I’ve recently been getting a few e-mails from people asking for advice about going into the interior design business.
One such was an email from a reader wanting to know if she should follow her passion and go back to school to become a designer, later in life. She wanted to know if it was worth it.
Here was — more or less — my response: (I’ve added some to it. :-)
I'm definitely one for following your dreams and going for something totally outrageous, for changing direction in life and doing something you really want. However...
What I've learned in the last few years is that all your dreams must be tempered with a bit of reality, or else disappointment may set in and totally derail you.
BY THE WAY: I've written many posts about this business of interior design, many of which you might find to be pretty insightful. Some of my faves are scattered throughout the rest of this post and are labeled "Related". I strongly encourage you to check them out. (Note: Each link opens in a new window/tab.)
I, myself, have struggled with the question…
Why am I doing this?
I am working very hard, very long hours. I am neglecting my health, my family, and feel the stress every day of trying to make clients happy, keep employees and expenses paid each month, and do work that matters.
The bottom line is that after taking my break in my career and then getting back into things, I've still been unable to obtain those high dollar luxury clients that make running this type of business profitable. (And believe me, that IS the key to profitability.) My clients are repeatedly the middle to upper-middle class homeowner with steady jobs, often with homes in the $300,000 to $800,000 range. While this range is booming with projects, this demographic is always watching the budget, and is typically surprised at how much design, remodeling, and new furnishings cost. They want your rates to be competitive, but they want special, custom design. Competitive rates and special/custom don’t mix well.
I'm trying really hard to find a way to make this demographic profitable for designers because I think that it is such a strong market trend. But it's tough. The profit margins are extremely slim. The competition is brutal.
I mention all that because I want you to understand that it is not easy to become a designer.
Some people might think I'm so lucky to have this dream job. A lot of people think they would love to have a job like mine. However, most of them really don’t want a full time job. Many women, when they get on in life, want to make time to be with their older children, travel with their husband, and basically be at the ready to jump on family members’ needs, all at the drop of a hat.
I understand that. That is nice. I would like that too. However, the reality of making it in this hugely competitive field — where more people are finding their passion in design every day and hanging out their shingle — is quite more than what someone looking in from the outside would think.
I have seen good, established, experienced designers become disillusioned with this business. Designers who for many years have had steady clientele and good strong businesses are finding themselves without much work. They’ve had to learn to compete with all the up and comers who are plugged into social media and, really, that’s becoming more of a driving force for keeping the phone ringing these days than anything else.
Okay, so a big social media following will get you jobs, but…
How do you do them? How do you know what to do once you have some new clients if you’ve never done this before?
That’s where the education and experience comes in. And if you don’t have that, well… Good luck.
I’ve needed every minute of my background to get me where I am and I’m still learning every day. So, if you’re starting out from the beginning at, say, 40 or even 50 years old, you have to make time to learn. You have to learn about design. And you have to learn how to run a design business.
The reality is that if you want to do this well, and you’re starting behind everyone else, you can't go into it part-time. You can't play at being a designer. You can’t dabble in design and expect to arrive at your vision of success. You really can’t make any real profit or obtain any real respect from your clients by putting half-baked effort into preparing for your career.
You have to dive in with both feet and swim with the sharks. You have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Fast.
Many people want to have dream jobs and lovely businesses (from 9:00-3:00, four days a week) and make oodles of money, but…
Unfortunately, most aren't willing to sacrifice and do what it takes to reach that dream. And frankly, I'm not sure that reality exists for any business owner.
However, if you do think you’re capable of being a successful designer, I encourage you to ask yourself this one question before you set foot onto the battleground:
How badly do I want this?
Yes, anything is possible, anything can happen. But not without huge effort. Of course, though... If you have youth, beauty, family money, wealthy contacts, and a great mentor who is willing to take their valuable time and energy to show you the ropes, then....
Your journey will be a little bit easier. ;-)