Lean In. Contract Out.

Expert Market panel identifies keys to success in the fast-changing business of design

Outsource the back-of-house stuff, and don’t be afraid to raise your rates. Those are two key takeaways from The Interior Design Industry: The New Business as Usual panel. Part of the High Point Market’s Design Viewpoints Series, the moderated discussion highlighted – and proposed solutions for – the top business challenges facing today’s designers.

Julia Noran Johnston, founder and President of Business of Home, led the conversation. Three industry insiders – Kerrie Kelly, founder of California-based Kerrie Kelly Design Lab; Kimberley Seldon, founder of the Kimberley Seldon Design Group; and Noa Santos, founder and CEO of Homepolish, a service that connects designers with clients – discussed how interior designers can navigate the new business as usual.

“Consumers want it now, and they don’t want to pay extra.”

All three panelists identified online retailers like Amazon and Wayfair as the greatest threat facing their industry. With countless styles available at the touch of the button, consumers feel less of a need to hire a designer to build their dream space – and when they do, they have higher expectations.

“Today’s consumer has unprecedented access to information,” said Santos. “They’re more educated, and they expect to get an experience and a conversation when they hire a designer.”

Kelly added that another challenge facing the industry is the loss of trust between clients and designers, causing clients to demand greater transparency. “We dealt with the DIY craze years ago. Now, the curtain is being pulled back on how we price and purchase things,” she said.

“Our nature as designers is to be problem-solvers,” said Kelly. “We have a ‘yes to everything’ mentality; we want to be involved in everything. Now, it’s changed – you have to have a threshold to say ‘no’ to protect yourself from burnout.”

Seldon agreed. “Eighty percent of the work is back-of-house business, like delivery and invoicing. I didn’t like that out of design school; I wanted the work to be creative. But you have to handle that – there’s no way around it. Everyone is wearing high heels, but we all know that at the end of the day, it’s mostly business.”

All three panelists agreed: in order to be successful, today’s designers need to lean in, and contract out.

“We outsource all the back-of-house stuff, like accounting. It changes the relationship – I am the client, not the boss.”

“Designers are creatives,” said Santos. “Look at the film industry. Meryl Streep isn’t going home, like, what invoice am I going to send? Designers have to create, be forward-facing, and let someone else do the back-of-house stuff.”

Seldon also noted that designers need to seek opportunities to support one another. “I hear all the time, ‘I’m just one designer, I’m just me.’ We don’t ask for the help we need,” she said. “The new normal is that you are not alone anymore. There are lots of resources and communities where you can find your tribe and take your power back.”

Both designers, Kelly and Seldon, stated that their businesses benefited greatly when they raised their prices, and encouraged budding designers to do the same. They also prefer clients with a certain degree of affluence and a high trust factor, willing to – in Kelly’s words – “hand us the keys and the check.”

“The higher your rate is, the more they will listen to you,” said Kelly. “The higher my rate goes, the faster the client says yes. The hardest thing I did was double my fees at a young age – but it allowed for quick decisions. It’s tough – but you’ll thank yourself for it.”

“Don’t make up excuses as to why you can’t raise your rates.”

“You can make a living and have clients who respect, honor, and value you – if you do it yourself,” said Seldon. “When your pricing goes higher, you go to higher clients.”

Santos advised designers to understand the factors that will motivate clients to pay more. “People are willing to pay for an experience,” he said. “Our end goal is not to leave you with a room, but with a dive into your own personality, and an experience that continues. We want our clients to be engaged and have a partnership. When it works, designers last longer than husbands, sometimes.”

The panel resonated with many High Point Market attendees. “Kimberley [Seldon] spoke my language,” said Mary Milburn of IonDesign, LLC. “I love her business model and agree – we don’t have to be ashamed of making money.”

Melissa Maltba, owner of MBM Designs, said that she has seen firsthand how the industry has changed. “I’ve been in this business for over 25 years, and have seen it morph into something totally unrecognizable,” she said, adding that the panel was a great resource to see how designers can evolve and grow in the face of new challenges.

Each High Point Market offers countless opportunities to learn the techniques that have worked for some of our industry’s most successful people. As you make your Market plan, head over to our Events section to discover our latest lineup of leaders and topics. Spring Market seminars are generally posted by mid February, and Fall Market seminars by mid August.