When I was thirty I opened my own interior design business. From the concept to completion – with a lot of friends chipping in on the grunt work – I went from employee of one firm to the host of an open house for my own in just about eight months. The night was a blur. All I can remember is misplacing the cream for the coffee and later finding it in an armoire in my office.
Black coffee notwithstanding, I was proud of myself in my own low key kind of way. Being a nose-to-the-grindstone person, I don’t take a lot of time to jump in the air and high five passersby. Looking back on it, I should have been pleased with myself. Whenever I wasn’t working at my primary job – or the part time one I kept at my sister’s bookstore to help her with her own new enterprise – I was meeting with prospective landlords and researching market statistics at various government agencies; crafting my business plan; emailing my lawyer friend who was helping me set up the paperwork. Some days I was meeting with vendor reps at a coffee shop near my workplace, careful to sit facing the door so that I could drop a notebook over the stacks of catalogs should a co-worker stop in for a macchiato before their shift . I remember one tenacious rep – always eager to sign up a new account – who met me during a snow storm. I flipped through pages of accessories giddily as the parking lot turned white.
When I eventually signed a lease, I spent hours revising layouts for the shop buildout. (I negotiated that enough to my advantage that I imagine my peddler grandfather would have been proud.) With every free moment, I went back over my order list to cut corners as needed, determined to stay within the capital I had to invest. I guarded that start up money jealously because I wanted to have enough to pay my expenses and my salary for at least three months after opening. Since that same money came from the lengthy process of refinancing our house, I would care for it like a gardener with only so many seeds – and no promises from the heavens.
I was seeing new clients independently, starting projects that I developed from stacks of crisp, never-before-used fabric books that littered my guest room during the build out stage of the shop. I was discovering that the energy accompanying big change and bold thinking is fairly magnetic. From the moment I quietly began to let clients know I was going out on my own, they were not only excited for me, but they started to add more to their projects and clamor for business cards to share with friends. It’s heart-warming now to look back on how supportive these individuals were to me in that fledgling stage.
I marvel now that I was so bold, so organized, so driven – and so sure that it would not only be worth it but would also be a success. It would take self-confidence verging on arrogance to act in the way that thirty year old did then. Arrogance. It is a severe and dubious virtue, alienating as much to self as to others, yet highly constructive at times. In the way that the word implies, I was driven to serve self the most. I don’t make the observation as self criticism. I think my dream had worth and luckily was protected by that buffer zone of ego. It helped me.
Later that pride would take a hit when the economy down-turned and – after much agonizing – I was compelled to draft emails to a few likely clients asking if they wanted to get a jump start on their future projects. I was painfully honest about it: if I didn’t find some work soon, I wasn’t sure how long I could keep my doors open. The change to my sense of self-worth was huge but also hard to fathom at the time.
I had lived large when everyone else was living large.
While the bubble that caused the crash had my clients buying or building new homes and furnishing every nook and cranny in varying odes to Tuscany, I was buying hand-made shirts and letting myself be pampered by the staff at Bergdorf’s. I was sitting in the third row at Broadway shows and spending far too much on lunches. When I wrote those emails to my clients, making my dire straights plain, it really didn’t matter how brightly my cuff links glittered. The stack of bills on my desk had been growing for weeks. Everything was urgent and dull and dreadfully taut. I was white-knuckling my way through this change in fortune.
The ego took another carving when I was forced to let my employee of four years know she ought to be looking for work. I just couldn’t see how to keep paying her. We had spent so many seasons sharing perspectives on the growing business, that she was as much advisor as shopkeep or assistant. How often had I sought her perspective on a tricky email exchange I was having with a client or colleague? How many times had we celebrated a project win with an icy cocktail at the swanky martini lounge down the block?
When her last day with my company arrived, I went on one of my few house calls and then headed home instead of coming into work. The other thing that can come from arrogance is a kind of moral cowardice: I simply couldn’t make myself confront the failure that watching her let herself out the door for the last time would make plain. When I found her sadly cheerful hand-made thank you card on my desk the next day, I heaved a sigh and stared at my email inbox darkly until it became merely backlit lines without meaning.
Ingenuity wasn’t dead and neither was my appetite to survive. But I was learning that to stay afloat in a new economy was going to take more than reserves of confidence or talent; I was going to have to reinvent my firm from a place of artful humility. It would be a humble perspective that would help me determine just how much I could cut back, revising the shape and context of my business. That editing taught me a lot about myself as a designer and a manager; I learned how to get back to the heart of intention and how to cut the fat.
When I met my landlord and asked her to accept half rent until I got back on my feet, I was without any of the pride that made me sick with worry before I emailed those clients. In fact, my only imperative was to make my case as simply and sincerely as possible, so that she would understand my determination to make it was at the heart of the ask. She agreed readily because, as I was learning, business people got it. This change was big and we would need to band together.
Later when I hosted a party at my shop to celebrate its switch from active retail space to appointment only design studio, it was not only the beginning of a long journey of rebranding, but a chance to reset with as much dignity as the situation could offer. Looking back on it, I suppose the facade was fragile, a glass mask. My clients knew this was the other side of the coin. On one face, the old version of the business had failed, while on the other it was reborn as a new thing. What they could only imagine was how jarring and saddening this change was for me – still it was needed repositioning and they gamely helped me keep face. We stood elbow to elbow munching from cheese plates and sipping white wine. When it was all over, I wanted nothing more than to have my preferred drink at home – a wintery gin martini – and to crawl into bed with a corny and easily digested episode of Perry Mason. There is comfort in tightly constructed mayhem that resolves itself in less than an hour.
Nowadays my business has not only survived, but grown, with more employees than it had before, tight systems for daily operation, and consistent self-checks for growth. Offering not only interior design for homes and commercial spaces, but reimagined again as a vital retail boutique, we have earned a reputation as a stalwart shop around the corner in our bustling little city.
In the wake of the recession, priorities were shifted and I was made a better steward of my dream, but like the coin with two faces, I see that my business has been served by two polarities of confidence: arrogance and humility.