HOW TO START AN INTERIOR DESIGN BUSINESS WITHOUT A DEGREE
One of the biggest myths in the interior design world is that you need a degree to get into interior design. There are instances where you will require a degree (some states in the US, for example), however, most of the time, you don’t. The only time I would go down the route of an interior design degree is if I was quite young and fresh out of school or if I wanted to work as an interior architect or an interior designer in a large firm.
The most beneficial (and fastest) way of learning interior design is by gaining experience either on your own projects or working for someone else. As you are hoping to start an interior design business, I’m thinking that you would prefer to be working on your own projects.
Having tried to employ interior design graduates myself, I can tell you that theoretical learning in this industry is a waste of time. I have seen hundreds of CV’s and portfolios come through my doors and the ones that got a job were never interior design graduates.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to start an interior design business without a degree, I want to clarify just one more thing.
Those interior designers who want to get registered (even with a degree), still require many years of experience before being able to qualify. As there are also ways to getting “qualified” as an interior designer without a degree (aka getting experience), there is no reason you need to invest that much money, time and effort into a degree when you could be doing what you love, helping clients and getting paid, right from the word go.
So how you can start an interior design business without a degree?
STEP 1 | Decide What Services You Are Going To Provide
Ok, so you need to be realistic, if you haven’t yet successfully undertaken a project for one room from start to finish, don’t expect to land a job for a five-bed house and expect it to be easy-peasy. We are all impatient, but a realistic assessment of your current skills will save you and your future clients a lot of frustration. Most interior designers start by undertaking their own project in their own home and in my opinion, this is a really great place to start. It means that you have to work to a budget, you have to figure out where to find the right style of items and you have to work out in which order things need to be done, and project manage the whole thing.
In the beginning, you will be most likely limited to providing more styling and decorating-types of services. These are still beneficial services and specific niches of interior design that you might choose to specialise.
Depending on your background, you might have transferable skills from another career that you could use in your interior design business. I find from the students that I work with, often skills like budgeting, negotiating and project management are valuable skills and services that can be added to your repertoire.
If you want some clarity on what kind of services an interior designer usually provides (and get a free check-list of services) then check out this post to get started – What Do Interior Designers Really Do?
To scale your business safely, only provide the services you can legitimately offer. Then use your heart and intuition to decide the other services and skills that you would like to work towards gaining. You need to be passionate about the work you do in your business, if you don’t absolutely love it, it will be hard to motivate yourself to do it and you’ll find yourself procrastinating and not enjoying the work you were hoping to love.
Do not to feel let down if you would like to provide services that you can’t just yet, however. Just start from where you are and grow with your business.
STEP 2 | Define What You & Your Business Are About
Take a half-day and go to a cafe. Calm your mind and look at the people around you. If the person sitting next to you asked you what you do and what your business is about, could you describe it clearly?
And it’s more than just saying I’m an interior designer! Think marketing 101. You need to understand your ideal client and what problem you solve as a designer in your niche. Try to clarify what services you provide that are in demand by your target market. To those of you who say it’s too hard or too competitive, you’re wrong. I have seen the most random and obscure businesses succeed, you just have to know your target market inside and out and create a service that your ideal client wants (and not the other way round).
You also need to think about what is going to set you apart from the other designers in your niche. In the beginning, this may be as simple as thinking about who you think you could help with your current skill set. Ask yourself what is unique about you and why should someone hire you instead of your competitor?
Sometimes it helps to think about who already asks you for design advice and what kind of advice they ask you for, then try to figure out how to turn that skill into a service.
Your brand, your niche and your target market will evolve and grow as your business does. You need to start. Take action before you feel “ready” and don’t get stuck in the trap of perfection. Progress and motivation come from just taking action, you have to start first and then the ideas come, it doesn’t happen the other way round. You have to take that first step and just give it a go.
STEP 3 | Figure Out Your Design Services & How Much They Will Cost
You need to know how much you need each month to pay your bills and some. Once you have a figure, you have to work out how what you offer is going to meet your monthly money goals.
Your services are intrinsically linked with your target market, so you need to make sure you know who is going to buy your services and how much they will pay for it. For example, if your target market are young professionals who are buying their first home, then your design packages need to be something that those young professionals are willing to pay for as well as a price you can afford to live off.
If a design package for your first-time house buyers sells for approximately £1800, then you may only need a few clients in the first couple of months to really gain momentum. Pricing projects can be tricky though, as you may not know how long a typical project can take to complete and may find yourself working on a project 12 months down the line after having been paid upfront … (I know from experience my friends).
STEP 4 | Figure Out Your Design Services & How Much They Will Cost
The biggest mistake I see (even experienced) interior designers making is that they don’t continue to grow, learn and add new skill sets to their repertoire. The initial passion for learning and growing is overshadowed by the everyday routine, and they forget to keep learning about the topic they love.
One of the most useful tools for communicating to clients and also one of the easiest things you can learn to do is to draw furniture layouts. I have seen experienced interior designers outsource this stuff, which is totally unnecessary, especially these days there are hundreds of free programs that allow you to draw plans, (come on IKEA has a room planner – even my clients can use it!
There are a few things that I teach in my mentorship program that I feel are critical skills to have in order to succeed as an interior designer, long term. For example, learning how to communicate your ideas is a basic skill you need as an interior designer and so is running a project from start to finish.
You should be able to do the following and if you can’t, then these would be the areas I would increase my skills asap:
- Undertake a measured survey
- Draw room and furniture layouts
- Read and understand consultants/builders drawings
- Create lighting layouts and designs
- Design a space with a strong idea and follow through to the last detail
- Communicate your ideas to consultants and builders
- Be able to run a project from start to finish
- Have the skill to formulate a binding formal agreement
- Price your services adequately for both you and your client
- Put together a coherent design scheme in response to a brief
- Know how to market yourself and get a consistent stream of income
- Know what documentation is required to be produced at each stage of a project
STEP 5 | Tell People You’re Open For Business – CONSTANTLY
You can’t imagine how many people believe that you can just build a cool website and think the clients will roll in. Sorry to burst your bubble! Yes, after a while people will call you from your website, but I wouldn’t count on that being my regular stream of clients, especially not at the beginning. You need a marketing strategy and you need to be consistently putting yourself in front of your ideal client.
The biggest failure I had when I first started was that I assumed everyone knew that I had started my business, so I didn’t tell anyone. You need to tell people constantly and in a way that isn’t irritating. So finding a way to market yourself so that it doesn’t come across as sleazy, annoying or embarrassing is the key to consistently putting yourself out there. In the beginning, you need to promote yourself. Others will put in a good word for you, but it’s hard work, so when everyone else’s good words fizzle, you gotta keep tooting your horn in a way that gets you noticed and keeps reminding them about you.
The way I describe this to my students is that starting a business is like getting a large pot of water to boil. So much energy goes into heating that pot before you see those first few bubbles, but once you see them, you know that you are getting somewhere. In the beginning, you need to give your business that kind of energy, and things won’t look like they are happening for possibly quite some time, but you have to know that the water is heating up, so you can’t give up, keep telling everyone that you are open for business, find new ways, be creative, be yourself and find your tribe, they are out there!
I hope that gave you what you came for! This is something I am passionate about because it wasn’t until I got a business mentor that I was able to succeed finally. I had read all the things online and gotten the same, unhelpful guidance from interior designer’s already in the industry. I had two degrees and 15 years of experience but I still didn’t know how to get clients or run a design business and no one was willing to tell me.
“It doesn’t take talent or luck to succeed, you just need to decide.”
Even though I had first-class honours degrees in architecture, as soon as I stepped outside of Australia, my degrees were worthless. The good thing was that no matter where I applied for a job it didn’t matter whether I had a degree or not (and no one ever asked to see it). I never had trouble finding work because it had nothing to do with my degrees, but everything to do with the fact that I had A LOT of experience.
Even Kelly Hoppen never got a degree in interior design, she built her business from gaining experience. Some of us get our degrees and they become useless. Would I have done things differently? No, I loved studying (I am a nerd after all), but I was young and straight out of school, I needed some kind of education. If I was transferring into interior design later in life however and didn’t want to or couldn’t do a degree, then I wouldn’t.
About the author
Jo Chrobak is the founder and CEO of The Interior Designer’s Business School. She has over 20 years of experience working in architecture and interior design, across the world on commercial and domestic projects from international hotels to developments and new builds. Her vast experience transcends industries to give her unique knowledge of processes and strategies which she passes on to her students to help them succeed as interior designers as quickly as possible.
Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Jo decided to travel the world in her twenties to gain experience and education from as many sources as possible. She graduated with first class Honours, top of her graduating class and a Bachelor of Architecture in 2007 and since then has worked on projects in Norway, Oman, The UAE, Egypt, Australia, Canada and across the UK and Europe.
She currently runs her architectural and interior design studio (www.jochrobak.com) and specialises in complex projects that require both architectural and interior design knowledge.
Jo is also trained as an Ashtanga yoga instructor, a life and business coach and is a passionate artist creating bespoke artwork for clients.
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