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  • Writer's picturetobiwray

2020 | A Year In Review

Wow. It’s hard to know where to start really… This has been quite the year… In some ways amazing, but in other ways, the hardest year we have all had together collectively. In hindsight, this was obviously not the year one would choose to open a new business, but I did and so I pushed through it. I figure, if I can make it through this year, I can make it through any year?

So, here we are – it’s the end of 2020 (finally!) and I made it! DWS Co is still in business and steadily building. I am one of those people who takes time at the end of each year to reflect – Did I meet my goals? What did I learn? How have I grown? What do I want to set for an intention next year? What new goals do I want to set for myself? I did this same exercise as I was starting my business last year.

Some goals I set last year were seemingly simple, such as–get professional photos taken, design a website and launch it. This seems straightforward, but it meant I had to get my studio space set up, I needed to have some design work underway to show, and I needed to get permission to show my previous work on the website. Meanwhile, as you are out trying to get work, one of the first questions everyone asks you is, “Do you have a website?” For anyone out there looking to start a service-based business like mine, this is something you should be prepared to face. Your first year is especially tough because you need to get clients to build a portfolio, but you need a portfolio to get clients! This is where getting permissions to use my work prior to opening the business was key, and I’m thankful Starbucks and Amazon have been supportive.

Other seemingly basic goals included finding an accountant. I should mention, I had already found a great attorney and insurance agency I was referred to by my attorney. Another shout out to anyone looking to start a business – building this team around you is very important (attorney, accountant, insurance). You should interview all of them and make sure you find people you can trust and who will be those people who will pick up the phone when you need them. Pay attention to how responsive they are and how invested they are in helping you. I’m very happy I took my time in building the team around me and can tell you it’s paid off several times over even this first year. Also, attorneys are expensive – I already knew that, you already knew that, but until you actually have one and need one, it doesn’t really sink in. You get what you pay for though!

Speaking of building a team around you – don’t underestimate your network. A friend of mine just said this perfectly – “Build your network before you need one.” (Thanks, Stephanie!) This could not be more true! People have asked me how I have managed to get work and my answer is – my network! Over the past 11+ years, I have met and worked with so many amazing people. When I started DWS Co, I took time (in between putting together IKEA shelving in my office) to go through my contacts and reach out to people I knew to let them know I was in business. Some people I hadn’t spoken to in YEARS, but because these were people I had really connected to, the outpouring of support was incredible. Some of you are probably reading this now and you know who you are – THANK YOU!

My first client, Locust Cider & Brewing Co, was because of my network. The Owner/Founder was a friend of mine who I worked with during my Starbucks days. This was such a perfect first project to kick off the year. I had a ton of fun working with them on evaluating their existing taproom portfolio, their brand, and talking to them about where they were headed and how they wanted to evolve their taproom experience without losing the inherent authenticity they had established. We had a brief pause when the pandemic hit in March but picked back up again on a handful of projects they had under construction. By value engineering and reducing cost, we were able to apply new concept elements to their locations at First Hill (Seattle, WA), Redmond Town Center (Redmond, WA), Belmar (Lakewood, CO), Fort Collins (Fort Collins, CO), and one other project - TBD.

Something else I did that also felt a little uncomfortable at first, was to reach out to some media outlets who I had talked to during my time at Amazon to see if they would still be interested in featuring me in their publications. They both agreed, and after getting approval from Amazon, I was able to get DWS Co. published in a couple of articles within it’s first year of business! This proved to be a great marketing tool and the timing was such that it helped get DWS Co. connected to a big RFP. After several interviews, a hypothetical design exercise, and a lengthy contracting/onboarding process, I am happy to say that DWS Co. made the cut! Put yourself out there, even if it’s uncomfortable! The worst that can happen is they say no, so do it!

When the pandemic hit in March, I was pretty sure I would not be getting any work anytime soon, but some surprising opportunities arose because of it:

1) Travel Bans

Businesses have not been able to travel, so I got a call to take on Construction Administration for an architect out of NYC who needed someone on the ground in WA for a bank build out.

2) Down-sizing (in-house design - retailer)

In-house design teams are being downsized or in some cases dissolved. This is VERY upsetting to me being someone who has worked exclusively in-house and who has several friends who work in-house…BUT from a business standpoint – this has been a good thing for DWS Co. I always knew DWS Co could differentiate itself from other design firms in that I think like an owner. I have worked exclusively in-house for retailers, so I know how they work. I know the conversations that need to be had with leadership, I know the cross-functional teams that need to be brought along, and I know the expectations and rigor that needs to go into the design work for approvals to happen. It’s hard being on the outside as a consultant, but if you know the right questions to ask, you can become an extension of the team, rather than an outsider. I believe a big part of getting the big RFP this year was because of this differentiator.

3) Down-sizing (in-house design - manufacturer)

Manufacturers are another segment of the business who typically have in-house design teams, and like everyone else, they too have had to scale back. I’m doing some design work now for a manufacturer who needed a designer to apply an existing design concept to several quick-service restaurant locations, so they could get approval for production.

4) Residential

I had never really planned on doing residential, but with the huge impact COVID had on commercial, and with residential picking up, I figured – why not? I have now worked on a range of residential projects – everything from a full-blown renovation and home addition to small bathroom renovations. The residential world is a completely different animal from commercial, but I have really enjoyed the challenge of jumping into something new.

Another unexpected opportunity this year was I have gotten more involved with the Retail Design Institute. This was an organization I always wanted to be a part of, but never felt like I could prioritize when I was at Starbucks and Amazon. I managed to attend most every event this past year (most were virtual), and met and reconnected with a lot of really great people! It’s also opened up several opportunities for my students and networking for Cornish College of the Arts where I teach part-time. Chapter Board elections happened this year, and they elected me Vice President for the Pacific Northwest Chapter! This was a complete shock to me, but such a great opportunity. We met this month to plan out our events for 2021, and we have a lot of exciting things coming up, so stay tuned! (Shameless plug: If you are reading this and you are involved in the retail design industry in anyway – please DM me because you should be a member! Not only that, but memberships are free through May 31, 2021!)

There are SO many other things I could share about this first year - I worked out templates, fees, contracts, and time estimates. I established relationships with several architects in the area, so I have people to call as project work picks up, and I worked on a variety of projects to test how broad I want to go with my services in the future. I also had a big lesson learned on trademarks, but that will be for another blog post, haha! In many ways, starting this business in the midst of a global pandemic has been a good thing. I was able to slow down and then ramp up over time, which I may not have had the opportunity to do had this whole thing not happened. If you can’t tell by now, I’m a glass half-full sort of person, and I think life is what you make of it. Even if things don’t feel like they are going your way, there are always lessons to be learned and those lessons can be just what you need to move you in the right direction! Another takeaway here is to always trust your gut. A lot of people have an opinion on what you should and shouldn’t do in business, but what I’m finding is that I know what is best.

As we head into 2021, I remain optimistic and have many goals for the coming year, including continuing to focus on growing the retail and hospitality part of the business, becoming a design resource for other major retailers, and taking advantage of all the groundwork I laid this past year. More than any business goal, I am looking forward to this vaccine, so we can all slowly pick up the pieces and be together again! Lastly, I hope someone out there finds this lengthy recap helpful! I am a teacher at heart and believe in sharing what I know with others.

Here’s to one year in business and an amazing second year to come in 2021! Happy New Year, everyone!

Photo Credit: Kayla J. Photograhy

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