Fewer than 50 percent of businesses make it to their fifth year. That means that half of all companies have a short lifespan, despite their efforts to build something successful long-term. The interior design space is particularly competitive: predictions state that by 2026, the market will be worth $270,410 million, and in turn, a whole host of new ventures are battling for consumers’ attention and business.
Founded in 2013, my online interior design company, Decorilla, is now celebrating its seventh year. Not only was it the first online interior design platform, and the first to offer VR, the foundation has grown stronger as time has passed. Looking back, in 2013, most people couldn’t even comprehend what online interior design was. Fast forward to today, and there are 5,000 to 10,000 searches per month for key phrases on the topic, and these numbers have grown rapidly during the pandemic.
Decorilla has consistently been innovating new processes and products, and the seven-year mark is an important time for us to reflect on growth, company culture, milestones, mistakes and learnings along the way.
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Here are the seven business lessons we’ve learned in seven years that I’m excited to share in order to help others succeed
Don’t be scared to be different
Taking the entrepreneurial leap is daunting, and jumping into a completely new space can seem nearly impossible. As humans, we naturally shy away from what we don’t know, but being a pioneer is what separates you from existing offerings.
Remember, at their core, consumers want new solutions or innovative versions of old ones. So long as you listen to your customer’s wants and needs, you’ll stay guided on your journey.
Of course, people will be skeptical about whatever you pioneer, and it’s easy to internalize these negative comments. However, you have to take the positive comments, too, whether from yourself or those around you. We knew that Decorilla’s concept of online interior design could open possibilities for people to get the help they thought they never could afford. By committing to that vision, we now have in-home services in 20 major cities across the U.S., a VR-powered app, and over 12,000 designers applying to be part of our platform.
Funding isn’t everything
So many founders spend a huge amount of time stressing about raising funds, when really, securing investment can mean more pressure for you and your business. Once you bring investors on board, you have a responsibility to them and their expectations, whereas if you bootstrap, you only answer to yourself. It’s no surprise then, that more and more early-stage businesses are choosing this route.
For Decorilla, we saw a number of our competitors grow too fast with the funding they received, and while it seemed great on paper, it meant they weren’t able to nail down their product or service before going to market. Eventually, some went under because they were growing too fast without having the right product.
Rather than doing the investment circuit, try prioritizing research, prototyping and testing to get your offering to the highest possible standard first. We did so with the Decorilla platform and it allowed us to put quality before quantity in order to manage our finances more steadily. Organic growth certainly isn’t straightforward, but it does force you to slow down in a way that gives you a very crisp perspective.
Allow you and your business to be flexible
Experimenting with different iterations, models and pricing doesn’t signal that you have an unclear vision. The opposite is true! As a startup, you have the luxury of being agile and that should be seized at every turn. Develop a hypothesis, have a solid method to test it, and always collect evidence to prove your findings.
We started out by only offering interior design services, but through discovery and user feedback, we pivoted toward being a white glove shopping concierge service. The result was phenomenal and has significantly contributed to our success today.
Likewise, don’t resist new trends; they’re trends for a reason! Having your finger on the pulse will always give you a competitive advantage. For instance, now at Decorilla, we’re incorporating virtual reality and augmented reality technology to appeal to tech-savvy audiences.
Hire like-minded people
This one is really important. Everyone in your team has to be on the same page as you in order to seriously value the progress of your projects and to brainstorm new ideas. Having a similar mindset not only makes your workflows smoother, it makes your targets more achievable because everyone respects the standards expected of them.
Like-minded people also make giving feedback easier. If people feel that they can be honest with one another at your company, there is greater room to iterate and improve, as everyone’s priority is rooted in the product or service. Work therefore becomes a personal endeavor, not solely a professional one.
At Decorilla, we learned that while it was tempting to quickly hire part-time staff to save money at the beginning, it resulted in a disconnect between our people. Once we began investing in staff, conducting thorough interviews and hiring for full-time roles, we found that the team had far more momentum.
Focus on being cash flow positive
It may sound obvious, but it’s crucial to have more money coming into your business than the money going out at any given time. Due to Decorilla being bootstrapped, we had to follow this formula, and it allowed us to surpass competitors who overspent on marketing and development before earning real revenue.
I highly recommend “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries to all entrepreneurs, as it’s what inspired Decorilla to be cash flow positive from the start. We learned to do in-depth research to confirm that our platform offered value, and I devoted long nights posting on LinkedIn groups for interior designers, explaining the Decorilla concept and taking note of responses. I was also careful to find ways to make daily tasks less expensive, and to call in favors wherever I could.
Perhaps the biggest learning curve though, was accepting that we didn’t need to compete with larger companies that had the disposable income to move faster with more advanced solutions. By knowing our lane, our growth was controlled, and we could use our positive cash flow to generate realistic future projections.
Don’t underestimate word-of-mouth
There’s no doubt that every company needs an online presence, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, some of the best marketing opportunities will consistently stem from word-of-mouth and positive reviews.
People are actually 90 percent more likely to trust and buy from a brand recommended by a friend; a noticeably higher proportion than results from digital marketing tools.
Actively encouraging word-of-mouth recommendations among users is a smart way to keep your brand honest. People won’t naturally recommend products or services that they don’t find useful, so you’ll strive to deliver genuine value. And value equals volume.
Don’t be tricked into thinking that word-of-mouth doesn’t utilize technology, either. People are more connected than ever before, and recommendations can happen via something as simple as a Whatsapp message or a Skype call.
Go on team retreats
As the world goes remote, entrepreneurs need to make a conscious effort to maintain in-person connections for the whole team. Admittedly, there are new challenges with international travel, but staycations and local retreats can be just as effective and are a cool way to explore attractions on your doorstep.
The Decorilla team was lucky enough to go to Costa Rica together in February 2020, right before the pandemic struck. Thanks to the retreat, our staff morale has been impressively high at a crucial time. As an online company, our sales have increased over the past several months, but we’re particularly grateful to have shared an experience together to keep us close during dramatic shifts in the global business environment.
After the pandemic hit, we also had a virtual team bonfire. We shared our gratitude and life hacks, as well as personal advice and memories from good times we have had together in person.
Spending time with one another is what builds your company’s unique culture, and will contribute to greater employee retention, as well as less micromanaging. Not to mention, a retreat can boost productivity and shape meaningful relationships among the people who are the lifeblood of your business.
These seven lessons are only a handful of our business takeaways from Decorilla over the last seven years. With this knowledge, we have scaled, become closer as a team, and secured our place as a leader in the tech-meets-interior design space.
We can’t wait to see the insights we’ll gain in the next seven years and beyond!
Originally published Nov. 9, 2020.