The Value in Mentoring, Menial Jobs, and Proving Your Merits
Amanda Welch of Brooks Vale Design was always interested in art growing up. It’s been a long journey, from her early art interests to becoming an interior designer with her own business, and she shares that she found a lot of value in mentoring along the way. After college, she moved to Washington, DC, where she began her career working in a fabric showroom, paying her dues. Her natural talents were evident, though, and a local designer hired her as a design assistant. Quickly, she began managing her own projects, learning about her industry and how to successfully run a business, flourishing with the support of a mentor.
Today, she works in Seattle, helping high-end clients to create the beautiful, comfortable homes they’ve always wanted, and she shares behind-the-scenes of ‘falling into entrepreneurship’ and how her mentor has made all the difference. We also talk about:
- how she never wanted a business but wound up an entrepreneur
- how the jobs she liked the least over her career taught her the most
- the challenges of communicating the value of her work — and my tip for doing just that
- breaking through her industry stereotypes and differentiating herself as a formally trained professional
- her tips for women entrepreneurs, including how she learned to trust her gut and why mentoring has been instrumental
“The one thing that really got me is that I like people and being a designer is such a people job. I get to go have personal conversations with people multiple times a day in meetings and I really like that. I have a very high level of personal connection with all my clients.”
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JM: Hey, Amanda. How are you?
AW: Good. How are you?
JM: Good. I am really looking forward to talking with you. We had some scheduling snafus and it has been an adventure so I’m happy to finally have you on the phone.
AW: Yes, for sure.
JM: Tell me a little bit more about what you do.
AW: I am a formally trained interior designer which is different from an interior decorator or [inaudible 00:00:25] decorator. There’s a lot of negative connotation that come along with being a designer I think and we get a bad rap. But I’m a formally trained interior designer which basically means I have an education in design and I do pick out sofas but I also do full construction. I do lots of ripping down walls, not physically, but designing around ripping down walls and redoing lighting and super custom things, custom cabinets, tile layouts.
JM: Are those things that we would more relate to like a remodel in layman’s terms?
AW: Yeah, remodel, exactly. [inaudible 00:01:06]
JM: Okay, so if I wanted to [inaudible 00:01:06] my house.
AW: Definitely design around furniture is not the only thing that I do.
JM: Not just picking out sofas and pillows. What is the difference between a decorator and a designer and when you say “getting a bad rap,” what does that mean?
AW: Decorating is something that a lot of people are really skilled at, it’s actually something I don’t think that I necessarily was just naturally skilled at so decorating will be more like picking things out for a room like rags and art for the wall.
JM: Kind of accessorizing.
AW: Yeah, mirrors, sofas, accessorizing it, putting things on a bookshelf. That would be more like decorating whereas to call yourself an interior designer, you have to have an education, you have to have the degree, usually you have to be trained. That’s kind of the difference between the two things.
I think designers get a bad rap because it’s something that’s really expensive and I think it’s something that people think only very wealthy people can afford or maybe people think they are stuck up or they’re conceited. I don’t know why but that’s just kind of the impression I get.
JM: I think you see that a lot in movies where it’s kind of like the high-maintenance designer and it’s like my way or the highway.
JM: I think that’s funny though, if I’m at the point that I’m like ripping up floors and ripping out walls, isn’t that kind of an investment like you’re not looking for the cheapest provider at that point? I don’t know why that’s people’s instinct especially for really complicated jobs but I always think that’s very funny when you want something that needs to be done really well and it’s very sensitive and it’s going to be on budget and on time and then you want to pay the cheapest for it. I always think that’s funny.
AW: Yeah. We get a bad rap because people just think of designers as you see them in movies, that’s a really good point. I think there are designers like that but I’m definitely not like that. I think [inaudible 00:03:04] will meet me and they’re like, “Oh, you’re a designer, you’re nice,” and I’m like, “Yeah. What did you think I was going to be?” I can even tell when I walk into people’s homes that they are very intimidated by the whole process like they’re uncomfortable because it’s expensive and I think they’re afraid of what I’m going to say or they’re afraid of how much I’m going to tell them it’s going to cost. I think I have a job that’s completely based around money too. Money is a hard thing for everyone. I think that makes it challenging as well.
JM: I think for me the thought of working with an interior designer would be intimidating in terms of having, it almost feels like somebody’s going to come in and judge what I currently have and they’re kind of the tastemakers and they’re going to tell me what I need, maybe or maybe not, I will or won’t agree, do you think some of it is maybe that?
AW: Yeah. No, definitely. I think there are a lot of designers out there who will force people to get rid of everything in their home or they’ll only take projects with X-budgets—and I do limit, I’m not going to work with somebody who calls me and says, “I only want to shop at IKEA and I want less than five hundred dollars,” of course not—there is some level where you have to be realistic about what furniture costs, or what tile costs, or what anything costs. I’m not going to work with somebody who calls me and says, “I want to spend fifteen thousand dollars on a kitchen,” that’s not even feasible.
I do have limitations to who I will and won’t work with but a lot of designers are very particular about every project has to be a portfolio piece and I don’t feel that way, I just like to help people. I do like to work on things that will go on my portfolio [inaudible 00:04:44] amazing projects, of course, but there’s also a balance in that.
A lot of times, working with people who maybe have smaller budgets or who, back to your point about am I going to tell them to get rid of everything in their house, I would never do that. Now, if they asked me my opinion then, if they said, “What do you think about this chair?” if it’s not going to work with what we’re doing, usually I’ll try to recommend repurposing it to a different space in the home if that’s possible. Then usually I just tell them my honest opinion but most times, I’ll say, “We could probably find a way to work with it like we can get other new furniture in the room, you keep the chair, we’ll throw a blanket over this bed, we’ll find a way to make it work if that’s what we have to do,” because budgets are budgets and at the end of the day, if a new chair is two thousand dollars, well, that might blow the budget. I think there’s also a level of just working with people with what they have and I have to be careful about what I say because sometimes, that chair in the corner, I might not know if it maybe is grandma’s beloved chair.
JM: Right, right. It’s so personal too like maybe it was a gift or an heirloom or it was an investment that they made in that piece. So many times, I talk with my clients especially those who are consultants, and there really is that kind of a fine art of consulting on something and telling somebody the truth based on, they have asked you to do a job, they’re paying you to do a job but then they have their thoughts on how things should go and they have their opinions. How, overtime, have you learned to marry those two things where you are walking in as this person who is the expert, I just feel like interior design especially is so personal, it is a reflection of that person and their lifestyle. Have you had those times where it really became a challenge? How have you learned to bring those together?
AW: That’s a really good question, I know we’re on the phone right now but I have a very, very, very expressive face so.
JM: We’ll have to do a Zoom next time.
AW: Yes. It’s one of those things where I know that I am there to give my opinion and I know that I probably know the right answer, but I’ve learned, for one thing, to control my face as best as I can. When I very, very first started, I had this client who wanted to redo her kitchen and she was talking about her island and she was like, “You know? I think the island is okay,” and I must have had a look on my face and she was like, “Oh, it’s awful, isn’t it?” I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” Apparently, it was all over my face like she couldn’t have that island anymore. That was like three years ago. I’ve learned to try to control my face as best as I can.
I’ve learned to just speak carefully honestly, like I’m a very candid, honest person as I’m sure you can tell, so I’ve learned to just try to use less words and let them talk. I figured out, if I let them talk first and hear what they have to say, usually, it will kind of come out and I can gauge their personality and figure out like, “How honest can I be with this person?” There’s a person who wants me to say, “Hey, Jen, get rid of that piece of art on the wall,” or is this the person who wants me to like tread lightly? I think it’s all about them and their personality.
Most people who work with me, I think they know from our intake call, they know from our first meet, they know what I’m like. But even at that, I still have to be careful because it is hard because it is very personal, and not only is it things the people are personally attached to but it’s also about the function and the way that they live. It’s like how do you keep things in your kitchen? How do you keep things in your underwear door? I have to ask people where they keep their underwears and it’s awkward.
JM: You get to know your clients really well.
AW: Yeah, but I mean, I have to ask people who don’t have kids, like, “Are you going to have kids?” because that affects your kitchen design, that affects your living room, that affects your life. I mean you have kids, you know how that goes. I have to ask people really personal questions and it’s one of those things where I do have to be personal but I also have to be careful because I don’t want to offend somebody. At the end of the day though, I think like I can kind of get away with it because I am there to make sure their house looks good. At the end of the day, I think a lot of people appreciate the honesty as long as I’m careful about how I say it.
JM: Absolutely. I learned very early on that you have to say things in a way that people can hear it so it’s like something that doesn’t trigger them, they get upset, or frustrated or they hear something else in the statement that you are trying to make. So being careful to say things in the way that somebody can receive that information in the way that it’s intended, that can definitely be tricky.
AW: That’s a personality thing though, it’s like some people, you have to be very careful. The other thing is like I’ve learned, almost weekly, I would say that I let clients make decisions that I might necessarily agree with but it’s something that they really want and maybe it’s not what I would do and usually comes on the budget but it is what it is, it’s their house, it’s what they want to do. I’ve given them my advice, they paid me to be there and at the end of the day, if that’s what they want, then it’s okay. I can’t force people to do things.
JM: Even though it would look better the other way.
AW: I can’t force them to make the right decision. I know the right decision but I cannot force that upon someone so I’ve told them what I thought, it’s in writing, it’s been said, at that point it’s your choice.
JM: Right. What makes good design then? That’s a huge question but when you walk into someone’s home and you are making those recommendations and they decide to take those recommendations or not, in your mind, what makes good design?
AW: I always tell people that good design is about the design proportions. Almost always, design is about a proportion, scale, color, light, it’s about the design elements. People think that it’s all about having the perfect rag and the perfect kitchen cabinets, you can have the perfect kitchen cabinets but, here’s an example everyone relates to, like back in the nineties how they’d left that awful gap at the top, if you don’t take the cabinets to the ceiling, it doesn’t feel right because you’re creating a horizontal line in the room and you’re cutting the room off. Good design is really about the way a space feels.
Oftentimes, people will hire me and they’ll say, “I did this for myself and it doesn’t feel good,” or “My kitchen doesn’t feel good. This bathroom, it doesn’t feel good.” Well, it’s probably because the colors are bad which is creating a bad feeling or the space is too tight which is creating a bad feeling, or the height is wrong which is creating a bad feeling, so design, [inaudible 00:11:27] was like a crazy person when I say this to people, but design is psychology and it elicits emotions in people, it makes people feel a certain way.
The different things make people feel a certain way and that’s why people will say, “The space feels bad to me.” So I have to help them figure out why but it goes back to everything is about the basic design elements which I learned in college and at the time I’m like, “Yes, the parallel lines, of course.” It’s so funny because I remember I’m learning about proportion and they teach symmetry by showing you like a picture and then putting the picture on either side, it’s like, “Well, duh,” but little did I know that all of those things were so important and they’re are words that I use every single day, [you learn it 00:12:14] like design 101 in college but the design elements are so important and this is element for your feeling.
JM: Right, and the things that come naturally to you don’t to others. It’s interesting that you make that observation that it’s really about feeling good when you walk into the room. I think so many things in life are that way, what makes it feel good. I have that conversation with my clients so often, sometimes we’re trying to make decisions and when we start to overthink things and we’re going back and forth, one extreme to the other and at the end of the day like does it feel right, does it feel right when you walk into the room? Does it feel good when you walk into the room? Does this decision about your business feel good? It’s so funny how it is so basic, it’s so simple, but so many times we seem to forget that and we’re making decisions based on what other people think we should do or the things that we see on TV or in magazines but, does it feel good?
AW: Right, and that’s the other thing I think about what makes good design is, my mentor actually says that you usually, you won’t love everything in your space, like she’ll said that about her own home like, “I don’t love everything in my space because the most important thing about design is it is cohesive.” I use that word a million times a day like, “This needs to feel cohesive.” People want their living room to feel cohesive, with their dining room to feel cohesive, even their bedroom or their kitchen. The bedroom isn’t in the kitchen but you want it to feel like the whole house goes together, just as you want your wardrobe to feel cohesive.
But good design is about not necessarily loving every element at your home, maybe you get navy blue kitchen cabinets because you love navy blue kitchen cabinets. Maybe that means that you have to get kind of a basic subway tile even though you’re that person who wants this crazy pattern with crazy navy blue cabinets, maybe you can’t have that because it’s not cohesive, and now you don’t love the subway tile but it doesn’t matter because you’re going for a look as a whole. I get people who get hung up on little things like I’ve shown them ten lamps and they’re like, “But this one has [inaudible 00:14:23] ball thing at the top,” and I’m like, “Okay,” at the end of the day, you’re not going to look at your bedroom and go, “That [inaudible 00:14:29] ball thing on that lamp.” But people get so hung up on these little things that I’m like, “Do you love your bed? Do you love the bedsheet, do you love the bedding?”
JM: “Do you love the lighting?”
AW: Yeah. “Do you love the paint color?” You’re not going to love every little thing, maybe you will, maybe every once in a while that happens, but I think for the most part, people pick something that they love and the other things in the room have to just fall into place based around that one focal thing.
AW: That’s the thing they love, yeah, exactly. It’s hard for people to remember that and when you’re buying things that are expensive, it’s like buying like a pair of comfortable shoes, it’s like you have these kick-ass jeans and this awesome shirt and this great statement necklace and maybe it’s called for a pair of fancy Louis vuitton shoes but I really need the comfortable boots. Maybe you don’t love them but you love the outfit as a whole, that’s kind of how design is.
JM: Oh, the struggle is real. The shoes are a good analogy. Do you have a favorite design element?
AW: I really like colors but I don’t get to work in color a lot especially because I live in the North West where people really like neutral, which is totally fine and I like neutral too, but I really like color and I think that pops of color can bring so much life especially in a place where it is gray parts of the year.
JM: Do you think that’s why so many people like neutrals there? Does it just feel natural with the environment?
AW: I think yeah, I think that this is a very neutral place. It’s very green, it’s very earthy, it’s very neutral. That is why people like neutral. I think that the country as a whole likes neutral because it’s people feel like no matter who’s doing their home, it’s expensive and so people feel like, “If I do neutral, then I’m not going to be [inaudible 00:16:27]”
JM: You can’t go wrong.
AW: That’s the big reason people do neutral and I totally get that. But I always tell people like, “You can do tops of color in pillows, you can do a colorful rag, that’s a pretty easy thing to just replace.”
JM: Something that doesn’t feel like a huge investment.
AW: Right. Now if you make your whole room chartreuse, of course that’s like, “Sure, if you have to replace everything in the room, that could be a problem. But if it’s just a rag, or if it’s just the pillow, or if it’s just like an accent chair, it’s retired of in five years, donate it somewhere or move it to a different room in your house and get something different.
JM: Right, do you have a lot of color in your home?
AW: Yes, I have a nice decent amount. I just bought my first house.
JM: Oh, congratulations.
AW: Yeah, thanks. Another thing is everybody’s asking me about doing my own house.
JM: Right, everybody wants to see inside.
AW: It’s just like at the end of the day, the energy level to doing my own home is just, it’s fun to have things in here that I like, but it’s at the end of the day.
JM: The cobbler’s children wear no shoes.
AW: Yeah, at the end of the day I’m just like you’re tired, you’ve been doing this all day for everyone else and then you’re like, “Yeah, that’s fine.”
JM: Yeah, yeah, I definitely can relate to that.
AW: Exactly, yes. In full honesty, I need to redo the kitchen in my house and it’s so funny to change something that are like the bones of the house and so I would tell a client like, “Don’t get ahead of yourself, don’t go completely redoing your whole house when you know that you’re going to change a space, it’s going to affect the rest of the house.”
JM: Like basic structural changes.
AW: Yeah. I’m trying to adhere to my advice when I get other people as best as I can.
JM: How do you help people see the value of what you do? Because I know from you and I, talking briefly ahead of today, that has been a little bit of a challenge so talk to me about that.
AW: That’s a tough one. I think when it comes to renovating, most of my clients come from contractors, and when you’re renovating, I do all of my designs in a 3D program just like Joanna Gaines, for point of reference, but I always tell people because everybody knows who that is now. I think when I’m talking to someone who’s thinking about taking on a renovation project, I think it’s usually pretty easy for them to understand how paying someone, from one thing, they get a visual of what their home will look like when they’re spending one-hundred thousand dollars for a kitchen, I think people understand, it’s like, I’m going to spend one-hundred thousand dollars, it’s worth it, I think you said this earlier, it’s worth it to invest to make sure that I’m making good decisions, not only about colors, designers know so much, I don’t have to help you figure out how to do the cabinets in your kitchen so that you can organize the things in your kitchen. Usually I can explain to people that, “It will save you time, it will save you money in the end because it will keep you from making change orders with your contract or it will keep you from buying materials and returning them and flexing on your decisions.”
It’s one of those things where I can explain as best as I can. At the end of the day, it’s usually about whether someone really wants help and what are they willing to invest in help, what furniture, I kind of have like two jobs, but with furnishings, I think it’s a lot harder because it’s hard for people to understand why it’s important. It’s like they can pay me to help them but they can also do it themselves like when you’re doing something like a kitchen and construction, a lot of people don’t have any knowledge about that but most people have some sort of general knowledge about how to measure out furniture, you take a tape measure and figure out [inaudible 00:20:21].
That one I think is harder and I think usually, that’s one of those things where either someone sees the value or they don’t. There’s not a lot I can really say to really convince someone that they should have helped and I’ve also learned to think how well you’ve learned the same thing. If somebody doesn’t want help, there’s nothing I can say or do and it’s not worth me pushing myself on them.
JM: To make them take the home.
AW: Pushing myself on them.
JM: Right, right, that’s such a good point. It’s interesting how much you are in a completely different industry than I am as a business and branding consultant. But it’s funny, the parallels that we see when we’re talking about value and I think especially as women entrepreneurs, we kind of have that instinct to that when somebody questions—especially if you are newer in business, overtime, hopefully this instinct changes as your confidence grows—but I think that’s for so many times we start getting into these conversations where we negotiate our rates down, and my husband is also an entrepreneur and we always kind of laugh when a prospect’s first question is, “What’s it going to cost,” and it’s like, “Nope,” this person is disqualified, we are not like the price leader people, we are the value people, we are the high value, high quality people.
I think that so many times, people think about the outcome but they really trip themselves up by thinking about the price before the outcome. As you become more experienced, I think it’s important to remind people in terms of the value that they’re going to get from what they’re paying, there are things you don’t think of, there are obstacles that you want to avoid and so much of what you are talking about, I’m hearing that especially with a major remodel or dealing with contractors or change orders, all those things that I don’t know about that, you are the person who’s going to help me to navigate that situation. I think that’s really where we want to remind people, “Hey, this is the value that you’re getting, this is why you’re not getting the cheapest person, we’re not the most expensive but we are not the cheapest.”
AW: Right. It’s tough. We had this conversation two years ago, I’d probably [inaudible 00:22:36] different answer but now it’s like, I can tell you what I do, I can explain it to you, if they don’t see the value in it, it’s not going to be a good situation for either of us because they’re going to fight the process, they’re going to be unhappy, they’re constantly going to be worried about money. I think that’s where you and I are parallels, that we’re charging for a service, it’s expensive and it’s selective. It’s hard to pay someone thousands of dollars for something that’s selective. That’s hard, it’s hard for me. It’s hard for me too when I have to hire someone. I remind myself like people pay me to do things.
AW: I should pay someone else to help me with X,Y, or Z.
JM: That’s a really good point. I will point in your business that you get into starting to look at hiring other people because I remember that I fought it so hard the first few years and then all of a sudden before I knew it, I was like, “I’m not dealing with payroll, I’m not trying to hire people,” and then I had to deal with payroll and I’m like, “I’m never going to get an office. I’m too afraid to sign a lease,” and then suddenly I’m like, “I need to have an office,” and it’s something that feels like I kind of stumbled into in the first few years, how did you get to that point?
AW: I haven’t hired anybody yet, it’s just me, except I have a bookkeeper and a CPA.
JM: Okay, so you have hired people. I consider that very much so because I think especially in those terms of what’s the highest and best use of my time. I honestly would probably be in trouble with the IRS if it came to me doing my own bookkeeping, I would have no idea of what the hell I was doing, and a CPA.
AW: Right, I’m a reseller so my books are really complicated. I sell products, that’s part of how I make money. Keeping up with all of that would be a lot. Almost immediately, I got a bookkeeper because it was my very first project, I was selling things and I was, “Okay, how do we deal with this?” I think that for me was just knowing that I was going to spend countless hours stressing over getting it right and figuring it out and I just knew like I have to have somebody to help me with this.
Outside of that, design is a tough field because I can hire a design assistant, somebody who maybe doesn’t have an education or who’s in college and wants to learn. Where that’s hard is that they don’t have a lot of the skills, like the things that take me the most time. Probably the single thing that takes me the most time is drawing because I do full construction set, drawing set, full 3D models for my clients. Those things take tens or fifteens of hours, they take forever. If I hire someone who doesn’t know how to do that, then that’s where it gets challenging. If I hire someone who does know what to do, I pretty much have to hire someone who can take a full time job. There’s not really a middle ground. I could just hire someone to help me like run errands and run and return tiles, and run and grab wallpapers, whatever. But it’s like, is that really worth it to me or not? I haven’t quite figured that out yet.
JM: Still working through that part.
AW: I think a lot of it for me honestly, and I know this is a problem, but it’s like relinquishing control like it’s the thought of relinquishing control of like letting someone else go take out tiles for a potential project for me is like that’s frightening. I know that’s bad so I’m going to get there.
JM: I don’t think it’s bad. I think for me it’s so hard because I relate to that like I am very much like that type-A person but it’s not just for the sake of being a difficult, controlling person, it’s because I want a particular standard upheld and my clients know that. The clients that I work with, they know that, it is so rare that we have a misstep or a slip up or something falls through the cracks. It just does not happen because it’s so damn important to me, that quality, that standard is so important to me and as I have relinquished some of that control like yes, there have been stumbles, there have been issues, luckily none of them have been major issues in terms of the quality that we deliver to our clients because that’s so important to me. But I also think that when you get to a place that you are ready to let somebody prove themselves with the little things first, that’s kind of like anywhere has to start like those little things and then you kind of learn to trust or you learn to coach. You kind of work through things.
One of my favorite kind of strategy is with new employees and some of my interns have been my best, surprisingly, employees but really kind of teaching them on the job in terms of, “What would you think? What would you do?” I might not always agree. We have that conversation and I pull rank it, it’s like, “Well, that’s great thinking but we’re going to do it this way and here’s why.” But sometimes they come up with these ideas where it’s like by virtue of asking them, they are thinking through the process so that they get accustomed to thinking through the process in the future instead of always having to come to me. Sometimes they come up with great ideas or a different solution than anything I would have thought of but yeah, it does feel very tenuous when you start to rely on other people to make those decisions, it does start to feel kind of scary. But you get to that point sometimes where it’s like, “Okay, you have to” right?
AW: No. I think all of this was like an evolution. You were talking earlier about what you charge your services and that was one of my biggest things in the beginning was like being able to talk to people about charging them and doing that thing about, “But you know, I’ll give you a special price,” and that’s something that had you ask me three years ago if I’d be sitting here is like and now I’m just like, “I tell people what it costs and if they don’t like it, I don’t care.”
JM: I love that you say it, you don’t like it, I don’t care.
AW: Yeah, that sounds like a [inaudible 00:28:15] thing but it’s just like, “Well, it is what it is,” my time is valuable, I have a portfolio, I have training like I’ve proved that I’m valuable. I believe in my value, not that I didn’t believe it then but I think it’s just an evolution.
JM: But your confidence grows, right. I think too, you’re signaling a certain quality based on pricing. We talk a lot in our group about pricing psychology and it is definitely one way to go if you want to be a price leader. I think that works really well if you are selling widgets and you have like an impulse buy if you want to sell volume. But when you have a longer sales cycle and you have a higher priced item, then it’s really an investment for your client, you are signaling something about your value especially, I know we would never say like, “If you don’t like it, I don’t care,” but you communicate that in a diplomatic way.
I do think that the people who aren’t shopping solely based on price—everybody’s looking for a good deal and I totally get that, everybody wants value for their money—but for those people who are really looking for quality it’s like, “Oh, okay this person isn’t hurting for the business, they are not desperate to sign me, if this is this person’s going rate and they’re ready to pass me up as a client because they know to have somebody else, that says something about the quality of your work.”
AW: Right, but I think just like mentally getting to that point, over a year, it was like I dreaded the call, like my client intake calls which I shouldn’t have but I would just dread having to explain to them why it’s so expensive and that feeling of like, “What are they going to think? Do they think it’s too expensive?”
JM: “What’s the reaction going to be?”
AW: Yeah. I shouldn’t have said like I don’t care, it’s not that I don’t care but it’s just like, there are plenty of other designers out there. If you’re going to find somebody less expensive, that if your only motive is to find someone less expensive then, there are other people, I’ll give you someone’s name.
JM: Like you say it does become kind of that mindset that you have to be in like obviously you don’t feel like that about your prospects and your clients but I think from the perspective of an entrepreneur, it is hard to get to that place. I think especially as women entrepreneurs, it’s tough to get to that place because so many of us second guess and question our own worth and our own value and having to get to that place where we can say like, “Yup, this is what it costs.”
I find for me that one of the things that is always important in the conversation, especially if I’m working with a corporate client that wants to bring me in to work with several of their executives or if I’m working with an entrepreneur that has a pretty big rebrand project, anytime that we’re looking at a bigger project, I have to bring in my purpose like this is my purpose, this is what I do. This isn’t just a job. It’s not something that I fell into. It didn’t just kind of happen by chance like my purpose is to empower you to make the decisions about your lifestyle and your business that are going to get you what you want. My purpose is to empower and support women entrepreneurs.
I think when you can tie it back to your purpose or to your why, the people that you want to work with are going to get that, the people who want to be empowered and want to make better decisions about their lives and their businesses, who want to get away from the conventional lifestyle that everybody feels like they’re supposed feel crazy bouncing between kids and your business, and you’re supposed to work until two o’clock in the morning, and you are supposed to sacrifice yourself and you don’t just have a lot of time. That’s b*******. When you’re ready to step away from that, those people who are ready to make that change respond to that. I think always bringing back your purpose really helps people to see that value.
AW: Yeah. But I think it’s crazy how far I hadn’t even really thought about it until you said that a second ago, but how much you grow and change as a business owner and how you find how much more confident you get overtime although those doubts are still there. But like you just said, to say to somebody like, “This is my progress, this is what I’m doing,” and just be confident in it, it’s something that I probably thought two years ago, “I would never get to this point.” I’m sure that the whole hiring somebody will evolve and eventually it will just be like, “This is what I have to do,” and I will be like, “All right, I’m doing it.”
JM: Right, I got to that place. I was finally like, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
AW: Your business is very similar to mine in that you’re selling yourself, I am selling myself. When someone hires me, they’re hiring me for my expertise but also for my aesthetic and for the way I see things. I think you have to be careful about what you’re delegating out to someone else who works for you and my field.
AW: Because they’re not hiring me and then I would say, “Oh, I’m going to hand this off to [Sarah.” 00:33:11]
JM: Right, “Let me defer this off to somebody else.” No, I totally, totally agree. They’re hiring you for the way that you do things and the way that the lens that you see through, absolutely. I always think that is always kind of a tricky thing is figuring out where people fit within your business in terms of the decisions that they are making and how that affects your output or the outcome that a client is going to get. I think that’s a really good point like people are hiring you for how you see things so it does come down to either finding somebody who gets that aesthetic and also wants to develop that type of an aesthetic or develop those kinds of skills or provide a certain type of a service the way that you offer it or like you said before, like finding somebody who’s fine with running the errands and doing the returns and all those things.
AW: Yes, [which is 00:33:59] two very different things.
JM: Very different things. Talk to me a little bit about some of the other ups and downs within your business, did you kind of always grow up thinking you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
JM: No. How did you end up with your own business? Because I always thought I’m unemployable like I can’t go, sit at a desk from nine to five for the rest of my life so how about for you, how did you end up becoming an entrepreneur if that’s not something that you kind of said like, “Hey, I want to go do this someday”?
AW: I was always super creative and I’ve always been super driven but I’m not very type-A. But I think I actually thought, this is like full honesty, I thought I was going to be a [inaudible 00:34:47]
JM: Oh, really?
AW: I mean, that will still happen for me eventually but I married this guy who is very, very, very driven. We moved to Seattle so he could get a PhD, that kind of driven. We have been together since high school and we went to two different colleges and when it came time to go to college, it was, “What am I going to do?” I’m really creative and also I love kids, so it’s either going to be a teacher or I was going to be an interior designer. I visited the college of education and that college walkthrough, I was like, “I just don’t think this is for me. I’m going to be a designer.” I loved art, I love tinkering with like decorating. I was putting things out. My parents were like, “Yeah, you should do it,” so I became an interior designer.
We graduated from college and we moved to D.C. in 2008—that’s an important part of the story, the recession. I didn’t want to have kids necessarily right then but I felt like within the first three, four, five years we’re going to have kids and that whatever job I had done would just kind of be a thing in the past and I’d probably wouldn’t work. It was the recession and I got a job at a fabric showroom, which is a very humbling experience for eight fifty an hour, I sat in a room and folded fabrics all day for eight hours a day.
JM: You know it’s funny, are you familiar with Iris Apfel? She’s really interesting. She is in her eighties and you should look her up because she is amazing. She and her husband, I don’t even know, for like decades, they owned a textile store in New York and very late in her life, she became a fashion icon, I mean this woman, her accessorizing is like unparalleled, she is amazing, but it was interesting.
AW: Oh, yeah, I know who she is.
JM: Okay, everybody knows from the glasses and the big bracelets and stuff like even if you don’t know her, if you go look up a picture, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I know her. I’ve seen her. She’s had documentaries made about her. She’s been in magazines.” But it’s interesting because she talks about in her history how she would go visit her grandmother and she would do work for her, hangout and visit with her and her grandmother would sort of pay her, she says, “in scraps of fabric.” It’s funny because she grew up getting very familiar with texture, color and patterns and then she and her husband started traveling Europe to go buy textiles for their business. But it’s just funny when you talk about getting paid like nothing to sit and fold fabric but don’t you think that probably helped you to get to where you are in terms of the things that you like and don’t like now?
AW: I learned a lot from that job. I think it was eye-opening. The other thing is that I always thought when I was in college that I love to draft. I loved Autocad, I loved drawing. I loved printing the drawing. I loved everything about it. I always thought, “The job that I’ll do until I have these kids is I’ll go work for a commercial design firm and I’ll be a dress person.” We wound up in D.C, and no commercial design firm was going to hire in 2008, I didn’t have any skills and I was right at the college and so I get this job, folding fabric.
JM: When you have these overqualified people killing themselves in horrible economy for any job like you do.
AW: At this point I hadn’t had a job. I’ve been in the college for like nine or ten months, I hadn’t done anything. We’ve been in Alabama then we moved, and I was like, “I’m just going to do it, I’m just going to fold fabric, whatever, it’s something to do.” I think initially it taught me this love for the residential part of design that I thought I didn’t even like which is so ironic obviously now. But yeah, it was just this eye-opening experience. I thought fabric is just some [inaudible 00:38:40] but like there’s so much more to fabric than that. I learned a lot from that.
I started to meet these residential designers. One of the things that they do, which just kind of sound silly probably, they’ll call and they’ll say, “I’m working on this project and I need some solid navy blue linen then I need some patterns to go with it,” and they’ll ask you to just pull fabric samples for them and that’s how [inaudible 00:39:02] and they take them to their clients.
JM: Oh, wow.
AW: I started doing this because that part of my job kind of helped designers take out fabrics and I had a couple of designers who would typically, after six or eight months, call and ask for me to pick fabrics for them, I was like, “Oh, maybe I’m good at this, maybe I know well how to do this.”
Then I started getting people who would, this is where people find employees and so I had this one lady, Shannon, who came in, she kind of pulled me aside because obviously I’m at the job, she’s like, “Would you work for me?” I’m like, “Well, this isn’t what I really want to do, I don’t know that I’m really into this.” I guess I still thought that I want to be a dress person at this point and eventually I was like, “You know what? Yeah,” so I took a job with her and I think I fell in love with the process. I don’t think I realized—even at that point, even with the degree, even after my fabric folding experience—what design was really about. I worked for her for five years. She’s a fully trained professional designer and she trained under somebody very famous in D.C and she’s been published on [Look 00:40:15] magazine and all the big magazines. It was just this eye-opening experience of like this is what design is really about.
I think the one thing I really didn’t know that probably is what really got me is that I really like people and that being a designer is such a people job. I get to go have personal conversations with people multiple times a day in meetings and I really like that. I have a very high level of personal connection with all my clients.
JM: That’s so cool.
AW: I think that’s what I loved about it. I guess it just kind of happened, it just kind of evolved and I was like, “I love this.” But all the way through though, I kept saying, “I will never do what she’s doing,” because she had two kids and I saw how stressful it was and I was like, “Well, this is great.” At this point, I did not know this very ambitious husband of mine was going to say, “I want to get a PhD and move somewhere,” somewhere, being the keyword, “in the country.”
JM: Move across the country.
AW: Yeah. Then he gets in the school, at U-dub here in Washington and I’m like, “Okay, well I guess we’re moving.” It’s why I left her and it was very sad. She and I are very good friends and she’s my mentor like I still call her all the time and I’m like, “Help, help.” But we moved out here and I actually worked for someone else out here and I thought, “Well, I’ll just do what I did for her because in the end I was running my own project,” I was a project manager and I had clients that maybe she wouldn’t take on, she would let me take them on while working for her.
JM: That’s awesome.
AW: Yeah, it was really great. I was getting to be a designer but I still had someone to help me and then if something went bad, I still had someone to be like, “It’s your deal.”
JM: “What do I do with this?”
AW: Yeah, or like, “You handle this like you do with the main contractors.”
JM: Buck stops with you.
AW: Yeah. I moved here and I went to work for someone here in Seattle and it wasn’t a good fit. All of a sudden, I was at this crossroads of like, because I felt very confident that I was a good designer, I was an amazing asset to someone, I thought, I went to work for this person. I think that I was a good designer but she had a very West Coast personality and I have a very East Coast personality and that alone was just a problem.
JM: Not a mix.
AW: Yeah. It ended up kind of getting bad on an emotional level for me, like I came home one day and I looked at my husband and I was like, “I can’t do this, we can’t do this,” and he was like, “Well, you need to start a business,” and I was like, “No.” He was like, “Yes, why would you not? You know everything you need to know,” and when you work for a small business, you learn kind of how to run small business. I worked for her for five years so I saw what she did, I saw how to run the business. I was like, “No.” He was just like, “Why not?”
At this point I think I had gone from being so confident, I’ve been taken down like a hundred notches to being like, “Oh, gosh,” I had such a good situation and then I ended up in a not-as-good situation and it was this feeling of all of a sudden everything felt weird and scary, I was like, “This is not how I thought it was going to go,” it’s sometimes like type-A personality, it’s hard to let go through something like that.
JM: Oh, life.
AW: And I’ve only been in Seattle for like four months [inaudible 00:43:29] immediately when I moved here and I was like, “I know zero people in this town,” okay, I knew like four people. What am I going to do with four people, with four friends? I think that the whole being kind of shocked felt like having a not great work situation, and this is nothing bad about her. She’s an amazing designer. It’s just our personality, it didn’t work, which I think that experience was just like, “Okay, I handled that, I moved across the country, I’ve done so much like I can do this,” and so I did and I started going to meetups and I met all these people at meetups which is how I met you.
JM: Right, I know, I love that. I love that.
AW: Yeah, and somehow it just happened.
JM: You know what else I think? It’s so funny because your husband sounds a lot like mine like we are both entrepreneurs. We both started businesses right before the economy tanked so it’s like separating the men and the women from the boys and the girls and we made it, I’m proud to say we made it. But it’s interesting because I think so many times, the stories that I hear from other women entrepreneurs is oftentimes, anybody who becomes an entrepreneur, it’s scary for the spouse because you are completely invested in each other, you’re invested in your lives and your finances together. The road of owning your own business is so uncertain and it can be so scary especially if you’ve never done it before. But my husband is always like, “It will be fine, just do it. It’s going to be fine.” I love that your husband was just like, “Well, tomorrow you’re starting your business.” and you’re like, “No.”
AW: I was like, “Tomorrow I’m what? What are you talking about?”
JM: “Excuse me?” I love it, I love it.
AW: Yeah, I’m sorry that was a very long story about how I became an entrepreneur. It was just like this very weird set of circumstances that led through it, I guess, and then it was just this very shocking, everyday it seemed like it was getting better and I was like, “Okay, I guess this is what I’m doing.” It’s crazy to think like three years later I still haven’t had the kids, [inaudible 00:45:26] I’m going to do, but it’s just crazy that we’re still in this place in that like it’s going so, knock on wood, shockingly well for me.
JM: Yeah, yeah, that’s good, that’s good shock.
AW: It’s like the universe just agreed with me that this is what I should do.
JM: That’s awesome. Tell me, do you have some tips that you would share with women entrepreneurs in terms of just your experience in growing your own business? I think it’s interesting that you had no intention of having a business and then found yourself in that place so I’m sure you must have some kind of words of wisdom.
AW: I would say, based on that story, probably one of the biggest things for me like the first thing I would say would be to have a mentor. Everybody needs somebody to balance things off of especially if it can be someone in your field who does exactly what you do because only a mentor is going to understand when I call and I’m like, “Somebody today told me that they don’t understand why they have to pay for design drawing,” she’s like, “If I called you and said that, you would be like, ‘I’m so sorry,’” for someone [inaudible 00:46:32]
JM: Versus like, “Look, I’ve been there before.”
AW: Yeah and I called her and I’m like, “This freaking lady called me and emailed me and said she doesn’t understand why I’m doing drawings, and she emailed her designer friend who said that she doesn’t do drawing,” and I called her and like [I called my mentor. 00:46:46]
JM: Don’t you love that when prospects or clients start getting advice from other places and you’re like, “Good Lord, why didn’t you hire your friend?”
AW: “Why didn’t you hire her?” I think to have your process questioned, it’s just like, there’s a reason I do what I do, you don’t have to get it but there’s a reason and I’m not here to rip you off.
JM: You know when I have found about that, I have found that oftentimes those people have worked with somebody who does not have a well-defined process. Everything I do is intentional, every single thing we do in the course of working with a client, it is based on years of experience and knowing what works and what doesn’t and how to keep things organized and how to get to the outcome we’re looking for, it’s all intentional.
I usually have a conversation upfront now like, “This is the process, here’s what to expect. If there’s anything that you don’t understand or that we are not coming to agreement on now, we need to have that conversation.” But oftentimes, I think those are the people that are just not worth with somebody that has a clearly defined process like, “Why are we doing that? Like you just made that up. It’s just a thing to charge you for.”
AW: She knew, she knew. That was what’s the most challenging is like I was in a meeting a week after or after a meeting and in the meeting recap, I outlined—which I’ve learned from my mentor, another reason to have a mentor—but I called her and I was just like, “You’re never going to believe this,” and I said the same thing to my husband and he was like, “Well, maybe she doesn’t understand,” and I’m like, “No, you stop.”
JM: She understands.
AW: Yeah, so I called Shannon and she’s like, “Uh, what a b****” You have to have that person you can call because like only [inaudible 00:48:26]
JM: That can commiserate.
AW: Yeah, or is like, “[inaudible 00:48:28] fabric for someone and they said they like this then they got the chair,” and it’s like you have to have someone you can call or just to ask a question where it’s like, “Can I put a [inaudible 00:48:36] then set course one, can I put that on the fireplace? Does that work? Does that make sense? What do you think?” Then she’s like, “Oh, where are you going to put the seams?” and I’m like, “Good question,” just to have that person who you can bounce things off.
JM: That really gets it.
AW: Yeah, I don’t think it has to be someone in your field, in my situation, I think that makes sense, but have a mentor. Another thing is have a good network, especially as a woman, as an entrepreneur, have those people who you can go, it’s as if you work by yourself like me, it’s like to have the women and the woman boss or female entrepreneur groups where you can just go and sit and just have people to listen or like ask random questions or just be supportive of you, I think your network is super important because for me, my network and my people here in Seattle, that’s how I grew my business. It’s meeting people, just meeting people.
JM: I was going to say that. I think that is so important for one, for growing your business, it’s like getting out there. It’s tough for some people I mean, I will like talk your face off all afternoon like it’s not a problem for me. I enjoy talking to people but I think even if it doesn’t come naturally, one of those areas that it’s important to invest in is getting out and meeting people because it’s how you’ll get referrals and how you’ll grow your business but it’s also, I have a dinner series for women entrepreneurs and it’s interesting because for so many of us, I have an office and I have a team and so luckily, I have that luxury of, “Do I want to work from home? Today, I’m working from home with my Christmas lights on and my Christmas trees lit up,” but there are times that I start to just crave human interaction like I start to get lonely.
I think if you don’t have an office or if you’re a solopreneur, one of the reasons that we do the Catalyst Conversations Dinner Series is because we get together and everyone gets a few minutes to talk to the group and ask for some advice where, “This is what’s going on in my business, have you experienced this?” and all the women in the group leverage their experience, their expertise, their networks, like helping them solve those problems because it does get so lonely. Developing that network really helps you to understand first of all, whatever challenges you’re experiencing, it’s not unique, somebody has had that experience and knowing that there are women in your network that can share that is so important. But I think also just coming together and getting new ideas and seeing how other people are doing things is so hugely important.
AW: For sure. I’ve learned so much from people too who are even in my field.
JM: Just running a business.
AW: Yeah, in the beginning too, just having all those feelings of like, especially now about the pricing and just talking to new clients and figuring out how to know who to work with and who not to work with and all of that, I think having people just to bounce ideas off of in the beginning was really, really important.
JM: So valuable. Yeah, what else? What other tips do you have?
AW: A big thing for me is being organized. I obviously juggle usually about ten clients at a time, some larger-scale projects, some smaller-scale projects. I have a list upon list upon list, usually in my phone and I keep a paper calendar and I keep a list in my phone, multiple list, like a weekly goal list, your things that need to be done within the week, things that need to be done within the day, things that need to be done within the hour. I think it’s really hard, I’m sure you relate to this, to turn it off, to make it go away like when it’s time for me to stop at whatever time that may be in a given day, it’s really hard for me to make it go away. But I know that if I have my list in my phone that it will be there tomorrow.
JM: You can let it go.
AW: Yeah, because it’s there. It’s not like I’m not going to forget something and it’s always there so if I do randomly think of something, I just put it on the list and it’s there, it’s written down, it’s backed up to my computer, it’s on the internet, it syncs with the computer. The list is never going to disappear and I can go back for the list. It’s okay to turn it off even though that’s something I still struggle with is knowing when to stop, knowing when it’s time to differentiate between work and personal and to make it stop.
JM: That is so hard, I think especially when you love what you do, it’s hard. I know I get caught up in projects and it does change when you have kids. We used to do that thing where I would pick them up from school and then I will try to get home and get them started on homework and say like, “Okay guys, the work day’s not done till five o’clock,” like I’m still communicating with people and it just doesn’t work so you get to that place where you kind of have to tear yourself away to do other things.
Luckily that has just become easier over time. I started my business because I thought, “Oh, I want to raise kids and I want the flexibility to work from home,” I don’t always work from home anymore, I have an office now, I want to be able to work on things and be home with the kids, doesn’t always work that well. I’ve actually found over time that it’s much easier for me to compartmentalize certain things so it is not as easy as I thought it would be with kids in the mix but I totally agree. I think too, it’s how you stay resilient when you say like as much as, if I love a project, it’s still really important to stop and spend time with your significant other or a hobby or an interest or your friends and it’s so easy to get burned out if you’re not finding that balance.
AW: Right. I think another thing that I’ve finally, finally, after three years, been able to embrace is when it’s busy, go with it and when it’s quiet, embrace it.
JM: Right, go with the flow.
AW: Yeah. Now I’m only getting maybe like two or three quiet weeks a year but when that does happen, instead of panicking and thinking like, “What am I supposed to be doing usually?” usually it’s just because my construction starting date hasn’t started yet or whatever and I just happen to not have any other [inaudible 00:54:47] client meetings or drawings to work on. I have like a week where it’s quiet and that used to make me totally freak out and now I’m just like, “You know what? Remember like two weeks ago when I was working until eleven o’clock at night, every night of the week?” I suggest like go get in the [inaudible 00:55:00] and like go to the gym. I take care of myself and embrace this week rather than panic about this week.
JM: Absolutely. It’s great advice.
AW: As hard as that was in the beginning, it’s definitely getting easier. I think for me like probably the most important thing for me is I just need to go with my gut, now I know that sounds cliche but it’s like I have to make so many decisions on a daily basis and I could overthink everything, I could overthink how to write emails, I could overthink, oh, my God, I could let a client take something and then come home [inaudible 00:55:35] staring at it and freak out and think, “Oh, my gosh, this isn’t perfect. I got to email her back and say, ‘We got to pick a different tile.” But I think that for me, I have to go with my instinct, I have to go with my gut, I have to make decisions and I have to move on. I can’t dwell on every little thing. I can’t dwell on every little email, I can’t do that. I have to keep moving.
JM: That’s so hard sometimes.
AW: It’s hard.
JM: I think that comes with the experience. It’s really tough and I think especially because I’m that person where it’s like everything is intentional and it’s well-thought-out and it’s been hard for me to learn sometimes that you do have to just use instinct or your intuition or go with your gut on some things and it goes back, bringing the conversation full circle also it’s like what feels good, what feels right and sometimes that is enough.
AW: Yup, I agree.
JM: That’s great advice.
AW: Yup, I agree. It’s hard and adding all of this is like what does feel good and what’s [inaudible 00:56:35] but I think it’s taking a long time to get to that place, ten years.
JM: Thank you so much for your time. It has been so enjoyable to talk with you. If listeners would like to contact you, how would they reach you?
AW: I have a website, it’s brooksvaledesign.com and of course I have an Instagram where you can see all the fun things that are happening which is not a portrayal of real life, but that’s okay.
JM: What is your handle so that people can find you?
AW: It’s just @brooksvaledesign.
JM: Perfect, we’ll make sure that’s in the show notes as well so that people can find you. We’ll make sure there are links to your Instagram and into your website. Awesome. I appreciate it. If you would like to connect with me or if you would like to take a look at the show notes, you can find the show notes for all of the podcast episodes on the blog at brandwithcatalyst.com. Thank you so much for your time. It was awesome.
AW: Yes, thank you!