Photographs provided by Thomas L. Williams
Above left: Interior designer, speaker, teacher, and author Thomas L. Williams;
Above right: The cover of Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer
Starting an interior design business in today’s market requires a fine balance of creativity, articulate and thoughtful interpersonal skills, technical expertise, and most importantly, a well-researched and diligent business practice. With over 35 years of experience in the interior design industry, Thomas L. Williams has gathered his knowledge and know-how to bring you his one-stop guide to the ins and outs of running an interior design firm, Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer, which was published by Allworth Press in May of this year. This 240-page book outlines necessary practical steps and combines them with tongue-in-cheek humor to help guide entrepreneurs who are looking to transform their skills and passions into a successful design career.
Thomas L. Williams is co-owner of Hale Williams Interior Design in Carmel, CA (a business that was named Design Firm of the Year in 2008 by Best Practices Network, he has managed multiple design operations, currently serves as an adjunct professor at Monterey Peninsula College, has appeared on HGTV’s Designer Challenge with his business partner and co-author of Starting Your Career an an Interior Designer Robert Hale, and has also made appearances on regional television programs and conferences in the United States, Europe and Mexico.
Thomas L. Williams Speaks with Ava Living:
How did you get your start in the field of interior design?
After studying English literature I took a job at a bank. Unhappy in that position, I heard that a local department store was hiring for display work and subsequently applied and got the job. After about six months in this new position, I was asked to do a furniture window, and after they liked what they saw, they asked me to work as a designer for the furniture floor which had a large budget and staff. Since I had no experience in the field of interior design, I asked if the department store would allow me to attend classes, to which they agreed if I assured them that I would stay for a time after my classes were complete. The rest, as they say, is history; I was able to study while working, and eventually left the department store to concentrate on my own contract work. I have now owned and operated my own interior design firm since 1978.
Your book Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer was created to help entrepreneurs formulate their vision of their interior design business and to execute the steps successfully. Was the concept of this book to help fill a perceived gap in the market for budding interior designers, or more to share your wealth of knowledge with the populace?
For the past eight years, I have been teaching Business Practice for the Interior Designer at Monterey Peninsula College. The class is made up of women between twenty-five and fifty-five who have previously been working in other professions or who want to rejoin the workforce after raising a family. The text that I use in this class is wonderful, but there still is not enough emphasis on the business side of interior design. After all, if your business isn't going to be financially successful, why start in the first place?
I still believe that most design schools and related professional organizations don’t do enough to help to educate designers about the business aspect in this field. Interior design is a tough business and an entrepreneurial designer has challenges that most business people never see. With these things in mind, this book is for budding and experienced designers, as well as people that are interested in making a living in the field of interior design. It was my intent to empower women in particular, and to help them succeed and prosper in their business, rather than simply survive.
Humor is used as an element in your book to convey the message of successful design practices. Was this done to give your book a more accessible overview than the typical design textbook?
Oh, absolutely! We should never lose our sense of humor, and in many ways I find that it helps people remember the lessons or points that I want to make. Besides, I believe in smiling through life, not frowning...
What are some of the most common mistakes that occur when entrepreneurs are setting up an interior design business?
First and foremost, starting without a business plan. Way too many designers think that they have good taste, good grades in design school, and that everyone will be dying to have them create interiors. In this multi-billion dollar business, those without a plan are destined to wither and die; I know, I’ve seen it happen! Anyone who has ever read a comprehensive business plan understands the importance of clarity of thought when planning to start a business. Also, if you are investing a certain amount of your own money into your business, wouldn’t you like to make sure in every way possible that you get your money back, and more?
The second biggest mistake is not spending enough on marketing and advertising early on. As part of the business plan, this facet of the business can reap huge rewards. It’s important to plan a campaign that might also, in this day and age, employ a lot of social media marketing.
Finally, many designers seem to be unable or unwilling to change with the times. Change will occur whether you decide to participate or not, so get out there and embrace the new technology, new developments in green design, and your new clients! Do everything that you can to become a knowledgeable and determined professional in a sea of mediocrity.
If you were to list the top five aspects of a successful design business, what would they be?
1. Intelligent planning; 2. Great marketing, public relations, and positive positioning within the marketplace; 3. Sensitive and continuing client communications; 4. Having an interesting and knowledgeable public persona; 5. The ability to mentor and teach both professionally and within the public arena
When initially entering the design industry, what are some of the key questions that an individual should be addressing in order to find their niche?
As always, you have to do what you like; if that means working on multi-story office buildings with detailed layers of expertise in order to succeed, then do it. If you prefer furniture design, be the best that you can be. When you have a passion for something the work, somehow, doesn’t quite seem like work, and it becomes a daily joy to meet the challenges head on, not a platitude. If at any time you find that this business bores you, sell it to your staff and then move on to something that you find more fulfilling.
What would be your number one piece of advice for someone that is just starting out in the field of interior design?
Don’t listen to what everyone else has to say about what the best or right time is to enter the profession of interior design. If you will simply die not doing interior design, if you can’t think of anything else to do with your life, and if you love working with people and their possessions, then now is the time to do it. Your heart and your gut will let you know how you feel; listen to that. Those who succeed in this business eat and live design every day.
How important are marketing and public relations to a successful modern interior design business?
As I stated before, it is one of the five most important aspects of a successful firm. The funny thing is that so many designers are afraid of the business aspect or simply let someone else tell them what is needed. As a business person, the designer should have a clear idea of what works and doesn’t work in the community in which they practice.
In addition to running a design business, teaching, media appearances, and writing, you also speak at conferences, seminars, and group presentations regarding many topics that include leadership and the entrepreneurial spirit. How does the latter fit into a successful design business?
One of the most important pieces of advice that I ever got was from a marketing professional when discussing my business in 1983. I mentioned that I wanted to do some sort of speaking as part of our marketing and her only question to me was “Will it position you as an expert in the field?”. I continue to ask that question every time I think about doing something other than putting fabrics together. Each and every subject that I speak about, everything I write about, and the many seminars and conferences at which I appear are all part of the diverse and exciting job of the entrepreneurial interior designer. The answer, for me, is yes, it does position me as an expert in the field; both for my peers and my clients.
You are currently working on another book titled Interior Design Clients: The Designer’s Guide to Building and Keeping a Great Clientele, that is due for release in March of 2010. Can you tell us a bit about this project?
I’m very excited about this new addition to the lexicon of the business of interior design. This book maps out the encounter between the designer and the client from the beginning to the end. In this book, I talk about whom the ultimate or definitive client is, where to find them, how to contact them, and what should comprise the initial meeting. I go on to describe marketing and public relations, how to prepare and give effective presentations, and how to manage the behind-the-scenes work of ordering and delivery. The book also contains the important aspects of client communication and the use of social networking to improve that contact. I also talk a lot about how to keep those clients as friends of your business forever.
To contact Thomas L. Williams:
Thomas L. Williams
Hale-Williams Interior Design,
25781 Morse Drive, Carmel, CA 93923
Visit his company website at: http://www.hale-williams.com/
Visit his company blog here
Written by Ehren Seeland