Covid-19 and lockdown has given us that chance to stand back and look at ourselves, and consider how we can improve our businesses. Whether that’s through better practice, managing clients, taking care of staff, attracting new commissions, and dare I say, even making a profit.
When faced with the early days of Covid, I looked back at my career and analysed how I survived past recessions. Today we are almost one year on, and I’d like to share these lessons with you. I’m putting together a series of blog posts that might help guide you to make the most of this time.
We’ll cover topics from understanding demographics, educating clients, the advantages of social media and the internet, and first up, learning from past experiences of surviving recessions.
Learning lessons from past recessions
It’s often said that you’ll experience three recessions during your working life. I’ve run my business for over 27 years and have lived through two, and both have taught me some valuable lessons. When we went into lockdown in March 2020, I resolved to learn from past experience.
Don’t give up
Key to your survival in this business is a determination not to give up. Running an interior design business and making a profit requires you to run a number of projects simultaneously, and it can be really hard to ramp up again if you’ve gone through a quiet period. It’s often observed that greatness was never achieved by giving up.
Continuing to work as an interior designer through a recession, or a pandemic, is as much about mindset as business survival. When things are tough you can boost your confidence by continuing to work and engage with the business and the services around you. My mindset is always that if we have hit bad times, it means that the good times are just around the corner.
«You can learn as much from your decorator as you can from a FTSE CEO.»
In order to continue working, it may mean taking on different kinds of projects, which brings me to my second learning: be humble. At the best of times this industry can seem very glamorous. But keep in mind that you should never feel better than anyone. You can learn as much from your decorator as you can from a FTSE CEO. You might find that smaller projects are coming your way and this is the time to say yes to them. Continuing to work keeps you in the mind of your clients and could lead to bigger projects down the line. During the last recession I took on some projects that other designers had turned down and found that they went on to become far larger, and therefore profitable, over time.
Taking on these smaller projects can seem daunting when you have business expenses to consider. This is the time to rationalise. Take a look at your bank account, and check all direct debits and memberships with a view to cutting any superfluous spending that doesn’t directly impact your business. That’s not to say that you should cut all spending, just the things that aren’t serving you right now. In the last recession I invested in a new website and project photography, even while doing projects for free (for clients who were well connected). I also focused on retaining my staff as I didn’t want to be scrambling round to hire good people when the projects started coming back in. The balance is in keeping expenses manageable, but also being ready to take on new projects.
Make hay while the sun shines
For me, spending on marketing was only possible because I had banked money when the going was good, This pool of money allowed me to retain my team and focus my time on creating a great website.
It can be tempting to splurge this fund, but keeping it for that rainy day can be the difference between surviving the tougher times or not. And while I fully advocate taking on smaller projects to keep your business running, this pot of money also allows you to turn down the projects that you really don’t want to do.
Consider your demographic
New projects can come from anywhere, but it does help to be aware that the higher end of the market is most resilient to economic change, and if you can appeal to this demographic then it’s worth doing so. During a recession I was lamenting the situation in Pierre Frey one afternoon and the charming lady who ran the showroom at the time told me, “Don’t worry, the rich always get bored and want to start shopping again”.
In the last 10 years we’ve seen interior design go from a luxury to a necessity for a far wider demographic, and our role is now a highly valued service. The pandemic has certainly shown that the wealthy have spent this past year investing in their homes. A recession can, and does, hit everyone. But by targeting the high end market you’re more likely to see a shorter contraction before things start to bounce back much quicker than the mid-market, for example.
«Being a member of the BIID not only connects you to the industry when it’s a bit lonely out there, but it can also give you that much needed boost.»
Join your professional body
You need to be prepared for when work returns, which is why I advocate working as much as possible throughout, keeping your staff and making sure your shop window looks as good as possible.
This is the time for housekeeping, and a big part of this is also joining your professional body. Being a member not only connects you to the industry when it’s a bit lonely out there, but it can also give you that much needed boost, from someone who thinks of themselves as an interior designer, to someone who knows they are an interior designer.
Organisations such as the BIID can be a valuable resource for problem sharing and advice, and can also help you raise your professionalism through CPD’s in best practice, contract or regulations.
Any business improvements made during this time will put you in good stead for when business gets busy again. It can be tempting to leave administrative work to the bottom of the list, but I promise you’ll get more from doing it during this quiet period as it can be hard to carve out time once projects start coming in.
My final lesson from surviving, and thriving, through two recessions, is that networking becomes even more important. In fact, it’s such a big topic to cover that it will be the subject of my next blog post. So stay tuned!