How can a small design studio successfully compete for big business?

In SD Blog|August 13, 2021|By Danine Alati

The movement to shop small businesses has been gaining momentum as of late; for example, buying from the local, independent bookstore or a mom-and-pop shop over big-box retailers or Amazon. But does this philosophy translate to the design world? Are there clients who will opt for small design operations over large-scale multidisciplinary firms? Studio Designer consulted with a few small design company owners, as well as the founder of a marketing and PR agency that reps global brands, to find out what makes a small interior design firm attractive to clients and how they can compete for big business.

Offer Individualized Service

333 Central Park West by Studio Cooke John | Lisa Russman Photography

“Small design firms generally provide much more personalized attention than larger firms. With fewer staff members and less overhead, we can afford to take on fewer projects at a time and focus our attention more fully,” says architect Nina Cooke John, founder of New York-based Studio Cooke John. “My firm offers a design sensitivity that many larger studios do not—not only in how we respond to each client’s needs on a case-by-case basis but also in the selection of materials and design composition that is one of a kind.”

Amanda Thompson and Lisa Patch of ALine Studio, a New York-based Studio Designer client, concur. “The personal experience with a small firm is more intimate,” they say. “It also feels like the projects become more personal to the designer because you are involved in all aspects of a project from concept to completion, so a greater sense of ownership and responsibility shines through.”

Architect Samantha Josaphat-Medina, principal and founder of  Studio 397 Architecture in Brooklyn, adds that in operating as a boutique firm, “all members of our team contribute to the design process with our various levels of experience and project type experience.”

Eliminate the Red Tape

Design by Studio 397 Architecture

A smaller design firm lacks the bureaucracy associated with a big conglomerate, so—in theory—the design project won’t get bogged down in the design process. Meredith Xavier, principal and founder of marketing, public relations, and business development company Ligné Agency, says, “Smaller firms offer more flexibility in their processes. The client is often more welcome to be an intimate part of the selection process, and there is a constant line of communication between the principal designer and client.”

“Our whole studio participates in each other’s projects so that we are always maximizing the amount of innovation and creativity put towards a project,” say Thompson and Patch, adding, “You can typically get more one-on-one time with everyone one on up to the firm’s owner.”

Make Connections

333 Central Park West by Studio Cooke John | Lisa Russman Photography

Sometimes the architecture or interior design firm that wins the commission is chosen simply because they click with the client. According to Cooke John, “Sometimes a client connects with the personalities in the small firm and really want to work with them. The design process is usually many months long, so being able to connect to whomever you will be working with is important.” Cooke John recalls beating out a larger architecture firm for a whole-house architectural renovation and interior design project not only because of the strength of her portfolio but also for the rapport her team had with the client. “I bring my true self to the interview,” she offers, “and clients select our small firm because they trust that we will do a great job and be great to work with along the way.”

Personality goes a long way in earning a commission over another interior designer. “We pride ourselves on being approachable and fun to work with—no divas allowed here!” say Thompson and Patch. Recollecting a time when they won the contract on a lavish amenity space over a more prominent local firm, they credit it to the personality of their interior design studio and how the client perceived their boutique operation. “The client told us that although we were a younger company, in age and establishment, it was our energy and passion that won them over,” they explain. “The competitor was more set in their ways, whereas we came in with fresh ideas, ready to collaborate. They felt that, ultimately, we would listen to them and work with them instead of dictating how the design should be done.”

Xavier names a time when one of the smaller design firms she represents wooed a client with their work via Instagram and then sealed the deal by fostering a genuine connection. “The client had also interviewed a few larger firms but didn’t feel as connected or excited about their proposals,” she recalls. “This is a highly emotional, relationship-driven industry, and any firm that authentically connects with their clients and has exceptional service and execution will have an edge, regardless of size.”

Don’t Compete… Collaborate

1441 Third Avenue Lobby Design by ALine Studio

Small businesses owners must be realistic in what they can offer clients. A small boutique operation often cannot compete with a 100-person-plus multidisciplinary design company—and that’s OK. “Large-scale design firms have vertically integrated services that a small firm simply can’t compete with,” acknowledges Xavier. “Small firms shouldn’t be focused on competing—it’s a different client base seeking them out.” ALine admits not every project is suited for them. “Take on projects that will challenge you but that you also know you can be successful at,” they advise. “You don’t want to over promise and under deliver.”

However, at times it behooves a small business owner to strategically partner with a larger company that offers complementary services. For example, Cooke John says, “If we think we need to compete with a much bigger firm… we often look to collaborate with colleagues whom we respect and love to work with. Both parties usually benefit on one front or another—whether the collaboration allows them to go after a different kind of project or a larger project than they would do otherwise.”

Josaphat-Medina believes that her firm’s ability to collaborate enables them to maintain their competitive edge. “Our project experience and network of vendors throughout the industry have allowed us to compete with established firms,” she admits, adding that at times she’s collaborated with 100-person firms, combining “the resources they may have in-house and a set of perspectives we offer that may not exist on their end, so Studio 397 is able to be a part of something bigger than what one firm [alone] can provide.”

Ultimately, Why Go Small?

White Kitchen Detail by Studio Cooke John | Lisa Russman Photography

Cooke John believes some clients opt for small businesses if they see something in the work that they don’t see in the work of the behemoths. Similarly, Josaphat-Medina notes, “One major component of our team is that our construction administration is led by Luis Medina, who comes from a construction management background. This skill set is something many architecture firms don’t have. We have seen a positive response to having Luis on the design side.”

The ALine designers add that some prefer to “shop small” and support local businesses because it helps the local economy. “Enriching the community around you raises values of self and property,” they say, adding, “Small businesses also have to work harder to get noticed and land jobs, so they are usually more innovative to be competitive.”

Another bonus of working with a boutique firm is ingenuity—there’s no cookie-cutter design, and every project provides a fresh perspective and new opportunity. “What smaller firms bring to the table is distinct design that seldom repeats itself,” Xavier notes. “There isn’t a corporate formula they have to follow and set vendors they need to select from. Their potential to bring original, unique design to life has no limitations.”

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FEATURED IMAGE: Design by ALine Studio