How to start an interior design franchise

Do it yourself 'Changing Rooms' with an interior design franchise

Interior design is traditionally associated with up-market houses and luxury offices. But thanks to the Changing Rooms generation it’s now about improving the feel of a space – any space. And if you have an eye for what makes a room look good then there are a number of franchises out there that could be for you.

What is it?

None of the franchises require to you to be an expert in design – or formerly qualified. They all rely on the natural talent that they assume has brought you to the franchise in the first place and comprehensive training.

As a result, to work with Colour Counsellors you will benefit from an eye for colour but you will be taught about book keeping, design, antiques, carpet laying, painting, decorating, curtain making and so on.

Franchisees – or ‘Counsellors’ – tend to visit the client in his or her home to discuss samples. It is difficult, otherwise, to gauge what it is exactly they are looking for and the kind of space you’re dealing with.

You would then go home, work out a colour scheme and go back to the client with designs and an estimate. Then hopefully work goes ahead. Despite learning about the process of laying carpets you don’t actually do this yourself. As well as building the business in terms of clientele, your job as a franchisee is to hire and retain the services of reliable subcontracted workers.

The franchisor runs a tightly controlled operation but you have access to the 300 suppliers with whom it has forged relationships and set up accounts. Without an account a supplier won’t give you priority, as it will with a well known-name.

Decorating Den works in a similar way. Its name will get you an account with the supplier but you don’t continue to operate through the franchisor, you deal direct.

But a distinctive aspect of the Decorating Den franchise is that all its franchisees drive to appointments in a ColourVan. This is a customised van that carries 1000s of samples, thereby serving as storage, as well as acting as an effective permanent advert. Most appointments will be on the clients’ premises so wherever you park the name is promoted.

Although even though she will travel quite a way, calling first to find what the client is looking for is essential, says Jo Tempest York in Buckinghamshire. “That way I can find out if they’re looking for traditional or contemporary or whether they want furniture and have the right samples in the ColourVan.”

Urban Planters by contrast is concerned with the interior landscape of your space. Franchisees create contracts with offices, hotels, and leisure centres and so on to hire out and maintain real and artificial plants and sometimes trees.

Where the other two franchises offer potential repeat revenue, if you offer a satisfactory service Urban Planters guarantees a continuous revenue stream. And you don’t need to be an expert in horticulture. As Liverpool franchisee Brendan Wilson says,

“I was interested in gardening but only as a hobby. The attraction of the franchise is that it’s a really nice product to work with and the variety is enormous. I go from large to small offices to fitness centres in a day, meeting many different people.”

This is a burgeoning market as offices have ceased to see plants as a decoration or luxury and are now looking on them as essential. In many places it has become a health and safety issue. And Urban Planter franchisees look to make a design statement while providing this.

Getting started

Setting up: A franchise that requires premises, a van or advance stock is liable to cost more than a purely home-based one. But costs aren’t massive, ranging from £8000 for Colour Counsellors to around £50,00 for Urban Planters.

Premises: “For Colour Counsellors you only really need a small home office,” explains Banbury Counsellor Sara Allday. “Clients very rarely come to the house so I have a small room for my computer and phone and an awful lot of shelves for storing samples.”

The nature of Urban Planters means you need premises to store plants and operate from. But again this doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive, as franchise director Nick Gresty reassures. “We will help you locate an small industrial unit in your area, 750 to 1000 square feet is big enough.”

Advertising: There is a definite public interest in the idea of interior design. “But what you have to do,” says Helen Gilzean of Decorating Den, “is build awareness on a local level. Local magazines, yellow pages full colour fliers will get you going until you can start to get repeat and referral business.”

There is a considerable amount of self-promotion with all these franchises. This means knocking on doors and talking to everyone you meet about your service. This is hard but it won’t cost you anything, as the above methods will. And getting people talking about you is the best form of advertising.

Transport: For Decorating Den you need to have a van to carry supplies – but this can be leased rather than bought outright. And if you go to the central suppliers you can get the livery put on for a special rate.

Where you don’t need a specific vehicle – as for Colour Counsellors, a reliable personal car will be adequate. As with most franchises you are given a specific territory so the mileage add up to big petrol costs.

Overheads: “The thing about Urban Planters is that once you’ve paid the initial costs, the overheads don’t increase,” maintains Nick Gresty. “You shouldn’t outgrow your premises in the first five years and you don’t move out until your turnover justifies and will pay for it. Similarly with transport for any employees you take on.”

How does it work?

No two jobs will be exactly the same so no two clients will be billed in the same way. This is a truly made to measure business. Urban Planters has a costing programme that bills clients quarterly in advance for the initial design and at least monthly care of the plants.

But you would work individually with them to work this out. Urban Planter’s Brendan Wilson in Liverpool maintains you could have a job worked out in half an hour or be in contact for a year if creating a brand new space.

The point is that the amount you earn is dependent on a good working relationship with the client, you are not in to fit the product and out again. They could be renting the product for up to five years so your design needs to be adaptable so it doesn’t get tired. It is only a guaranteed revenue stream if you keep up your standards.

Equally if you do a nice job on someone’s front room they’re liable to ask you back when the time comes round for the master bedroom. Maintaining an ongoing relationship with clients could just be letting them know you’re still alive with a Christmas card each year. It might be irregular and you aren’t guaranteed but potentially it is a repeat income.

Your income will come from the cost of the materials to the client – where you buy at trade and they pay the retail price – or from a combination of this and your time. Where you are only charging for materials be careful with the first phone call you make to them, advises Jo Tempest York of Decorating Den. If your time isn’t their money and you don’t know they’re going to order you could end up losing out when they don’t hire you.

Tips for success

As we discussed at the start, when you start up you may have to deal with stereotypical attitudes to what you do. Breaking down barriers to point out that yours isn’t just a service for the very rich or exclusive home or office may be you first job.

“I’ve been to offices where they’d never even thought of having plants,” says Brendan Wilson. “I then have to persuade them that a few plants will be a cheap and easy way of brightening the office and will make all the difference.”

You will be visiting people by appointment and generally more at their convenience than yours. This means you need to be flexible. But it doesn’t mean you should give the impression you are always available. As far as possible, arrange work to suit both you and the client.

“If I have an evening appointment, I’ll have a lie in the next day,” says Jo Tempest York. “And one time when a client needed to discuss the job but was literally only going to be in the country for a few hours I picked her up from the airport, talked on the way to the flat and made decisions when we got there. Flexibility meant the job wasn’t delayed.”

To some extent the franchisor will keep you up with the latest fashions and trends. But there is a danger that with vast quantities of products flooding the market you could be overwhelmed.

Stay on top and don’t try and offer your clients an endless choice. If you do they will look and decide endlessly. Looking unfortunately does not equal buying.

And it’s a risk in any new business but manage your cash flow effectively. You will get a certain amount of money up front for the materials but you need to keep an eye on whether you can deliver on time to get the rest of your fee. Sara Allday of Colour Counsellors gives an example:

“You might have a £1000 worth of fabric in on time to make all the curtains but if the £20 worth of braid you need to finish them won’t be in for two months, you’re going to be out of pocket. You really need to keep an eye on things like this.”

When you first visit the client it is important to really listen to what they want. If you feel inspired there is the temptation to run ahead and design something that suits you but not them, which just prolongs the process.

When you go to see them, look at rooms they’re already happy with to gauge their taste, see which furniture they want to keep and importantly, talk about budget. There’s no point in showing them a £90 fabric when they want to spend £10. Concentrate on the effect they want to create and work from there within the price remit.

One franchisee maintains that she always waits to hear from client once she has put in a quote. The point being, that if they ring you then you know they are interested and no one’s time is wasted.

Once you have the confidence to do this – and people are ringing you back – you know the business is well established. It’s up to you to gauge when this moment is.

Part of being proactive and marketing your business is about looking out for opportunities. If you see a new office block being built, for example, approach the owners and see whether they’ve thought about having plants. Work with them to come up with a satisfactory scheme. It might be a long-term project but a whole office block or leisure complex is a lucrative contract.

Knowing your market is also really important so monitor where business is coming from. When clients call you ask where they heard about you. If they say from your adverts you know they’re worth the money. But more importantly if most people say recommendation then you know word of mouth has spread – which is the best form of advertising.

If you have people subcontracted to work with you on design projects it’s important to make sure that you treat them well – otherwise they’ll go elsewhere. And you also need to see that they are properly treated by your clients as well.

It reflects badly on your reputation if there are problems on the job and work done carefully selecting reliable workers will be lost. Visiting mid way through the job to check everyone is happy can be a good move.

Client retention accounts for as much as 80% of the work of some established businesses. So going out of your way in the early stages to offer people a personal service can pay dividends later on.

Jo Tempest York of Decorating Den found this to be to her advantage. “Over six months I went to see a client three times and she ended up with just five rolls of wallpaper. But because I took the trouble to help her she remembered and has now come back to me with a five bedroom house to be decorated.”

At all stages of the process from first meeting to final fitting the key thing is to offer the customer more than they expect. Your reputation will grow and your business prosper as a result.

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