Starting a Kitchen Design Business
Interview with Susan Serra, Founder of Susan Serra Associates
It sounds like fun designing kitchens all day. Meet Susan Serra Associates to learn about the real challenges and benefits to being an internationally know kitchen designer.
Are you a mom looking to start a business in your home? Meet Susan Serra for some of the best tips I've seen about building a successful career as an entrepreneur. She started a design business over 19 years ago in Huntington, New York.
Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
I am a Certified Kitchen Designer. I design and sell kitchen cabinetry, countertops, and tile. I do design work locally, nationally, and abroad. My services begin with one hour phone consultations, advertised on my blog, The Kitchen Designer, to design work only, to full service kitchen design/installation.
What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
I started in the kitchen design business a few years before. That shop closed and I decided to go out on my own, and this is my first business. I took the opportunity to purchase the cabinet door and finish samples from my previous employer and started the business from my home.
Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?
Yes. I wanted to stay home with my 3 children. I built my business with the intention to be as professional as anyone who operated a kitchen showroom, no matter how large or high end, and Long Island certainly has many high end showrooms. As a result, I became a Certified Kitchen Designer. My design work was, and is, frequently published in national design magazines, which was helpful for marketing purposes. I went to the national kitchen show every year and worked hard to be a true professional in my industry. If I wished to compete, from my home "design studio" with the high end showrooms, I knew I had to be the best professional I could be. In time, I had a 1,000 square foot design studio devoted just to my business, with a separate entrance for my clients, which was a separate part of my home. The design studio had more than 100 door samples, a few small displays, a conference area with sofas, my office, and a central office area for my 2 assistants.
Challenges? Having children, especially 3, were working around their schedules, illnesses, after school activities, and so on. At the time, I did not think much of it, I just worked some additional off hours, which was easy. The biggest challenge, of course, being a kitchen designer, was not having large displays of kitchens, and not being on "Main Street". I made up for that by being published frequently and doing local marketing of various types.
The benefits of a home business are many! Working from home is the best. All the files are on site, so off hours, beyond 9-5, can be taken as necessary to do work. It was important to be able to go on a field trip with a child, knowing that I'd get back to doing my work later, perhaps during off hours. Not having strict hours, for me, is a benefit, as I sit here at 6 am writing these words. I think I was more productive than I would have been at a set 9-5 schedule. Discipline was never a problem for me, as I love my business and have always been self motivated. Not having the overhead of a showroom has been a benefit as well.
Have you hired additional staff? What is your greatest human resources challenge?
Yes, I've had assistants from time to time, sometimes 2 at once. Finding employees knowledgeable of my industry has been difficult. Complete training has had to be done, which takes months. Working in a small office with one or two other employees has its own unique challenges in regard to both office socializing and giving direction.
For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur?
I think women are very flexible thinkers and superb problem solvers. A female business owner has patience and sees the big picture, the end goal, easily. There is a depth to the female thought process that I believe to be very well suited to making business decisions and setting strategy. Advice would be to be find what makes you passionate, think positively, work hard, and good things will happen.
Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?
Yes. I write a popular blog on kitchen design, www.thekitchendesigner.org. I have been hired to do design work from many of my readers. I just finished doing a design for a family in the Netherlands and am working with clients from Vermont, Texas, and Chicago in addition to local clients. I do love Twitter, and Twitter has been a fantastic catalyst to find great people in my industry and build relationships with, which have produced increased exposure for my brand. I also have a facebook fan page and a personal facebook profile, in which I am friends with industry colleagues. In addition to the above, I frequently am a guest blogger for high profile sites such as Decorati.com, Kohler.com, HomeGoods.com, thekitchn.com, soon, divinecaroline.com and others.
How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?
When one first gets into the kitchen design industry, one thinks that it will be fun to design kitchens all day. I very quickly learned that designing kitchens is a small part of my work day with days going by without designing at all, sometimes weeks! Being a small business owner means that I wear many hats, and kitchen design becomes just a small piece of all of my business responsibilities. I clearly remember that as being a surprise, but also love the ability to control my own destiny with all that entails.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
It's about immersion in the industry...to learn as much as you can via the national organization, NKBA, trade shows, seminars, online resources, other education (design school) and doing all the wonderful AND mundane tasks to get a complete knowledge of the business. Finding a mentor is ideal, but putting time in as an employee in a kitchen design shop first as an apprentice is best. Determination, flexibility, and a positive attitude will bring rewards. Strategic thinking every day is important to set and reach goals.
Susan, that is great advice! I love meeting other mompreneurs who have made their businesses a success! This is great advice for any businessperson looking to become an entrepreneur. See Susan's beautiful work at www.kitcheninteriors.com, www.susanserraassociates.com, www.thekitchendesigner.org.
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