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How commercial work gives this Virginia designer a leg up on residential projects

The 50 States Project is a yearlong series of candid conversations with interior designers, state by state, about how they’ve built their businesses. Today, we’re chatting with Charlottesville, Virginia–based designer Jennifer Glickman of Glickman Design Studio about the client phone call she always aims to avoid receiving, why she tweaked her markup after she started getting shopped, and the time-saving power of letting the wrong projects go.

When did you first know you wanted to be a designer?

I was pre-dental in undergrad at the University of Virginia, and I was failing all my pre-med classes—but I was also taking classes at the architecture school and was excelling at those. It was supposed to be just for fun, but I [began to] see this path in front of me that was developing and I realized that my passion for architecture and interior design could be a career option. I come from a long line of dentists, so I just always thought, That’s my path to success. But once I realized how [design] could be a professional career, it created this really exciting picture for me.

What did making that shift look like in your life?

That shift was interesting. At that point, as an undergrad, I still kind of reported to my parents. I had to go back and tell them, “Hey, I’m not gonna be a doctor—I’m going to be an artist!” How does that fly? But once I got into an interior design master’s program, it just reaffirmed that this is what I was meant to do. I went to the New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University in Boston. I was starting over at foundation level—it was very thorough, and I needed all of that. And I enjoyed that it was so technical.

Once you graduated, where did you go from there?

While I was wrapping up my master’s degree, I got a job at Ann Beha Architects, a really well-respected local architecture firm. The firm did mostly institutional work, especially higher-education spaces, and I was their in-house interior designer. I was working on a team of 40 or so architects—it felt like this really exciting, but also overwhelming, position that I had to live up to. It was such a wonderful experience, and the architect who hired me became a lifelong mentor.

You started your own business a few years later. What made you want to pivot?

I got laid off when the recession hit in 2008 and 2009. That’s what led me to start my own firm—nobody was hiring at that time. All of a sudden, all of my friends were laid off—everyone was well-educated but nobody could find a job in architecture. I just started marketing myself, saying, “I can be a consultant for you on the interiors portion of this or that project,” and [the work] built up over time and became a business. But that experience at the architecture firm opened the doors to other firms being clients when I started my own business.

How did you get that consulting side off the ground?

It was sink or swim. A friend of mine who owns her own small architecture firm offered me part-time work, and I think that planted the seed. I started offering that to other firms, and it developed organically. It wasn’t overnight—it started at my dining room table and I just let it grow slowly over the years. By the time I left Boston in 2017, my firm had six designers. It grew to a point that I thought was maxing out for my personal preference.

Was it all still consulting work for architecture firms?

No, we were also designing projects of our own. The split varied—some years, most of our revenue would come from large projects. [For instance], we worked with an architecture firm that was building a brand-new building at a well-known university one year, and because of the scale of the project, that became the biggest chunk of our revenue [that year]. But then the following year, we had residential clients that were gut-renovating their interiors or building new. It swayed back and forth between the two.

What is it like to bounce between institutional and residential work?

The demands are very different. With institutional work, we’re meeting with a board, so it’s a team of people. There are codes to keep in mind. There is usually an architectural firm that is our client, and the school is their client, so we have two layers of clients that we have to report to. There are a series of approvals: getting the concept or scheme approved by the architect, and then taking that approval to that actual board or the school.

When I’m working with a residential client, it’s so personal. I was just speaking with a potential new residential client this morning and we were talking about how many kids they plan on having in the future because we’re going to think about that when we design their bedrooms. I like the challenge of being able to switch gears and think about those two very different types of projects with very different demands. It keeps us on our toes. But at the same time, we have to balance how much we have on our plate. Because of the switching back and forth, we have to make sure that we’re always thinking about the details—that we’re always sharp and fully engaged.

When you moved in 2017, how much of your business did you bring with you?

My husband and I relocated to Virginia to raise our family down here, but the goal was to be able to fly back and forth between Virginia and Boston in this transition period. But I quickly realized how unrealistic that was with a newborn, so I shifted gears and focused more heavily on starting over here in Charlottesville.

What did starting over look like?

Before we decided that this is where we wanted to move, I wondered, “Am I a little too modern for Charlottesville?” We flew down here several times so I could network, and I set up meetings with residential firms to see what the market is like for residential clients. I would pack these trips—they’d be two-day trips, and I’d have one maybe every other week for a period of time, so I knew that it was viable by the time we decided to make the move.

When I moved down, I had this wonderful article—my first big national piece—come out in House Beautiful. But it was still starting over in terms of getting my name out in the market. It was definitely humbling to hit the pavement again and let everyone know I’m here—it felt like the very beginning, when I first started my business.

What does your firm and team look like now?

Right now, there’s just two of us: myself and one designer who works for me. We’re slowly growing, though COVID has definitely dampened that a bit. It’d be great to build up a little bit more, but I don’t know that I want to get back to the size I was in Boston, because at that point I wasn’t designing as much as I was managing a firm. So, somewhere in the middle between two people and six people.

What was the moment when you felt the tipping point between, ‘I’m a designer’ and ‘I’m a manager’?

It was somewhere in the range of four to six designers working for me that I realized I was spending a lot of time on managing business insurance, health insurance plans, payroll and invoicing. I realized that I wasn’t designing nearly at all.

Did you always hire other design talents, or do you also hire support staff?

Hiring support staff is something that I struggle with. I always want to make sure that I have the revenue to cover the support staff—a marketing person or an office manager—because their time is not always directly billable. Their time creating invoices might be billable, but not all of their 40 hours.

I’m always very hesitant about hiring support staff—sometimes to a fault, because I end up doing the work myself. I think over the years I’ve realized they end up paying for themselves eventually, but I always end up hiring designers first. I’m quick to realize when it’s time to take on another designer, but less quick [about adding] support staff.

You said there’s two of you now. How many projects are you working on typically?

We’re in the five to six project range, though the scale varies. Right now, we’re working on a large country club renovation, a smattering of homes and a few institutional projects of various levels. We’re still at the point where the phases of each are staggered enough that between the two of us we’re fine—we’re not at the point where we need a third person. But if [timelines] had started to align, I think with six projects we could need a third person. It depends on the scope of the project, too—I find that the smaller projects need more hand-holding.

Is it because the clients are so worried about the budget?

Just two weeks ago, I had a potential client [tell me] they wanted an office in their basement because they’re working from home now. The basement was completely unfinished, just studs, and they wanted us to select furniture; design some built-ins, a closet and some hidden storage; work with the contractor to plan out the electrical locations; and design how to finish the ceiling, because there was some HVAC jogging in and out. There was a lot getting jam-packed into this room, and all of that added up to our time to help design these things. I wrote up the proposal, but when the client saw it, they said, “Wow, that’s a lot of time for one space.” I tried to explain why—because we’re focusing on one room and this room has a lot of demands—but instead of pushing back and saying, “Let’s see how we can make it work,” I just had to say, “I totally understand, it’s not a fit. Best of luck.” I just knew at that point that it was the best narrative for both of us, because I think if I tried to make it work, he would get frustrated along the way or I would, and it just wouldn’t be the best. Once I realized that learning what the right fit is actually benefits my firm, it’s been really fulfilling—and felt better, I think, for everyone in the end.

When you moved to Virginia, did that change the kind of work you were doing?

Not really. Charlottesville has such a beautiful landscape—as in the actual landscape, but also architecturally. There are so many beautiful, historic homes here built by famous architects. In that way, it is very reminiscent of Boston, where there are these beautiful, historic brownstones that we got to design in. The way we design is a blend of traditional, transitional and a little bit of midcentury. I like to layer styles thoughtfully in a curated space, and I think that has carried over very well into Charlottesville.

You mentioned when you first moved you were trying to figure out if your look was too modern for the city. I’m guessing you found out that’s not the case?

I discovered that I could find what I was looking for more often than I thought. With all of these historic estates here in Charlottesville, I was worried that traditional interiors were the majority of the market here. But I was pleased to find that that was not the case.

How do most of your clients these days find you?

In Boston, maybe I’d just been there so long—I had this great system of referrals after being up there for 14 years. Maybe it’s just because I haven’t been down here as long, but I find that I’m getting people who come across my website because maybe they bought a new house, they need an interior designer, and they started Googling. When they call, they’ve gone through my website more thoroughly and they bring that up in our first call or email. I hear that more here than I did in Boston.

Right now, it’s about half referrals and the other half from Googling and finding my website. I’ve been here four years now, so it’s getting to the point where architects and friends are starting to spread my name around when they hear that someone is looking for an interior designer.

Especially with so many leads from Google, how have you approached your website and social media?

I redesigned my website when I got down here, and I revisit it every couple of years, and of course add projects. But my social media—I’m admittedly not just not good, I’m bad at it. I feel like that’s one of those support staff positions that I should hire for! Some people are so good at it day to day as they’re traveling through site visits or putting together a board online, but I’m just so head-down when I’m at work, the last thing on my mind is to post on Instagram! I need to get better at that. I’m just so focused on getting drawings done, I don’t even think about it.

How did you develop your business plan? Read from source….