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Interview with Kimberley Seldon (Business of Design)

Updated: Jan 30, 2019

In a little under 2 months, Kimberley Seldon will be landing on Australian shores, for the first time, to share her vast wealth of knowledge about the business of running a design practice with The Design Coach community.

I was introduced to the Business of Design Podcast early in 2018 by a wonderful colleague (thanks Camilla!) and I can say that listening to Kimberley has transformed my outlook on business and, to a large extent, on life. The generous sharing of insights and learning is truly unprecedented in the industry. If you are not already a subscriber to the Podcast, I implore you to sign up immediately! Follow this link to find out more.

I was fortunate to be interviewed by Kimberley on one of her December podcasts last year (listen to the podcast with me here) and I decided to turn the tables and interview her! This was a chance to find out a bit more about how she came to set up her world-renowned coaching business and an opportunity ask her about the exciting things she has in store for members in 2019.

The Saturday and Sunday workshops are sold out, but we still have a few tickets to the Friday Night Masterclass, which includes a chance to meet Kimberley in a cocktail party following the class. BUY TICKETS HERE.

Once lucky attendee of the Friday night class will win an incredible door prize! More details on that later.

Kimberley Seldon from Business of Design

TDC: Your approach to business is inspiring and the amount you share is truly generous, setting a good example for the industry. Things weren’t always quite so successful for you. I’ve heard you talk before about the difficult period you went through with your design business. What happened to make you want to turn things around?

KS: I found myself struggling just to keep it together in my design business. I loved doing the design and decorating part, but there was no doubt I was disappointing clients on a regular basis. That meant often getting “Canadian fired” (politely fired before the end of a project), which means you don’t get any beautiful photos and certainly no repeat business or referrals. I felt a lot of shame around that and I had the impression that I was the only one who was struggling.

When I got together with my designer friends, we trash-talked trades, suppliers and clients, and there was very little self-reflection going on. But there was something in me that just knew – I was the common denominator. I began to feel so much shame and embarrassment around this, so much so that I considered quitting.

The last-ditch effort to save my business (and save my soul!) came in the form of hiring a business coach. That coach essentially told me that I was doing everything wrong. Literally – everything wrong! Except for my passion and optimism waking up every day, she said “Everything else has to go. You’re going to have to start over; we can’t fix this, it’s too broken.”

TDC: How did it feel to hear this? Was it a wake-up call or was it devastating?

KS: I am so stubborn, I thought “I’m sure that if I just work harder and apply myself I can figure this out.” When my coach first told me that my business wasn’t working, I thought she was wrong. I spent a good deal of money and time trying to explain to her how the industry works, and why she didn’t understand!

She tried to explain to me that without systems and procedures, I would never be a success. I kept trying to explain to her that this is a creative business, every project is different, every budget is different, every client is different. She kept digging in her heals and saying “No, you are running a version of Starbucks, and every person needs to know exactly what a cappuccino is like. And if you can’t tell them that, you should quit.

And I just thought, “I don’t want to quit!”

Living Room of a project recently completed by Kimberley Seldon Design Group

TDC: Was there a pivotal moment when you realised your coach knew what she was talking about?

KS: There was actually!

Every Tuesday we have a meeting that we call Top Line where we review the status of every client. Part of the process with every client is to produce a client binder at the end of the project. On many occasions we kept adding extra elements to the binder. This would go on for months. Finally, we would get it done and it would be sent off to the client. Then we would go through the same process for the next client. Months would pass and finally we would send off the binder. Then the next client, the same…

One Tuesday as we discussed a new client binder, I looked around the table at all 9 staff and thought, “None of this time is billable!”

I’m sure if we added up all the time we spent working on the binder, it would have been at least a year of my life (that I would never get back!), not to mention all the other team members. It was a major epiphany – I realised we needed a system. We needed to know how that binder would look every single time. We spent a month or so creating the perfect binder, and what happened next – I never had to talk about the binder again.

We kind of created the “Idiots Guide To Producing A Binder”. To this day, I’ve never seen another client binder.

I realised 2 things:

1. My business coach had been right all this time. I’d been paying her for a year and ignoring her!

2. If a system for a binder could change my life, what else did I need to create a system for?

Once the staff saw the benefits of the systems, they got enrolled and started wanting to make their own systems. Every time something went wrong, we would say “We need a system.”

Now the operations binder is hundreds of pages long and now we’re working on content for 2019 for Business of Design where we are distributing our Operations Binder to the members.

Kimberley started Business of Design in 2006.

TDC: What made you want to start Business of Design?

KS: It was never my intention to create a new company! In 2004 I was sharing with a client all that I was learning with my business coach, and he invited me to talk to a group of his designer clients to share my story.

Of course, I said to him “No! I don’t want everyone to know what a loser I am!”

He told me that really believed other designers would benefit from hearing my story, so I reluctantly agreed.

I will never forget that night. There were over a hundred designers in the room and I was sweating… I was so nervous. “This is it,” I thought. “Tell them the truth, or you’re wasting your time.”

I started at the beginning. I told them about all the mistakes I’d made. I told them the most embarrassing and humiliating interactions I had ever had with clients. I cried a couple of times (I’m such a sap!) and then, I could see – a lot of the audience were crying and nodding their heads.

At the end of the evening, it was incredible. It was seriously the first time I had ever experienced true comradery in the interior design industry. People were crying and hugging and laughing and talking, saying “Me too!” It was so clear to me that I was not alone.

Sitting Room designed by Kimberley Seldon Design Group

TDC: Mentors and coaches are so important in business and life in general. Where do you get your support from?

KS: I have continued to work with various business coaches. Now I’m at a stage where I’m not afraid to ask business owners from outside the industry what they think, and that’s been extremely helpful to be able to reach out to all sorts of people.

I’m amazed at how direct they are. Often, I make things a lot bigger in my head than they actually are. I think to myself “I can’t tell a client that!” and then when I run it by someone else who’s not an interior design professional, they say “Yes you can, and yes you will!” And then it all goes well.

Kimberley is a designer, broadcaster and writer who advocates for spaces that celebrate the people who live in them.

TDC: You have a “full” life – travel, design, tv, podcasts, content creation, speaking events and MORE! How do you maintain balance in your life?

KS: Gosh…! You know, sometimes it’s not always balanced. Sometimes I go a bit too heavy into work. I can do that now because my kids have grown up!

Can I tell you, when I speak to designers, I feel like it’s all for me! I feel like it’s my therapy, like I’m laying on a couch somewhere. I would not be able to stick to my systems if we weren’t talking about it all the time; I’d go back to my old ways.

The important thing is systems and a great team. The more systems you have in place, the more you don’t have to supervise. So, I find myself surrounded by a team that I don’t have to go back and check on their work. That’s the difference between a good employee and a great employee! That helps a lot. In the past, I had great people work for me, but without the systems written down, they didn’t know how to make me happy.

When write the system down, your team can follow the system, they can produce the results that you want, and they can succeed.

Sitting Room by Kimberley Seldon Design Group

TDC: This is your first visit to Australia – we can’t wait to welcome you! Aside from meeting your loyal fans and presenting some awesome Masterclasses, what have you got planned while you’re here?

KS: I’m going to the Barossa Valley to drink copious amounts of wine! And we’ll also be staying in the Southern Ocean Lodge in South Australia, then a few days in Sydney. When we come to Victoria we’re going to stay at the Jackalope Hotel on the Mornington Peninsula – I think you recommended that?

There’s not enough time – I have to cut the trip a little bit short to go to Highpoint back home, or I would have stayed another week or two. This is my first trip, not my last!

TDC: Business Of Design is providing the right service to designers at exactly the right time. What’s coming up for you and what’s next for BOD and Kimberley Seldon Design Group?

KS: We have some lofty ambitions and goals!

Number one, we’re launching some new courses in 2019 which we’re excited about. Part of the strategy for 2019 is introducing the Operations Manual for our members. I’ve been putting that off for as long as possible, because the manual changes all the time! As soon as we find a better way to do things, it changes. But, it’s time.

The other thing we’re launching this year is Business of Design Chapters. These will be run by a local BOD Member who will get her/his own members. This will be a not-for-profit arm of the business that will provide curriculum and programming ideas. We want for our communities to be strong, and to groom the next round of designers who going to take over the world! We’re really excited about that!

At Kimberley Seldon Design Group, we’re going through a really good phase where we’re able to pick and choose the customers that are exciting, a little bit bigger scope and over a longer term. Some of the smaller clients we are able to refer on to some of the designers that we’ve known and have worked with. Everybody wins!

It took me so long to get to a point where I felt comfortable saying no to any job. Now I realise there is always going to be work. So I’m excited to continue fine tuning who our ideal client is.

You’re creating change in the industry by encouraging designers to be open with one another. Sharing their experiences authentically. We learn so much from each other, yet the industry (in Australia) is still largely guarded about information sharing. How would you like to see the design industry evolve with respect to knowledge sharing?

KS: I’d like to see more associations grasp the business aspects of being an interior design professional. I’d also like to see them really put the wind in our backs, instead of obstacles at our feet.

I’d like to see young designers being better educated at school in a much more effective way. The truth is, I don’t think the education system has improved at all since I graduated.

One of my goals is to produce some education for schools. I’d really like the industry associations to get on board and help. Those are my dreams…

I love that there are like-minded people out there who want the same things – such as The Design Coach and educational partners coming on board to support the industry like Mercer School of Interior Design. Thank you for what you do – The Design Coach is doing much needed and important work, and I’m grateful that you’re in my life.

Our Friday night Masterclass with Kimberley is coming up in 3rd week of March. We will be supplying drinks and nibbles after the class, with a chance to chat to Kimberley in person.

Time & Location

DATE: Friday 22nd March

TIME: 6pm - 8pm

LOCATION: Mercer School of Interior Design, Collingwood.

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