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The Real Reason You Can’t Run A Profitable Interior Design Business

Most designers think that to run a profitable interior design business, they need to take on large projects for luxury clients or conceal their fees …


The Real Reason You Can’t Run A Profitable Interior Design Business

Table Of Contents

Table Of Contents

Most designers think that to run a profitable interior design business, they need to take on large projects for luxury clients or conceal their fees within their furniture sourcing budget, which if not done correctly, is an unethical business model. I’ve spoken with thousands of designers who believe that they can’t run a profitable interior design business because they believe they can’t charge the required price for the work they do or because they believe that clients won’t pay the amount of money they want for what needs to be done.

So what happens is all these designers get together and start blaming the clients as the problem for all their woes, or worse, they gang up on other designers for “stealing” their clients and bad mouth them behind their backs!) “Clients won’t pay for good design”, you’ll hear them scream; we are so hard done by! The designer doesn’t take any responsibility for the real problem – they don’t know how to run a profitable interior design business.

The Key To A Profitable Interior Design Business

You see, most designers start their careers by undertaking a design diploma course or even a degree (both are useless in learning what you'll be doing as an interior designer in the real world). Interior design diploma courses and interior design degrees, including interior architecture degrees, do not teach you how to run a profitable interior design business. They don't even teach you how to price projects (if you want to price interior design projects, start with this blog post: How To Price Interior Design Services (In 5 Steps) and download the worksheet for yourself).

Interior design courses teach you how to design, that's all, so don't be surprised when you finish your course and then end up baffled as to why you're an expert in choosing fabrics but have no clue about how to run a project professionally, price projects accurately or run a profitable interior design business.

Most practising interior designers who have been educated traditionally are broke because they don't understand why they're always having problems with their projects and can't make money or a profit working as interior designers.

So let me enlighten you! I need to explain something called the design process. Interior design is a construction industry profession; because of this, we follow a construction industry plan of work. These phases of a project vary by country, but typically they look a bit like this and typically happen in this kind of order:

The Typical Phases Of An Interior Design Project

Interior Design Project Phases:

  • 1 | Pre-Design Phase (feasibility, budgets, brief setting etc.)
  • 2 | Concept or Sketch Design Phase
  • 3 | Permissions Phase (This might be later / earlier in the list, depending on the type of project)
  • 4 | Detail Design Phase
  • 5 | Technical Design
  • 6 | Pricing, Bidding or Tender Phase
  • 7 | Construction Phase / FF&E Ordering Phase
  • 8 | Interior Installation
  • 9 | Styling & Turn Key
  • 10 | Photography & Post Occupancy

If you would like to follow the industry standard projects stages, here is one of my trusted sources in the UK from the British Institute of Interior Design published by The Royal Institute Of British Architects: BIID Interior Design Project Book

Most interior designers understand this, but they don't see what this has to do with pricing interior design projects or how this translates into creating a profitable interior design business. Almost all other professionals working in the construction industry understand the importance of these project phases because they know that for one of these phases to happen, typically, the step before it needs to start and most of the time (of course, there are exceptions), these phases of a project happen in a specific order.

For example, (although you could) you shouldn't start construction without a concept or permissions in place, and you probably shouldn't start your concept phase before understanding what the client wants (aka having a clear brief). This might seem obvious now that I've mentioned it here, but this isn't how the majority of interior designers run their projects, and this is why they are haemorrhaging hours on projects, thinking it's the client's fault.

To be clear, all professionals follow an industry-wide process in sequential order to run a project from start to finish. I didn't make this up, and this is the typical project process that the Romans and even ancient Egyptians followed many thousands of years ago, so it's tried and tested and pretty practical. So what has this got to do with running a profitable interior design business?

The Real Reason You Can't Run A Profitable Interior Design Business

So while the construction industry is functioning as usual, we have interior designers (worldwide) doing things inside-out and upside-down because they did a diploma course or degree and believe they have all the information they need to be a construction industry expert and project manage large projects, manage construction budgets and sign off builders work – all whilst not understanding the primary project procurement phases and what they mean.

Let me show you how most interior designers run their projects and the real reason why they can't run a profitable interior design business (and please, if you're doing any of these or don't understand them, have a look at my mentorship program where we get you up to speed with these essential things in the shortest and safest amount of time possible: Online Interior Design Mentorship ).

This is what you're doing wrong: Most interior designers unknowingly join one or more of the project phases together. This means they:

This Is What Most Interior Designers Unknowingly Are Doing Wrong, They:

  • Don't know when to stop designing at different project stages.
  • Don't know when one phase starts or when one phase ends.
  • Get stuck on designing details (aka working on the detail design stage) when the concept isn't approved.
  • Spend time on the technical design at the concept stage.
  • Focus on price and budget at the wrong phase.
  • Design and procure the FF&E during the concept stage.

This is why your interior design projects are not profitable! Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule (for example, I have included detailed design into my concept phases for projects – but I did it knowing what I was doing, and of course, my fees reflected that, as did my design process!)

... But Your Client Won't Pay For It

"But I have asked clients to pay for the feasibility, brief, pricing, designs etc., and they refused".

Many thousands of interior designers are running profitable interior design businesses, and you can too. My clients pay for all of my project phases, and my mentee’s clients also pay for all of their phases. Yes, we get paid to design the concept. Yes, we get paid to work out the detail, we get paid to think, and yes, we don’t have to sell furniture to our clients to get paid for our work; why?

Firstly, because we clearly understand what each of these phases of a project looks like and can explain it to our clients, and secondly, because we help our clients to see the value in each of these phases of the project so that they know what they are paying for (and give them a choice as to whether they want to include it in their projects or not rather than hiding it within our fees or doing it for free) and this is why:

We Help Our Clients To See The Value In Each Project Phase:

  • By having a clear brief, both you and the client know what is expected of each other and what the deliverables are on the project.
  • By having a clear concept, your client can decide whether they want to spend their money and time pursuing it, and you, as the designer, have clear instructions for what you need to create.
  • By having a clearly defined detail phase, your client gets the choice of whether they want to spend the money on you to work out the details or ask the builder to do it (known as a design and build contract where the builder takes on some of the design responsibility) and as the designer you get to choose whether you want to do that part of the project too. (Sometimes you might, and sometimes it's ok to let go of the control… most designers don't realise they have a choice).

You see, most clients don't know that there is more than one phase of a project, and they don't understand that the concept drawings are different to the technical drawings and what that all means. They think that you do a design, and that's it. It's up to you as the professional to guide them through this process and help them see what is involved in getting them from A to B and your role in getting them there. If you're having problems with your clients which aren't related to project phases or profitability, check out this article as it could be another issue you're experiencing which is communication with your client: Dealing With Interior Design Client Problems

The Freedom To Create A Profitable Interior Design Business Your Way

Interior design diploma and degree courses teach designers that there is only one type of designer, which is confusing and very dangerous because designers force themselves into a mould that they don’t naturally fit into (and don’t have to!) The construction phases of a project protect you as the designer by giving you the freedom to work the way you want and create a career as a designer working in the way you prefer. This is how I help my interior design mentees create profitable interior design businesses that they love and that are ideally suited to their circumstances, location and their amount of knowledge and experience.

For example, once you understand what a concept designer is, you may only want to be a conceptual interior designer, freeing you up to design projects worldwide and work from anywhere. I worked for one of the largest firms in the world that did just that – they specialised in concept designs for hotels – that’s it (and their clients paid very, very good money for it!) But if you’re a typical course graduate, you’re probably thinking that there is only one way to design a project and that you need to do everything, or else you’re not a “real” interior designer. But this isn’t true.

You might love drawing in 3D or creating photo-realistic renders – this could be all you do. You might prefer to style homes for sale, choose to focus on the technical phases of projects, or decide to work in the same way that I do by focusing on a project’s design and technical design phases and leaving the rest to the builder. You get to choose the type of designer you want to be but to do that, you need to understand the design process inside-out and, of course, precisely what each of those phases means. This will help you create a profitable interior design business and be a designer who absolutely loves every part of their job.

Designing your interior design services using this knowledge helps you create a more suitable and personalised business plan because you don’t feel pressure to do the phases of a project that you don’t like or don’t enjoy doing. Many of my mentees start their interior design careers later in life, which means they need to start earning money on projects straight away (rather than working for free in an interior design firm to “learn what to do”), so they decide to start with E-Design which is predominantly concept work. Concept design is perfect for start-up designers because there is minimal liability, and this type of work doesn’t tie you to a physical location because the only deliverable is the design (rather than project managing a project or doing an installation, which requires you to be physically in a location to undertake that type of work).

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Conclusion | The Real Reason You Can’t Run A Profitable Interior Design Business

Understanding the construction project phases gives us clear boundaries for where each project phase starts and stops. This is important for everyone. It is vital for the client because they get an understanding of the complexity (or simplicity of the project), it helps you as the designer to run a profitable interior design business and price your work accordingly, and it helps other professionals like the builder, know where you are in the timeline of a project.

This tried and tested construction industry standard process protects everyone involved, as it helps you to run your projects profitably and professionally, gives you all a clear start and breakpoint if and, best of all, helps minimise the amount of trouble you get yourself into, especially in the earlier phases of your business.

The real reason you can't run a profitable interior design business or haven't been running one is probably not your fault. It's one of the biggest problems I have with the interior design industry, especially the education of interior designers, and why I run my mentorship program to help support career changers trying to become interior designers and interior design business start-ups (who are isolated without this imperative knowledge unknowingly), yet even a carpenter, plumber, electrician and every other trade working in the industry follows these same basic processes.

But now that you have this information, you must act. You now know that your interior design business is not profitable because you're likely unknowingly mixing or joining your project phases or don't really know what the phases are, where they start and stop and what is required of you at each one. So why not join me for an upcoming masterclass? Just subscribe to our newsletter in the footer and we will email you before we go live.

Or if you're ready to start your dream career as an interior designer, check out our mentorship program here: Online Interior Design Course

Jo Chrobak

Jo Chrobak

Jo Chrobak is an architectural and interior designer and mentor at the Interior Designer’s Business School that trains interior designers to set up professional and successful interior design businesses and gain experience working on real projects. She is trained in architecture, interiors, business and life coaching and runs her architectural and interior design studio in London UK.
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