Starting a Green Design Firm

Interview with Blue Water Studio and Blue Water Style Founder Kimberly Phipps-Nichol

Kimberly Phipps-Nichol opened Blue Water Studio and Blue Water Style in 2004 with the help of her grandmother. Read about this fantastic environmental project and tips Kimberly has for new entrepreneurs.

Whether it is a house or a wedding dress, Blue Water Studio and Blue Water Style are two firms that are on the cutting edge of green design.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

Blue Water Studio specializes in the design and planning of healthy, high performance building projects that respect the environment, the client's budget and the functional and aesthetic goals of the occupants. My main field is Interior Design, but as a LEED Accredited Professional with the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program,

I am also a Green Building consultant even on projects where I am not the Interior Designer. This specialty also opens the opportunity to work on projects I may not have had access to if the Design team had already been chosen. The knowledge and experience gained on environmentally responsible projects when not acting as the project Designer in turn makes me a better Designer on my own projects. The Green Building process espoused by the USGBC focuses on a format called Integrated Design. This requires a great deal of collaboration and communication with all team members throughout all phases of the project.

While it can cost a client a bit more in Design fees, it inevitably pays for itself on the Construction end of the project because there are few or no unanswered questions or nasty surprises at the end of the project. The same could be said about the perception that Green Building costs more. While it can cost more up front (but does not have to), those higher initial investments reap greater paybacks in the operation of a high performance, healthy building.

Blue Water Style creates one-of-a-kind clothing and accessories from vintage and organic materials for discriminating fashion patrons. Pieces range from wedding dresses to brocade coats and handbags to jewelry. Our work has been featured in national publications such as BUST magazine and the Dallas Morning News, and are frequently included in regional publications such as Reno Magazine, R Life, Clever magazine and the Reno Gazette-Journal. The uniqueness of the pieces comes from a combination of rare vintage textiles, specialty detailing and fitting and hand-beaded embellishments.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

Prior to opening Blue Water Studio in 2004 I ran a Design & Construction company for a Commercial Real Estate Developer. It was an incredible experience beyond the typical scope of work for an Interior Designer. My studio did everything from the entitlement/zoning process to site and building design, tenant improvement planning and suite fit-out. After 10 years at two great places it was time to heed the entrepreneurial call. Blue Water Studio was my first foray into the world of business ownership. I opened Blue Water Style shortly thereafter in response to the increasing demand for the clothing and handbags I was making from vintage and organic textiles.

Where did you get the startup money?

My grandmother is my sole investor. I created a full proposal and proforma for her consideration. Since my grandfather was an entrepreneur she was and remains very supportive of the idea. She has a whole file for my updates that I send her with my loan repayments.

Who are your main competitors? How do you compete against them?

Generally speaking, architects and Registered Interior Designers are my main competition, however, I'm not a fan of "competition" and believe rather in the incredible value that collaboration brings. I understand that one must know where they stand in the marketplace, and why a potential client would desire to work with one company rather than another.

These are important factors in considering the sustainability of a company. I choose not to focus on this too much though, as I spend my time being a valuable resource for those traditionally considered my competition. Since I practice a specialty that few others do, especially in my region, I am actually sought out by my competition to consult on projects in areas they lack experience.

Many of my colleagues are interested in Green building, but they are new to the specialty and therefore to the differences in design collaboration process and concepts that support truly responsible design and construction. I actually teach classes and workshops for those in my industry that wish to learn more about the effect of the built environment on occupant health and wellness as well as the planet.

How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

I never knew I could be so happy making a mere fraction of the money I made working for a high-profile commercial real estate developer. I've never had a problem meeting or exceeding client expectations, but I found that adding a boss and employees to the mix tends to compromise the quality of my work as I have to focus on making an employer and employees happy too.

Quite often each one's goals are not always aligned with what's best for the project. By becoming an entrepreneur, I am the final decision maker, and can do what I believe to be best. I can also choose not to take a project that I do not believe to be a good fit, therefore avoiding potentially unpleasant issues down the road. Saying "no" isn't always easy, but there are times when it's better for you as a business.

Because of this, I've found that being an entrepreneur is substantially less stressful than working at a company that is large and diverse enough to benefit from my skills and expertise. I've also found that because my corporation has two business units, I am free to move between tasks as profitability and market conditions dictate. This creative and administrative freedom is much better pay than a high-profile, high-stress job.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

In retrospect, it would have been wise to borrow a little more money initially, and set up a small account for future tax deposits. The euphoria of a ragingly successful year can be stifled by that first major tax hit. Your first 2 year's worth of tax returns are not representative of standard tax years, so do yourself a favor a set a little aside for such surprises as becoming incredibly successful in a short amount of time.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

Networking and Philanthropy. Word of mouth and a great deal of community involvement have been my best bang for the "buck". I have been thoroughly blessed by the returns on my Philanthropic work. You have to come from a place of giving. Don't go looking for specific returns, they always come in ways you don't expect.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

Know your limits. Know when not to take a project/client. Get a good accountant. Find out if any specialty licenses or errors & omissions insurance is required for you to practice within a particular state. Green Building is the future of our industry, if you're not doing it in 5 years you'll be behind. When times are slow, beef up your continuing education, add credentials and initiate systems within your processes that will allow you to do things more smoothly when you're crazy busy.

Kimberly, that is great advice. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us!

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What's your perspective on this entrepreneurial story? Has reading it inspired you to become an entrepreneur? We welcome all comments, questions and suggestions.

  • Chuck posted on 3/25/2009
    I took a class from Kimberly. Her enthusiasum is infectuous. She seems to really love what she does.

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