Alexia Butts, founder and principal designer at Apt. 5 Interiors, shares the lessons she learnt as she built her business, and the things every entrepreneur should know when building theirs.
Unlike some entrepreneurs, Alexia didn’t just wake up one day and decide that she wanted to be an interior designer. While she always loved architecture and design, her path to her own business was a meandering one. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Art, she landed a job post-graduation doing sales for a custom window treatments company. It didn’t take her long to realize that her job made her miserable.
That’s when she enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to earn her degree in interior design.
Alexia says SCAD taught her different concepts and challenged her to be her most creative. “Though I knew I had the skills to do the work, I really learned how to be a designer and to perform at the highest level of creativity consistently while at SCAD.”
Though she kept nurturing a dream of starting her own business, “your priorities and financial situation are two different things sometimes.” With a lackluster economy, Alexia hesitated about taking the leap.
After three years, she knew it was time. “I knew in my heart that I could create beautiful and functional living spaces for clients, with each one tailored to their specific needs and desires. I just struggled for so long on deciding to take that leap. Now I wish I had done it sooner.”
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Alexia reiterates how hard taking that first step was for her, but she says it’s been worth every moment. “Honestly, it’s really just taking the leap to go out and do it on your own. Even though I haven’t gotten any cool awards or accolades yet, people are starting to recognize my brand, my business, and my work.”
Now celebrating her second year in business, Alexia’s company Apt. 5 Interiors continues to expand, and is offering a growing list of services. The lessons she’s learned as a small business owner are relatable to anyone who’s ever branched out on their own—especially creative professionals who have honed their craft in school, but don’t have a traditional business background.
Alexia says there’s been lots of trial and error. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re on your own island and you don’t know if any of this stuff is going to work out. Even being on that island, which I call Hustle Island, you’re just working hard and you don’t know if any of what you’re doing is going to work or if people will be receptive to it.”
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Finding the right customers
A key part of building a successful business is not simply attracting customers, but finding the right kind of customers. Alexia showcases her projects via social media, a move that’s driven numerous customers to her business. By sharing the projects she’s most proud of, she attracts more work of that nature. She says she uses Canva’s templates with her own images to create posts.
Alexia says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to interior design. The people who she’s working with play a huge role in influencing the final outcome. “The client is always different, the people are always different. Who your client is makes a major difference in how your project will turn out. It’s really about the individual, their personal tastes, and what their dream is.”
And sometimes, this means turning potential clients away. “There are times when I meet with clients and I realize that I’m not the right person to make their dreams come true.”
When that situation happens, Alexia will refer the person to someone else who can better meet their needs. While turning down potential clients can be a difficult decision to make—especially when trying to create an income-generating business—it shows a self-awareness that breeds respect. And referring them to someone else can go a long way towards solidifying a loyal and positive reputation in the business world.
Be prepared for a crash course in business skills
I asked Alexia what people find surprising about her work. She says the fact that her work is 80% project management and business and 20% design has been surprising to other people, and an eye-opener for her.
“I have a couple days a week where I do design work. Everything else is project management, running a business, making phone calls, marketing myself and my services, etc.”
“The company is only two years old and I’m still not quite where I want to be yet so I still need to hustle to land clients. I didn’t know how much of what I would be doing would be wrapped up in the business side when I started.”
Interior design requires talent, but making a career out of it also requires business savvy. It’s a lesson learnt by many an entrepreneur: you have to wear lots of hats.
Take learning into your own hands
Formal education is great for immersing you in a variety of topics, but unless you earn a business degree, it can be a struggle to understand the breadth of what’s needed to run a business.
Though Alexia lauds SCAD for the design courses, she also says she wishes she had learned more about building a business.
Taking matters into her own hands, she goes at least once a month to classes to get additional business education. “Most designers, and most entrepreneurs honestly, are solo-prenuers. We’re out here by ourselves and we need this business education. Whether I’m taking an advanced QuickBooks class or Business Law class, I go out of my way to find them to make sure I stay informed and up to date.”
She says it's important that your courses meet your needs. “Make sure the learning environment is teaching what you want to know and that the Professors and students are awesome. That’s how I felt when I went to SCAD and it made all the difference in the world. I realized 'Oh look! There’s other weirdos who talk about fabric excitedly like I do!'"
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Communication Is Crucial
This tip isn’t reserved solely for interior designers. Every entrepreneur should focus on clear communication with their clients.
For Alexia, her level of communication started when she realized how nervous her clients were after they gave her their deposit. Since the clients don’t see all that happens in the background, Alexia began sending them weekly emails detailing what steps had taken place.
Alexia jokes, “I am incredibly nosy and I do not hold back. ‘Hi, I’m Alexia. I’m going to be here for the next 6-8 weeks and I’m going to be all up in your business.’”
Find what sets you apart
Whether it’s the level of hands-on service you offer, or a one-of-a-kind bespoke product, having a point of difference is essential in the business world.
Alexia has differentiated herself in the space between the add-on e-design services offered by big companies and the traditional and highly personalized interior design services. Her business Apt. 5 Interiors has created a unique subscription-box style e-design plan where Alexis is able to give clients a more personalized experience and “remind them that this process is physical. It’s not just pictures on the internet and this gives them that extra connectivity.”
“One of the things I love most is the layers that go into creating a functional and beautiful space. It’s architectural and design-based thinking in one. I love the whole process and challenge of that—going from the big things down to the smallest pieces.”
Another way Alexia sets herself apart is by offering an affordable price-point. She says she’s proud that she can offer stylish interiors that aren’t out of reach to the average person. “There are designers who have consultation fees of $1,000 and a retainer fee of $25,000, and that’s before you even get to the costs of the project. While some day I might get there, I love being the person who you know can still make your space stylish and well-designed, but on a reasonable budget.”
Carry your business card—everywhere
Alexia’s final lesson is one that she learned the hard way.
At her SCAD graduation, she went to meet her mom after the ceremony, only to find her deep in conversation with none other than Andre Leon Talley, former editor-at-large of Vogue. After nearly dying of excitement, Alexia had a long chat with him, even asking him whether she should move to NYC or stay in Atlanta. After encouraging her to stay in Atlanta for her design career, Mr. Talley asked her for her business card. That’s when Alexia realized she had left all of her cards in the car: she didn’t have a single one on her.
But business cards or no business cards, the key of good networking remains the same: making genuine connections. “You have to find people who really get you and understand your vision. You need people who have your back.”