A delightful Houzz event and evening, hosted at the Andrew Martin International showroom in Walton Street, London.
A large turnout of around 150 people, who had been invited by the Houzz team, and who were predominantly interior designers, keenly interested in hearing about the delights and pitfalls of taking your design services outside of the UK. A daunting prospect for many of us!
The panel of experts was made up of the Founder of Andrew Martin International, Martin Waller, with designers, Brian Woulfe, Sophie Paterson and Laura Hammett and chaired by the very brave Melissa from HouzzUK.
It was so interesting to hear about the projects these designers have completed in far flung destinations and how they approach the work and operate with their clients.
There was so much of interest discussed throughout the evening, but one of the main snippets of the night that was quite a common thread of advise when working overseas; which was, before contemplating working with a client in another country, investigate the project thoroughly. Attention to detail at the initial stages is vital when discussing any potential work with the client, and set expectations from the start.
To summarise, here is a list of some top tips that came from the discussions and I think offer a very useful reminder and tick list when looking at a project abroad, although I will go in to more detail below.
Key tips and highlights for working abroad:
Be transparent with your offering and costs
Be clear about budgets and look in to hidden costs such as:
importation and delivery costs
other limiting administrative pitfalls such as permits, legal constraints, building regulations etc
check flight times and co-ordinate your trip to make maximum use of your time with the client or on the project
research the quality of the tradesmen – check their work thoroughly
research the quality of products and materials and do not be scared to tell the client that they are not good enough and you would need to source and purchase from the UK or from your usual suppliers, who you know and can trust.
have a good English speaking project manager on site at all times
source good English speaking legal council to advise on contracts, permits and licences as well as a good accountant to ensure you are paying the correct taxes and duties, or claiming any taxes back.
Always as for photos of the site or of the property, in full details before visiting. This saves a lot of time and cost. Tread carefully when looking at a project oversees.
As already mentioned, detail is key. Planning, costings, site visits prior to the project starting and detailed drawings with full specifications and elevations are so important. Even ensuring that the client knows how many site visits are included in your pricing, is something that has to be discussed. Losses and disappointment can be quick to hit you if you miss these vital elements before you start work.
Be transparent with your client over your requirements – as Laura mentioned, she will only travel business class, so tell the client, and don’t leave it until you have already started work to mention it or let them see it in your billing, as by then it may cause an issue.
Have honest conversations – a good example was provided during the discussion where the client wanted to use local trades people who were actually not up to the standards the designer wanted. In this situation, explain your reservations to the client and if they insist, have them take ownership of this part of the design project. Once they take the responsibility, they cannot lay any blame at your door. Not ideal, but necessary if you move forward with this scenario.
Sophie was adamant that a good site manager was your window in to the project when you can’t be there all the time. So, they have to be excellent. You need to know you can speak with them (or at least email) daily if needed and that they are always responsive and can handle the project in your absence.
Here are some of the challenges of working abroad, mentioned by the panel:
Not being on site whenever you need to be – distance and timing is always problematic and must be planned carefully. Excellent site management, locally, is your saviour here.
External factors such as language issues can become overwhelmingly problematic. Be aware and plan well for this.
Local standards of work may vary widely to your home grown team. Ensure you know the new team and vet them carefully. Visit their previous projects if they are a contractor, or view their products and manufacturing capabilities if a supplier. Without doing this, you can so easily create unnecessary problems for yourself. Ensure the contractors and suppliers know what you expect of them and what standards you require.
Prepare for every eventuality, because if you don’t, the worst may happen. Insure your project and yourself fully and don’t leave anything to chance.
Learn to say no if your gut feeling for the work is telling you something is not right. Don’t just look at the potential cash as that can lead to disaster.
You are very likely to have to think on your feet when working abroad and out of your comfort zone. So be prepared.
Brian had a great story about not setting out a good contract. In this project, he used resin floors throughout a large house and decided to import the resin from the UK. After sorting out the nightmarish logistics in getting chemical licences for importation, finding out about local issues with drying times (due to humidity etc) and then finally getting the work carried out, an internal flood, damaged all the wooden flooring, buckling the boards and cracking the resin. Even though this was nothing to do with Brian, he was on a fixed fee with no mention of issues such as this, and was not insured for these eventualities, so had to pay for the total repair costs. A lesson that no-one would want to learn from!
Brian’s mantra is, ‘if you don’t know something, ask. No-one is super human and cannot be expected to be, so look for advice locally and ask for help from those who can help and have expert knowledge’. Never feel stupid for asking. It’s sometimes critical to do so.
Martin’s experiences are that clients can so often expect you to do extraordinary things in far flung places. So, ensure you know what is expected of you and do your very best to achieve it.
The joy of business in another country:
It also came across in the panels experiences that working oversees can be beneficial, exciting and rewarding. Laura felt that her main gain is getting to know and work with different cultures. Learning about traditions and being able to incorporate them in to you work is something that has inspired her and her team.
Brian loved finding new suppliers oversees and making new and long lasting contacts with artists, artisans, furniture makers and others.
Sophie felt that designers can change the whole aesthetic of how they design by working in a different culture and environment. This gives another dimension to her work and great satisfaction to her and her clients.
Martin loves meeting new people and cultures and finds this part of his work hugely rewarding.
Laura felt that working abroad and the opportunities it can bring, may help your business when economic factors are hurting your company at home. It may sometimes be your lifeline to have alternative channels of income from outside the UK.
Finally the panel were asked about the end of the project and what can make it so special and what would be their dream property to design abroad:
Brian likes to add that finishing touch for a client, such as finding a wonderful collectors’ piece and placing it in to the design. A client is likely to really love it.
His preferred residence would be an ocean front villa - and who wouldn’t!
Martin uses very personal belongings that are meaningful and special to the client. He feels that this makes for a successful project.
Martin has already found his heaven – in Mexico with a village of weavers, who astounded him with their grace and talent – how lucky!
Sophie’s trick is to have a whole selection of stunning and elegant accessories in stock, for styling a finished home. She uses these at the end of the project to really dress each room beautifully.
Sophie fancied a ski chalet for a future design experience – and I can’t blame her!
Laura loves a scent and will finish off each room with a gorgeous scent to set the mood and create a wonderful feeling in the room.
Laura could not choose between a beach-house or ski chalet for her project wish list - but I think either would be a great coupe!