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Entrepreneurial Eyes

By Kim Lande

What does it take to build an interior design business and make it last? We asked the experts — veteran business owners who have established and maintained long-term businesses — and got some surprising answers.

Andre Staffelbach, FIIDA, ASID
Business: Staffelbach Design Associates, Dallas
Established: 1966

Andre Staffelbach recalls being a lone interior designer in Dallas 38 years ago, scouring for clients by day and designing by night. “I started doing what I loved to do with no great intentions of size or success,” Staffelbach says. “It was work, make enough to pay the bills and have a beer whenever you want one. It’s a progression of what I would call ‘hold on and run with it.’ You have goals, but they can’t be too long-term.”

Despite his relaxed attitude, Staffelbach’s firm did grow and succeed. It emerged slowly and deliberately from a band of one in 1966 to an orchestra of 50 in 2005. Staffelbach attributes his success to attracting good clients, some of which he has retained for more than 20 years. “I’m privileged to have people who trust me enough to hand me immense amounts of money to create environments,” says Staffelbach, who still works 70 hours per week. “You really have to sacrifice what you enjoy to make a business work, so you better love what you’re doing.”

Staffelbach remembers one week in 1986 when the oil industry plummeted and nine big jobs were put on hold. “I had 40 employees sitting there with nothing to do.” The staff collectively decided to take a pay cut and become responsible for generating new business. Many of those employees are still with him today. “My real pleasure is being able to offer talented people a place to work,” Staffelbach says. “In a business, it’s important to develop a second generation for continuance. It’s interesting how things change. First you’re supporting your employees, then they’re supporting you.”

Mindy Howard
Business: Emick Howard & Seibert, Inc., Seattle, Wash.
Established: 1977

Every morning, Mindy Howard breathes a sigh of relief when she can turn on the lights at her interior design and architecture firm. The seasoned interior designer, who founded Emick Howard (now Emick Howard & Seibert, Inc.) with partner Jack Emick in 1977, has experienced the exuberant highs and plunging lows of business ownership and isn’t bashful about its pressures. “You can’t let anything fall behind,” Howard says. “Just to keep the machine moving is the biggest challenge. It’s a big machine that needs to be fed constantly.”

Howard’s role in the firm’s 27-year partnership has been behind the scenes, developing concept design, quality control and budgets. “To me, the number one thing is to understand the business. If you don’t understand the business side, the design is really a hobby,” Howard says. “That means always monitoring cash flow and taking the time to develop systems that grow with the firm.”

Howard is emphatic about the importance of cultivating a foundation that goes beyond good design. “There are more people who can design something great than can design something successful for the client and the design firm,” Howard says.

It took years of beating on architecture firm’s doors for them to find success. Now they have enough work to keep 35 employees busy, including 10 architects. Referrals are their mainstay, so they no longer compete for jobs.

Howard’s biggest mistakes have been made in personnel. “I’ve hired the wrong people, and it has hurt the business,” she says. Conversely, her employees also have bestowed her greatest professional rewards. “At first, I wasn’t a very good teacher. I wanted them to know everything. I had to learn to mentor.”

Her years of observing employee work habits inspired Howard to pen and self-publish a book, How to Work Smart! And Enjoy Your Job: 25 Simple Ways to Be Recognized, Appreciated, Respected and Valued.

“I really enjoy helping my employees succeed. That’s why I go to work everyday,” she says.

Mitchell Sawasy, FIIDA, AIA
Business: Rothenberg Sawasy Architects, Los Angeles
Established: 1981

It’s 1981 in Los Angeles, and recession is raging. A 28-year-old architect and his partner are in a cramped office calling relatives for loans to make the rent. The well of work has dried. But Mitchell Sawasy is confident he’s going to succeed.

With unbridled enthusiasm and determination as his compass, Sawasy, with Mark Rothenberg, has built Rothenberg Sawasy Architects over 25 years. Today they’re recognized as one of the top 25 interior design firms in Los Angeles and have an office in Beijing.

“In the beginning, we decided even if we fail, we’ll always regret we didn’t give it a shot,” Sawasy says.

So how did Sawasy and Rothenberg make rent back in 1981? Rothenberg met a developer in an elevator who had tenant improvement work. He convinced him they could do the job, even though they had never done interiors. Within two days, the team delivered a set of plans and became exclusive space planner for the high rise. For the next 20 years, they designed corporate interiors, transitioning into mixed-use architecture in 2001.

“There’s nothing like working for yourself. The best is that you get to make decisions about who to work with and what to work on,” Sawasy says. “The downside is that you have ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of your own endeavors.”

Sawasy’s partnership thrives through divided responsibilities and respect. “It’s like being married to someone for 25 years,” says Sawasy, who serves as Design Principal. “It has evolved comfortably over time but hasn’t been without conflict.”

Rothenberg Sawasy Architects was tested when another recession hit in 1990. The firm had to lay off employees, and to stay afloat, the principals forfeited paychecks for six months. “When you start an enterprise, it’s very easy to let the minutia cloud your vision so you can’t see where you’re going. No matter what, you have to keep going toward your goal.”

Mary Helen Pratte, FIIDA
Business: Studio Works, Ekitta Furniture, Austin, Texas
Established: 1984

Mary Helen Pratte has some sage advice for budding interior design entrepreneurs: “Don’t do what I did. It’s been insane.”

Over 20 years of practice, Pratte founded three interior design firms, while simultaneously heading a design department at the University of Texas in San Antonio and serving as Associate Professor. In her spare time, she launched a furniture company. Call it a frenetic professional journey or a wild ride. To Pratte, it’s all the same.

“You have to take care of what’s inside you and find your passions,” Pratte says. “You make contacts and keep searching, and if you really are passionate, you’ll find a way to do it. I certainly have gotten pleasure out of doing different things.”

Pratte’s three-pronged career as academic, interior and furniture designer has been both cooperative and counteractive. As an academic, she sometimes had to sacrifice private clients. But she also has hired students who became longtime employees and friends. For a few years, she even taught in San Antonio while running an interior design practice in Austin, nearly two hours away. “I realized I wasn’t doing a good job at anything, so I had to make some choices.” Her choice was to quit academia and open her current firm, StudioWorks.

Ekitta Furniture was born 15 years ago out of Pratte’s frustration. She wasn’t able to find certain glass and metal products for clients, so she decided to design and fabricate them herself. Her line of metal and glass tables, door pulls and planters now pulls in a healthy annual revenue. “Ekitta is not a huge business; it’s just a comfortable one,” Pratte says. “It affords opportunities to do things on our projects we wouldn’t otherwise do.”

At every turn, Pratte attributes her success to doing simply what she enjoys. “I’ve always believed
that if you work hard enough at your passion, you’ll be compensated,” she says. “If I had to do it over again, I might not have played it so safe — taken a few more financial risks. But then again, I would have had to give up something — my clients or my students — and I wouldn’t trade either. Both have been incredibly rewarding.”

Cultivating a Business from the Ground Up

While no universal formula exists for growing a design business, there’s much to learn from experienced design proprietors who, for better or worse, learned by experience. Here’s what they say to those thinking of embarking on a journey into self-employment.

Establish A Foundation
“Work in a number of different firms and soak up everything you can,” says Carol Jones, FIIDA, Partner, Kasian Architecture Design and Planning, Ltd., in Vancouver, BC, and previous owner of a design firm for 13 years. “Ask as many questions about running the business as about design.”

Understand Stengths
Jones cites a statement by Ros Brandt, a New York consultant to architects and designers. “She says there are three parts to every design business — the marketing part, the management part and the design part. Very few people are good at all three.” Taking an honest look at strengths and weaknesses — and then filling in the gaps — is vital to a self-employed professional.

Surround Yourself with Smart People
Employees and consultants can drive or crash a business, so assembling a group of people you can rely on is essential. “Hire the smartest creative and technical people you can find,” advises Mindy Howard of Emick Howard & Seibert. Adds Mitchell Sawasy, of Rothenberg Sawasy Architects, “We learned quickly to hire people that are smarter than us.”

Mine Your Client Base
Seasoned entrepreneurs echo this simple mantra: Good design and positive client relationships lead to more work. “We’ve always concentrated on developing relationships for better projects,” Sawasy says. “In the beginning, we knew our little projects would generate bigger projects.”

Love Your Work
Do what you’re passionate about, and the rewards will follow. “If your goal in life is to make a lot of money, interior design may not be the right choice for you,” Jones says. “I believe there is real income and psychic income — psychological reward in doing creative work with creative people. Now that’s worth something.”