I have had several readers email asking for advice on getting into decorating. I used to refer them to Emily A Clark’s explanation, as we have similar stories. But this last time I used her structure and answered it myself. So, I thought I would share.
I am not sure I feel quite qualified to answer, as I think I’m hitting just the tip of the iceberg. But, I decided to take a stab at it. I’ll share my own experience and what I have learned. Warning – this post is mostly words, not many images.
My Short Answer.
There are many ways. I will suggest what I know.
Start with your own home. Make it your portfolio. Then, do homes for others for free. Invite people over to see your handy work. Learn applicable skills – blogging, sewing, photo taking, etc. Then, start charging. That’s the short explanation.
How I Got Started.
It’s wise to start a blog first. I did not. I didn’t even know about blogs back then. Instead, I started with my own home. When people saw it, they began to ask for advice. I loved thinking about design and was constantly trying to make my house better, so I eagerly gave free advice as it was requested and helped decorate a number of rooms for free for anyone who would let me. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine others would eventually want to pay for my services. But, slowly this grew into my business with paying clients. Not long after that, I started to read blogs here and there and later, started my own. I just started this blog at the end of this past February (2011). I really just stumbled around in the darkness for a while as I had NO idea what I was doing. (I did a series on blogging tips that you can find here.) But, I enjoyed it because it was writing about stuff that I love and that I’m passionate about. Blogging takes passion or it quickly becomes work.
My mother-in-law is a decorator in Houston, so she was able to answer questions along the way for me as well. And, I won’t lie, HGTV helped a lot with the basics. Overall, though, I’ve always loved artistic expression and this was just another form. With every single client and personal project, I come out more confident and knowledgeable.
1. Work for free at first. A little over two years ago, when I started to work with others, I said yes to anything and did it for free at first. I just wanted experience. I wanted a chance to have another canvas to be creative with. I didn’t have the clear intention of starting a business. I was just dabbling. But, one thing led to the next. That free work pays off and many times will get you to the next project until it’s no longer necessary to work for free. Consider this like an internship. It provides great practice.
2. Your house is your best portfolio. Not all clients will send photos or allow after shots on your blog. Some take months to execute a plan. Therefore, your own home is your best guaranteed portfolio. So, work hard on your own home. If for no other reason, it will help it sell if the time ever comes. I was just reminded of that first hand. Design is a good investment. You can take most of it with you, but it will help bring buyers in! Our home sold after just a few days. We had 7 offers.
3. Learn applicable skills. If you plan to blog along the way (I’m assuming you’d start blogging faster than I did if you are already reading blogs), get ramped up on helpful skills. Learn how to blog, how to take good photos, learn the needed software, etc. I like using Photoshop, Lightroom, and Windows Live Writer when I blog. Also learn the skills necessary to provide clients with the services they need.
In addition, try to pick up some construction skills and sewing skills. Try out some diy projects. They help. The more understanding you have of how things are created, the more solid advice you can give.
4. Set up a business. When you are ready to charge, do it the right way. Set up an LLC in your state. This requires some basic paperwork, usually a fee (I’ve seen between $25 and $500), and approval. Some states are easier to do this in than others. For example, Utah was automated and simple. AZ was old school and more complicated. TX, when we move there, will be much more pricey, though I haven’t researched other details yet. This will allow you to do taxes properly and it’s more beneficial than just doing a Schedule C. I’m not a tax expert, though, so consult your accountant.
Learn to use Quickbooks. I learned this later in the game, but it proved to be very helpful. This will allow you to enter and keep track of all invoices, payments, expenditures, profits and losses. Stay on top of the books for the company.
If you structure your business as an S Corp, you will also be required to do payroll (even if it’s just for yourself) and in turn, will be set up to do it for future employees. Learn about your options and about taxes.
5. Set your rates. When I first started, I didn’t make much money at all. My rates were low. And, I even occasionally still did things for VERY cheap (almost free). Specific rates are a personal decision. What you decide on should be competitive with other decorators to an extent, but it should also reflect what you time is worth. If you spend 40-50 hours on a project, you need to charge accordingly. If you are able to put together a very basic plan in 2 or 3 hours, then charge less. It will depend on what all the client needs – a 3d drawing, a story board, a furniture placement plan, a shopping list or just some written tips, or all of the above. That all should calculate into the hours it takes and therefore into the price you charge.
I’ve also heard it suggested that your rate should take into account the time you spend getting ready, driving there, paying a sitter if you have children, and being away from your family. That is all stuff to consider. You don’t want to be working non-stop and making no profit.
Your time and ideas are worth something. It’s not an obligation to work for everyone who asks. Choose projects that you are excited about and that the client is excited about so it’s mutually beneficial.
6. Blog. It’s the best way to market your business. I get most inquiries through my blog, though some are referrals, others from just being at home décor stores, some from friends and some recently from people touring my house when it was briefly on the market. But, most are from blogging (or referrals). Blogging is beneficial to growing your business. I’ve done no local advertising. However, I do carry business cards with me wherever I go.
If you do decide to blog, please note that it’s almost a side business. It takes so much more time and effort than I ever imagined. Set aside 10-30 hours a week on it, depending on how large your blog is, if you are doing projects for it, if you are doing giveaways or guest posts, if you read other blogs, if you reply to comments and so on. On a slow week, I can get away with 10 hours, but rarely is it less.
It is an on-going display of your work. It can help a potential client imagine what it may be like to work with you.
Blog 5-7 days a week at first. Keep the material fresh. I recommend WordPress, though this post really isn’t about the mechanics of blogging.
7. Consider at least one other form of social media. I use Facebook and Pinterest. Some also use Twitter. I can only keep up with so many things. It’s a personal choice, but being a little more available than just on the blog is helpful.
8. Should you go back to school? Many debate this when starting a decorating business. Without the official schooling, you are called a decorator, not a designer. It’s a personal decision. If you feel clients you are targeting would care, then I’d consider it. If not, it may not be a good use of money. My mother-in-law works for many upscale clients and they sometimes ask about her schooling. She regrets never having gone. I’ve only had one person ever ask so far, so I am still debating it. I have a BS degree in Communications, which is obviously helpful. I may one day go back for my Masters in Interior Design. I’m not sure at this point in time.
I think you either have a knack for design (even if you don’t know all the history and such) or you don’t, though. In order to know which rules to break, you do have to understand the rules. I think there are certain things that can be taught, but you need to have your own sense of style at the end of the day. Having said all of that, I do think a degree can lend credibility. But, it cannot give confidence or real world experience.
9. Balance your home life. We (at least me) are not super human people. We still have regular life to balance within this career. You can’t work 24/7. Be sure to have time for your family and friends.
10. Always be a student. What I mean is always be learning. Read blogs, read publications, watch what successful designers are doing, and be open to making mistakes and learning from them. Starting a business is a huge learning curve. Each client project goes more smoothly, yet each is also filled with new challenges. There will be frustration and stressful moments. There are many details and such to keep up with as you work on projects. But, if you truly love what you are doing, that passion will outweigh the challenges.
So, my conclusion is to just give it a shot. I went into it saying I’ll try. If it doesn’t work out well, that’s fine. If it does, then great. I’ll see what it’s like. If you want to start a decorating business, I suggest the same. That’s my advice. I hope it’s helpful.
This is just my experience so far, but I’m still freshly navigating these waters, so I reserve the right to change these thoughts.
I would love to hear any other thoughts you have on getting started with decorating or on starting a business in general.