Interior design session, or a lesson in Kabuki theater? Discuss.
Christine is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft with several years experience in the .com industry.
She recently started social venture labs, an idea incubator for those leading small mission-driven businesses or organizations looking to create relationships, share ideas and get feedback on common business practices. She is new to StartupNation, and looking to profile mission driven companies and discusses related themes.
There are a lot of personalities and opinions when it comes to interior decorating – as in marketing, everyone thinks they are an expert. When it comes to someone’s home however, the opinion is expressed more in binary terms of likes and dislikes from the position of “I’ll know it when I see it.” This puts the designer in a tough spot. They have to have the skills of an eye doctor switching lenses trying to find the right focus and the diagnosis skills of a vet. —Eclectic? Colonial? Modern? Brand-spanking-new-but-designed-to-look-old-but-not-like-Gatsby? (Note to self: client got sick at sight of shag carpet. Must go in other direction.)
Thus begins the kabuki style dance between designer and the client until the project is completed and both slump in a heap – client on the new couch, the designer at the nearest martini bar.
There are a ton of green-building, eco-friendly renovating…but not a lot of socially conscious decorating going around. When I did a search to better understand EcoKind’s special niche, I was hard pressed to find what I was really looking for: green, socially conscious design. The focus of some of the bigger names out there seems to be on the before/after, the places these people shop, and their suppliers rather than an overall philosophy.
The “category of green” is so apparently so big, that everyone seems to be specializing in the raw materials: wood, paint, fabric, insulation, glass, accessories, etc. It’s interesting to me that people don’t overlay their “life philosophy” on top of their service – perhaps that happens on the supplier end…and the designer approaches as a consumer based on their clients’ philosophies.
At any rate, when Amy Woidtke of EcoKind Design (aka the Sustainable Style Gal) introduced her mission to me as “socially conscious styling for dudes,” my first impression was that she was still working on her pitch. She continued, “They are the segment that needs the most help.”
She gave me a look that suggested absolute empathy to this group rather than the shock and annoyance of the women they are likely to bring home. “I want to help relationships, and some are over before they start when the women see how these guys live.” Then I thought some guys I knew, the rather third world level existence they lived in and how in their twenties, they could get away with it. She mentioned that she had once met a guy who slept between two comforters, mentioning as an aside that he’d “take the sheets out when he had company.”
I was speechless.
She had a point and I’m at the age myself where I don’t think these women are being superficial – their initial 3-second reaction is more around self-preservation to disease by coming in contact with…”what the hell is in that couch?”
Woidtke is dealing with three distinct segments: the guy who “gets it” (the concept of having personalized, kept interiors), the guy knows he needs it and asks for help, and the one doesn’t have a clue—who doesn’t know he needs it and needs a little reasoning to commit to the idea of change. Once these segments do “get it” and have their interiors done, they realize what they were missing. In the end, they are very grateful for the styling services.
It’s no secret that cause-based marketing works and Woidtke knows her market.
“GM just did a study as part of this year’s Challenge X competition which said 88% of women say they’d rather chat up someone who owns the latest fuel-efficient car versus the latest sports car.”
The guy might not be into eco options, but if the girl is immediately comfortable when she walks in and the cause happens to be a chick magnet, they might be more interested.
“More than 4 out of 10 (45 percent) 18- to 43-year-olds say it’s a fashion faux pas nowadays to have a car that’s not green or environmentally friendly.” Money, Puppies, Humor and other endowments were also listed as attractors – but the fact that an eco car even ranked was an interesting indicator to pay attention to.”
In another study done by DuPont and Mohawk, 86% of women said that eco-friendly products were extremely important. 65% of all men and women surveyed said they would pay at least 5% more for eco products over non eco.
Given that people are getting married later in life, her market is rather large, in need and able to pay. There are many, many men out there that would benefit from some tidying up, some education on conscious living and a solid interior styling assessment—if even to impress their potential partners.
Woidtke is “a diva on a mission to change the way people understand eco-friendly decorating.” EcoKind makes the argument that green isn’t fringe anymore—The Center has finally shifted to doing what is right for everyone. Whether your style is mild, wild or in-between, eco-friendly interior styling can happen for everyone. “EcoKind takes care of your spaces so your spaces can take care of you.”
Now there is a line that already makes me feel relaxed. Where’s the couch, so I can tell you all my problems?
Woidtke got her BA in Psychology and later earned her Associates in Arts & Science for Graphic Design. She was deeply inspired by Bruce Hale, who did the image branding for PCC. “It was there I discovered I could blend my graphic design and interior decorating into one career.”
Woidtke’s always had a bit of the designer in her—her mother was a cabinet maker, her father in construction—from an early age “I was surrounded by the whole aesthetics thing as my parents did both their careers and built our family house, using recycled materials from my old school and various other resources. And that was in the 70’s! I was a true granola kid. I’ve always been into layout, color, organization, and very people oriented – I like to help people.” She also grew up on co-op food so living naturally was also instilled early on. She didn’t actively choose this profession, it sort of found her.
Woidtke has always done some form of design or organization. After graduating, she started freelancing. As life does, Woidtke caught a curve ball – a car accident kept her from working a normal schedule in image branding. Eventually, she had to move away from the graphic design due to the tremendous sitting time which was affecting her recovery, and focused solely on interiors. “I like knowing that I made someone’s day, that I can make a difference. A client called me up after having slept 2 days in his new bedroom just to tell me how nice it was to be in such a ‘peaceful space.’ Another called to tell me how much they enjoy the ‘fresh feel of their living space.’ That makes me happy.”
How They Give Back
Woidtke is currently researching organizations where she might donate a room re-design (or “do over”) so she can commit to 4 projects per year. She uses the term “re-design” on purpose. Home makeover shows are great for promoting interior design skills – and generally cost of lot of money to execute. While a positive story and the reaction of the winners create good drama, the stories are starting to create an expectation that if it’s not over the top, it’s not worth doing. In cases where Woidtke donates a room “re-design” she can use what is there and arrange it differently, add wall color and maybe some textiles or linens for a fresh feel and better reflection of the person living there. “I get to know the client, their interests, inspirations and style so I can create a space that feels more like it belongs to the client.”
She is currently researching modifying her billing slip to include a space for clients to contribute to this effort by donating (the cost of materials) cans of paint, décor items, etc. towards a “re-do” for some lucky person getting their start in affordable housing.
Espresso Shot Insights what’s this?
- Manage Expectations
- Solicit Outside Opinion
- Pick A Niche & Stick To It
“Dancing Kabuki” with interior decorating now for about a year, Woidtke says “I’ve definitely experienced some learning curves to managing expectations. It’s a process.”
Hand in hand with managing expectations is managing yourself, your message and your projects. “I’m learning a lot about time management now.” She writes for her business blog, has a green living column and is actively working on design projects (which includes understanding the clients’ needs, research, managing teams) “…I’m operating in an organized chaos, which is sort of odd for someone coming from the home organization space” but she wouldn’t have it any other way. It just means she’s headed to another phase of her business. Managing a long client list is one of the best problems a business can have.
Woidtke ‘s ambitious and willing to do what it takes. Her philosophy of creating peaceful spaces to foster closeness is what motivates her most of all. “I like the idea of helping people connect, and helping them enjoy the place in which they live.”
Solicit Outside Opinions
“I use Biznik as my advisory council.” I was reading an article ‘why your website sucks,’ which was very blunt and to the point.” The author centered on the notion that “your site is not about you, but your client” – something very few businesses solidly understand but find a universal comfort that everyone gets it wrong.
“I work hard to develop the right ‘power team’ for the job.” Amy thrives on working with talented colleagues who share her passion for everything green and while enhancing people’s chances for love.
“I get as many customer opinions as possible and am developing surveys to better facilitate that process.” Woidtke also believes in the power of networking and has a few regular events she attends. “It’s important that “guys hear what women think about their spaces and they are not likely to get this feedback from women they can’t get to know.”
Speaking to clients about what both men and women think about their spaces helps address what needs and concerns they might have in hiring a decorator. “Most guys are very utilitarian and afraid I’m going to make their space feminine or flowery. Assuredly, I am not. I am here to reflect each person’s own unique and awesome style so that not only does it impress their date, but it makes them feel more at home too. It’s not about me. It’s about adding value. It’s about helping the client.”
Pick A Niche & Stick To It
Woidtke definitely was on a journey to interior decorating, but now that she’s found her passion, can’t imagine doing anything else. “Try and hone in your niche…as soon as possible. Find your space and focus on it, you can’t be the only person that thinks it is a good idea… others have to embrace it too.”
Interior design/decor is such a crowded space and there is a lot of focus on it, with mainstream shows as “Extreme Home Make Over” or the Home Channel’s before/after shows (such as Devine Design). Being green gives Woidtke some additional dimension, but it’s her focus on “helping dudes get comfortable in their own space” that helps her better hone in on her market. What a terrific way for her to get a loyal following: teaching guys how to make their space “other-friendly.” And she is experienced at meeting the specific nuances of that niche.Sticking to a niche is a good practice for companies starting out, but there can be long term challenges of committing to and depending on a single niche:
- The larger companies finally notice you and think, “Hey, that’s a great idea. We’ll do that too.” And with endless resources they can get a me-too program out there fairly quickly (or they buy you, which isn’t always a bad thing).
- You’re too successful, run out of customers in your segment and pick up another niche – this becomes hard to accommodate in your branding.
The reason people want to work with smaller companies is because they remember customer service, they care deeply about their clients and “the how” is executed with greater care. The “how” of execution can really cultivate a cult following. Woidtke works to inspire emotion in her clients by liberating them from their current drab or non-existent interior style and helps them to define their personal style in an eco-friendly manner so they are more comfortable in their personal space. Own a “how” in the category you define for yourself and you’ll have a path for future growth as the market and competitors change.
- My most rewarding business moment is when a client compliments my work; I am humbled.
- My scariest business moment is when the dollars get low.
- Every entrepreneur should love what they do, because you are going to be doing a lot of it.
- Success to me means feeling fulfilled every day in what I do, fulfilling the needs of my clients – making a difference in people’s lives (and getting paid for it).