Design Business

Tandem’s Renee Bush: How to Run a Profitable (and Happy) Interior Design Business

In the course of your interior design career and operating your own firm, take a moment to think about the hurdles you’ve faced so far. 

Which business operations felt the most demanding for you? And is there anything you’ve been putting off?

Whether you’ve had to…

Clean up unorganized business practices.

Ditch your non-ideal clients.

Set up your marketing from scratch.

Build a new website.

Streamline your sourcing and procurement.

Grow and manage a full team.

All can feel overwhelming at times.  And while mismanaging any one of these steps can stifle your business growth and profit, there’s always solutions available for each.

To help make light of the most common hardships designers face, we tapped Renee Bush, former Director of Design Operations for Studio Mcgee and current CEO of Tandem.

Ahead, Renee shares her top tips and methods for running a successful interior design business that makes you money (and brings you joy).

But First, Who’s Renee Bush?

Renee Bush of Tandem

Image Courtesy of Tandem

Renee was the former Director of Design Operations for Studio Mcgee. Before entering this role, she had worked in several small studios, initially jumpstarting her career in graphic design. 

Renee then took her prior design operations experience running creative teams— and applied its sum to the world of interior design. Studio Mcgee “was my first real job in the interior design world, which is pretty amazing and super lucky and just such an amazing opportunity,” says Renee.

With her experience in previous creative roles, she was able to assist Studio Mcgee with its initial growth as the company ramped up and took on more projects. “I knew a lot about running [graphic] design businesses, creativity,  working with designers, and billable hours,” notes Renee, adding it was these facets that enabled her to streamline several of Studio Mcgee’s day-to-day operations. 

And during her time at Studio Mcgee, Renee’s primary focus was to increase profitability and reduce stress (as many design firms hope to do).

“So that was really the role that I came in from— project management design operations. I came in doing that and really helped them refine, streamline, and systemize a lot of their operations and how they do their projects. And then from there, really how I got into Tandem by starting to work with other designers outside of that and consulting on their processes and operations, how their businesses work, and how to make them profitable. So that’s really where the journey, I guess, that brought me here,” outlines Renee.

And according to Renee, all designers should do the same. She encourages you to concentrate on any areas of your business that need improving (to be successful).

If You Want More Clarity in Your Business, Start Setting Goals

To develop the right business plan for your firm, Renee also recommends setting two or three goals. “We want to conquer the world. And we want to try to do everything, and we want to do it all at once. So I think making a list of everything you want to accomplish and then creating what I would call slots for your goals” is crucial, says Renee.

To put this method into action, Renee advises separating goals into a timeline – “three goals this quarter, three goals next quarter, three goals a quarter after that,” which can help you focus. The key is to “actually give yourself a to­do list that’s possible and then move on to the next thing,” she says, which can help designers achieve their goals in a way they can feel confident about.

And as you set goals, try not to cover the same ground repeatedly.

For example, if you pick a project management system, don’t question it three or four months down the road. Do your research at the start, make a choice, and stick with it. Keep in mind that no system or software will be perfect or meet all of your needs, so it’s important to take time to study your processes (and see which combination of tools will make your business life run smoother), summarizes Renee. 

“Dedicate the time to really think it through and decide what’s right for you and then move on to the next thing. You can always come back and look at it again in the future. But if you’re doing that every two, three weeks, or months, it’s going to be really hard to make any progress. And at the end of the day, there’s no perfect right answer. I think sometimes it is doing your research, choosing the best thing, and then letting that thing work for you. And understanding it’s an investment, rather than constantly undercutting yourself by going back on your decisions to try to find something that’s perfect,” Renee notes.

If You Want to Expand Your Team, Define Your Processes (and Write them Down)

Image Courtesy of Tandem

Adding more employees can also help you become a more profitable firm (depending on your business goals). But, before you take this next step in your business, there are some things to consider.

For one, write down your processes because for new hires, “when you’re constantly trying to hold it all in your brain and tell them what to do, you won’t feel like you’re really getting help. You’ll feel like you have more to do than if you just did it yourself. But when you can stop and say, I’m hiring you, and your job is going to be to make sure that every price on every item is done correctly. And when it goes out the door, every single detail on all of our products is correct. All the finishes, selections, sizing dimensions, PO numbers, internal price, and external price this is all the stuff that you’re in charge of, and you need to make sure that all of these things are correct. Well, now they know what they’re in charge of,” adds Renee.

By being transparent, you can help new hires understand their tasks and confidently complete them.

As a team, you can also have objective conversations about performance instead of feeling disappointed (when unrealistic expectations are set, such as expecting a new hire to perform the same way as you would).

It’s “really trying to remove the subjectivity and give new hires an objective role and responsibility so they can cover it from start to finish, and it’s not just little crumbs and tasks that they can try to help you with,” says Renee, adding, “that’s really key, and I think that’s where systems come in. Being able to have a place that is the master of information that both people can reference where things can be updated automatically. So whether that’s Google Drive or Asana or Gather or Dubsado, or any of these systems, make sure that you have one place for the information that’s always updated. And that there’s assignments, clear ownership and responsibility over who’s in charge of what, so that there are clear expectations and boundaries.”

Most importantly, Renee advises designers not to create to-do lists or process every task in their heads- doing so will cause frustration during the hiring process when it comes to completing the task properly, on time, and efficiently.

Instead, write your processes down in an organized system so your new hires can study them and complete tasks the way you’d prefer (besides you showing or teaching them every step of the way), summarizes Renee. “And that takes a lot of time. So having systems that they can learn and hop in on and get the info they need, I’d say, is step number one. You need to know your process, how you want things to work, how you price, and how your services are in order to bring someone in to help you do that,” Renee says.

If You Want to Foster Positive Work Culture, Be an Honest CEO

Often, micromanaging can happen accidentally– most people do not want to micromanage (or be micromanaged), but when there are no clear expectations, it’s bound to happen.

In this case, Renee recommends designers set themselves up for success by holding weekly meetings with expectations outlined. In addition, it’s important “that there is a time and place for your employees to ask you questions and to get feedback,” but also “to ask for feedback as a manager— 

  • Is there a way that I could be doing this better to suit your needs? 
  • Do you feel like you have all the tools and resources that you need to do your job well? 
  • Is there information I could provide you more consistently so that way you know what you need to do?

And then turning that back around and saying, okay. Here’s what I’d like to see from you so that you can help me do my job better,” notes Renee.

Renee strongly recommends creating this type of reciprocal relationship that isn’t emotional (but only based on objective data) but understands this can get complicated, especially if coworkers are friends. 

You may think, “we’re friends, and I don’t want to tell her she’s not doing a good job,” but having
“a weekly meeting set up where you can ask those questions, and you can say the things you need, then it isn’t a surprise when you want to give feedback. That’s the expectation,” adds Renee

“Make sure that you treat your business like it’s a business. Treat yourself like the CEO that you are. And hire employees knowing that these are your employees. They’re not your friends helping you. These are people that are doing a job, and you need to let them know what that job is and how it should be done and then let them do it.” –Renee

If You Want to Boost Your Income, Don’t Compare Your Pricing Structure to Other Designers

Image Courtesy of Tandem

Alongside fostering positive work culture, how you set your design fees can impact your business success too.

And this can be a complicated topic, per Renee, because every design firm works differently. As Renee has years of experience helping designers figure out what pricing feels right for them, she also outlines that there’s no perfect system. 

There’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution, either.  “I think that it’s important to match your pricing to your value, scope, and your market. Your ideal client. So how do we understand those pieces and then create a price and a pricing structure that’s going to match all of those things? Because in interior design, there are a lot of ways of doing it. Full service is going to be more expensive than virtual, which is going to be more expensive than a design consultation,” Renee outlines.

She also summarizes that at the end of the day, you’re selling interior design, but it all comes in a different package–making it a different product. She encourages designers to think about:

  • What is the product? 
  • Who are we selling it to?
  • And what all is included?

And most importantly, Renee says to avoid comparing apples to apples. “I hear a lot of people going, well, I talked to this designer, and they charge $450 an hour. So I’m only charging $175. I should be charging more. And I’m like, maybe. Maybe you should be charging more,” says Renee, but first encourages designers to reflect on:

  • How many inquiries are you getting?
  • Are you providing the same level of service and work that designer is?
  • What does your product pricing look like?
  • What’s the comprehensive pricing structure and not just the hourly rate or product?

“We have to look at it as a total package and make sure that it makes sense to your client,” Renee says.

If You Want to Take Your Profits to The Next Level, Place the Right Clients in the Right Buckets

And sometimes, experiencing a positive business shift requires you to look at your operations with a fresh perspective. 

To start, understand you are providing convenience to your client, and any convenience in any regard (industry or category alike) will always come at an extra cost.

Therefore, you should feel confident in what you’re charging and let go of clients who won’t pay for your value.

“And I think that’s the key. If you’re charging what you should be charging and people don’t want to pay that, then they’re not your client. And so, in your pricing structure, we want to make sure that we can serve a variety of people.” Renee notes.

“But what we want to avoid is giving the full­-service experience for a virtual design price. And I think that’s what we do when we discount our products and when we try to match our pricing to what our clients want to hear. I like to say instead, well, if your budget is $500, here’s what I have to offer you,” she says.

“You can’t get Tiffany’s on a Target price. It’s just not going to happen. So I need to understand in my discovery call, is this person looking for a Tiffany’s experience? Because if so, I will bring the concierge level, full­service, turnkey, you get it all, but I’m going to charge 100, 200 grand. And so I think it’s about understanding your buckets and helping people fit into the buckets (and not us trying to constantly fit ourselves to what each client wants and what they want to pay). And I think that’s where treating yourself like a business and saying, oh, that’s such a bummer that you want full service, but you only want to spend $5,000. That’s such a bummer that you can’t have what you want. Here’s what I can offer you.” –Renee

If You Want to Run a Happy Firm, Have Confidence in Yourself

One of the most important pieces of being a designer is taking ownership of your ability.

Be confident in yourself and feel really good that you’re providing excellent service (and great value). So, whether your client wants your services or not—has nothing to do with your ability or talent as a professional designer.

At the end of the day, there’s an underlying psychological aspect, per Renee. Especially when setting your pricing structure because it comes down to your confidence as a designer. And when you’re confident, and you can tell your clients…

“I know it’s worth this much. I know I can provide this level of value. I know this is what you’re looking for, and I can solve your problem, and this is what it costs. And if you can find someone to do it cheaper, then please have them do it because it won’t be as good as what I can do.” And people will pay the money.” –Renee

Above All Else, if You Want a Thriving Design Business, Give Yourself Some Grace 

Sometimes we get stuck in a concept of “arrival fallacy.” We’re always onto the next phase or accomplishment in our business without letting ourselves feel grateful for how far we’ve come.

Automatically, our brains may jump to what’s next…

Winning the award.

Getting published in a magazine.

Having a beautiful portfolio. 

Having a worthy and profitable business.

Making  6-figure incomes.

But, whatever your end goals, it’s important to take a step back and realize life is a journey, BUT so is business. Your business is blooming at its very best now, and so looking for joy in the NOW can help decrease your business stress.

Where is Renee Bush Now?

Brand Development by Tandem

Renee now assists interior designers with every facet of their business, from 1:1 strategy sessions to website and online branding. “I really enjoyed the initial problem­-solving, research, and the strategy a lot more than just keeping things running or doing the day­to­day operations and maintenance. So I knew from that I really wanted to go do this for more people. I love the interior design world. I love working with female entrepreneurs. I love design.”

Renee helps designers across the US to get clarity on subjects like:

  • How to use your financial and business data to maximize your business profit?
  • What makes you unique/special as a designer? 
  • How to articulate your signature sauce which, in turn, will help you land more clients?
  • Does your brand reflect who you are and who you want to be?
  • Do you need help creating an online visual identity, brand messaging, website, or overall branding strategy? 
  • How does your business show up to the outside world (in the way you want it to)?

If you’re interested in working with Renee→ You can find out about her boutique agency, Tandem, here!

Watch the full interview with Renee.