We recently celebrated my Austin interior design firm’s 10th anniversary. We had a garden party at my new studio, which lived a former life as a 1901 bungalow. Long after the music, toasts, and laughter subsided, I took a moment to reflect on the 10 years we’ve had as a firm and the two decades I’ve spent in the industry. I realized, as designers, we spend a lot of time talking about designing our projects, but we don’t often discuss designing a business. While creative and fun, building an interior design business takes determination (and some trial and error). I’ve had amazing mentors on the way, but I’ve spent my fair share of time figuring out the business side for myself. Now, gather around because I’m telling tales of making it in the design world. To start, I think I’ll share what’s inspired me to build and grow my interior design business.
Learning How to Build an Interior Design Business
In the Designing a Business series, Interior Designer Amity Worrel shares experiences and lessons learned on her path to running a successful interior design firm in Austin, Texas.
My MBA (Mother’s Business Advice)
My mother was an entrepreneur. In the 1940s, she started purchasing real estate with her first husband, becoming a landlord and generating some income for the family. Then, in the 1960s, she opened and ran a restaurant called the Jet Drive-In – a burger joint near the former Bergstrom Air Force Base. She did everything from managing the crew to payroll to sweeping the parking lot after closing time. At the age of 38, my mom became a widow with six kids.
Even after marrying my father, who was quite financially secure, she continued following her entrepreneurial spirit to earn extra money for the family. Over the years, she bought more rental homes, read fortunes from her crystal ball, and eventually joined the more conventional workforce as a sample lady at Sam’s Club. She was the highest-grossing salesperson there, too!
She was very proud of carving her own path, and her financial strides were significant and hard-won. My mom fully funded my college tuition and living expenses, helped with my postgraduate education, and even paid for trips that opened my eyes to the world. I am very grateful for all she did to make it happen.
My mother has passed now. Unfortunately, I never asked her any helpful questions about creating those businesses. I imagine she took the entrepreneur route because she felt she had no choice but to make things happen for herself. She didn’t have a lot of formal education, but she had a way with people that couldn’t be taught. A typical nine-to-five was not her path, but she made something that fit her and her family’s needs. Her example of making it on her own was helpful when I set out to start my own interior design business.
Recommended Reading: The Business of Design
When starting an interior design business or any venture, you will learn the most through trial and error. However, there are people out there who have done it before and are willing to share what they learned along the way. Years ago, I read The Business of Design, which debunks the horribly inaccurate myth that creative and business minds are mutually exclusive. Just think about how many creative industries are out there! They’re not successful by sheer luck. I wish I had read this book earlier in my interior design career. It’s a bit of a how-to, and I continue to come back to it as my interior design firm grows and changes.
I don’t have a formal business background, so I’ve learned the ropes by trying things out and through resources like this book. As it happens, I turned out to be a pretty good business person. I’ve managed an excellent team of talent, met amazing clients, designed projects across the country, and even seen some of my designs published from time to time. So, if you don’t know the next move in your business, take some time to do the research (or just trust your gut and run with it). I am still learning and finding ways to do things better.
Networking and the Importance of Connection
I attended a business conference last fall geared towards running a creative firm. Being in a large group of people with a shared experience is a fantastic feeling. Of course, I learned a lot from the lectures and speakers. I learned about positioning your business in the market, ways to tap into your success, analyzing profit margins, and keeping employees engaged. However, the most important thing I learned is I am not alone in my struggles as a business owner. Connecting with other entrepreneurs allows you to discuss challenges and offer honest and transparent guidance. I came out of that conference feeling connected and so much less alone. Networking isn’t about trading business cards. It’s about finding those connections that help ground yourself and move your business forward.
What I Really Love about the Interior Design Business…
While I adore interior design, my true love is running a business. Interior design is my expertise. However, I could be happy running many different types of businesses. Sometimes I consider what it would be like to own a logistics company, a plant nursery, or even a bunch of snow cone stands. When it comes down to it, I love learning, and I love managing people. I strive to hone my design expertise by studying design history, speaking in my field, and finding opportunities to approach new types of projects. I also find ways to support and inspire my staff, whether helping them discover their design niche or taking a group trip to Barcelona. Design without personal connections is just a white box of a room. This business is about people, and that’s what I love about it.
Life’s Continuing Education
Our education never stops. Life has a way of continuing to teach us lessons (even when we didn’t sign up for the class). It’s clear to me that there is so much to learn in the interior design business and creative fields in general. Everything I learn helps me serve my clients and my team, creating better and better designs. I am grateful for my mom and those creative entrepreneurs who have gone before me who have been willing to write down and share their knowledge so I can follow their example. I hope to take their leads and do the same in this series for you.
We’re always learning.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.