Hear From Our Experts: A Chat with Marla Marshall, CPA

Studio Designer has been the top design business software for nearly three decades and from its inception has been well-supported by a national network of certified consultants who are considered official experts of the platform. These consultants are thoroughly trained on the platform and have a profound understanding of the demands and complexities of a design business. They have literally “seen it all” and possess the experience and insight that has been crucial in the continued success of Studio Designer.

Consultants not only help new Studio Designer users get trained and up to speed running their business on the platform but they also directly take on the bookkeeping and management needs of some design firms. Many consultants have longtime designer clients and, in some cases, take on a central and critical role in a design firm’s business operations. In this occasional “Hear From Our Experts” series, we want to share the thoughts and insights from our consultants who share their thoughts on the platform and the general business of design.

Consultant Marla Marshall is one of our leading experts of Studio Designer and we recently took the time to have a chat with her about how she built her company; the unique demands of design businesses; and about the evolution and future of the Studio Designer platform.

As the owner and Lead Consultant of Designer Accounting & Consulting, Marla Marshall is a CPA with over 15 years of experience working exclusively with designers and design firms. She possesses valuable insider knowledge of the industry’s best practices, initiatives, and challenges. Each design practice is unique, and each designer has his or her own priorities. Marla understands that every design practice is unique with different priorities and she builds relationships with her clients to understand their needs. She plays a key role in helping her clients achieve their business goals with customized and cost-effective services.

Hear From Our Experts:

Marla Marshall


1. When did you first encounter Studio Designer? Describe how it has evolved from your first use to today.

Many years ago, I met a designer in my neighborhood who found the program, installed it, and didn’t know what to do with it. I worked on her accounting. I had no training on the software but it appeared to be just the thing designers needed. I began working with it and was amazed by the power it had to keep designers organized and produce perfect accounting records at the same time. I spent a lot of time experimenting with all the features and almost 20 years later, here we are!

I saw Studio Designer evolve from a desktop program to the cloud which was quite different. It was amazing to be able to work from anywhere. It has evolved to cater to interior designers and their current needs. As technology has evolved, things like the client portal have become a fabulous tool for the designer and the design client to manage projects together. Designers appear organized and progressive. I find the Client Portal easy to use with little additional effort and love that it is a ready-made part of Studio. I loved the improvement of adding images and really like how Studio Capture works. The old desktop program was ready for an update and SD has done a lot to change with the times while always keeping the designers’ needs at the forefront.

2. Describe how you built your business, how it evolved, and describe how you brought in staff.

I admit that I built my business slowly as I had kids and was semi-retired from a high-powered job before. It was great to stay home for a while but eventually I wanted to learn something new and use my business and accounting skills. I then met that designer who got Studio Designer and started working part-time.

Slowly with my work, I gained a reputation in Chicago for being a CPA specializing in the interior design industry. I became more and more involved with the program and was working about 15-20 hours a week on the desktop version. When Studio Designer became cloud-based about a decade ago, it was perfectly timed with my youngest child going off to college, I thought the product was amazing and decided to grow my business from there.

As far as building my business, my biggest problem was finding a great team. They had to be terrific accountants and become an expert in all areas of Studio Designer. I made a very conscious decision to grow the business but had to set standards. Everyone on my team had to be willing to embrace Studio Designer and the industry.

I use feedback from my clients and follow up to make sure they are well supported by my team. I also urge my associates to experiment in our sample database and to ask questions as you can’t learn these skills in an hour, or a week, and it takes time.

For years, I had a couple of consultants working with me. Over the past few years, I’ve hired many additional people to handle the workload and I’ve been very lucky to have built an amazing team; I admit that my standards are extremely high, our clients rely on us for the right answer and perfect accounting records. Most of my consultants start out with bookkeeping because in my experience, “All Roads Lead to Accounting.” Then they slowly get acquainted with project management by creating items and then move on to complex tasks.

I take a lot of pride in what I do and do my best to instill this in my consultants as of course the reputation of my business is important. It took me a long time to get to the point where I had layers in my business to get senior staff answering important questions from key clients. I learned to delegate, establish trust, and I’ve established an incredible team over the years who specialize in all aspects of Studio Designer.

3. You’ve been working in this field for quite some time, what do you love about the interior design business?

I love this business, but do I love accounting? Well…honestly, how can you love accounting? I’m good at it, but I just love that I can help people who need my help. I can’t design anything, so I appreciate what my clients can do, and I must admit that I call them when I need some emergency design decisions. I need their help just as much as they need mine. We should all do what we’re good at.

To recap, I love my work in two ways. First, I help people who really need my help. Second, I just love the industry. I walk into my clients’ studios and enjoy the great fabrics and textures I see.

I’ve learned the industry and still want to know everything about the design business and how it works, so that makes me much more passionate about it. I don’t have the talent to design but am glad I am working for such an interesting industry that I’ve come to know the top players in the industry.

I also do business consulting using my knowledge of business and the industry. I enjoy working with designers on profitability, best practices, and processes. I’ve worked all over the country and understand how design businesses are run in different geographical areas.

4. What are some of the unique aspects of a design business that needs extra attention?

Number one, most designers are not taught business skills; for the most part they were not taught business in design school. Many of them do not understand the importance of a good accounting system. It’s not only a vehicle to do their tax return (although this is important). I do my best to explain to designers what is important. Sales tax is a HUGE liability in this business. Designers often don’t know what to do with taxes: when to file, how to file, how to collect, etc. There’s so many pieces to account and track, unlike a law firm where you just bill for hours and receive.

In this world of design, there are so many moving parts that even one pillow can have many players, two different fabric vendors, another vendor for the pillow form, another vendor to sew it, and so forth. And this is just one pillow in a project that can have 3,000 items! So then you move on to the sofa and then there are even more moving parts.

How does a designer track everything with accuracy? It’s great fun for me, I love keeping a designer organized and that’s what Studio Designer does for clients; and that’s why I’ve chosen to specialize in the platform. I draw from my accounting background to keep my clients organized.

5. Describe some insights you gained from your previous work experience that has contributed to your current design business consulting work.

I previously worked as a Controller and Vice President for a large real estate investment company for 15 years. I got to see the big picture of how big businesses operate. I have my degree and I’m a CPA, but I received most of my education actually working in big business. I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learned and scale it from a one-person firm to a 100-person firm. It taught me how to deal with different types of people and the best ways to consult with clients. I’m not an attorney but my experience has allowed me great insight on understanding contracts knowing what clients need to have in their contract but of course, I leave it to the legal professionals to write and execute the contract. Working for a big corporation gave me invaluable lessons on how to manage a business and the importance of good processes.

6. Outside of Studio Designer, what other work do you do to help interior design businesses? How did you come to work nationally?

My reputation just grew from referrals. For instance, I had one client in Texas and then I started having more speaking engagements in that state. Then through word of mouth, I gained many clients in Texas. Plus, I do love to travel so that made it easier for me to meet new clients. I really enjoy doing on-site trainings. I love meeting a new user or firm who will get as excited about Studio Designer as I am.

When I meet with clients, I talk about best practices and best process. What differentiates me from some other business consultants is that I’m not out to bulldoze a company and tell them who to hire and fire. I want to hear about what you do, what’s working and what’s not working. I want to use what you have with the people you have—along with Studio Designer—to get everything working as a process.

I’m a huge efficiency person—I believe you should touch everything once. I work a lot on process, best practices and always mindful of how it’s going to affect accounting and the bookkeeper’s work. I often have bookkeepers sit in on designer training because they need to understand the process to do good accounting for a design firm.

7. Describe your typical Studio Designer client. How long does it take to get an individual or firm up to speed running their business on this platform?

Every firm is different, but I do my best to start them with watching videos and then training comes in little pieces at a time because there is so much to digest. We start with addresses and contacts and then move onto items and then on to accounting.

I tell new clients that the first 60 days will be a challenge. It’s a fun challenge but it’s new. Many firms were using their last software and process for a lot of years and change is often difficult. They will be up and running in a few days with the knowledge to create proposals, orders, and invoices, add images and do basic accounting. I don’t want them to get overwhelmed with all the features in the beginning. Learn the basics first, walk before you run and within 60 days, they will be super comfortable with all the features (basic and advanced). Even though I have had some clients initially feel overwhelmed, I explain the benefits, they keep learning and end up loving Studio and what it does for their business.

I tell my clients that the first days are rough because the platform is front-end heavy, you must be organized, and it is a lot of work. But in the end, when you see this beautiful project presented on Studio Designer, you can quickly answer client questions because you know exactly where to find it.

8. Without naming names, what are some of the best practices of your most successful clients?

My most successful clients are willing to spend the time to be organized and make sure that nothing falls into the cracks with project flows. You really have to spend the time to stay organized in Studio Designer. The best clients also make sure they check financials on a monthly basis and review job profits. It is important that they do not just check their bank account balance because it often is not even their money!

9. What are some of the worst habits that you see?

The least successful people are those who operate in crisis mode and are not tracking their spending habits. They often overpromise and underdeliver and set unrealistic expectations for themselves. They scramble to buy items and are unable to track the vendors in an accurate way because of the rush. They can quite often deliver a beautiful product but can’t deliver to their clients an accurate accounting. Operating in crisis mode can be a financial disaster that is difficult to recover from. If you stay organized in Studio Designer, it is easy to share with clients precise and accurate details of any given project.

Not being in touch with your own business is a big problem! I try to get my clients to understand their financials by putting it in their terms and working on it month after month until it makes sense to them. You don’t need an MBA to be a business owner, but you should find someone qualified to look out for you whether it’s me as a consultant or your bookkeeper or tax preparer. It is difficult to be a business owner and takes hard work. If you just want to design, go work for someone else.

10. What are some important tips about Studio Designer you would like to share with users?

Always review your financial data! I think it is important to always stay organized and even more importantly, take the time to be organized. When it comes to Studio Designer, take advantage of the organizational aspects of the platform. Use the expediting and tracking features. Make sure you’re using item numbers and keeping everything in order, so you know what’s going on in any given project. I recommend that everyone in the firm should use Studio Designer in the same way so that when one person is on vacation, it is easy for anyone else in the firm to jump in and track projects.

I cannot stress organization enough. I like to use an analogy about your closet. If you have a disorganized closet with clean clothes stored in random drawers, you need to find all the components of your wardrobe and then have to iron it and it takes an hour to get dressed. However, if you have a beautifully organized closet with everything in its proper place, you can get dressed in five minutes. Either way, you will look the same but your day will start out less stressful if you are organized.

Lastly, I recommend to designers that you know what you’re good at and ask for help in areas when you need assistance, whether it’s accounting or legal. I meet clients who feel they are qualified to do their own accounting, but they don’t have the training or knowledge to do so. Don’t try to copy some Internet contract out there because laws are different in every state. If you’re going to be a business owner, take ownership and responsibility to know where you need extra assistance. Outside help may seem expensive at first but it will pay off triple-fold.

11. What do you feel are the advantages of Studio Designer over similar competitors?

Obviously, I love the organizational aspects Studio Designer but I love advanced features like the Client Portal, and how users can share proposals and items directly with their clients. I also appreciate the perfect accounting records that result from the proper use of the platform.

I think that some of the other programs come across as pretty basic for experienced and sophisticated users. Studio Designer is more scalable for different businesses from large firms to small one-person businesses. Studio Designer can be used for commercial firms and architects as well as smaller residential studios.

Because there are so many features in Studio Designer, the learning curve may appear high but the platform allows you to grow in the future. The platform can accommodate your growth as a design business as you start to use more and more advanced features. Designers can learn the basics quickly and gain an understanding of the advanced features over time.

Many other interior design business programs are too basic, clunky, or just not right for the industry. I will say that the leading bookkeeping software is not for the designer at all and you need a designer-specific software to handle design business financials.

For more information about Marla Marshall, feel free to visit her business website Designer Accounting or email her at marla@designeraccounting.com.