Build it and they will come, but have a plan
Before taking the leap, Mimi carefully put all the stepping stones in place.
by Barbara J. Lombardo
Mimi’s house is quirky, whimsical, and unique. The living room is dominated by the original walk-in fireplace, and there is a mural on one outside wall depicting George Washington’s visit to the historic house, which was built in 1742. As she showed me around, I noticed shelves filled with a collection of rubber ducks in one daughter’s bathroom, and a growing collection of Perler bead art lining the walls of the steep staircase that leads up to her attic office. The office itself is a riot of visual stimulation, with Interior Design magazine covers, photographs, and mementos lining the walls and folders and papers covering her desk. “If my office is clean I have no work”, Mimi explains.
Mimi grew up the fourth of five children, and the only girl. From an early age, it was her job to keep the house in order. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of pining after her brother’s 64-pack of Crayola crayons, receiving her very first set of magic markers, decorating her beloved Barbie doll house, and leafing through the issues of Interior Decorating magazine she found in the houses where she babysat. So, when it came time to think about college, Mimi was delighted to learn that there was a major called Interior Design, and a very strong program in that major at a university not far from where she grew up. Mimi enjoyed her major and her internships in the field, landed a job with a furniture dealership after graduation, and soon moved on to an interior architecture firm. While there, Mimi passed the NCIDQ (National Council for Interior Design Qualification) exam and accrued the hours required to become a certified Interior Designer. When a mentor left that firm to work for another firm that was establishing a new office in the area, Mimi went with her, increasing both her salary and her opportunity for advancement. But the firm experienced difficulty establishing a client base in the area, and Mimi was assigned to projects in remote cities and was required to travel far more than she wanted to. This experience strengthened Mimi’s conviction to work for the premier interior design firm in the city. After pursuing a job at that firm for many months in a slow economy, she heard they had just landed a few big projects with some local banks. In a bold and risky move, she sent in her cover letter and resume in an envelope stuffed with play money, with a note declaring, “I’ve done a lot of Bank Jobs!”. The owner loved it and she was soon hired.
Taking the Leap
Mimi shifted to a four-day work week after her first daughter was born, which resulted in less income but not necessarily less total hours of work. Over the years, she began to take on some small residential projects in her free time. She realized that people were willing to pay her for her interior design expertise, and started to seriously consider going out on her own someday. She even played with a brand name, and was drawn to the sense of imagination, possibility, and creation conveyed by the word schemes. It also suited her sense of herself as “Scheming Mimi”, someone who is often cooking up fun and creative plans and schemes. A realtor friend encouraged her to go out on her own. Despite the fact that freelancing in her business is pretty common, she wasn’t quite ready to let go of the paycheck and take the leap. She continued working a four-day week at her employer for four more years, steadily gaining confidence in her freelance work for residential clients on her day off. A turning point occurred when the firm she worked for was sold to a British company with ambitious visions of establishing a global business. Uninterested in doing global work and frustrated with the chronic overwork and underpay she believes characterizes much employment in the industry, Mimi finally decided to take the leap. In a creative exchange of professional services with a relative who is an attorney for small businesses, she helped him strategize some projects for his house, and he helped her establish her LLC. In January of 2007, she invested in a computer and set up her attic office. Soon after, Mimi was at a dentist appointment and noticed blueprints on the wall depicting a planned office renovation. In another bold move, while in the dentist’s chair she asked him if he needed an interior designer for his newly renovated office, and landed her first independent commercial client.
Mimi finally left her employer in August of 2008, just one month before the global financial crisis hit. Having already established a client base, she didn’t let the news and the weakened economy phase her. She focused on doing the work in front of her and seizing every opportunity to market herself. She soon realized that in shaky financial times, commercial clients were more likely to hire an independent consultant than a big firm, so what she feared could be a disadvantage turned into an advantage.
Mimi is a natural networker. She stays in touch with former clients, often reaching out to see how they are doing and if they might have a project coming up. The dentist referred her to his colleagues, so she soon established a niche for herself designing dental and medical office space. With leases and interior design trends following a five to seven-year cycle, clients need her services on a recurring basis. Mimi showed me a relationship map she had drawn depicting who had referred her to whom over the years and how many of her clients are connected to one another. She was pleased to discover that a fairly significant number of her clients led back to her realtor friend who first encouraged her to take the leap, and has continued to faithfully refer her to her own clients. Given her success leveraging her network to build her portfolio, she didn’t set up her website (www.mcl.studio) until she was on her own for two years. She uses it more to establish her legitimacy than to generate new business. Coming up on the end of her ninth year of being self-employed, Mimi estimates that she has had over 100 commercial and residential clients, the names of which she made into a playful word cloud she created as a mailing to send out at the beginning of the year. At the time I spoke with her, she had 20 concurrent projects at some stage of completion.
Mimi is confident that she is making more money now than she would be if she were working full-time for a firm. She has increased her hourly rate over the years without pushback from clients. She used to charge a different rate for commercial clients than for residential clients, but recently decided to use a single rate. She remembers taking a course in a continuing education program she attended before she went out on her own, called “How to be a $1,000 a Day Consultant”. At that time, making that amount of money in one day seemed like a dream. Mimi fondly recalls one day a few years after going out on her own when she was riding the train to New York to spend a day with a client and realized that she had become that $1,000 a day consultant.
Mimi believes it is important to periodically assess her business, set goals, and implement improvements, so she employs continuous improvement principles and creates time for mini-retreats. She has created a Bagua Map, based on Feng Shui principles, to reflect on her overall life intentions, including those for her business. Nevertheless, given her volume of work she often finds herself in reaction mode, challenged to carve out the time for planning and improvement when there is billable work to be done. For example, she recognizes the value of a unified brand and would like to integrate her commercial work brand (mcl interiors) with her residential work brand (schemes interior options) under the umbrella brand mcl studio, but doing so involves the time-consuming tasks of changing her business cards, logos, and website.
Mimi realizes that her business has reached a point where it is difficult to grow further unless she were to either hire an administrative assistant to handle billing, record-keeping, and other project management tasks, or hire less experienced interior designers to work for her, but she is reluctant to do either. Mimi likes the control she has working by and for herself, and does not want to spend time training and delegating work to others. She would like to find ways to stay lean but work smarter.
Mimi loves the freedom and flexibility she has being self-employed. She is very proud of her independence, the example that she is setting for her two daughters, and the contribution she is making to her family’s financial well-being. She is grateful that her husband is supportive of her work and has enabled her to pursue her business. Despite missing the perquisites of employment like a 401(k) match and a corporate health insurance policy, she loves that she doesn’t have to spend money on commuting, buying lunch and getting dressed up every day.
Mimi also loves that as her own boss, she can choose to do pro-bono work for nonprofits and causes she cares about. She has done design projects for a local food co-op, a nonprofit girls’ running association, a church, and an elementary school.
But being on her own is not without worries. Despite the considerable success she has had, she confesses to a constant underlying stress about the work drying up. She is also concerned that she will become increasingly marginalized, wondering, “when do I become that middle-aged woman who is just dabbling from her house?” At times, she misses the prestige associated with being part of a well-known firm. When she worked at a firm, it was also easier to stay current. She had constant access to sales reps who were eager to share product launches and the latest trends in furniture, fabrics, and styles. Without the collaboration and learning opportunities that come with being part of a firm, she knows she needs to find other ways to keep growing and stay relevant. She has found that doing projects with architecture firms and corporate clients is a great way to do so, while maintaining her independence.
Recently, Mimi met for lunch with two of her former colleagues who still work at a firm. She thought they were both visibly stressed, constantly checking their smartphones, texting, and in a hurry to return to the office. Despite moments when fear and ego get her thinking about going back, she realized at that lunch that she wouldn’t switch places with them for anything.
Mimi has a lot of practical advice for women who are contemplating going out on their own.
Echoing her own experience, she thinks it is important to have a plan. She recommends seeking good legal advice and finding an experienced accountant before taking the leap. Mimi stresses the importance of being willing to do many tasks yourself, yet recognizing when to hire outside expertise for skills you don’t have, such as photography and website design.
Mimi believes it is critical to create physical and temporal boundaries between the professional and the personal, so creating a separate office space is imperative. She believes those boundaries need to be reinforced with a strong, disciplined work ethic that helps to maintain focus and not get distracted by household chores. At the same time, she believes it is important to maintain balance, and not become consumed with the work.
Mimi also emphasizes how very critical it is to continue to build and use your network. Mimi’s relationship map, with so many lines connecting clients back to her realtor friend, is a vivid visual depiction of the power of her network. For Mimi, staying in touch with an occasional email or phone call is all it takes. And since she genuinely likes many of her clients, staying in touch with them is a pleasure.
My favorite piece of advice Mimi shared is to keep a “lessons learned” journal. Mimi showed me a hardbound black notebook that she started soon after she went out on her own. Over the years, she has recorded advice to herself in various shades of ink to “always have a signed letter of agreement”, “ask for a budget up front”, “stop buying stuff for people using my own credit card”, and “STOP DOING WORK FOR FREE!”. The journal is a creative and effective way to record her lessons learned, and help herself to learn from her mistakes.
By starting to do limited amounts of freelance project work on her own time years before going out on her own, Mimi carefully laid the stepping stones that ultimately enabled her to take the leap. Mimi’s transition was gradual, careful, and well planned. As much as she would like to envision where she might take her business next, having the time to do so is a double-edged sword. It is very hard to devote even an hour to reflection when that hour could be spent doing design work that can be billed to a client. I suspect that given her extensive network, love of her work, and obvious talent, Mimi will continue to have a messy office, and plenty of work.