LuAnn Nigara’s Steps to Scaling Your Design Firm


Editor’s note: Small-business guru LuAnn Nigara provides tell-it-like-it-is business education for tens of thousands of designers and creatives the world over via her popular podcast, A Well Designed Business; books; and speaking engagements for the National Kitchen and Bath Association, High Point Market, ASID National, the Design Influencers Conference, and beyond. In her new monthly column for AD PRO, Nigara will share actionable insights—gleaned both from her twice-weekly conversations with design industry pros as well as  her 35-plus years running a custom window treatment business, Window Works—on the most common small-business challenges members of the trade face today.  

In this month’s column, Nigara answers a designer’s question about how to scale her small design business

Dear LuAnn,

I am overwhelmed, tired and at the end of my rope. I launched my design business last year and, despite COVID-19, I have a good number of clients. But I feel like I am drowning. I have presentation deadlines, emails piling up—and don’t get me started on the bookkeeping that continues to go undone. On top of all of this, I have two kids who I am homeschooling, and my husband is working from home as well. I am so exhausted and so confused. I know I need to hire but I don’t know where to start and I’m terrified that if I have to teach someone how to do everything it will only take longer anyway. How do I know if I should hire? Please help.”

Kelli M.

Kelli, I am a firm believer that the first step to wrangling and eventually scaling your “solo-preneur” business is to begin by hiring out as many household-related tasks as possible. Much easier than finding the right design assistant or the right bookkeeper is finding wonderful people and services to step in to alleviate the overwhelm you are experiencing. 

Shop for groceries online and have them delivered.

Hire out routine chores, such as housekeeper, landscaper, and meal prep services.

Ask for child care help from family, or swap blocks of child care time with other parents.

Hire a high school kid to take the pandemic-era homeschooling off your plate.

There are two distinct bonuses to this approach: These individuals already know how to do their jobs, enabling you to immediately do more of your job. From day one, they should pay for themselves. Think about it: If you bill out at $125 per hour, does it even make sense to spend four hours a week cleaning your home? Or 10 hours a week teaching your third-grader multiplication tables and the planets in the solar system?  

Add up the hours you earn by offloading these tasks, then be diligent about using most of them engaged in billable activities. The net difference is a win-win! This is the first triage for any growing small-business owner. This allows you to grab back several hours a week to devote to money-generating activities, to design tasks and to managing the business of your business.

Now, Kelli, be warned. Just like when you give a mouse a cookie and he will ask for a glass of milk, when you are more productive, you will create more business. So, when you hit the next growth phase, it will be time to hire in your business. In order to scale, you must hire top people and you must deliver elevated service to your clients. To do either of these, you must prepare for that now.

Start by creating systems for every activity in your business. From the discovery call to project photography. Then document them. Neither of these are easy to do, so do not underestimate it. Precisely because it is not easy, so many business owners avoid this important step. Kelli, if you ignore this step as you grow your firm, one day you will email me again. Then your email will read like this:

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