Why this Minnesota designer doesn’t want to go back to the office

The 50 States Project is a series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Edina, Minnesota–based designer Tiffany Weiss tells us what she gained from a commercial design role at Walmart, how a trip to High Point unlocked a new path to profitability and the advice that helped her get confident raising her rate.

What was your path into the business?

I grew up in Northwest Arkansas in the late 1980s, and design was never even a thought. But my dad is a trim carpenter, so I would always go to job sites with him and I was fascinated with the building side of things. Then in junior high, when we talked to guidance counselors about the direction we wanted to take in life, mine recommended interior decorating. As she talked about it, I was like, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” The only class we had available at my junior high [that was similar] was this 3D modeling and drafting class, and even though it was more geared toward engineering, I remember being fascinated by the program we were using.

I honestly can’t remember at what point I was like, “I’m going to enroll in design school.” When I got there, it was very different from what most people expect when you enroll. The first years were designed to weed out the people that think it’s just decorating, and the whole program was definitely more interior architecture anyway. I finished my degree, and I thought I’d go the commercial route.

What appealed to you about commercial design?

I never had seen a residential interior designer in action, and my school, like most programs, focused on commercial. I have an intern right now who says her program has a heavy focus on commercial design, too, and honestly I don’t know why that is. I’m guessing because it’s a job that might have a little bit more financial stability, or because it’s more architecture-focused.

How did that interest in commercial design shape your early career?

I loved the experience of going to a hotel or a restaurant, and I never thought that residential design could be so focused on experiential design. With commercial, I thought that I would be able to push my creative limits—that you could do things that you wouldn’t do in a person’s home.

When I graduated, I was dating someone who had a yearlong assignment in Puerto Rico. I had just gotten my degree, and although I had worked my way through college, I did not have a “real” job yet. When he asked me if I wanted to go with him, we had only been dating for three months, but I thought, “Why not? If he ends up being crazy, I can just fly back home.” While we were there, I ended up networking and was hired to do a freelance job. I was right out of school, I had no experience, and this company trusted me to design a new office space for them. And I did it! I interviewed the directors and employees [to find out what they needed]; I knew AutoCAD, but I taught myself 3D modeling through online tutorials so I could provide models; and I pushed myself in Photoshop. I worked all day and all night, and somehow I made it work.

We came back to Arkansas after about a year, and I interviewed for a couple of architecture firms and got a job. Northwest Arkansas is the land of the Walmart home office, so all of the architecture firms there focused on Walmart stores. I was with the firm for a year, but then the company went bankrupt. It was 2008 or 2009, and Walmart was bringing in all of their architects and designers in-house at the time to save money. One of my previous managers who had left the firm to work at the Walmart home office invited me to be a part of their team.

What was it like working for Walmart?

The cool thing about Walmart is that there’s such an expanse of different talents they employ. I started out on the 3D simulation team, where we would build 3D models and do fly-throughs of the stores so they could approve the design before drawing up the plans and building. From there, I moved to this small-format development team—I don’t know if they’re still doing this, but they had developed the neighborhood market concept, and I was on the team that created those layouts. My last job there was product development, which is where I learned about textiles on the bedding and bath team.

A bright, light-filled basement gathering space.Nic.Studio

What prompted your next move after that?

So at that point, I had an 18-month-old. The boyfriend was now my husband, and he had another job move. We moved to Massachusetts, and I was at this crossroads where our daily activities were getting up at 5 a.m., dropping off our child at day care and getting to work by 7 a.m., coming home at 6 p.m., playing for 20 minutes, eating some food and going to bed. It was exhausting, and I remember thinking, “My kid’s day care teacher knows her 10 times better than I do.” So I stayed at home while we lived in Massachusetts, and we had our second child. We were there for three years, and then we moved again for my husband’s job, this time to California.

I knew I had to go back to work, but I also knew I could not go back to a commercial job at an architecture firm. I also definitely didn’t have enough experience to start my own firm focusing on commercial design. It was one of those things where our kids were young, we had playdates and I started to make friends in California—and then one of my friends was like, “I want my home to look like yours. Can you decorate my home?” And I said, “Sure.” I knew right away that I wasn’t going to do it for free, but I definitely did it for a lot less money than I do now. I furnished her living room, and then it was like falling dominoes—she referred me to her brother and I remodeled their living room, and then his wife worked in a dentist’s office and she gave my name to another dentist who was going to remodel, so I ended up doing a complete remodel of a boutique pediatric dentistry. It was still very elementary—I was using Excel sheets to track everything and Word documents to send my contract and proposal because I was completely starting from scratch.

Was there a moment when you realized that it was definitely a business?

When I first started getting clients, I had zero idea what to do. I reached out to two people I had gone to class with who had their own firms—one did residential, one did commercial—and I shadowed both of them for a day, and they both shared their contracts with me. Then, another friend—she lives in New Jersey, and our husbands used to work together—reached out and was like, “Are you going to High Point?” I had no idea what it was, but she said, “You should come and room with us.” So I went in 2017, and to this day, I still think that’s the best thing I ever did for my business.

What did that trip to Market change for you?

I was like this little puppy following my friend and the woman who owned the firm she worked for, and I got into meetings that I would never have gotten into alone. I networked and collected business cards. At the time, I didn’t know you could make a markup—I thought the 20 percent off at West Elm was great. I had no clue how many people are in between the build of the product and the final sale.

I started talking to sales reps and figured out which companies I could open an account with and which companies I could not—just because I knew with my project load, I wouldn’t be able to hit their minimums. I opened accounts where I could, and I had friends with wholesale accounts who allowed me to purchase other things through them, and it was a huge game changer. Profit-wise, the markup on furnishings and lighting can be significant.

Is that still how you source today?

There is a line. If you source everything from Four Hands, as an example, you can have a huge markup—but you also have a project that looks like half of America. I’ve now gotten to the point where I might source locally through a woodworker for some custom pieces. There’s no markup on that, but I’m able to assess where I am profiting with my project. As the firm has grown older, I’m still more invested in unique quality items. It’s not as profitable, but at least I know now what my options are.

So you don’t put a markup on custom goods, then?

I do not, no. Sometimes woodworkers will give trade pricing, but it’s very minimal. And maybe I should be, I don’t know. But right now, although the budgets have grown significantly throughout the years, I’m still trying to provide the most quality within the budgets I’m working with.

Left: A primary bedroom features a dresser from a local woodworker trimmed in beguiling brass hardware. Amanda Birnie | Right: The velvet-clad bed features soft, romantic curves. Amanda Birnie

How do you bill for your design work?

I bill hourly. When someone reaches out, they fill out a form through the website and then depending on the responses, I’ll set up a time to get on the phone, and we talk through the project. Then we will meet in person so I can see the space, and I send a proposal that also acts as a contract. That document shows an estimate for the design hours of the project, as well as an estimate of install hours. Then typically the markup covers project management hours.

You started building up a network of clients in California, then moved to Minnesota. How did you reestablish yourself in a new city?

It is so much work. I mean, think about the sheer amount of sales reps and companies that you have accounts with—and when you move from California to the Midwest, you get a different sales rep for each one. I had registered for a business license in California, but you have to fill out all of the forms all over again to get the account in a new state. It’s a nightmare, and at this point, I have zero plans of moving again.

On the client side, someone who had done the audio for our new house in Minnesota reached out and said, “We’re building a new home and we would like to hire you as a designer.” We had been here for four months at that point and I had made some friends in the neighborhood, so I asked someone who had hired another large local design firm if she could share the going rate with me, which she did.

How did it compare to what you had been charging in California?

Well, I was not charging nearly enough in California. When I first started, I was charging $75 an hour and thought it was so expensive. But then a friend told me I had to raise my rate. She had gone to college with a well-known designer in the Redondo Beach area and had reached out once a couple of years before about design work, so she knew that the firm’s fees were in the $250 range. I didn’t think I had the experience to charge that much, but my friend told me, “People will see your rate and think you’re not qualified. If your rate is too low, they look at you as a lesser designer than the one that has a higher rate.” So when I moved to Minnesota, I did some research on the average rate, set mine to be in line with that, and it has been good for me.

How did you grow the business after finding that first client?

So going back to that bid, I actually did not get that job. Based on square footage, my bid was somewhere around the $20,000 to $30,000 mark. I was spot-on, but they were floored. They were like, “This is the most ridiculous thing we have ever seen,” which was a huge shot to my confidence. That was 2017, and I didn’t really do anything else until 2019. I had my business license and I had gone back to High Point Market to walk the show on my own, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

People kept asking me, “What are you working on? What are your plans?” And it was like something suddenly clicked—there was a moment where I was like, “OK, I’m in this 100 percent. I’m not just messing around with this anymore.” That’s when I got rid of the Excel sheets and I switched over to a platform, which made life 10 million times easier. I hired someone to look at my contract. I had someone look at my website, and I got some headshots taken. I ended up getting word-of-mouth referrals from people in the neighborhood. Honestly, 90 percent of my jobs are still referral based. I start with one client and then they tell their brother or sister or parent about me, and then they tell someone they work with. I get quite a few inquiries through Instagram, but it doesn’t really turn out to be much.

Left: A mudroom includes a cozy built-in kennel for the family dog. Nic.Studio | Right: The sleek space puts function first, with cabinetry designed to maximize storage. Nic.Studio

What does your business look like today?

I’m working on seven to eight projects at a time. Our minimum right now is a full room—we won’t “put a room together,” because it takes three times as long to design with the confines of the existing pieces they might want to use. You’re designing an entire room around pieces that might not actually work that well, so it takes more hours—and then does that really make sense? The client is on a budget, but now you’re having to charge more because it’s taking longer to find the right pieces to go with what they have, so I gave that up.

I have a lot of repeat clients who did one space a couple of years ago, and then the next year they do another couple more spaces, and then a couple more the next year—but I have yet to break into clients coming to us for full-home remodels, and I think that’s the next step for me. I have been very fortunate in that I have not had to do any marketing so far, but I know that I have to take a different approach if I want to get the different projects. So the next step is to put a package together and reach out to builders, and hopefully put my name on the radar.

Do you have a team working with you?

I contract out some drawings, I have an intern who has been helping me, and I have an accountant. Other than that, it is just myself. I’ve decided my next hire will be a bookkeeper. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without one, and hopefully I can do that within the next six months.

What kind of growth do you imagine for the firm?

I definitely do not want a big team. I work out of my home, and I love the flexibility that I have right now. I tried working out of an office—it was one of those things where I felt like I needed an office because some builders and clients suggest that if you do not have a team, or an office to present at, your business doesn’t feel as serious. But driving each way, coordinating childcare—and we have dogs—it just killed me. I am happiest when I can regulate my workload: I can stop when I need to and take care of the family, and I am fine working at night if I need to. I know a lot of people say they felt free when they were able to separate work life and home life, but this is my hobby and my business. I mean that in the sense that before I had any design jobs, I’d sit there and design spaces as a hobby while my husband went out to do his hobbies.

The office didn’t work for me, but the more I think about it, the more I know that my ideal clients are very low-key. The projects where I have been most successful, the clients don’t care about that kind of thing—they just want the quality work.

How do you find those ideal clients?

One of the biggest hardships initially was weeding through difficult clients. I was saying yes to everything, and there were so many people who also wanted to be the designer on the project, or who were not decisive, or who didn’t have the budget. I don’t need you to have a crazy budget by any means, but it has to be more than just shopping at West Elm. Now, I’ve learned the red flags so that I can identify the clients I don’t want to work with. I like to say I’ve been lucky, but maybe it’s just choosing the right people. I’ve definitely said no to quite a few jobs that, looking back, I’m very glad I said no to.

Left: A cheery green hue makes for a lively bathroom space. Nic.Studio | Right: For a basement bar, Weiss created a sophisticated take on the Irish pub. Nic.Studio

Can you tell me about the design scene in Edina?

Edina is right next to Minneapolis, and the entire area has exploded. I’m in the Morningside community, and every street has at least two or three houses being flipped. They are technically remodels, but a lot of them are basically new builds. The lots are not huge, so typically they’re staying within the footprint—homes that are about 4,000 square feet. Or if they can, the builders are buying two lots and then building one on them.

In a way, all of the development makes me sad, because these older homes that are being flattened have so much character. I don’t think people here realize it, but I’ve lived all over and have come to see how each area of the United States has its own look and architectural style. But driving through subdivisions where all the houses look the same, it’s horrible. They’re putting up farmhouse-style homes, or it’s super modern and streamlined, and it’s almost always black and white. I think a lot of people look at social media and just say, “I want that,” and then the builder goes with it. All these designs that could have been unique are getting spit out as very similar.

What does success look like to you?

Success would be if I could get out of my head and not compare myself to other designers, I think. I can go online and look at so many other firms that are doing so well, and then I have to stop and be like, “But wait, you don’t want the big team or the office, and you’re actually really happy doing what you’re doing.” If I could have one or two people working with me, and we have a choice between one-room furnishing or remodel projects and whole-home remodel or new builds coming our way, that would be success for me.

What is the biggest thing you know now that you wish you had known when you started your business?

I wish I had started an online system for purchasing and record-keeping much sooner than I did, and that I had known how to vet clients a little bit better—but honestly, I don’t know if that’s a possibility, because that’s more of an intuition that comes with experience.

For the longest time, I always thought, “If only I had worked for a residential design firm, I would be so much better off.” But maybe I wouldn’t be, because I learned so much from the experiences I’ve had. I got so good at Photoshop, I learned Adobe Lightroom to edit photos and did all my own photography in California. I learned so much about project management and managing a team in the commercial setting. There are so many things that I gained from those aspects of my life that I use today. So even though I kept saying, “If only, if only,” I’ve had to level-set realize that there are so many pros to this journey.

To learn more about Tiffany Weiss, visit her website or find her on Instagram.