Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Long Story: How I Got Started Designing & My Advice


I often get emails asking about how I got started in the field of interior design & how I started my own business & wondering if I have any advice for people looking to enter the field & start out on their own. 

The emails are from all different types of women.  (And yes, so far, they've all been women)  Many are mothers, some are interior design students while most are looking for a second career in interior design.  (A surprising number are lawyers...  kind of interesting.) 

I've been bad about responding to these emails lately because I've been meaning to do a post on them & didn't want to write the same thing a bunch of times & have saved them in a folder in my inbox.  (I have to be honest & tell you that I'm insanely slammed right now with the new baby & work.  I'm in a tough transition, trying to run the busines while being a good mom to Justin & Christian and of course wife to Dave...  If you've emailed me with a question & I haven't responded, please don't hate me & just go ahead and send me another email.  I'm just having difficulty time finding time right now.  )

Ayway, back to the question of how I got started in my career.  First things first:  I absolutely LOVE my job.  Would I say that I've "made it?" or am on the top?  Definitely not.  I've certainly come a long way from where I started, but I've got a long way to go. 

Here's my story:  In college I majored in Communication with a concentration in Public Relations and a Minor in Creative Writing.  (Pleeeeease forgive all of my typos/ grammatical errors/ use of repetitive words, etc. that you always see on here and I promise that I actually do know how to proofread, but for the purposes of this blog & in the interest of time, just don't. )  Anyway, I thought public relations was interesting and pictured myself working for a big firm or at least the PR department of a really cool company.  I actually thought writing press releases was FUN!   I also had a little side business with my roommate, called "Mystickal Dreams" (please feel free to laugh :) where we made throw pillows, home accessories, cute little shirts, and aromatherapy-type products and sold them on campus.  (There's a whole post's worth of info here so I'll tell you about that another time)

Anyway, the Summer before my Senior Year of college, I got an internship at the PR department of a national organization with headquarters in Washington, DC.  I bought a couple of blazer/ suits and thought it was so exciting to take the Metro in & out every day.  I wore high heels.  I had my own little office & made phone calls & wrote press releases and worked with really nice people. I learned how to surf the internet because I was bored & finished with my "tasks" and became an expert in dog breeds.   (Seriously, do you know what a Chinook is?  I do.)   Some big stuff was going down at the time politically with this organization, so it was a really interesting time to be there..  or should have been.... 

My boyfriend at the time (Mr.David Liess ;) was up in New Jersey with his parents for the summer and so I often headed out during Friday rush hour to visit him.  (6 and a half hours for what should have been 3 and a half was NO FUN.)  On weeknights I would come home and flop on the bed exhausted from the day.  I'd wake up around 10 PM or so and eat & talk on the phone with Dave.  (I did go to Happy Hour & have fun too on some nights, but knowing I had to be up super-early put a little damper on it.)   I drew a lot that summer I guess just because I had so much creative energy bottled up inside of me.  (And I cannot draw...  ask my clients!) 

So I went back to school that Fall and kept on with PR.  JMU had a bunch of job fairs and I started talking with companies & I just wasn't really interested.  I started wondering if it was really what I wanted?  I wasn't really into the inflexibility of corporate life (If I could leave for New Jersey Friday AM instead of Friday afternoon- how much better would the day be??)  ...  And honestly, I wasn't passionate about it.  I wanted to be excited about my job & really make a difference.   My dad started talking to me a lot about our family business, Maestranzi Corporation, (macturing locomotive components) and about coming on to work with him.  He wanted to train me so I could eventually take over the company.  I saw how much better the company could do if it had a little PR and I was excited about getting the company a website & into tradeshows & making brochures & meeting with potential customers, etc.

We decided that I would go out to Illinois where the company was based and I would spend the summer shadowing my dad & learning the ropes and handle tradeshows/ etc.  Anyway, at the end of the Summer, I headed back to VA and did maestranzi's PR from there.  I went back for tradeshows and met with railroaders...   Things were going really well.   At home, I'd decorated my second apartment and was having a newfound love affair with a thrift store near my house.  I painted my bedroom twice and my dining room 3 times in under a year.  It was while experimenting here that I started really thinking about a career in design.  I signed up for an online diploma program and slowly worked through it.   I was attending railroad conventions but planning out new floorplans for my house on scrap paper during meetings.  (Sorry Dad if you're reading!!) 

Dave & I got married and moved into our townhouse and with that came more experimenting.  I started helping out friends & family &  finished my schooling.  I started taking small (very small jobs) on the side and ended up doing some real estate staging, which eventually led to decorating the homes of the people's whose houses I'd previously staged.  During this time, I started an LLC  (Pure Style) and thought it might be nice to do designing part-time.    I decided I would advertise my website on a designer listing website & my Grandmother, who was one of the few people at the time who took this idea of mine seriously, paid for a whole year of advertising for me & said I could pay her back one day when I'd "made it."  (She was also the one who paid for my diploma program and encouraged me to do it.)  I went to work for a designer in DC when she needed extra help. We worked mostly on model condominiums sans-clients.

I had made my own website for Pure Style LLC and knew it looked bad.  (This was in 2007)  The spaces that I'd had pictured were great in person, they just looked terrible in the photos I'd taken.  I scoured designers' websites that I admired & tweaked mine to look more like theirs.  I took out all of my before & afters and left in only the afters.  I copied layouts and got it looking okay.   (By the way, my hourly rate was very low at this point and I was happy to have any work at all.  I would have done it for free to be honest!  My goal was to get some well-designed spaces under my belt for my portfolio.)   I was able to do this because my dad was still paying me commissions on accounts I'd landed and in no way could have supported myself if it weren't for that.  I realized what a gift it was and decided I wanted to make the most of it. 

I took another hard look at my website & couldn't ignore the bad photography any longer. I realized I really wanted to make a go of my business. Dave & I decided to bite the bullet and have our house photographed which at the time was a huge financial risk for us.  I learned a lot watching the photographer that day. I uploaded the new photos onto my website and it was crazy- the calls started flying in!! I couldn't believe what a difference the photography made! Same house as before, just new photos! craziness.

We sold our townhouse for a huge loss because of the realestate market, and moved into my mom's basement with the baby a couple of towns over.  We saved our money & could not wait to buy another place.  It was tough on our pride, living in the basement, but it really was so good for us.   I was busy with jobs and there's no way I would have been able to handle it without the built-in babysitters up stairs ;)  In October I stumbled upon something called a "blog."  I don't remember whose it was at the time, but I thought it might be fun to start one too, so I did.  My grandmother & my mother-in-law were my only readers :)   
The jobs kept coming & I posted a couple of them on the blog.  It was so much fun to be able to share work with other people!  I was shocked when I opened up the Washington Post one day and saw my blog in there on Blogwatch on a post I'd done of a client's dressing room!!  I screamed so loudly that morning that Dave & my parents thought something terrible had happened.  I think from here you pretty much know the rest: I just kept designing & blogging & then house-hunting and eventually renovating and now here I am with the house semi-finished and one more baby boy!
Is it for everyone?  I don't know.  Some things I can tell you:  I believe you can be an awesome designer, but a terrible business owner and if you don't have both, you won't make it in business on your own.  I've had businesses since I can remember:  In high school, I sold homemade lipbalms & lotions & aromatherapy stuff, and in college there was Mystickal Dreams ;)  My dad's an entrepreneur, his dad was and that entire side of my family runs their own businesses.  Out of the 9 cousins, 7 of us have our own thing going on.  I truly think running your own business is "in" you, just as they say talent is in you:  You either have it or you don't.  I'm not saying you have to be from a family of entrpreneurs, but you do have to have a business head to go into business for yourself.  If you have amazing talent and aren't so much into business, you can still work for a firm & make a name for yourself that way.  Going into business for yourself is a hug risk and you WILL be broke in the beginning.  I wouldn't do it if I didn't have either a spouse whose income could support us in case it didn't work, or some other form of income as a buffer. 
A question I'm often asked:  "I have kids & not a lot of free time.  I'm afraid it will take up too much time."  My answer is that having your own business is like having another kid.  You have the advantages of flexibility & it's insanely rewarding but it's always there in the back of your mind.  You're never really "off."  You're happy when you're working 40+ hours because it means you have projects.  That being said, I do it & I have a family and a business and I love it.  I love the creative outlet and connecting with people and making them happy.  You just have to decide for yourself if it's for you. 
Dave just reminded me that your family needs to be on board with the choice to start your own business. There's NO way I could do it without his help and if you do have kids at home, you either need a spouse with a great schedule or a LOT of babysitting/ nannying from someone else.   You can't do it all.  It's tough to keep it feom being a trade-off:  "Hi honey, how was your day?  Ok, here, take the kids & see you later."  We have to work really hard to keep it from being like this because our little ones are so young & we don't have daycare.  I have them all day.
Another thing to think about is that state in which you live.  In some states it's illegal to call yourself an "interior designer" if you haven't passed the NCIDQ exam.  In some states, you can't even specify a fabric to use for surtain's in someone's living room.  Again, this could be a whole new post, but check out Joni's post on the issue here.   If I lived in one of the states mentioned, I would have to shut down my business, go back to school to get a bachelor's in interior design (my diploma program would not count)  and work for someone else for 4 or so years, then sit for the exam (costs around $1000 with a low first-time pass-rate) in order to practice design.  All of the states have different laws with different verbage, so it's really important to do your research.  (Almost all of my favorite designers are self-taught btw!  go figure! ;)
Some advice on how to do it?  Try to work for someone in the field.  Do it for free if you have to.  It's good to observe how everything works.  I learned so much when I worked for an interior designer in DC, but the biggest thing I learned from it was, "I can do this."  I mean this with no disrespect, but I think it's how you should feel if you're ready. 
Educate yourself.  This is huge & I think most of us here are doing it daily or we wouldn't be reading blogs.  But read- read- read.  Learn about the history of design, different styles, people, etc.  Every project brings on another set of challenges and you have to constantly research & educate yourself to get each one right.  Your knowledge is what you're being paid for, so you better know what you're talking about. 
Do your home.  Use it as a labratory to experiment.  Help friends & family members with theirs.  Take before & after photos.  And don't underestimate the power of professional photography. 
Self-confidence is key.  Educating yourself, getting experience under your belt, and completing jobs successfully all give you the self-confidence you need.  Until you have all of these things, I can honestly tell you, it's a bit scary.  I used to get SOOOOOO  nervous when a new client would call.  (I'd break into a sweat and pace on the phone :)  When you're new, it's tough.  (I'm still new enough to get nervous every now and then, but not the way I used to. )  There are days when I'm perusing other designers' porfolios and I feel SO out-of-their-league(s).  I  picture a large firm of "heel-clicking" designers (you've got to listen to last week's Skirted Round table) and I get anxious just thinking of them!  Then there are days when I wonder  what I could do if I had a huge budget for a project & I just get so excited thinking about the possibilities because I know it would be good.  (And most days I'm somewhere in between these 2 extremes.) 
And how has having a blog helped??  Wow, I really can't say enough.  I've met so many awesome people through blogging and have learned so much from them.  It's also been great because potential clients can look up the blog & get a sense of who I am & how I work. They can read about my design philosophies and make sure they jive with their own before even contacting me.  It's also allowed me to take on long-distance clients through e-design, which is such a fun & rewarding experience.  As much as I love it though, this blog takes HOURS a week to do.  Between 10-20 I'd say, sometimes more.  It's not only writing the blog, it's also responding to emails from the blog, reading my favorite blogs (there are so many now I don't even have time to read as much as I'd like!! arrgg) and taking photos for the blog and now of course ORGANIZATIONAL PROJECTS!!! hahah what was i thinking?? ;) ;)
I don't want to sugarcoat anything or deter anyone from following his/ her dream.  Not everyone can do it but many people can.  You have to have the natural talent AND the drive.  You have to be able to set goals for yourself and go after them whole-heartedly, with the support of your family.  You can't be afraid of hard work and if you're a workaholic, you'll have to learn to create a good balance in your life of work & family/ home.  In all honesty, at times I feel so torn.  When I'm behind on work (as I am now) I feel bad when I'm just hanging with my family because work is hanging over my head, and then I feel guilty even thinking that.  When I'm working, I often feel guilty knowing my family wants to spend more time with me.  And friends?  Well, I barely see them right now.  We talk & catch up, but I spend any free time I have with Dave & the kids.  (Right now is a bit crazier because we have a newborn at home, it's not like this when they get older.)  ...So think about what it would really be like for you..
Anyway, sorry for the insanely long pictureless post that might not apply to you at all, but I really wanted anyone who was interested, to have all of the info I could think of.  I tried to answer everything I could think of, but if there's something I missed, please leave me a question in the comments section and I'll answer it at the bottom of the post. 
So if you're thinking of switching careers & starting your own interior design business, think long & hard, and good luck.  You're the only one who really knows if it's right for you. 
ps- Maria of Colour Me Happy is one savvy woman, so check out her thoughts on what it takes to be an interior designer, here.

Questions from Comments:

-CJ, I'm thinking you mean how do I layout furniture selections, fabrics, lighting, etc. on a board for clients to see?  I currently do my e-decorating via email and so nothing is actually mailed to the client.  I create design boards by hand for them just as I do for my local clients and scan in the boards for email.  (I guess I'm old-fashioned?? :)  I would love to switch over to some type of computer program, but just haven't had the time to research it yet.  I do think branding is really important so it's awesome that you're getting your logo & will be using it on everything.  (I'm getting mine revamped as we speak! :)