Entrepreneurship 101: Building an Interior Design Empire
Plenty of people dream about leaving their day jobs to pursue a secret passion. Lawyers want to open bakeries, doctors want to become writers …
But even if you’re already in your dream industry, it’s easy to want more. For starters, being your own boss sounds good. And who hasn’t thought about breaking off and starting their own thing with their favorite coworker?
Andrea DeRosa and Ashley Manhan made it happen. They met while at their first jobs, working at an interior design firm in Los Angeles. While both eventually moved on to other firms to gain experience (Ashley specialized in designing guest rooms for four- and five-star hotels, while Andrea focused on interiors for the gaming industry), they remained best friends and nurtured the dream of owning their own interior design firm.
Five years later, in 2009, they (with the help of a third partner) decided to go for it, launching Avenue Los Angeles, a design firm creating interiors for high-end hotels, nightclubs and event centers. After meeting with immediate success—attracting clients like The Borgata in Atlantic City—they decided to launch another business just a few months later.
In this edition of our Entrepreneurship 101 series, we found out how Ashley and Andrea knew they were ready to go it alone, how they realized their business plan needed a tweak, and why they turned down starring in their own TV show.
How did you work your way up to opening your own firm?
Andrea: I got a degree in interior design from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and moved out to Los Angeles after graduation, where I began work at Design 360, an interior design firm.
Ashley: That’s where we met. I was working during the day at 360 and taking night classes in the interior design program at UCLA.
Andrea: We became best friends and knew early on that we wanted to open our own firm at some point, but we were young—in our early 20s—so we definitely needed more experience. We divided and conquered, so to speak, moving on to other interior design firms and gaining the necessary exposure.
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How did you decide the time was right to launch Avenue Los Angeles?
Ashley: In 2009, there were a lot of firms going under. We positioned ourselves well to launch Avenue, though, taking six months to draft a business plan and get all of our files in order. We knew that together, we could be competitive in the industry. We’re both efficient and focused on the bottom-line, which is really valued in the hospitality industry.
Additionally, we were at the point in our careers where we were confident and had a number of successes behind us. I had previously been working in the interior design department for sbe, a hospitality and entertainment group; my department was dissolved when the economy crashed. When sbe’s business started to pick up again in 2010, we had our first client: They reached out to us to do the interior design for the Redbury, a hotel in Los Angeles.
Where do you find your design inspiration?
We make time to travel together, through the U.S. and internationally. These trips help inspire our concepts; this winter, we’re heading to Paris for a week. Ashley had been there a couple of years ago and visited Ladurée (known for its macarons). We used the interior as inspiration for a small deli we were designing; the entire palette was a monochromatic, pale pistachio backdrop with beautiful white marble accents and carved wood detailing. (Learn how to travel well with friends: Read this.)
Were you nervous about starting your own firm without any experience running a business?
Andrea: Neither of us have formal business backgrounds, but both of our parents have experience running businesses, so we had a lot of support. Both Ashley and I had also worked at hugely successful firms that provided great models for how to run a business the right way. Luckily, the overhead on starting an interior design firm is really low (we didn’t even have an office for six months), so we were able to use our own savings without taking out any loans.
How did you handle other people’s preconceptions about young women starting a business together?
Andrea: We actually started the business with a third partner (and another good girlfriend), who has since left Avenue. People had this idea that three young girlfriends, all under the age of 30, were just going to goof around all day and eat cupcakes … there was definitely some uncertainty that we were serious enough to handle this.
We were serious, though. We put our own money into Avenue, and became profitable within a year, making back our investments. I’m really proud of that accomplishment, especially given the tough economic situation.
Were you worried about juggling business and friendship?
Ashley: We’re able to put our friendship aside and recognize that business is business. We both want to be successful individually, and the best way to get there is to be successful together. Knowing this, we’re serious about putting the business first, when necessary.
Andrea: A lot of people thought it wasn’t a good idea to go into business with close friends. In reality, you wouldn’t believe how easy it is. With friends, you have a certain amount of respect, trust and love, so whenever we need to have an honest, confrontational moment, we know it’s in the best interest of our company.
You were approached about doing a reality TV show. How did that come about?
Andrea: We had a third partner initially, Casey Noble, who starred on HGTV’s Design Star (she’s since left Avenue). We got a lot of good press from the show, including mentions in Star magazine and Daily Candy. A lot of production companies approached us about a show of our own, as they thought three young girls running a business together would be perfect for TV. We entertained the idea—we had never considered it before as a business model, and you can’t deny that TV is great exposure to the masses.
That said, Avenue hadn’t even finished its first year, and our high-end, full-service clients weren’t going to be on board with made-for-TV drama. And while we got press from Casey’s time on Design Star, we weren’t getting legitimate clients from it—just a lot of emails from people saying, “Great watch in episode five! Where did you get it?” or “Can you come take a look at my curtains?”
Ashley: We’re aiming for something a little bigger than that audience, and the clientele we go for, in the high-end hotel and entertainment industry, is in a whole different world. Doing reality TV didn’t line up with our goals for Avenue, so we passed.
You started Avenue in October 2009, and launched another business, I Heart Design by Avenue, in March 2010. How did you handle managing another company?
Andrea: I Heart Design was a perfect idea to launch during the recession. Our initial concept was to bring custom but affordable interior design to the masses. The site had nine styles to choose from. You would log on, choose the style you liked best, upload your floor plan and submit pictures of a room, and within a month, we would send you an adorable box of filled with tools along with ideas for affordable furniture and design items. Then, you could go online, see your design board and order the items we suggested directly through the site.
Ashley: The concept was great and we have a ton of satisfied clients, but it wasn’t profitable. Plus, it was very time-consuming. We recently took the site down, and we’re currently in the process of revamping the model. We want to preserve our initial concept while making it feasible for us to handle.
Andrea: This project is our baby. There was lots of excitement about it initially in the design community, and we want to provide much more immediate service to users with the second version.
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How did you know it was time for a redesign?
Andrea: Aside from not being profitable, we’ve known for a while that it wasn’t easy for people to complete the process of uploading floor plans, taking photos, etc. … People don’t want to do that much work. It’s important to listen to what the consumer wants and then respond to it.
How do you manage your time juggling so many projects?
Ashley: It’s definitely a challenge to be a business owner and live a normal life. We had to learn how to leave the office and not spend 24 hours here every day. You don’t want to let any clients down, especially when your head is on the line.
Andrea: A big part of this is managing clients’ expectations. When clients know you have a Blackberry, it’s hard to justify not being available 24/7. We’re trying not to respond past 9:30 p.m. or before 8 a.m.
Lastly, do you have any advice for entrepreneurs looking to start their own company?
Ashley: You can never be prepared enough, so just do it. People always wonder whether they’ve waited enough time and gotten enough experience, or whether they should go to business school. There will always be unexpected challenges thrown at you, but taking the initial risk is the hardest part.
Andrea: We were realistic about gaining experience, but more importantly, you need to have the confidence that your idea is valuable and unique. If you’ve got that, go for it. It’s never too late to start, and it’s better to do your own thing now than never attempt it all.