Jessica Nicolls and Karyn Frazier started out working together at a small clothing boutique in Tahoe. Today, they’re running their own interior design firm + shop, Bungalow 56, and designing homes in Coronado and San Diego, California.
Two weeks before Jessica Nicolls had her first child, she finally convinced her childhood friend Karyn Frazier to relocate from their hometown near Lake Tahoe to a small island outside of San Diego to start their own interior design firm.
“In the beginning, we would pass the baby back and forth while we were trying to get stuff done,” the two women laughed. “We had a tiny, tiny office in Jessica’s house. It was attached to the kitchen and we had our desks and printers crammed in there.”
Orders began filling up the garage, and baby Hadley eventually couldn’t just hang out while the women worked. “I have pictures of her hanging from my computer screen, shaking it and crawling all over the printer,” Jessica remembered. “As we slowly got busier, Hadley came to work with us less and less. And then we finally moved out of the house and into a storefront.”
Those early days were nearly five years ago now, and Bungalow 56 has since become a successful design firm in the Coronado and San Diego areas.
The San Diego Design Scene
“The design style here is definitely coastal and beachy, as Coronado is an island off the California Coast. It’s also mixed with modern, clean lines, which suits our personal styles perfectly,” Karyn explained during our recent phone conversation. “As our personal design style, we like to use a lot of layered neutrals and accent with pops of whatever is trending right now with accessories, artwork, and pillows. Today we’re seeing a lot of tribal prints and bohemian style. We keep the trendy pieces to things that can easily be switched out later as styles change.”
Bungalow 56’s very first client helped Jessica and Karyn establish their portfolio in the beachy Coronado style. “Our first client was kind of a surrogate mother for us,” Karyn and Jessica recalled. “We would go shopping together. She was wonderful to work with. We finished that project, but we still keep in touch.” That first project was a home in a 70’s style building located directly on the water. With a somewhat dated layout, it needed to be space-conscious with multi-functional rooms that flowed well. “But it was a lot of fun design-wise, and the views were amazing,” said Jessica.
After wrapping up that first big job, the women started looking around for other work to continue building the Bungalow 56 portfolio and pay their bills. “There were a few months there where we were a little worried,” they laughed as they recalled that first year.
One of the turning points for the young firm was a story that the two still love to tell: about a backyard cottage, a mystery article, and a middle-of-the-night email to Apartment Therapy.
The Story of Bungalow 56 and Apartment Therapy
“Karyn has this really cute little cottage in back of her house,” said Jessica. “We renovated it and then posted it to our online portfolio. Without telling Karyn, I wrote a story about the cottage under her name, and submitted it to Apartment Therapy without telling her.”
Karyn got a notification the next day that her submitted article to Apartment Therapy had been approved and was going to be published. Karyn says she remembers thinking, “What article?”
“That article blew up our website like crazy,” the women recalled. That was the beginning of an active social media presence for Bungalow 56.
Social Media: Lead Generator or Branding Tool?
When Bungalow 56 first started, Jessica and Karyn had focused on using Facebook to build awareness of their new firm. But when Instagram launched, it was a revelation for the design industry. “We started posting our portfolio images to Instagram, and then Pinterest. Some of our photos got picked up and reposted by Pottery Barn and West Elm, and it began to really take off,” said Jessica.
Before they knew it, the firm’s followers quickly expanded and social media became a full-time job. “We hired someone to manage it for us, and she’s amazing,” Karyn says. “She works closely with us to curate the content for all of the platforms. She posts the same images at the same time so there is continuity across platforms.”
While the Apartment Therapy piece and the firm’s social media activity have gotten Bungalow 56 more followers online, the two women explain that it hasn’t translated directly into project leads or profits for them.
“Social media basically comes last among our marketing tools in terms of bringing in new leads,” explains Jessica. “But it does help with growing our brand recognition and developing a consistent online presence.”
Marketing Strategies: Know Your Audience
While most designers tend to enter this profession because they’re drawn to the creative side of the business, Karyn and Jessica advise other young designers that it’s equally important to learn the business side of interiors. “You have to be able to have a strong sense of how to translate your designs into a money-making project. Otherwise, you won’t make it. You have to have all of these components,” Karyn explains.
Some of the business skills that Jessica and Karyn talk about as contributing to a successful design business include:
● Being able to turn your great ideas into a realistic project
● Bidding appropriately so that you can make a profit
● Understanding all of the behind-the-scenes details that go into a project, like delivery of items and inspecting them
● Knowing your target audience, and making sure that your marketing speaks to them
This last point has been key for Bungalow 56’s marketing success. Jessica explains that, “In Coronado, we have a lot of older clientele who aren’t on social media. Many of them still read hard copy publications. There is this little magazine we advertise in, and we had one client who had saved every single one we put an ad in,” she recalls. “We also send out postcards; a lot of the older clients like the physical postcard that they can use to call us.”
The women approach their marketing strategies from several angles to cover their bases with potential clients. “We have an annual contract with Houzz, where we have a profile for Bungalow 56 that links to our website. That’s where we get most of our work from,” Karyn says. “After that, the order of effectiveness for us is word of mouth, then people stopping in to our retail shop, and social media last.”
Turning a Friendship into a Partnership
When the two women decided to start Bungalow 56, they relied on their different background experiences to get the business off the ground. Jessica had a background in graphic and web design, so she created the firm’s logo and branding, as well as the website and business cards. Once the firm identity was established they started bringing in client work, Karyn and Jessica figured out how to collaborate in ways that made the most of their different strengths.
“Jessica does our website and anything to do with computers, like the renderings,” Karyn explained. Then Jessica continued, “And Karyn loves to select the furniture, paint colors, plumbing fixtures, and most of the retail storefront things like the buying and merchandising.”
They make a great team. Even though each woman has her own focus, they’re able to pick up where the other left off when one of them is out of town or busy with another client. “We‘re big enough now that we need to divide and conquer a bit. So we both sit in on the early meetings with a new client, and then divide up the work as it makes sense for our skills.” If it’s mostly finishes and decor — like furniture, window treatments and paint colors — then the client usually ends up working with Karyn. But if it’s something that requires a lot of drawing, then Jessica will take the lead.
“If a project requires both of us, a client might start out working through some things with Jessica while I’m in the background,” explains Karyn. “Then I’ll step in to run the end of the project, so Jessica can move on to the next one. We’ve gotten into a flow.”
Future Plans: Creating Passive Income
In the Bungalow 56 online store and storefront locations, the women sell a curated selection of home decor items. The big plan is to grow the retail business. “Our goal is to get to the point that we have a full store of curated looks — brands that we trust, that are specific to our tastes and quality expectations. That will allow us to pull exclusively from our own curated looks and brand for our clients’ projects.” Eventually, Karyn and Jessica hope to expand into multiple store locations and create a private-label furniture line, but the immediate next step will be to hire someone to help with building the retail side of the business further.
It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, but for these two friends who have built a successful design business together, it’s a labor of love.
Jessica Nicolls and Karyn Frazier are the co-owners of Bungalow 56, an award-winning interior design firm and shop located in Coronado, California and serving clients in the San Diego area and beyond. They tailor a blend of organic and contemporary design elements to create gorgeously curated spaces. Learn more at bungalow56.com.
Liked this? Check out another designer profile with Camille Henderson Davis, who started out as the head of HR for a biopharm company and now runs her own successful design business. Or get a some tips + tricks to make running your design business a bit easier with “What Interior Designers Can Learn from Nerds.”