Empowering Designers to Modernize Business Processes with Sean Low
We sat with Sean Low, the Founder and President of The Business of Being Creative LLC, to chat about the nuances and complexity of the interior design industry. Sean has dedicated his career to consulting those working in creative industries, including providing practical business advice to designers. Sean shares with us his business perspective on the design industry, the key elements to building a profitable business model, and healthy mentality recommendations for success.
Sean’s eloquence is truly remarkable and he flies around the country to share his two cents. He will be hosting an Ivy Webinar on Wednesday, September 5 at 12:30pm ET / 9:30am PT to discuss breaking the addiction to saying “yes” and targeting ideal design clients. Click here to register! And if you can’t watch live, register anyway and we’ll email you the recording.
Sean – how did you get where you are today?
Sean Low: In my past career lives, I was a lawyer, investment banker, financial executive, and small business owner. I found my way to creative business through Preston Bailey, whose company I ran for six and a half years. Because I came from the outside, I had no preconceived notions as to how any creative business had to run. And when I looked harder, they all seemed antiquated to me and not at all effective in telling the story of the art, let alone the business behind the art. Preston’s dear friend is Vicente Wolf, and as I was having success growing Preston’s brand and business, Vicente asked if I might be able to help with several ventures he was working on — licensing, commercial projects, publishing, speaking, endorsements. Along the way, Vicente shared with me all of his insights into how he runs his design firm and his store, VW Home. This became the basis for all of the consulting work I have done with so many amazing interior designers and architects. After being a life long New Yorker, my wife and I decided to move with our three children to Northern California.
Why is the interior design industry from a business perspective so complicated and unique compared to other creative industries?
SL: Specifically with regard to residential work, interior design is as personal as any art can get. A designer is literally shaping how somebody is going to live their lives. How they wake up in the morning, how they relax, how they entertain, how they brush their teeth. The intensity of the responsibility is what makes operating well and masterfully such a complicated experience. Throw in the mix of the options and information the digital age has brought us and you have a recipe for distrust at almost every step of the way. The result is that, unless a designer is completely convicted in the way THEY do things, they risk getting run over by their clients, colleagues, even employees. If only this were a very brief relationship, but, in the vast majority of projects, the relationship is at least five months, meaning designers have to be “on their game” every day for the length of the relationship. That is incredibly hard.
“A designer is literally shaping how somebody is going to live their lives…The intensity of the responsibility is what makes operating well and masterfully such a complicated experience.”
As Founder and President of The Business of Being Creative LLC, how are you empowering interior designers?
SL: In light of my answer above, my role is to make every moment of their business, from the second a potential client shows up until the final accessory is placed for installation purposeful and connected. Purposeful in that there is never a moment when a client should be lost. They should always know where they were, where they are and where they are going and when. Connected in that what a designer most believes has to be ever present in their business process. The age of pretty is over. Pretty is assumed through intention and vision, not vice versa.
How do you typically work with interior designers?
SL: I work one-on-one with designers in only one of two ways. First, as a mentor where we talk about their business for at least three sessions set at their pace. For mentoring, we take a deep dive into a designer’s business and I will point to changes that need to be made. It is up to the designer to do the work on their own and then come back to me when they feel they are ready to talk about the changes. Retainer work, on the other hand, is every week for at least four months (typically nine), where we dissect each aspect of a designer’s business — from how they answer the phone, to their contract, to billing to client management to installation process, with the vision of making profound change. The ultimate goal is to give a designer a powerful, unshakable voice as a business.
Based on your experience consulting designers, what would you say are their top 3 pain points?
SL: Losing control of time, a client’s indecision and defending the cost of production (i.e., I saw something close to the sofa you showed me for half price, why can’t we have that one?).
“The price you charge has to be what will make you feel good about the next project. Not what you can get, but what you need.”
What are the key elements to a successful and profitable business model for designers?
SL: The ability to control time and earn what they need on any given project. Earning what they need is not what they can get. It is driven by how much they want to work and how much they need to earn to sustain themselves based on this level of work. The price you charge has to be what will make you feel good about the next project. Not what you can get, but what you need.
Tell us about The VW Collective you’re running with Vicente Wolf…
SL: The VW Collective is born out of my experience running a similar group for event professionals, The BBC Collective, which I started in June 2017. Like The BBC Collective, the intention behind The VW Collective is to instill a sense that the design industry can and should evolve to become more focused on creating better work for clients that care the most about the work. Learning how to make outrageous promises with outrageous demands is what will move the industry forward more than anything else. Of course, the challenge in going left when everyone else goes right is feeling lonely and isolated from what you know can and should be. The VW Collective seeks to create community among those designers who wish to be radically better, to search (and discover) new practices that will, yes, make them more money, but, just as important, improve every aspect of their business and their art. Vicente has over forty years in the industry and has trained some of the very best designers working today. I am fortunate to work with incredible designers both large and small. Together, we hope to encompass all things a designer might care about — marketing, design and business skills. The hope is that the dialogue will inspire a revolution and members of The VW Collective will be its leaders.
“The design industry can and should evolve to become more focused on creating better work for clients that care the most about the work.”
Can you recommend any books, publication blogs, podcasts, etc. to designers to stay educated and inspired?
SL: I love all things Seth Godin, really enjoy all that The Heath Brothers write about, believe all designers should fully understand The Long Tail as Chris Anderson has written and talked about since 2004, and evergreen gem is Scott Bedbury’s A New Brand World, which is still incredibly compelling sixteen years later.
What does the interior design industry need more of? What does it need less of?
SL: The interior design industry needs more mavericks, those willing to question why things are as they are and ask if it could be done better to serve the client and the art. We need those who appreciate that what is between a designer’s ears is far more valuable than what is between their hands, if only to understand that what is between their hands is and will continue to be expected. The ability to draw the difference and get paid differently for each is what will upend the industry. We need those who continue to believe that pretty is all that matters and only those creating pretty are relevant to the discussion to disappear. A designer’s world today looks nothing like what it did fifteen years ago. Yet, practices that mattered then still happen today. That is tragic and, ultimately, the ballast to everyone’s balloon.
In your opinion, why is it important for designers to embrace softwares like Ivy for their business management needs?
SL: As I hinted in my answer above, technology allows designers to tell a better story. Period. Design, after all, is a communication business. Can you share your vision in a way that will allow those who could never create the vision on their own to truly understand all that it will mean for their lives. The goal is transformation — having a client perceive their environment (and perhaps their lives) differently because of the work that a designer does. Software like Ivy is the proverbial grease to that wheel and gives all designers the wherewithal to reach a client more deeply and wholly than ever before. The tool will never be the business but using it well should the foundation of revolution. I call it the power of the Fosbury Flop. What would you do if you did break your neck if you landed on your back? Dick Fosbury figured out it would change the high jumper’s world. And it did. So too with software like Ivy.
Ivy is the # 1 software for designers. To learn more about Ivy, schedule a demo with an Ivy Guru who can show you how designers use Ivy to streamline their workflow and make more time for what they love, design.