My First Interior Design Client
If I knew then, what I know now...Hard-won lessons from my first design project.
No matter what business we're in, we all have the story of our first dollar or our first client. For years, I had a photocopy of the very first check I received when I opened my business. Unfortunately, it was for a client I didn't end up working for. But at least she paid for my first billable hour!
My first real project came to me through my Website, which the client found via a simple Web search. She said there was just something that "spoke" to her about me. Surprising, because at that point, the only (mediocre) images on the site were of my own home, taken by me. Simply put, they really weren't that good. But, they were good enough to get me this first largish job, which included living room, sunroom, dining room, basement renovation, upper and lower halls, plus window treatments in bathrooms and the kitchen.
Oh, where to start? Well, I'll start at the end where the client was very happy and everything looked great. But truth be told, not only did I not make much money for the hours I spent on the project, but I'm fairly sure that my window treatment maker (who was also new in business) actually lost money. Those windows were certainly a case of the blind leading the blind!
The Hours Game
But first, let's start with billing. With a background in financial management and marketing, I am very good at keeping track of hours, creating invoices and collecting money. I knew enough not to do any work without a contract and deposit. But, I simply did not know how to estimate the time I would spend and I was working with clients who had never used a decorator either. My base hourly rate was appropriate for my location and perhaps even a little high for my experience level, so that wasn't the problem. I decided to charge a flat fee, based on estimated hours. Without experience, of course, I had no idea how many hours the project would take me. I actually estimated for the design phase correctly (I've always been pretty good at that), but did not take the implementation phase into consideration. I was also dealing with a client, who was lovely, but needed a lot of handholding and needed to see a lot of choices before she was confident in her decision-making. The few times we went shopping together were complete time sinks. Because she wasn't paying for each hour, she didn't think about the value of my time, so a simple visit to a store for her to test out a sofa took three hours of chatting and wandering about. And I wasn't experienced enough to manage our time together efficiently.
Meetings in the home were also long and often not efficient because the client ran a home daycare center for 3 month-old babies to 3 year-old toddlers five days a week. It's a good thing that I love children, because they were non-stop distractions. My poor window treatment guy, however, was less than enthused by the cuteness overload and actually left a small Sawzall and live drill sitting on the floor at one point. Yikes! Again, had I had more knowledge and confidence, I would have insisted on weekend meetings for the sake of efficiency.
Generally, the project went fairly well otherwise and I’m happy that when I look at the design plan, fabric and wallpaper samples. I think it all still works well, nearly nine years later. The window treatments were something of a nightmare, certainly for my workroom. I was working with a gentleman who had great sewing skills and enthusiasm, but not a lot of experience. And so, when I selected a beautiful fabric that had a distinctive pattern with a large repeat, I didn't realize how much waste there would be to turn this fabric into balloon shades, with the important images in the pattern showing "just so". And, neither did he. In the end, he had to have lost money because he specified too little fabric to meet the design and, in a panic, ordered way more additional fabric because he was afraid he'd run out again. To his credit, he took responsibility for his estimating mistake, but I certainly felt badly. Added onto this, I didn't really mark up the treatments beyond a modest percentage on the fabric and nothing on the labor. I looked it up in my files, and for all this work, I netted a little over $1,900. I spent months on this project and many, many hours.
At the time, I consoled myself that it was a learning experience (that it was!) and I had a great project under my belt to enhance my portfolio. Sadly, getting back in to take decent final photographs never happened, so I ended up with only a few snap shots and sample fabrics, paint colors and wallpaper. I still don't show this project because of this, but when it was all I had, I did all I could with it.
- If you're new in business and uncertain how to charge for a project, find someone to ask.
- Always work with seasoned professionals in the trades, and don't let their experience intimidate you. I thought it was great to work with another "up-and-comer", but in the end, our combined lack of knowledge hurt us both.
- If you do make a mistake, own it. Because the window treatment maker owned his yardage estimating mistake, I hired him for several more projects to help make up for it. I knew he had limitations, but I knew he was honest. And my client was very happy in the end not only because she got a beautiful house at a bargain basement rate, but because she was never aware of the behind-the-scenes drama of a couple of design newbies. And that resulted in some good referrals that helped my business move forward.
Photo credit: Linda Merrill
Linda Merrill is a residential interior decorator based in Massachusetts. Linda's design style can be described as "comfortable luxury" and she believes in working closely with clients throughout the entire design process. Her clients are mainly located between metro-Boston and Cape Cod and the Islands. Linda writes a nationally regarded design blog called ::Surroundings:: and is the host of the design podcast series The Skirted Roundtable.