"I wasn't equipped with the right tools to run a successful, well-organised, profitable business. And I thought I was alone."
With the long awaited Byron Retreat commencing on Friday, The Design Coach Director Andrew Mitchell has been working tirelessly to create a carefully curated itinerary to provide Delegates with business workshops, Guest Speakers and experiences such as inspiring property tours.
Just before he jets off to Byron, we sat down with Andrew to find out what drives his passion for the industry, the challenges he faces as the Director of his successful interior design studio MR. MITCHELL and the complex nature of creatives running successful practices.
TDC: Thanks for taking time to speak to us today Andrew. We know you've been in the industry for more than 20 years and have worked on some amazing projects. Exactly when did you establish your interior design business, and why?
AM: I started my business in November 2000, so I'm coming up to 22 years. Four years before, I got my first industry job in Bowral (country New South Wales) as a sales assistant in a company called 'Interiors For You.' I first offered to work for free, then progressed to a couple of paid days, and later became full-time.
People kept suggesting I should do interior design. For others to recognise that talent in you helps immensely. Like most designers, I suffered imposter syndrome and felt I wasn't worthy. This early encouragement and positive feedback about my talent helped me believe in myself, so I'm much more comfortable nowadays.
I didn't study interior design. I chose what I like to call the “life apprenticeship” route, learning on the job. There were many fantastic benefits of taking this route, such as learning and growing through my mistakes. But there were a lot of disadvantages as well.
I started in the industry because I had a talent for putting together interiors, and it was something that interested me incredibly. I think it was a combination of talent and passion that got me started.
TDC: What was it like running a business in the early days?
AM: It was such a vast departure from where I am now. In retrospect, it was hectic, unorganised, and unplanned. But it was also exhilarating, fulfilling, and exciting to be doing something I was passionate about.
I now realise I didn't have any systems and processes in place. I didn't know how to charge or manage clients effectively. I was trying to run a business that wasn't profitable and working myself into the ground as well.
TDC: That leads nicely into our next question. Design is a very creative skill, whilst running a business is quite analytical. Do you think these polar opposite skill requirements cause issues for designers running a design business?
AM: Good question. Yes, there can be a disparity between skillsets. The funny thing is, I come from more of a maths and science background, so I'm both left- and right-brained. I've got an analytical and creative side, and that's what I love about working in this industry. But I wasn't equipped with the right tools to run a successful, well-organised, profitable business. And I thought I was alone.
I think that's a story that comes up often with many of the designers I work with. They feel embarrassed and ashamed they don't have those skills. Even if they've studied to be a designer, these courses dedicate a tiny percentage to educating people about running a business.
In addition, how to successfully calculate fees isn’t taught effectively. Many designers choose to work for themselves and go out into the industry with little or no knowledge about business basics. They either take the initiative to improve their business education or wing it as I did and learn from their inevitable mistakes. So that's why I set up The Design Coach; I could see a need in the industry to help people upskill their business knowledge and practices.
TDC: You split your time between The Design Coach and MR. MITCHELL. How do you manage to find the time to run two businesses?
AM: The same way I coach designers! I try to embody the principles I teach other designers and architects, and that's through strict time management. With preplanning, I can get a good split of my work week between the two businesses.
I make sure I'm proactive with my clients about when I'm available. I also look ahead to future tasks to make a clear plan to schedule my time efficiently. Does it work all the time? No, not always! I'm human, and things don’t always go to plan. Sometimes work feels like a well-oiled machine, and I love the combination of the two. But at other times, it can feel a bit hectic.
I definitely allocate specific days to The Design Coach because I've got one-on-one and group coaching sessions. I use time blocking for those sessions because I need to provide boundaries around when I'm available.
There also needs to be a degree of flexibility. As we're speaking, I'm in the final organisational stage for our Byron Bay Retreat, which kicks off on the 20th of May, and there are many moving parts. So, I need to be reasonably agile and flexible across both businesses.
TDC: You certainly sound like your weeks are full! What do you like to do when you have some spare time?
Outside work hours, I love to keep fit. I'm very dedicated to maintaining a regular exercise routine, going to the gym, and getting to yoga when I can.
I'm a passionate cook—I use cooking as a bit of a release. On the weekends, I love spending an afternoon preparing a slow-cooked meal.
I also love travel, locally and internationally. I'm really looking forward to Bali in June, and later this year, I'm heading to Europe to visit friends in Greece, followed by Tuscany and Sicily. I'll also be doing some ground research for the 2023 Milan Trip, especially checking in on the restaurants we've got planned—hard work, I know, but someone has to do it!
TDC: Since 2018, you've been coaching designers and architects about business processes and how to charge. Maybe this is a cheeky question, but do you always get it right?
AM: The simple answer to that question is ‘No!’. But nowadays, I’d like to think it's a minor slip up rather than a major one when I get it wrong. Unlike 20 years ago, I'm not allowing clients to take the project reins. Early on in my business career, I would've been very reactive to a client's wishes and demands, as I'm a bit of a people pleaser (like most of my designer friends).
I'm now very strict about following my design process because I know it works. I'm good at explaining to clients: how it works and why they need to follow that process. It's a tough job, what we do. We're subjected to a lot of external influences. People try to push and pull us in different directions to get what they want.
Recently, I slipped up by providing an extra round of revisions without charging, which inevitably led to further requests for further changes. It meant a difficult discussion with the client that could have been minimised had I stuck to my process from the start.
Ultimately a small mistake like this is OK, because it reminds me that we need to draw a clear line in the sand with clients, and they need clear boundaries set, especially when there are additional charges associated with extra work.
TDC: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your design business?
AM: I think most designers and architects are the same. We're creative souls, and we crave approval from our clients. What we do is mainly subjective, and there is no right or wrong way. The creative side of the business is always a challenge, especially if you're pushing yourself to design beyond simple and conservative.
I'm still open to self-doubt about how a client will receive my creative ideas. But those doubts are small in comparison to years ago, mainly due to the confidence I've gained by following great processes. I take the clients on a clear journey from the first conversation to the completion of the project. I've got enough touchpoints with them along the way. And I know I'm managing their expectations well. Many years ago, I didn't have the skills or knowledge to manage those expectations.
Like every designer, I'm susceptible to external influences from other parties. Obviously, there’s the client and builders, trades, and other professionals. These people have different agendas, expectations, and perceived project outcomes. Often designers and architects are pulled in different directions, the meat in the sandwich. We try to keep everyone happy, which doesn't always work 100%.
The way you handle the trials and the person you are during those challenging moments is very defining for the client. It can either build trust or break it down. The challenges never go away—it's about how you handle them that really demonstrates your professional maturity.
TDC: What do you love most about the design industry?
AM: I originally came into design excited about helping people and creating beautiful spaces for them. I often say, "we're not saving babies," especially when managing stress levels about our work. But what we do is incredibly important. We create beautiful, safe, nurturing environments that make people feel inspired and help them function well. I like to think of it as making homes for the people who are saving babies.
The other element I love aligns with our mission statement: Great design brings people together. I love the community I’ve connected with, from suppliers to trades to past clients. It's an enriching part of what we do, and ours is a relationship-focused industry.
TDC: If you could do anything differently regarding the early days of running your interior design business, what would you change?
AM: I don't believe in regret. Everything that’s happened has led me to today. Many mistakes were painful and dramatic—they influenced me personally, mentally, financially, and professionally. I could have avoided them if I'd had better tools, processes, and methods of operation.
But if I had, I probably wouldn't have the insights that I bring to The Design Coach today. I'm driven to help people, and I know a lack of systems and processes negatively impacts them. I know how alienating and lonely it can be as a small business operator trying to make your way through the business world alone.
I'm happy I experienced those things and made those mistakes. But if I were to change one thing, it would be that I‘d reach out for help earlier, rather than wait till it was almost too late. I don't want other designers and architects to get to that point. There's no shame in asking for help. If anything, it shows courage.
TDC: What are you working on at MR. MITCHELL at the moment?
AM: Between all the work I do at The Design Coach, I'm still really enjoying working on my projects for MR. MITCHELL. I've got a couple of exciting decorating jobs on the go. I'm a pretty passionate decorator.
I've worked on various residential, commercial, and hospitality projects.While I love the challenge of the structural and interior design-focused side, I also love the decorative elements.
I'm also in the early stages of an inspiring new residential project that will take place over the next two to three years. It's a beach house down on the Mornington Peninsula. We’re demolishing a very plain 1970s house and building something fit for the client's future. I've worked with this client before, and the architects are very talented, so it’s a bit of a dream project.
TDC: What are you looking forward to in the future with both TDC and MR. MITCHELL?
AM: I'm looking forward to learning more, pushing myself outside my comfort zone and experiencing new things.
With MR. MITCHELL I'm excited to be working on the Mornington Peninsula project.
For The Design Coach, I never stop looking for ways to improve our member offers, particularly by making learning more accessible. We've just launched our Online Design Lab classes, which embody the crucial skills of setting up robust processes, how to charge and how to manage project finances.
Beyond the imminent Byron Bay retreat, I'm looking at an exciting new retreat in 2023, launching in June. April 2023 sees our first ever international excursion to Milan, and it’s almost sold out, so I'm excited to be taking a beautiful group of designers to Salone Del Mobile for the trip of a lifetime!
TDC: What was your all-time favourite design project, and why?
AM: It certainly wasn't the easiest project, but working on my parents' house was the most rewarding and memorable. It always will be the pinnacle of my design career. I was honoured to work with my parents to build their dream home. They built from scratch, and it was their opportunity later in life to create everything they wanted. That was magical.
Our Byron Retreat commences next week and we have one ticket remaining due to a last minute cancellation. If you would like to join us, click HERE.
If you are interested in learning more about the Milan Retreat, we encourage you to visit the website and register asap. Only a few places remain for this incredible experience. To be the first to find out about our upcoming classes, retreats and events, sign up as a free member HERE.
To view more projects by Andrew's design practice, head to www.mrmitchell.com.au