The Epic Guide On How To Start An Interior Design Business

how to start an interior design business

There are lots of things I wish I knew when I was figuring out how to start an interior design business.

When I started my interior design business I spent money on shit that I didn't need. I changed my services what seemed like every two minutes and felt like I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to chase every bit of knowledge that could set my business off into the stratosphere.

There are no shortcuts to success, but if you can start off lean and focus on the important shit, you'll still be in business making profit years from now.

Note: if you're wondering if you need a degree in interior design before you even start, then read this first.

The Steps Of How To Start An Interior Design Business

FIGURE OUT WHO YOUR DREAM CLIENT IS

This beyond a shadow of a doubt is the most important thing you can do. You must know who this dream client is that you really want to work with and what they need you to do for them. Many designers make the mistake of thinking that they want to design for everyone.

Define who you actually want to work with first so you aren’t a desperate little entrepreneur.

You don’t need to have people taking advantage of you and without a clear vision and no-nonsense policies they will. People will want you to reduce your fees. People will want you to give them a custom service for the price of a consultation. Don’t do it. Figure out now who you want to work with and stick to it.

And the answer to who you want to work with isn’t a 32-year-old mother living in St. Louis.

The real key to selling your stuff is knowing deep down who this person is and what they worry about when it’s 2 am. It’s called a niche and the reason why knowing what your niche is very important… because when you know the conversation your client is already having inside their head; you can jump into that conversation and make the sale easily

Find a person like this and learn everything you can about them that fits this persona. Ask them all sorts of questions about why they would hire a designer, what problem they would need a designer to solve and what keeps them up at night. Imagine all parts of their life. Start with the basic demographics and then go even deeper.

If you're struggling to find this person in real life, check out my Astro Brand Alchemy course that will show you a simple way to discover who they are.

FIGURE OUT WHAT PROBLEM YOU CAN SOLVE

When you know who this dreamy client is that you want to work with, develop a solution to their problem. Every business is built upon having a solution to a problem. Period, end of story. 

Once you know the problem that you will solve for your client, then brainstorm 10 ways you could solve your client's problems. Then narrow it down to the top 3 ways that you would like to offer based on the tools and software you have available to you.

Seek to be an expert in a very tiny area. People who want to work with an expert like you, don't want a generalist, they want a specialist. Be the master of a small area of interior design like...

  • Specialize in paint colors

  • Specialize in Holistic Interior Design

  • Specialize in Vacation Rentals

  • Specialize in vintage

  • Specialize in kitchens

  • Specialize in Hollywood Glam

  • Specialize in home offices for entrepreneurs

Whatever you way you choose to niche your business, once you complete this process you should be able to fill this sentence out and stick it on your website:

I help AUDIENCE + BENEFIT + FEATURE.

Which could look like: I help young families transform their home with custom online interior design services. 

And if you hire a smart copywriter, they could finesse that shit up to be even juicier!

PACKAGE IT UP

You’ve figured out who your ideal client is. Now you need to solve your client’s problems. That’s all your client has are problems and you are the solution.

I suggest you pick three services or packages to start. No more. A confused person will not buy.

When you make  your packages think of them as:

  • Package 1 – Most Expensive

  • Package 2 – In Between Price

  • Package 3 – Least Expensive 

Package 1 is your super awesome most expensive package and priced 40% more than your Package 3. This is the package where you could pull out all the stops. Add in the nicest version of your service. You could partner up with a colleague to add in an organizing service or a cleaning service. Maybe you decide to offer a catered dinner party when the project is complete. Whatever you can dream up to offer in this package that will make your clients gush over you is what you want.

Package 2 is meeting most of your dream client’s requirements and is usually priced 20% more than your Package 3 package. It includes all of Package 3 services plus some more. This package is the one you will want to market the most.

Package 3 is supposed to be below their budget. This is your basic package of services. It should be decent, but not too enticing.

Should you want to offer a la carte offerings make that list very short, too. Something that I see a lot of designers doing is sharing a list of 40 things they can do. Don't do that because you're not helping your clients find the right solution to help them solve their problem. You know how you best work and with an a la carte option you can think of this as the introductory offer that should lead to one of your design packages.

PRICE IT

Starting out you will not know what to charge. Most new designers and decorators charge around $50-$75/hour when they begin. As you figure out how much time it takes you to complete projects (this is why it is so important to document how long each step of your process takes including the administration of the project) you will be able to figure out how much you need to charge. 

Before you pick some random price out of the air, please think about your overhead and how much you actually want to make. When I first started I just picked some random number and had no income goals set up at all nor the costs to run my business. 

With knowing your overhead and your income goals - put in how many hours you actually have available to work. You can't work non-stop so when you figure this out this should give you a great starting place. Then add in a buffer of 30% or more to that figure.

And I will say that flat fees (instead of hourly fees) are preferred in the client's eyes. Clients like knowing how much the whole shebang is gonna cost. 

When you have more clients than you can handle you can raise your rates as demand increases.

One more thing... do not worry what anyone else is charging. That's their worth, not yours. And you don't know their overhead and if they are actually making money. 

And don’t you dare lower your fees for anyone because they deem your fees to be too high. More often than not those clients who want a fee reduction do not have a hard time affording the other luxuries in life like vacations, a new cell phone, a new car, Starbucks coffee three times a week, etc. And I know this sounds mean, but… You will not be a designer for everyone.

FIGURE OUT YOUR DESIGN PROCESS

Everyone runs their projects differently so don't think you can just do what someone else is doing and have it work for you. You will be providing a different service, using different software to create and deliver your work. 

Generally, your process will start off with the initial consult. I'd charge for it because you're not some desperate designer here. You know your shit and that is valuable. If they don't want to pay, let them ask their unqualified Aunt Edna. 

After your initial consult and should you both decide that working together is the logical next step, you'll want to get paid, get some legal agreement signed and set up your project HQ on a platform like Mydoma or Designfiles to keep you both on the same page. 

If you don't have Mydoma or Designfiles yet, then you can start off by creating a folder on your computer for each client. A place to hold all your client’s 411, the contract, the inspiration, specifics, project questionnaire, etc.

Within that folder, you should have a folder for each room you are designing. It would have these folders:

  • Before Pictures – Obvious

  • Product Images – For all the stuff you source and will put onto your mood board

  • Guide – Where you’ll save their finished guide

  • Info – Where you’ll save their questionnaire, budgets, etc.

Ask the client for things you need to start the project and do not start your project until you do get all of this information. Nothing can be more annoying and a complete waste of your time than starting a client project only to find out they hate the color orange and used just started on their orange and black chevron afghan. Ugh. Wasteful. Your interior design questionnaire will be your best friend. Trust.

Set the timeline & explain what happens next in the project. You don’t want the client sitting there wondering if they should be bothering you every day to keep you on schedule if you go into the black hole of creativity. Let them know when you’ll be communicating with them next typically for every leg of the project.

BRAND YOURSELF

You need to create a beautiful brand based on you, your client and where your stories meet. 

I mean, let's face the facts.  There are shitty God-awful looking brands. They look like Frankenstein's mad scientist did some handiwork on it. You've been to these websites before.

The graphics look like a three-year-old created them. The color palette reminds you of Richard Simmons' vast collection of creepy shorts. The words? A hot mess that sounds like something a Housewife muttered during a trip where they ended up shit-faced.

These websites have people leaving quicker than a hillbilly running from a Kanye West concert. 

Then there are brands that are so good you can’t get enough of.

You are a brand. People are buying an experience with you that just happens to come with design deliverable. They aren't buying the deliverables, but to also have an effin' fantastic experience with you. What you bring to the table is unique and something that no one can copy without failing spectacularly.

So what's the difference between that identity-crisis brand and the sticky sweet brand that every business wants? A captivating brand has an identity, a message and a budget for professional help. Not Courtney Love professional help, but that other kind of professional help.

So what does that mean for you?

If you don’t have an interior design brand identity to grab your dream clients attention, you’re gonna find it extremely hard to stake your place as the go-to designer and all of this learning about how to start an interior design business will be for nothing.

Branding is where the visual parts of your business and the message part of your business merge to create the promise of an experience that your client will have with you.

  • Brand = Promise of the experience of working with you.

  • Identity = How you visually show up online.

  • Logo = Simplest way to identify your company online.

  • Website = Your online space to connect with dream clients.

Once you know where you fit into the categories, it becomes easier to figure out what pieces are missing from your brand.

Now, onto the straight dope. By dope, I don’t mean drugs. Drugs are bad.

Your brand is supposed to be a natural extension of you, so it is vitally important that you represent what that client experience of working with you will be with your online space.

When your online presence isn’t consistent all over, you don’t gain traction, and your brand is dust in the wind. Subject to whichever the way the wind blows.

Your interior design brand identity needs to start with YOU.

TAKING PAYMENT

When you first start to figure how to start an interior design business, you're going to want to know how to get that money, honey. Let’s first talk about how we shouldn’t be a bank. Giving your client the option to pay you 50% now and 50% later may end up in disaster. No matter what the best intentions are of said client, you may end up doing an entire design job for only 50% down.

We are working in an online environment primarily. During which you will be going back and forth with your clients about the design. And they will see where you are going with your design and…

What has been seen cannot be unseen

You need to protect yourself. And this doesn’t even include the wishy-washy people or the scammer people. Don’t front half of their project. You aren’t a bank. They need to be as invested in you and the project as you are.

If you have a Squarespace website, it’s super duper easy (go with the Business plan and your eCommerce is included in your website). Like you don’t have to add anything else to your website. They have the functionality and connect with Stripe (payment processor). They give you an SSL certificate (you know that little lock you see on the website address bar? That means your credit card info is secure and safe from those nasty little thieves).

If you're using Wordpress, you’re going to have to do a bit more legwork. First, decide on a payment processor like PayPal or Stripe for your offers.  If you’re going to take payment on your Wordpress website, you’ll need to buy an SSL certificate separately. Womp womp. 

You can get a PayPal button and stick into your sales page. You could. But know that PayPal button codes are long and full of gibberish and sometimes they don’t behave with your website page. By that I mean they may not show up exactly in the spot on the page where you want it to. Sometimes they do, but sometimes you get an ugly bunch of code instead. It is up to you to take that risk.

Ask for 50% up front, then 35% when the project is three-quarters complete and the balance before you deliver the complete project. 

MARKETING

Marketing can't be an end of the month activity or even a once every few months activity when you're exploring how to start an interior design business because it isn't just about the design. Marketing has to be an everyday thing.

I get it, we get busy with jobs and let those things slide. Put some things on automatic to help you with your marketing tasks, but don't ever leave them to the end of the month. Or till pigs fly.

Marketing for your business can take many different forms and you CAN choose which channels to use. Don't fall into the trap where Dina the Designer said you HAVE to be on Instagram. If you hate Instagram, then put it on the back burner. 

My advice is to start with content marketing and Pinterest. Learn more about marketing your interior design business here.

SELL YOURSELF

While we all have dreams of rubbing velvet swatches and ogling gorgeous chandeliers, you do need to sell yourself. Invest some time in learning how to sell, because if you're waiting for someone to pimp you, you'll be waiting for a long time.

  1. Challenge: Know your ideal clients have challenges. Acknowledge them. Understand them. Don't dwell on them or try to "agitate" or exaggerate the situation.

  2. Solution: Offer a genuine solution to eliminate or alleviate the challenge. Come from a place of service first and strive to build relationships.

  3. Invitation: Avoid hard-sell tactics at all costs. Instead, extend a friendly invitation to take the next step and move toward the solution. This is also considered your "call to action." It's extended in a way that builds relationships and treats people as people, not numbers.

Selling can happen on your website and in person. It is an art that you must learn and practice so that you don't feel like you're selling a used car but instead you're helping people to see a way to solve their problem.

HUSTLE

The word hustle doesn't come up enough when people are trying to figure out how to start an interior design business, but it is so important. If you're not constantly trying to tell the world how you can help them and why you're different, your business will die.

Look, I'm not talking the type of hustle where you can't enjoy life, but you will need to really put a lot of time in on the front end as you grow your business. Yes, that means you will miss out on family time and watching Netflix all weekend long. You need to decide that the time that you invest in your business now is a good way to lay the foundation for your future business success. 

Ready To Quit Your Job? Read this first.

Congratulations on wanting to learn how to start an interior design business! Seriously, bro declaring that NOW is the time you will go headlong into starting your interior design business can be as scary as a day filled with root canals and a trip to the DMV without an appointment. Making the choice and committing to it is the first step. 

The journey from working for da man to working for yourself can be harrowing and the journey won't be the same for everyone. Some will find the jump more of a hop and others will feel like their leaping across the Grand Canyon. 

Here are some tips to help you make the rewarding jump to fulfilling your soul's purpose.

Tip #1: Hoard Your Benjamins: Sadly, life requires money. Make sure you've got enough dinero to get you through for a minimum of 6 months, but I'd say having a year of savings is even better. I'd sure as hell hate to have quit a job, have no money and look like a big ol' dumbass because I didn't count on not getting clients ASAP. 

Tip #2: Make Your Virtual Pad Swingin': Your online presence must be pulled together tighter than Joan River's face. The website, social media platform of your choice and an email list. You'll know your virtual pad is swinging when you have all the pages, your design services, and your process laid out, you've got a minimum 10 blog posts and your entire website optimized for SEO (search engine optimization which is the BEST way to combat algorithms).  

Tip #3: Do The Boring Shit: Designers hate the boring business shit, but it's important. Like how much money you need to make, how many clients can you take on, how much your design services will cost, how long it takes you to do those design services, what software will you need, what's your marketing plan, what your contract says, what's your advertising budget, what requirements does your state have about being using the "designer" title, getting a business license/DBA, and the list of boring shit goes on.

Don't skip the planning step - it's crucial.

Tip #4: Side Hustle May Be Required: I think doing your business on the side is a really great idea. You can work nights and weekends (well that's part isn't great) to nail down your processes, your communication, your website, etc. This also will give you time to grow a portfolio if you don't have one. 

Tip #5: Talk To The Family

Everyone needs to be on board with your decision. Having an open discussion with them about what changes will happen is important. If you're gonna work out of your home, where and what will your business hours be? Working from home can have its own set of problems, so make sure everyone is on the same page with you and totally ready to support you.

BENJI FRANKLIN SAID, "IF YOU FAIL TO PLAN, YOU PLAN TO FAIL". SMART DUDE.

The Cost To Start Your Interior Design Business

Discovering how to start an interior design business involves an important issue about the real costs to start your own business will vary. You can start your business with nothing but a lot of energy and time or spend a lot of money. Here's how much you can expect it to cost to start your own interior design business.

Interior Designer Website $250/year

Every interior designer needs a website. You will want to buy yourself a domain and hosting. I suggest you start with a Squarespace website because it's fairly easy to learn how to put a website together with their drag and drop functionality. Also, when you purchase your Squarespace website, the hosting is included. You can also buy your domain through them so everything is in one place (and yes, you can bring a domain you previously purchased to them, too). 

The only other option I suggest is starting with Wordpress. As most of my clients find it is not always the easiest option to get started with and may leave you with a serious hangover as you pull your hair out learning a foreign language of sorts.

You can go down the opposite route and get yourself a free/ "low-cost" website. I will caution you against doing this. Your website is an important part of your marketing. Your website will be your 24/7 salesperson that you can't afford to ignore when you start your own interior design business. You will find that with these seemingly free or affordable websites that you may not be able to export your own content, or that getting organic traffic to your website is difficult or that you may need to pay for added functionality. Do the research before you commit to one of them.

Think about this... if you're not willing to invest in your website, why should your clients invest in your services?

Interior Designer Software FROM $400/year+

You can draw and render your designs by hand if you've got the skills (and I'd be the first to tell you that you'd stand out from the crowd if you do). Or you can buy software to help make the process easier when you start your own interior design business. 

I'm a fan of Home Designer Interiors by Chief Architect. It's pretty easy to use and affordable (currently $99 for the lowest priced option). You can create a space plan and hit a button to get the elevation or 3D view. Easy peasy!

For spec'ing your design projects you'll want an easy project management software like Mydoma. I'm a proud affiliate of Mydoma because this program allows you to really speed up the process of communicating with your client. 

You may find that you want another option and I've got some more of my software choices you can learn about here with various price points.

Official Documents $100/year ($500+ If You Need a Certification)

You'll need a business license to start your own interior design business if you don't want to end up in trouble. If you're going to be using a name for your business other than your own name, you'll need a DBA (Doing Business As) first.  

If you're planning on selling furniture, art, accessories, draperies, etc you will also need a seller's permit. Fairly easy to get. 

Beyond that, depending on where you live, you'll need to check out the licensing requirements to work as an interior design professional. Which could mean schooling and passing some official tests. Because we've got 50 states of disarray on this matter here in the US, you will need to find out what is required in your state. Here's one website to get more information. And this website, too.

Interior Designer Insurance $600/year 

You will want to check out interior design business insurance when you start your own interior design business. If you're on the job site and someone gets hurt, you'll wish you had insurance. If you selected the wrong material, you'll wish you had insurance. You ordered the wrong sofa, you'll wish you had insurance. 

The EXTRA Costs 

Beyond the estimates above, you may want to:

  • Hire a lawyer to go over your contract.

  • Hire a bookkeeper to help you with your accounting.

  • Hire a photographer to photograph your projects.

  • Form some type of legal entity such as an LLC or corporation.

  • Hire someone to create a brand for your business. 

The cost to start your own interior design business can range from $500 to somewhere in the thousands. And when you're first starting your business, you may not be able to afford it all right away. Just know that as your interior design business grows, so should the investments you make in it. 

The Business Down Low - AKA What I Wish I Knew

1. The most important thing that I can impart to you while to learn the ins and outs about how to start an interior design business is: just get started. You can do this. But you got to stop thinking all the time and focus on your own lane. You won't have all the answers and you won't get those answers until you start working in your business.

2. You need a website and a domain. You're going to be wanting a home base online that people can come to, where you can start banking some SEO juice and gain a following. Buy a domain, install Wordpress or start with Squarespace.

3. You don't need a portfolio, but you need to start one. I didn't have any residential work because I had just come from the land of commercial interiors. I took pictures of my home and shared them. I also shared all of the designs I made with my Minutes Matter software. Now you're building a portfolio.

4. Screw the business cards. If you're going the eDesign way and don't plan on going out to trade shows or events until you start getting some work in the door, skip the business cards and other stationery. I found direct mail to be expensive and usually a waste of time.

5. Work from home. More than ever interior designers are working from home and it's totes cool. You don't need to spend money on renting a space. Have client meetings at their home or find a local coffee shop. (Hint: You probably need a business license even if you're working from home though, so check with your city.)

6. You need a contract or a letter of agreement. When you get your first client, you still need to write out a contract. I can't tell you how many problems this will solve when you get to work on a project and project creep rears its ugly head. Check out this book on Amazon: Business and Legal Forms for Interior Designers

7. A blog is a must and you must commit to it. Whether you choose to write or make videos (and add in transcripts because Google doesn't watch videos, yet, to know what they are about) you will do yourself more damage than not having a content marketing strategy in the first place. People will wonder if you are a flake and untrustworthy. I'm telling you it's one of the best (and practically free) things you can do to invest in your business, but it's worth jack if you don't keep up with it.

8. A newsletter is uber important. Like really. Go get a Mailerlite account, because that's free to get started and they have automation features you're going to love.

9. No guru knows it all. And they are a liar if they claim to. You can take all sorts of courses and read all sorts of books, but until you get started working in your business no one can really be super helpful to you.

10. What interior design services should you offer? Well, if you answered everything you're gonna end up bitter and tired. You can start by offering just one service if you're not ready to offer three packages as I mentioned earlier.

The One Thing You Must Remember When You're Figuring Out How To Start An Interior Design Business

You can do this, and I believe in you. You're awesome and you do have something unique and special to share. Don't doubt yourself (at least not more than 2% of the time) when you are first starting to figure out how to start an interior design business. Take your time and make sure the business decisions you make feel right in your gut. If you want support and classes you show you how to get this all done without losing your marbles, you need to get yer butt in the Society.

Disclaimer: Full disclosure: If you click on a link in this post and make a purchase, I will earn a commission (at no additional cost to you). I only recommend products and services that I have found to be helpful and trustworthy. That said, I promise to use any affiliate commissions earned for good causes: Things like reinvesting in this business to bring you even better resources, and quite possibly at least one Sunday trip to the bar. Because…wine.

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Alycia Wicker

Alycia Wicker is an interior design business coach specializing in helping soulful interior designers attract clients with clever marketing strategies. Celebrity gossip whore.