] has landed me more clients, closed more deals, and cemented long-standing relationships: Send a handwritten thank-you note. I started my company with branded stationary that we use to this day. Two of my first five clients selected me over more established designers because I sent a handwritten thank-you note immediately after our first meeting. I am still working with both of those clients nine years later—multiple homes, multiple large projects, and many referrals. If I had to recap my goals for kicking off business in a sentence or two, I’d say that I was hyper-focused on presenting a professional look, attitude, and overall impression. I wanted every piece of paper and email to exude an elevated sense of style and professionalism in the same way I pushed my finished design work to resonate as measured, thoughtful, distinctive, and above average. In the beginning, I had myself to sell and presented as polished, poised, and professional across all channels. Whenever in doubt, I reverted to the more conservative choice because elegance is closely aligned to restraint and I ultimately desired a wealthy, sophisticated clientele. I live by two childhood mantras from my wonderful mom: ‘Surround yourself with successful people,’ and ‘It’s okay to stand out, but don’t stick out like a sore thumb.'” —Drew McGukin, founder, Drew McGukin Interiors
On outsourcing operations
“You need to learn about all parts of running the business, but quickly decide what to outsource. I spent the first two years doing my own bookkeeping and it’s my idea of the third ring of hell, but I did it long enough to really understand the different levers of my business, so now that I have outsourced it to a bookkeeper, I can look very quickly at the health of my business and if something doesn’t look right. The same for purchasing and expediting. Do everything in a business long enough to learn it, but no longer than necessary. Outsource the stuff that are not your strong suits. Try to get the business to the point where you’re focusing your energy on only what you can uniquely do.
There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. So many people have done this before. I have found other designers to be a bit opaque in terms of sharing how things get done, but that’s not true across the board. Find people who have a different target market and learn from their experience; but I also looked for businesses that were in the same space, but maybe a year ahead of me in terms of growth. Keep yourself open to learning from other industries. I have a friend who is starting a PR firm and I learned a lot of things [from her] that I could apply to my design business. Cast a wide net, be curious, and adapt to what works for your market and your clients.” —Stevie McFadden, founder, Flourish Spaces
On transparency in billing
“I think so many decorators are very vague about how they work; I’m not. I’m incredibly specific, and it’s not particularly complicated, and I’m very transparent. Decorators have gotten into trouble over the years because they’re not [transparent]. It’s easier to be transparent with your markups. You have to keep your clients happy, but you have to keep your vendors happy. Being responsive and sympathetic to their needs is important, and you have to walk a tightrope because you’re trying to get the best that you can from the people who are helping you but understand their limitations and get the best you can for your clients.
I tell the client what [products and services] cost, where we’re getting them from, and the markup. There are certain stores that will offer designers 30 percent or 20 percent or no discount at all, and I’m very specific about everything and letting everyone know exactly what we are getting. I speak in net prices all the time. When I’m in a shop, all the time people will look at you and just talk in net pricing. Decorators work very hard and they’re entitled to the money they make for what they’re doing. It’s certainly not private equity. I’ve been on my own since 1998, and to me, my number-one key to success is to be very responsive. I rarely let an email sit for more than five hours if I can help it, unless it comes in late at night. I think that sense of urgency is something that is the key to my success, really. People ask me that question all the time in various talks and lectures and I just say answer the telephone. Not that people call anymore, but back in the day, you could always get me on the phone. I wasn’t afraid of it.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi