Tags: kimberley seldonstart a firm
Episode 082

How to Run a Great Design Business with Kimberley Seldon of Business of Design

Enoch SearsNov 11, 2014

How do we make our clients happy, get repeat business, and have them refer us to all of their friends? Finish your projects on time and on budget.

Obvious? Duh. Simple? Yes. Easy? Listen to today's interview with Kimberley Seldon and learn why almost nobody does it and how YOU can.

Kimberley Seldon is the founder of Business of Design, an online venue for designers, decorators, stagers, and stylists to learn about the business side of their practice.

Kimberley is also a recognized personality both in the TV and publishing world. In addition to having hosted three television series, she appears frequently as a design expert on Cityline. She's also the Design Editor for Chatelaine, and the Editor in Chief of Dabble Magazine.

In this episode you'll discover:

  1. The importance of having a business mentor.
  2. A taste of Kimberley's 15-step process for getting the client from phone call to finished product.
  3. They're the client, you're the professional: why (and how) you should take charge…
  4. Why finishing the project is important – and what usually stands in the way.
  5. Why you should be charging properly for your work.

This interview is on iTunes. Subscribe above, and be a hero! If you know another architect who would benefit from watching this video, share away using the social share buttons.

Show Notes:

Kimberly Seldon on social media: website, Twitter, and Pinterest

Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

[DAP errMsgTemplate=”SHORT”]
Welcome back, Architect Nation. I am your host, Enoch Bartlett Sears. Today, we’re going to have another awesome interview in our lineup here. We’re going to be speaking with someone who’s very accomplished both in the field of design and also in publishing specifically focused on the business side of things. I think you’re really going to like what we’re going to be sharing today.

Before we jump in to that though, I just wanted to remind you that you can find recorded versions of the Business of Architecture Summit over on http://www.BusinessOfArchitecture.com. We had some amazing feedback on the presentations, and I invite you to go over there and pick up those recorded versions to further your knowledge in the area of business so you can be running a flexible, profitable, and fulfilling architecture practice.

Now, there was one iTunes review that came in here. I want to read this out. I want to thank [BAware00:02:07] – is the handle here. I’m pretty sure, 99%, I know who you are.

[BAware 00:02:11] says, “This podcast is really what all architects who run a practice need. Enoch brings to light what is working and not working by interviewing those that have walked the path before. His in-depth and insightful interviews are not only educational, but directly applicable to firms today. Oh, how I wish he was doing this years ago when I started my firm. It would have saved me lots of mistakes. I look forward to many more podcasts. Enoch, keep on going.”

Well, thank you very much, [BAware 00:02:36] I appreciate it. I, as well, wished that resource like this for architects would have existed when I started out.

Now, I’m going to tell you, there actually is a resource… It’s very similar and it’s tailored more towards designers. I’m going to be talking with the founder today of Business of Design, Kimberley Seldon.

Kimberley Seldon is a designer, a journalist, keynote speaker, and broadcast personality with over twenty years in the public eye.

Now, Kimberley is the host of three television series including HGTV’s Design for Living. She’s a design expert on Cityline and frequent guest spokesperson on HSN and TSC. Additionally, she’s the Editor in Chief for Dabble Magazine, as well as the leader of an award-winning interior design-build studio with offices in Toronto and Los Angeles.

So, Kimberley Seldon, welcome to the Business of Architecture.

Kimberley: It’s great to be here, Enoch. Thank you for having me.

Enoch: Absolutely. It is really a pleasure to have you specially someone so well-aligned to what we’re doing over here at the Business of Architecture.

Kimberley: I’m a big fan of anybody who’s doing anything to help the industry that we’re in succeed because most of us get tossed out of school with some sort of degree, but with very little knowledge when it comes to running our businesses.

Enoch: Well, tell me about that. Tell me about some of the deficiencies that you see, you know, going back to school, the education that designers get, and then how that, sort of, doesn’t match up with maybe some of the things that they need to know in the “real world.”

Kimberley: I had a really colorful business teacher. He would say, “How many of you are in this business to make money?” A few people put their little hands up meagerly, and then he would say, “Well, you’re in the wrong business. There’s no money here. They’re just going to wear you out and the clients are liars.” So, I feel like I got this education of being bitter before I even had a chance to launch my business.

Then, of course, they give you a contract that’s like a 175-years-old that you can’t make heads or tails of when you’re reading it. So, you’re sort of launched in to the world with very little to prepare you for, really, what amounts to the biggest part of the job, which is the business side.

Enoch: Exactly. Well, tell me about your journey, Kimberley, to build your design-build studio. Did you start working for another firm out of school? Let’s focus on your design firm for the moment.

Kimberley: Okay. So, I graduated in 1991 and it was a terrible recession. I tried very hard to get a job working for anybody, but there was simply no work. It’s really not unlike the recession that started in 2008, which, of course, everybody’s feeling still the effects of that.

So, I did what a lot of people would have done. I went in to business for myself, you know, “How hard can it be?” It turns out that it’s pretty hard. It’s pretty darn hard. I think the fact that I am an internal optimist and I’m a people please actually made it even that much more difficult, believe it or not, because I did not have a set of tools to run a linear progression of a project from beginning to end.

Too often, I found the clients, who had even less experience than I did, interfering with the work process, and changing their minds, and second-guessing me. I just simply couldn’t take a project from beginning to end without a lot of painful bumps in the road along the way. I really got to the point where I thought, “I can’t do this.” You know, I’ll just do the T.V. and I’ll do the magazine stuff because that’s lovely, and people are nice to you, and you get your makeup done, and all that kind of stuff.

Then, you’re out in the real world with clients. It’s tough out there. So, I hit a very low point, I would say, about ten years after I was in business.

Enoch: If you could go back, and just sit down, and have a small chat with that version of you ten years previous, what would you tell yourself?

Kimberley: First of all, I would have stopped everything in my tracks and I would have found myself a business mentor – somebody who could teach me business. The reality is, perhaps it’s not as pertinent for architects, I don’t know, but for interior designers, and decorators, and stagers, we all think of ourselves as creative people and the business is something you have to put up with.

But, in fact, I now know it’s a business and I’m very lucky that a small portion of what I love to do is creative. When I finally now have a system and procedure for running a project from top to bottom, I can enjoy the creative part because I’m not constantly battling it out with clients and negotiating who’s going to be in charge. I now know how to maintain control of the project, and all that kind of stuff.

So, when I first started out, I would have gotten myself a business mentor. The next thing I would have done is I would have hired someone to answer my phone, funny enough.

I find often, for interior designers, I’m sure for architects too, the clients will phone the potential professional, and they’ll begin to pick their brain over the phone, and ask all kinds of questions that you’re not in a position to answer because you don’t have enough information. A phone call that should take fifteen minutes to get someone signed up for a consultation ends up taking an hour, and then some back and forth, and they want to ask you one more thing because they interviewed twelve other people.

So, if I have to go back to the beginning, I would hire someone right off the bat to answer my phone because having done that – that changed my life.

Enoch: So, let’s talk about getting a business mentor quickly. Did you finally go that route and got a business mentor?

Kimberley: I did because, really, I was on the fence. I was going to quit working with clients because it’s too hard. Nobody could have tried harder than me. I was willing to sacrifice weekends, and evenings, and sanity. I would have done anything to make the client- and yet I was failing.

So, I did find somebody who had nothing to do with the interior design/architecture industry, the building industry, don’t know anything about it. She worked with banks, and she worked with big car companies. At first I thought, “Oh, how is this going to work,” because it’s just little me. I’m not a big corporation. But, in fact, some of the principles that the big corporations used worked really well for the small business owner. We worked together for four or five years, and she really pushed me to come up with a business strategy that works.

Really, the upshot of it is this: Too many people in the industry are unable to deliver projects on time and on budget. As an architect, I’m sure, and as an interior designer, we’re thinking about the beautiful, finished product, how gorgeous it is, how important it is, how this is going to make someone or many people, in your case, how it’s going to impact their life in such a positive and meaningful way. The clients are thinking about: “How much and when is it done?”

So, I had to realign my thinking and start creating a business that was structured around guaranteeing work on time and on budget. That was something that just nobody did- nobody did. It seemed impo- Believe me, even doing the process, rebuilding it, it seemed impossible, but, it worked, so I’m happy about that.

Enoch: What were the keys to implementing that?

Kimberley: For me, it had to do with maintaining control of the project from the first step.

What I finally have created now is a fifteen-step project management strategy. The idea behind it sounds a little sinister, but it’s not. The idea behind it is that the clients enter the relationship at step one, and there is nowhere for them to exit until step fifteen. It closes seamlessly one step to the next, and it’s completely controlled by me, the person who’s the professional in the relationship. The clients actually love it.

For so long, when a client would have a suggestion I thought that maybe you should just implement it no matter what. In fact, the clients are just offering an opinion, but they’re not an architect, they’re not a designer, they’re not running the show. So, I had to take responsibility for pushing the project from A to B. It wasn’t easy. There were some bumps along the way, but we’re there now.

Enoch: Kimberley, can you give me an example of part of that fifteen-step process and what you mean by how this process helps you to keep them on track and keeps you as the professional in the relationship?

Kimberley: Okay. With interior design, which I know is a little bit different with architecture, but the way that the process works for us is I go to a consultation – which, by the way, I never go to a consultation that isn’t paid. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. Lots of people say, “Oh, you show up and you see if you like each other.” No, you’re going to like each other.

You show up for a working meeting, and if you get the client to pay for a consultation they’ve already invested in your business. All you have to do, for me at that point, they’ve already completed step one. I’m already at step two. I’m not talking to them about starting the project, I’m just talking to them about continuing the project that they’ve already started, which is a different thing. So, that was one thing.

I had to figure out what was relevant to be in the contract and what’s irrelevant. My contract is, literally, written for a third grader. That’s because I discovered a lot of my clients have lawyers or teams of lawyers, and I’m never going to out-lawyer them.

What I decided to do instead is just talk to them in the simplest, plainest language so that in the event there’s a disagreement, everybody interprets the same message, the same reading out of the contract. So, my contracts are very, very simple. How much of a retainer do I need to take? What’s the formula for determining that retainer?

Then, in our process, when we get to step five, that’s the presentation. What’s very different is I used to come to the clients’ house and I’d show them the floor plans, and the elevations, and they would love it. That’s great. Then, I come back, and I show them the sofas and the draperies, and the furniture, and they would love it. That’s great.

Then, I would come back and I’d show them an area carpet, and then a table lamp, and then a piece of art, and they go, “Well, that’s great, but does it go with this and does it go with that?” Suddenly, they start interfering and second-guessing. They started going shopping, and say, “What about this chair instead of that chair?”

So, today, what’s very, very different is after I do my inventory, and our site inspection, and we get all of our trades in to do a quote, the next time the client see me, I’ve made every decision for their house. I literally do a turnkey presentation where every drawing is done, every piece of hardware, every toilet is specified, every piece of furniture. Here’s what the draperies look like and what it costs. Then, all the client has to do is write a check.

At that point, they snap their fingers and we just have to project manage it to the end. There are no change orders. There are no delays. I went from having a business where I had zero repeat customers, zero referral customers to now having 85% of my customers be repeat and the other 50% are referrals. So, I don’t advertise. I don’t have to advertise and I don’t have to worry about where the next job is coming from, which is, you know, something we all have to think about.

Enoch: Absolutely. What is the key, would you say, Kimberley, to getting those repeat referrals – both repeat clients and the referrals?

Kimberley: You know, it’s going to sound ridiculous, but it’s finishing the job. This is my experience teaching thousands of designers and decorators. We got about 70% of the way through and the clients would run out of money, they’ve run out of patience, they’ve run out of gas, you know, they just were done.

Then, eventually, they would say something like, “You know, we’re just going to finish it ourselves. It’s mostly done and we’ll just finish it ourselves.” That idea of them just finishing it themselves ruined it. We were not able to take photographs of it. It was not polished and didn’t reflect my brand.

When their friends came over, some of it looked good, but some of it didn’t look good, so who’s going to hire somebody like that? So, as pedestrian as it sounds, finishing every job down to the last piece of art hanging on the wall was really important to my business.

Enoch: You know, I would love to get an outside perspective specially from you, Kimberley, on working with architects.

Kimberley: You know, I love working with architects. I’m going to be straight up with you because that’s the only way I know how to be. I often find architects don’t want to work with designers. We have to deal with a, kind of, a hierarchy. I see our function as being so different that that makes me sad.

All these years I’ve been in business, I always thought an architect would be a partner. I still think would be ideal for me because there are so often things that we want to do which require an architect, so I have to go out and find somebody and they’re always reluctant to work with designers. They always… I don’t know. They think we make things complicated or something. I don’t know.

Then the other side of the coin is designers always think that architects spend all the money before we get there. When I talk to architects they say, “Oh, not at all. We never do. We’re having a really hard time making a living.”

I think the two industries stand more to gain by working together than they do fighting. I would love to see that happen. I really would because there’s no reason the architect couldn’t trust a professional interior designer see his or her vision through down to the last piece of furniture.

I often look at architectural projects in magazines – I’m talking about residential, not commercial. Commercial is spectacular, but residential I often feel like, “Ooh, I just really wished I had been able to come in there and just tweak a few things because I know it would be a little bit more comfortable for a family to live in.”

So, maybe somebody will reach out to me and say, “I want to work with you.” That would be great.
Enoch: Architects, listen up.

What do you think is the root of this, sort of, cultural divide between designers and architects in terms of what you just talked about?

Kimberley: Well, there’s definitely a hierarchy. Architects go to school longer, so I suppose they’re hardwired to reflect the fact that they’ve had more education in most cases. You have to give them that.

Then, maybe there’s this idea that… You know, I’m putting words… It would be better to ask the architects what they think. I think, sometimes, the feeling that I get from architects is just we do things that are pretty. We just add color. In fact, a good interior designer is thinking about function and how comfortable it’s going to be when they live there, and if this is going to have lasting value. We improve lifestyle to a degree.

So, I think, as they say, I think they’re kind of different. We wear different hats, but we need each other. I hope we need each other. I know some architects want to do their own interior design. I don’t know how successful that is. I know some designers want to do their architecture. I don’t know how successful that is. I think a nice synergy would be better.

Enoch: I agree. Kimberley, because you worked with thousands, as you said, of interior designers, they look to you for mentorship both personally and on the larger scale. What do you find to be their biggest business challenges in their own businesses?

Kimberley: You know, they struggle with every aspect of the business. They are afraid to bill. They are afraid to bill for all their hours. They’re afraid the clients are going to be mad.

The first month, the client gets a bill that they don’t like. The client will phone in with some anger and the designer will invariably say, “Okay, then. I will take some of the bill off.” I’m always telling them “You’re actually training your client to negotiate with you every month.” It’s like a dog giving them a treat after a bad behavior.

They don’t take proper notes when it comes to their hours. They have no idea how long it takes them to get a job done. Often, it’s underestimated because what we do for a living is often portrayed on television as something frivolous, and fun, and an ex-football player could do it with a hammer, and weekend, and a couple gallons of paint.

So, I think there are just too many roadblocks to even determine which one is the most disturbing, but the fact of the matter is, it’s a lack of education around business.

Enoch: So, lack of confidence in charging, you mentioned that.

Kimberley: Yeah.

Enoch: Reluctance to bill.

Kimberley: Yeah. I know architects suffer that too because we have architects who are members. I’ve been amazed when I hear, sometimes, their hourly rate because the assumption, from our end, is that the architect’s hourly rate is going to be much higher than the interior designers. It’s not necessarily true, and yet you have all these education, and this knowledge, and this value that the client doesn’t have and needs.

I don’t want to see the architects’ industry suffer and race to the bottom. I would hate to see that and I don’t want to see interior designers suffer by the same race.

Enoch: You’re talking about rates. What kind of rates is, sort of, standard? I know there’s no hard and fast rule, but if you had to give a benchmark for interior designers and then what you see for architects, what are you seeing?

Kimberley: Well, remember, often “Interior Design” is an umbrella for a lot of other disciplines which are all wonderful. I know people who are interior designers who are talented, decorators who are talented, and stagers who are talented. I have seen everything from $50 to an hour, to $500 an hour.

Often, what happens, I find, is people who are at the upper end sometimes say they’re $500 an hour, but they’re actually not billing for half of what they’re doing. This actually bumps their rate down to $250 an hour. So, sometimes there’s not even a connection between the hourly rate and what kind of money that they should be bringing in the door, if you know what I mean.

In our office, I’m the Principal. I’m $325 an hour, the seniors are $195, the intermediates are $145, and the juniors are $115 an hour. That’s very comfortable in the city of Toronto and that works really well in the city of Los Angeles as well. Some people live in smaller communities, so they might have to bring that number down a little bit. Some people don’t have confidence, so they bring that number way, way down, but then, as you know, you’re attracting a kind of client who’s not really looking for quality, they’re looking for a task, an errand person, not someone to deliver a lifestyle.

Enoch: Absolutely. I find that in architecture, the rates…

Kimberley: We have a lot to talk about.

Enoch: I know. Jeez.

We do have a lot to talk about, and we will pick it up in next week’s episode.

Despite what Sean Tobin and Marica McKeel told me, unfortunately, I’m going to continue to split up the episodes over the week so that you can have these in a little bit smaller, bite-sized chunks.

But, tune in next week. We’re going to take another deep dive with Kimberley. She’s going to talk about how she built her business. She’s going to give us her secret for charging higher fees. She’s going to talk about the secret to getting published. This is something, probably, you’ve never heard before. So, if you are looking to get some PR and get published in some magazines, you’ll definitely want to listen to next week’s episode. She’s going to share, actually, a no-fail trick for getting in to the magazine of your choice.

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Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.


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