If you want to succeed in the design business you need a mentor. The best advice I can give my students on the fastest route to becoming a freelance designer is to finish all your education first and then get a job working for an interior designer. This way you can learn from their mistakes and have a built-in mentor.
If you want to take the longer and more difficult route (like I did) and get educated at the same time that you are in business, you need a mentor in the industry so that when your client’s furniture arrives and they say “It’s too big!” and you know it’s fine but you don’t know what to say? You need to be able to find the answer, which is; ‘Sometimes if people have had an empty living room for even a couple weeks, doesn’t matter what arrives–it seems too big’.
The chances of getting a job working for a designer get a lot slimmer if you don’t complete your education. So the second best way [to becoming a freelance designer] is to get experience working somewhere in the industry; selling lighting, furniture, or colour (like I did) and/or be good at finding mentors (like I was).
I met my first mentor at an interior decorating course in Victoria.
She was the instructor and I called her a couple times after the course was over. Both times she was too busy to talk to me.
Then the third time I called her, she told me she was right in the middle of moving and I offered to help!
We were great friends after that!
To find a mentor in the beginning when you don’t have that much to offer (in terms of business and talent) you have to be willing to do whatever it takes even if that means schlepping boxes and unpacking dishes.
My second mentor, Erin Grant was a brilliant decorator and colour expert at Benjamin Moore. I worked in 3 stores (for 2 separate owners) to gain all the colour experience I have. We would stand around in the paint store, talking to customers about their colours and selling our services.
The first time I arrived at a consultation with no inspiration and no furniture and I really had no idea what colours to specify I simply told my clients that I was new and that I was not going to charge them for that consultation. I called up my friend Erin, came back together on another pre-arranged appointment, they paid her and I watched and learned.
I found my third mentor at an industry event.
I walked up to her (certain I knew her from somewhere, or so I pretended) and she said “I have picked your brain a few times at Benjamin Moore about colour”. She told me she was having trouble selecting a colour in a 10,000 square ft house in West Vancouver she was designing and of course I offered to help.
After that I would simply call her if I received a consultation where someone had questions about re-designing kitchens (not my specialty). When that happened, I would refer her and she would get her design fee and I would watch and learn.
She was so generous with my endless questions that we even ended up business partners for a couple of years.
I got my current mentor by being slightly annoying.
I called her off and on for advice over a two year period. When I found her at the home show in her booth, I would bring her coffee and just listen to her talk to potential clients.
And then one day the timing just clicked and we became friends.
To this day I will do pretty much anything for this woman, she has been extremely generous with me.
Here are 3 steps to finding your own mentor:
There is a fine line between being annoying and being pushy. It’s hard to be likable when you are being pushy. Annoying can still be charming. No one wants to be around a taker, so make sure you have the spirit of a generous person, quick to contribute where you can.
Can you expect your mentor to come out to one of your projects (for free) and help you if you get stuck? No. Your job is to sell his/her services as a designer if you want to watch and learn, just like I did (in the above example).
Each one of my mentors is a huge part of who I am today. Because I’m the type of person who—has to know the RIGHT answer, RIGHT now–I have been very fortunate to find such generous women to mentor me. They gave me their time, knowledge, and energy and I have been very lucky to know them.