Meet four interior designers, with a head for business

Dynamic Business cover stars, April

L to R: Thomas Hamel, Darren Palmer, Greg Natale and Jason Grant

You might think life as one of Sydney’s top interior designers would be all glamour and tantrums. Not so. Behind the scenes there are the same cashflow and staffing issues as any other small business.

Creative types don’t usually have a head for business and money. It might be a cliché but in most cases it rings true.

Greg Natale, Thomas Hamel and Darren Palmer are three of Australia’s top interior designers at different stages of their careers. Jason Grant is a renowned interior stylist with his own paint and stationery ranges. What they have in common is having had to get to grips with the business side of things to ensure their longevity.

From deciding what to charge and when and the ever-tricky cashflow to personal brand, PR and staffing, the challenges are the same as any other small business. From relative new boy Palmer, who rose to fame through a reality TV show, through to Hamel with 16 staff and 20 years in business, they all have interesting lessons to share.

More than 20 years in

Having established his business in Sydney more than two decades ago, Thomas Hamel has about as much experience as the other three put together. He’s humble about his success though, with some key advice for achieving longevity in business.

“I would certainly say that being an outstanding service provider has been the key to my success. At the same time, always remaining forward looking with design details is crucial. The design world is constantly evolving and it is important to remain at the forefront.”

He’s perhaps unusual in that he has a natural head for business as well as design. “As you say, it is not usual for creative types,” Hamel agrees. “Talking about money is not my favourite thing to do but I survive doing it. I strive to build client confidence so that there are no questions regarding our financial paperwork. I keep all transactions very transparent with the clients.”

Pricing too can be tricky. How do you work out what to charge, on what basis and at what stage during a job, which may take months or years? Hamel charges a non-refundable fee to begin each new project then issues monthly, itemised accounts of time spent by each office member on the project as a way to keep cashflow steady. “We also charge a percentage on the wholesale cost of items when purchasing is involved in the project. Once purchasing has begun on a project, we then only charge time spent with the client or their representatives or time on site.” Regular invoicing is crucial to keeping cashflow steady, he adds.

Profile is important

Hamel’s staff numbers fluctuate but he currently has 16 employees, which is substantial for a residential design practice. These include administration, design, architectural and decorating staff. Although Thomas Hamel & Associates has grown quite organically through word of mouth and repeat business, which is the case for many designers, PR has been important too. Hamel’s first book, Thomas Hamel Residence, in late 2010, saw “an enormous increase” in awareness of his work. “We now receive many calls from potential clients who do not know other clients. This is a new phenomenon, as previously most work was word of mouth. Our clients always continue to purchase new properties (and in different countries) which continues the growth of my company. This is why I strive for client confidence and always provide outstanding service.”

He is also actively pursuing an international standing with suppliers and journalists. “The clients love nothing more than visiting showrooms in LA, New York, London and even Istanbul and being welcomed when they mention my name. An up to date website is also crucial for client and supplier awareness.”

The established business has got to a stage where everything is now done in house, with Hamel keen to be in control of all aspects of the business. And while it might seem that interior design is a luxury and demand could slow in tough economic times, Hamel refuses to see it that way. “I have never taken the stance that the design and furnishing of ones home is frivolous or a luxury – most people now realise it is a very important part of their life and their home is not the place to skimp. It is a slightly different story for clients with two, three or four homes but main residences are still very important to everyone. It has been interesting that with the nervousness of the real estate market, most clients have opted to renovate rather than sell and start again.”

Never complacent however, Hamel has big plans for growth this year. “We are currently being invited to assist in design shows and events in Los Angeles and New York. We’ve also recently launched bespoke furniture and fabric collections under the banner The Thomas Hamel Collection. My colleagues in the US and the UK have been pursuing this design path for years; I am going to develop this for the Australian market.”

Reality TV to first employee

Darren Palmer became well known after appearances on reality TV shows homeMADE and The Block and is a guest judge on the current series. Although at the beginning of his career compared to Hamel, and having just taken on his first employee, ambitious Palmer has some smart ideas which will no doubt help him succeed.

He acknowledges that TV was “a brilliant springboard”. Becoming easily recognisable opened doors, allowing him to build great relationships which he still fosters today. “I am really grateful for the exposure and what it has allowed in terms of creating a story that people are interested in. That’s the whole challenge of PR and marketing I guess.” And PR is something Palmer really embraces.

“Editorial is the best exposure a designer can receive. People generally don’t like to be advertised to, and in our industry it’s extremely difficult to target only your market with normal direct mail strategies. Aesthetics are so subjective, just like art, so you need to be able to show people what you do and let them come to you. Editorial is the best way to get your work out there.

“I also love to write and speak so I use those passions to build credibility which in turn helps to build trust between myself and my prospective clients before we meet. When people are putting their homes and hard earned cash in your hands they need to feel safe that you’re at the helm and you know exactly the best possible solution for their particular challenge. All of the things I do in terms of PR are purely to cement my brand as a luxurious, established and reliable one.”

He has advice on how to get media coverage. “The key to being published is to turn out interesting work and style and photograph it well so you have something that will be interesting to the editors. Make it as easy as possible for them to say yes. Present the story to them, with the interest pointed out. Have high quality pictures and a point of difference.”

Cashflow woes

In the day-to-day running of the business there have been the usual cashflow hurdles. “I have had a line of credit against one of my properties to keep my business buoyant in hard times and thankfully things seem to have turned a corner from the dismal times a few years ago. I am paid fees on a 30/30/30/10 split (four stages of the project with three corresponding payments of 30 percent with the last 10 percent on completion) so that keeps funds rolling in. The key is to invoice diligently and keep to a seven-day payment period, which most people will pay within 14-to-21 days.”

Palmer’s a real go-getter with a clear vision. “I have drive and a goal and I just keep trying to make the most of the opportunities that are in front of me and I’m not afraid to ask for new opportunities I see as possibilities either. I think the reason I still have a profile is because I work at being in front of people in ways that I feel have integrity.

He recently employed a studio manager to take care of the parts of the business he admits he just doesn’t have a head for. “I’m always trying to manage my fees and make sure I charge enough. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve been told I’m too cheap, a problem I’m resolving currently with the help of the studio manager. There are a great many things in my business I’m good at and am passionate about, and I can employ someone who is passionate about the rest to take care of those things. As long as I have my eye on the horizon I think this approach will work well for me.”

Getting the business side right

And growth is definitely on that horizon. “Through increasing or keeping my media presence I believe my profile will keep building, creating more demand. With more projects I’ll be able to take on other designers. The first step is taking on my studio manager to organise the business and keep me accountable. As things become more and more systemised I’ll be able to share responsibilities and workload. This is a day I look forward to as I can take on more business.”

Greg Natale, who currently holds the title of Belle Coco Republic Interior Designer of the Year, recently celebrated ten years of his own business, Greg Natale Design. He knows where his strengths and weaknesses are and employed a business coach in year four to help him get a better understanding of the business side of things. Above all else though, Natale says the secret to his success is persistence. “You can make anything work if you work hard. Of course you’ve got to have talent, but there’s more creative and talented people than me out there in the world who aren’t doing as well. You have to be persistent and consistent and work really hard.” And work hard he does. Finding the time for this interview and photo shoot was no easy task!

Creativity vs. structure

He makes no secret of the fact he has struggled with the business side of things. “I’m running a business but I don’t have a business degree. I’m an artistic person. The opposite of creative is structured. I’m not a naturally structured person.” Keeping things neat and tidy (he hates clutter) helps Natale to an extent, but can only go so far. “Designers are not structured people and we are not good with money,” he says.

He took on a business coach because he realised while he was good at the design, the sales and marketing, he needed to thoroughly understand the other areas of business if he was going to grow beyond a certain point. “I didn’t understand a Profit and Loss Statement. It was like reading French. I used the coach for two years and every month he would come in and we’d do workshops and really break down the business and finance concepts.”

Invoicing, pricing and systems

The coach helped Natale work out what his hourly rate was and implement various systems, including keeping detailed timesheets where every hour is accounted for. “Cashflow is the biggest thing. We worked out that we needed to bill customers monthly, not in stages, to get regular cashflow. It sounds so simple but it took me four years to work that out.”

Now Natale, who has four staff and recently expanded his office into the one nextdoor with room for growth, feels confident that he has a thorough grasp on what is happening in every part of his business. And in hindsight, he is relieved that he didn’t take on a business partner to look after the things he wasn’t good at, in year three. Hiring the right people though, is very important too. “The people I hire are my colleagues more than staff. I only hire the best people. I want to hire people who are even better than me. I treat them as equals. I don’t scream at them, I don’t point fingers. I’ve been in that position. I’ve had a boss who was a nightmare and a boss who was a gentleman. I’m trying to be the latter.”

The new celebrities

Many interior designers have their own paint and furniture ranges and are bringing out their own books these days. “It’s about time,” says Natale, who has a range for Designer Rugs. “Hairdressers, fashion designers and chefs have all had their celebrity moment! I know a lot of very successful designers who keep a low profile but having a high profile has always been part of my business model.”

His personal brand is of course important. “I have a very distinct look. If you’re very generic you’re not going to be at the top of your game and I want to be at the top of my game. In this business people have to phone you and ask for your services, you can’t approach them. And that phone rings because we’re top of people’s minds.”

Ultimately it takes more than a few years to build up a strong portfolio of work and doesn’t happen overnight or even in a few years. “In ten years’ time I want to be where Thomas Hamel is,” says Natale, who would like to get his own book published next year.

The freelancer

Jason Grant, a freelance interior stylist, is a little different to the other three but has learned plenty about doing business and has a lot to share. He’s currently on his third paint collection for Murobond and has had collaborations with Freedom and Officeworks. If anyone knows how to work a personal brand in his favour, it’s Grant.

Previously style director for Real Living, he took a leap of faith in going freelance but has never been busier. “I’m confident to take risks. I think you need to in life otherwise you dream of what could have been. I think all creative people struggle with the business side of things and it’s definitely not my forte. I’m best at the creative and social side. They come naturally. Cashflow is always a delicate juggling act.”

Grant outsources certain elements of his business to a web designer, an accountant, bookkeeper and a ‘general go-to girl’. PR is very important to him (and he tends to be good at it), but sometimes it’s as simple as being nice. “I believe it’s important to build great working relationships, to be a nice person and to be honest. People appreciate integrity.”

The personal brand

He also uses social media to promote himself and his work to great effect on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram as well as blogging regularly. His personal brand ‘Mr Jason Grant’ is very well known in the industry. “It comes naturally,” he says. “My brand is really just what I do and what I like. I think about everything and consider if it’s within the brand. I think about it all the time.” One such collaboration was with paint brand Murobond. “It has really just been a natural extension of me and my brand. It’s a perfect fit and I love working with them and their brand.”

A lot of business comes via word of mouth and being published in magazines is very important. “Being featured heavily on pages in magazines is vital and I also have an agent who helps with advertising work.”

And while financial backing for bigger projects is hard to come by and many people struggle to take the job of a stylist seriously, life for Mr Jason Grant is pretty damn good. “Sometimes I think I am pretty lucky to have a job and for those outside of it, it possibly seems ridiculous or fantastical. Both are true but even more importantly, it’s fun!”

  • http://www.hubspan.com/ Ryan Hoody

    A lot of common business challenges faced by many entrepreneurs. To be certain, your TV time has helped a lot, but some problems won’t go away. Have you thought about limiting the time required of you to work, rather than focusing on more money? If you can make the same salary, but free up half your daily hours, wouldn’t that be worth it? Not to preach, but being rich in money and poor in time is not being right.

    Wonderful article!

    Ryan