After finding herself frustrated while working for other people, Melanie Coddington made a bold move and ventured out on her own to establish an independent interior design firm.
Coddington made her way into entrepreneurship for the same reasons many others do—she craved the freedom to follow her individual creative vision at her own, much faster pace. She had always thought of herself as a self-starter and leader, and eight years later, she’s proven herself right as the founder of Coddington Design, a successful firm with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Just like many other small-business owners, Coddington has experienced the ups and downs of starting her own company. To give more insight into the design process and how she approaches small-business challenges, Coddington discusses how her firm has operated and changed over the years.
The First Few Years: Bumps in the Road. As Coddington dove into her business during those first years—often an uncertain and anxiety-provoking time for many small-business owners—Coddington faced sometimes-contradictory experiences.
“It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time,” she says. “I think most people feel that way when they start their business.”
When in doubt, she made a point to remind herself why she had started the endeavor in the first place. “‘This is what I’m meant to be doing, and it’s going to work out and I’m going to make it work,'” she says to keep herself grounded. “I would say you find out really quickly whether you’re cut out for it or not. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you need to be comfortable with uncertainty, and there needs to be a certain level of risk that you’re willing to take.” Furthermore, Coddington and her staff saw from the beginning that success would rely on a calm attitude and some sound perspective. When issues arise with clients, keeping a cool, level head is always the wise choice.
Making the Business Her Own. One of the main lessons Coddington learned throughout the years is how to handle client relationship management when dealing with particularly difficult individuals. The key, she says, is to focus on her competence and skills in the field.
“I had to develop my own confidence, and I had to really remind myself that I’m the expert here, and I know what’s going to look good,” she says. “At first, I struggled with being direct and confident in my design opinions. I would find myself feeling uncomfortable disagreeing with a client—telling them to get rid of some hideous family heirloom, for instance.”
Coddington found that tactful and logical honesty seems to be the best policy. She explains directly why a certain piece won’t work, emphasizing the way it may be holding the client back from realizing his or her desire for a beautiful home setting.
Coddington also gained the confidence to become more selective with clients. She stopped taking on everyone who came her way and “working myself ragged trying to please everyone.” As part of her more selective approach, she’s made the decision to screen clients as they come in to make sure they understand the nature of Coddington Design.
“I am more selective with the clients I take on, and I make sure they understand the role that I will personally play in their project, as well as my staff,” she says. “There needs to be a little bit more of a thought-out process of how you decide whether you’re going to work with someone. That was definitely a learning curve for me when I first started.”
Now, before signing on with new clients, Coddington asks that they fill out a questionnaire she and her team have drafted. Depending on the clients’ answers—including their design interests as well as their expectations for direct collaboration with Coddington—the firm can gauge whether they would like to take on a particular customer.
Tackling Small-Business Challenges. Even after years of success, Coddington says she’s not immune to many common challenges. One point of contention was finding a way to express her vision to clients. AutoCAD software has helped Coddington solve that problem, assisting in getting clients to understand and visualize the end results.
“We start with two to three options of AutoCAD LT floor plans for each room,” Coddington says. “We then do either detailed elevations of the space or a photo-realistic 3D rendering of the room. These drawings, in addition to fabric swatches and finish samples, really help our clients understand what their finished room will look like and also give us confidence that everything will fit.”
Because of the nature of these software design options, Coddington and her team are not only able to assuage any client reservations, but are also able see the best route to making strong and informed design decisions on their part.
“We have a saying in our office: ‘Paper doesn’t lie’—meaning, that if it fits in our CAD plan, it will fit in real life.”
The Right Choice vs. Client Preferences. Clients approach Coddington and her associates for a variety of reasons. Some may be too busy to handle remodeling and decorating an entire house. Others, meanwhile, simply don’t have a strong eye for design. Despite this reality, clients are often straightforward with what they want out of Coddington. Unfortunately, sometimes those ideas tend to be—to put it lightly—less than stellar.
During the first few years of running her design firm, Coddington sometimes had trouble being direct with clients about how misguided some customers were in their design requests.
“Let’s just say I got over that quickly,” Coddington says. [Laughs.] “I am being hired for my style and expertise, and my clients expect me to share it freely.”
Coddington found a direct and tactful approach worked best and was even surprised by how flexible many customers were. Rather than finding most customers highly attached to family heirlooms and unwilling to make changes, Coddington discovered that many clients were willing to trust her judgment.
“I could really explain to them in detail why an heirloom wasn’t working or what they were sacrificing,” Coddington says. “For example, if you have a dining room, and you have this huge buffet that’s been in your family for years but it means that you can sit only six people in your dining room, [I would say to clients], ‘Maybe you should let that piece go if you want to entertain more; you’re going to get more function, and it’s going to look better.'”
“Once you explain it that way,” Coddington continues, “clients will say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve just sort of always had this, and no one’s ever brought it up to me that maybe I should get rid of it.”
Confidence in her own prowess was key in creating business success, as it is for countless entrepreneurs. It’s that vision, ability, and assuredness in what she’s truly passionate about—design—that sets her apart from the crowd, and perhaps more importantly, what has led her to success.
For more tips on overcoming small-business challenges, check out our articles Reality Check: 4 Best Practices to Start and Stay in Business and 5 Tips for Balancing Work, Life, and Interior Design, as well as Entrepreneur’s Solutions Playbook: Top 25 Small-Business Challenges.