Industry Pros Share Their 2023 Business Takeaways and Insights

February 23, 2024

We asked several design professionals to share their insights, lessons learned and business takeaways from 2023.

Heather Mastrangeli business takeaways

Heather Mastrangeli, NCIDQ, Innovatus Design LLC, Downers Grove, Ill.

Last year, I moved my design business from my home office to an office in town. While I made the move because my team was expanding, renting a space has been a game changer in many unexpected ways. There has been a shift in how clients view my design firm now that we have a physical space. We’ve received walk-in clients, which was a surprise considering our location, and our Google ranking has skyrocketed. I’m shocked at what a positive impact the office has had on our business. It’s been a wonderful shift, and while our office is a small, humble space, it’s perfect for our team.

Meredith Weiss business takeaways

Meredith Weiss, Merri Interiors, Commack, N.Y.

It’s very easy to want to give in to a client’s demands just to get the business, and the biggest lesson is to not let that happen. You aren’t staying true to yourself or your business model. In 2023 because of economic uncertainty, I felt pressure to be less particular about potential clients but realized that the most important thing was to trust in my process that took me almost 20 years to develop. I had a potential client wanting to change my contract, and in standing my ground, I gained his respect and maintained the best protection for both of us. The result was a thrilled client. Photo credit: Randy Ilowite

Jennifer Hutton business takeaways

Jennifer Hutton, Grau Design Studio, Durham, N.C.

I have learned that it’s critical to make friends and develop connections in whatever industry you’re in so you can lean on and learn from one another. The industry is rapidly changing in terms of what clients are asking for and how we are best able to provide that. Having that close-knit support system within the industry has also led me to new opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had and has given me so much inspiration. Developing connections with peers trying to answer the same questions you are asking is what makes the design world a better place for everyone, and I truly believe it leads to better results for our clients. Photo credit: Sarah Martin

Kelly Dubyne business takeaways

Kelly Dubyne, Distinctive Interior Designs, Lake Stevens, Wash.

In the first quarter, I lost both my parents unexpectedly. It was a devastating time, and the caretaking, grief and overseeing their estate took an emotional toll on me and, essentially, my business. My contractors and vendors took charge and kept our projects going while I caught my breath. My clients were kind, gracious and patient, and family and friends were supportive. Experiencing loss has enabled me to be empathetic in a variety of situations our clients have been in, hopefully making me a better designer in the process. Our business year was fruitful, and we’re heading into 2024 with many projects on our whiteboard. We could not be more thankful. Photo credit: Tina Tang, Parris Blue Photography

Kimberly Kerl

Kimberly W. Kerl, Kustom Home Design, Greenville, S.C.

In 2023, I finally gave myself a new-and-improved kitchen. The process taught me to splurge on the marble, which has unparalleled beauty that simply cannot be replicated by engineered products. This can be considered fleeting because it is also porous, soft and prone to staining and etching. I don’t typically advise my clients to use marble in their kitchens, but I could not stop myself from doing so. I began by babying and protecting that stone, but cooking is messy business, and the counter is dappled with droplets etched into its surface. But the stone is still every bit as beautiful despite the faint marks. As we embark on 2024 with so many unknowns, splurge on the things that bring you joy. Photo credit: Katie Cotton

Nick Vanderhovel

Nick Vanderhovel, Design Galleria Kitchen And Bath Studio, Nashville

Learning to delegate was the best lesson I have learned this year. I spent time working with a young engineering assistant to increase her understanding and confidence in the work she was producing and allowed myself to delegate high-dollar tasks without micromanaging. For the next six months, my team set our sights on improving how we approach each part of the design process. We implemented task management software, improved our drawing sets, created material schedules and digitized everything. I have reduced my hours, and as we improve, I won’t just be able to free up more time for myself but will be able to take on more projects without wondering how I will find the time. Photo credit: Martin Vecchio Photography

Molly McCabe

Molly Erin McCabe, AKBD, CLIPP, CGP, McCabe By Design LLC, Bainbridge Island, Wash.

As I transitioned in 2023 from operating a residential design-build firm to a design-only firm, I was reminded how valuable construction knowledge and experience is to a successful design practice. I encourage designers to take advantage of opportunities to spend time on job sites to get an intimate understanding of construction practices. If onsite learning is not an option, dust off your certification exam textbooks and give yourself a valuable refresher on framing, ducting, wiring, plumbing, etc., or sign up for classes. If you are new to the design industry, seek out positions with design-build firms. Never stop learning; there is always room for something new in your toolbox. Photo credit: 220 Madison LLC

Michael Kaestner

Michael Kaestner, Kaestner Designs, Philadelphia

I was recently in a predicament where I needed to step up my involvement in a project. I kept finding mistakes being made on the job, communication was lacking from the contractor, and my requests for updates were not being met. As I close this project, I have learned that to help eliminate most of the problems I have endured in any future ones, I will need to limit any assumptions of cooperation, communication and understanding of my design and be more diligent in the pre-construction phase. Moving forward, I have a new agenda I’m developing to incorporate more transparency and understanding among my company, the contractor and the client. Photo credit: Rebecca McAlpin

Sharon Sherman

Sharon Sherman, CKD, CID, Thyme And Place Design, Wyckoff, N.J.

We need to take a good look at what is important to our businesses when it comes to hiring. I feel there is a disconnect between what job seekers believe is their right to expect and what the reality of working for and supporting the success of a business truly is. I have found those wanting quality positions have overlooked what it means to run a successful business and how to become a team member. I also think this is what has given rise the proliferation of virtual assistants. If you communicate your design intent and expectations, you can have a great outcome. Photo credit: Alyssa Peek

Jason Miller

Jason Miller, Cedar & Fig Interiors, Chandler, Ariz.

Launching a business and establishing a brand on social media proved to be a challenging task. Synchronizing with the ever-changing social media landscape necessitated continual innovation and an unwavering commitment to relevance. One effective strategy for growth and engagement involved visiting local showrooms and collaborating with other brands, sharing “live video from…” or tagging them. This approach encouraged resharing, engaged their followers and built connections, proving highly advantageous for reaching new audiences and cultivating partnerships with vendors. Photo credit: Kary Ann Hoopes, Hoopes Creative Photography

Cheryl Kees Clendenon

Cheryl Kees Clendenon, In Detail Interiors, Pensacola, Fla.

In 2023, it became clear to me that there are distinct differences between being a good “manager” of people and a good “trainer or teacher.” I thought these skill sets were interchangeable, but they really are not. I fall clearly in the latter as being a good teacher but have learned to leave the day-to-day management of the minutiae to others – and to not overstep when I have delegated this role to someone more suited for it. Don’t try to be all things, but it is key to understand this about yourself and be honest about where you can bring the most value to your team. Photo credit: Sarah Coleman Photography

Laura Eagan

Laura Eagan, CKBD, CLIPP, Estrella Cabinetry and Design Center, Goodyear, Ariz.

A kitchen remodel is like having a baby … you have fun writing the check, wait forever, and then it’s go time! Consumers do not realize just how emotional the project can be. We professionals must control not only the professional process but also the emotional process. When things go wrong (and they ALWAYS do), we handle it, explain, hug, maybe even bring a meal or gift card to them. Sometimes whatever is wrong, they just need to know we are there. Once the project is complete and they have their “new baby,” all is right with their world. Photo credit: Sarah Hoag Photography

Tom Price

Tom Price, Custom Wood Products, New York City

Interpersonal relationships remain the most crucial in both personal and professional aspects of life. They play a central role in fostering collaboration, communication and a sense of belonging. While technology – including AI – can significantly improve productivity, it should be seen as an enabler rather than a replacement for human connections. The time saved through technological advancements can be redirected toward building and nurturing meaningful relationships, both personally and professionally.

Lauren Schulte

Lauren Schulte, Monarch Kitchen Design Studio, North Tonawanda, N.Y.

I decided to really dig in and learn AI since this year it really has exploded in our industry. There is a general fear that it will be able to replace us as designers, so I took the most amazing class and learned that it can actually enhance the experiences we give our clients and will also set us apart from others in our industry. Because I have learned how to incorporate this into my current design offerings, I am flying out to Dallas in January to speak about my experiences incorporating it into my work. Photo credit: City Light Studio

Rose Dostal

Rose Dostal, RMD Designs LLC, Hudson, Ohio

Stick to your policy no matter how ‘nice’ a client seems to be. Be professional and don’t let your heart get in the way. When it comes to cabinetry orders, tell your associates to never give an ETA date. Know the manufacturer’s ordering process; every cabinetry brand is different. Do not return calls after hours unless it’s an emergency. Once you do, you’ve given permission to any clients that it is ok for them to call any time of the day. Photo credit: Matt DeGrand

Donna Fedor

Donna Fedor, Donna Brann Interiors, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Let the client decide if something is too expensive – especially if it’s perfect for the space; they might surprise you. Always double check the PO before it is sent and review the vendor acknowledgement. It takes an extra two minutes and can save weeks of difficulties. The construction phase is always more hours than you originally estimate; charge construction by the hour or increase your fees. Don’t assume the contractor has all the right permits; always ask. I remind myself all the time that we are in a service business. It is not about us and our egos and our portfolio pictures. It is about our clients and their happiness and ability to live and function in their home.

Jeanne Chung

Jeanne K. Chung, Cozy Stylish Chic, Pasadena, Calif.

Striking the right balance between being flexible and firm is crucial for a successful designer-client relationship. We’ve found that we need to be flexible to accommodate our clients’ preferences and budgets, and this approach allows us to adapt our vision to meet their requirements. However, being firm is also essential in ensuring that our professional judgment is respected. Sometimes we must remind a client that they hired us for our expertise and not simply to say “yes” to their ideas, even though we couldn’t disagree more. If we don’t agree, it is necessary to give them a reason WHY – this is what earns our clients’ respect and the reason they never go rogue.

Photo credit: MP Stock/Adobe Stock