The interior design sector is, unfortunately, not recession proof or naturally COVID friendly. The whole industry is, as you know, based on the way people homes ultimately look and the money spent to make them beautiful is one of the first luxuries trimmed in a crisis. So, with all the current restrictions, material shortages and general financial worry, what can you do to make your business more resilient?
Phoebe Oldrey, expert Holistic Designer, Ted X talk presenter and founder of Smart Style Interiors reveals how she has adapted her business to not only survive, but thrive, in 2021.
Hi Phoebe, what’s been the biggest change to your business over the last year?
This is really hard. Last Christmas was a real pivotal moment, there were five of us all working non-stop and we had just moved into our new office which was like ‘Yay!’ and we all went out to the Ivy for Christmas dinner and now… it’s just me. I started off by putting my staff on furlough, but then as time passed, I realised I had to make some horrible decisions. The problem with interior design is that you can’t double your workload when the work comes back. You can’t do 5/6/7 projects at the same time, because you can’t creatively manage that, you just drop the ball. Unfortunately, when your books are full, you can’t take on more. I’ve got a lot of stuff booked in for the beginning of the year and I’ve just started using Jennifer Cooper, a virtual assistant who’s a God send, but it’s going to be an interesting time.
What was the greatest assistance to you when Covid started?
Business coaching. The first time I ended up working with a business coach was 6/7 years ago when I moved to Kent. It was with someone who was part of my networking group and the Government were running a scheme where you could be chosen to have 50% of some business coaching paid for you. Fortunately, I got it and my initial reaction was, ‘Hold on a minute. Wow! Someone has shown me how I can break all this business stuff down, how I can approach this and balance it with my life’.
So, when it got gnarly for everyone last April and I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, I signed up with Emma Jeffreys of Action Woman. She says she, ‘can help you unravel your spaghetti brain’ and when I had so much going on I didn’t know what to do, it was great having an outside voice that was calm and collected. It makes you realise that you do have the answers, you just sometimes need someone to help you grab on to them.
When you couldn’t physically work in people’s homes, what did you do to make your business Covid friendly?
I started a digital arm. It was something I had wanted to do for a while and when we got the rate payment from the Government, I knew this was the time to do it. The rent was paid, and my schedule was clear, I knew there was never going to be a better time. When you first think of producing a course you think it has to be on something complex, but when I asked people what they wanted to learn, this was at the top of the list. Firstly, I created a 15-video lesson course on ‘Finding Your Confidence With Colour’. It’s got additional downloadable content and instead of being just being a load of philosophy it’s a practical resource.
When I first ran it, it had online tutor groups with live feedback, but people seemed to struggle with the fact that they had to be there, at a particular time doing a particular thing. So, I listened to my clientele, and now you can sign up and have it drip fed to you over a course of three weeks.
I also discovered that not everyone likes the sound of a ‘course’, it feels like too much of a commitment, that they are going to have to study. So, I came up with the idea of smaller ‘smart guides’ which are much shorter aids for making your house look better.
The first smart guide is called ‘Hanging Arts and Artifacts’ so it’s everything I know about how to put art on a wall, from gallery walls to ledges to individuals with scale sizes and architectural lines. It’s an hour-long video and comes with a breakdown, so if people just want to pop in and see how to do a gallery wall, it will tell them it’s at 2 minutes and 10 seconds and so on. That also comes with downloadable resource sheets and is priced at £25, a ‘no brainer’ price that makes it affordable to all in the current climate.
As an ex-actress, I’m happy presenting in front of a camera but it’s so important to get everything filmed and edited properly. I’ve spent a lot of money on digital courses that have turned out to be filmed on a smart phone and it just doesn’t give the right impression. I also have everything I write professionally edited as I’m dyslexic. You need to remember that everything seen by a client, or potential client, has an impact on your business.
You’ve been running Smart Style Interiors for 15 years. Knowing what you do now, what advice do you wish you had been given before you started?
Get a bloody pension! Sorry were you looking for something sexier?
It’s sometimes the unsexy things that are the most important. The first piece of advice, which I know is boring, is to know your numbers. A lot of people are very confident creatively but run into trouble because they don’t keep an eye on their finances. If you don’t know your numbers, you don’t have a business. There’s the ‘keep the lights on’ price and the pay ‘you’ price. If you’re not paying yourself, it’s a hobby. You may not always be the first on the payroll, because you are running a business, but you must be able to keep the lights on because clients invest in you too. You can’t just stop when your half-way through a job because you have run out of money. They have already given you theirs and you have made a commitment. Knowing your numbers allows you to make informed decisions about how to go forward and build your business. It’s not sexy, but it can’t be overlooked.
My second would be, be true to yourself. It sounds like the naffest thing that you would put on a tea towel but it’s true. For so long I was trying to figure out what people wanted from me as a designer. What kind of business did they want me to build? I was kind of like the nerdy teenager trying to fit in and I think that if only I had the confidence earlier to go, ‘Ha! Holistic interior design is me’ it would have been so much better. It’s the sort of stuff I did in college, but I was always made to feel as if it wasn’t chic enough and a bit ‘woo woo’ but the moment you embrace being yourself as a designer it all clicks into place.
Being true to yourself is the key to creativity and uniqueness and that’s the point of design. The moment I figured that out, everything was so much easier.
You’re well known for being a holistic design expert, but what is it and why do you think its going to be so important in 2021?
The easiest way to understand holistic design is to recognise that everything is connected. How you live in your home and what you have in your home, has a direct impact on how you feel when you’re in your home. Interior designers obviously always look at how a home functions and what it looks like, but people also need a beautiful house that represents them, their lives and personalities and makes them feel safe and secure. When you walk into your home you want it to feel that it’s ‘you’ and it supports your lifestyle.
Commercial interior design is filled with holistic elements that work against us as shoppers to get us to buy more. For example, large indoor shopping centres don’t have any clocks or windows so we’re not aware of time passing. We therefore spend more time browsing and ultimately buying. It’s the same in supermarkets, where a particular item is placed on a shelf, and at what height, has a direct impact on how many are sold.
Whereas holistic interior design, when utilized for our benefit within the home, can have a huge impact on the way we feel, not just at home but in general. It can make us feel safer, happier, and more emotionally secure so our everyday struggle to balance working and living alongside one another for long periods of time becomes easier.
Having a beautiful space is not enough though, we need our homes to reflect our personalities, work with our lifestyles and, on an instrinsic level, nurture and care for us. People have recently realised that how we feel in our homes really does matter and that how well they survived lockdown has a lot to do with how their home supported them.
What marketing efforts have worked best for you?
Oh, this is hard, I’m just in the middle of reviewing it all. The problem is that some things, like social media, can suddenly go hot for you and then just disappear.
The two main things I rely on are referrals – take care of your client relationships and they will take care of you – and keeping a really good website. It’s your shop window. Keep those portfolio photos spot on and make sure everything looks and sounds slick. It has got to be a full representation of what you are doing so when people think of you, they think the best of you.
And if you use anything that is free, make sure it looks good. We get found a lot via Google Business so make sure you have worked on your SEO, that you have good pictures on there and that people put reviews on there for you. It’s the small details that matter.
What advice would you give to other home interior related businesses that want to be Covid friendly?
You have got to learn to survive in order to thrive. Some days you are doing one and some days you are doing the other. You need patience and nimbleness too – the patience to know that not everything is going to instantly be astonishing because its now 2021. It’s also about being patient and kind to yourself to know that you are achieving. I’ve just launched a new course and a smart guide and haven’t instantly sold a million of them, but I know they are there permanently. They’re good, they work and are ready to be sold.
That’s the thing about making your business Covid friendly, you need to have several parts that work independently but add to your overall service. I will always, primarily, be a face-to-face interior designer but having the digital arm allows me to help people, financially or geographically, that I wouldn’t be able to help otherwise and gain valuable financial support for my business.
Lots of people have also been talking about being able to pivot and it may be that you have to do it more than once. You may have to keep addressing it all the time. Things that work now may not work in a few months’ time, so you have to be willing to reassess and keep jogging the needle. Whatever you put in place, do it with the idea that it can be there long-term to help you thrive.
Where do you hope to be next Christmas?
I’ve had to have a real assessment of what is important to me at Smart Style Interiors over the last year and that’s not necessarily been a bad thing. I want to be able to turn round and say we have got this many projects under our belt and they were beautiful, we have loved working with our clients, and everyone is happy. To be able to get up and do a job you enjoy is a lovely thing and you never realise how much of a treat it is until you can’t.
The next thing I want is for there to be more adventure and joy for everybody and that’s not necessarily a business thing. The things I miss are going to a museum, the idea of getting on a plane and travelling and the idea of security and feeling safe physically and financially. I want all of those things to be locked in.
It would be very easy to say in 5 years’ time, I want to have done this and have this many employees, but I just want to be able to wake up and have my brain go, ‘it’s going to be all right’. That feeling of safety and contentment, that would be the biggest gift to everybody, wouldn’t it?
Thank you so much for sharing your expertise, Phoebe.
If you would like the opportunity to share your knowledge with others in the home interiors business, please do get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.
Please note that all the amazing photographs used in this post were taken by super talented Daniela Exley and should not be reproduced without her permission. Thank you.