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“Women don't realise that although interior design is a female-oriented career path to take, there's a big difference between a man and a woman getting into design. And that's because men are contractors and civil workers and are used to having orders given to them by men, not by women. And so we are still negotiating that new territory of dealing with men who've worked for generations in the field, in architecture and interior design,” Shivani Dogra tells us. So on Women’s Day we decided to get deeper into the discussion to understand everything that goes behind starting an interior design business from the perspective of a woman. Shivani has demystified for us every step that went into her personal journey of becoming a designer.
Having started out as a journalist, she has made her way into the industry slowly and organically. She launched herself as a designer a decade ago and learnt everything on the job, and has here revealed those learnings for our readers. So if you are a young woman with many questions about making it in the industry watch her interview or read below:
Women don't realise that although interior design is a female-oriented career path to take, there's a big difference between a man and a woman getting into design. And that's because men are contractors and civil workers and are used to having orders given to them by men, not by women. And so we are still negotiating that new territory of dealing with men who've worked for generations in the field, in architecture and interior design,” says Shivani Dogra. So, today on Women’s Day we decided to get deeper into the discussion to understand everything that goes behind starting an interior design business from the perspective of a woman. Here, Shivani demystifies for us every step that went into her personal journey of becoming a designer.
BH: Instead of first working with someone else, why did you decide to start your own business?
SD: I grew up around design, our houses were always beautifully kept, because my mother was so into it. And when I did decide to do this on my own, I didn't really consider working under someone. In retrospect, it would have probably been good for me to get some insight into how to do the finances. Also, I figured early in the job that I didn't really need to know everything about it. If I don't like certain aspects I figured I could hire someone who knew better than me. I do regret not learning to pick up the actual freehand sketching. And I'm still trying to learn that because I do enjoy it.
BH: How did you take the first steps into the industry?
SD: I just wanted to do something that I loved, and I loved old houses and I figured I'm going to start somewhere and learn along the way. I had rented a little studio which I had done up that got featured in a magazine. I advertised that on an expat group in Delhi call UNINET. And I said, I've done this and I am available to do two more rooms. I figured that a lot of it is common sense—how you get things together, how you liase with contractors and workers and things like that.
BH: Take us through everything that goes behind setting up a design business.
I had no one to advise me when I started out. What I figured is that you have to first decide a name for your business. Somebody advised me to just go by my name because it was authentic. And there wasn't a domain booked in shivanidogra.in or .com. The second thing, well actually in many people's books the first thing, you should do is to figure out what sort of business entity you want to be. So I started out as a sole proprietorship, and then I went into an LLP, a Limited Liability Partnership. I didn't know this, because I'm not from a business class family. I'm starting to do this better with my new business of products called Iduki. We registered the name, trademarked it, and then I applied for an import export license, because we intend to sell abroad. And then we looked at all the social media channels that we'd like to be on.
BH: How helpful has social media been for your business?
SD: When I started the interior design business, I wasn't on social media. Eventually I started on Facebook and then tried Instagram. It was a different time then, it's different now. I get a number of enquiries on Instagram now. My blog seems to work really well
Shivani Dogra is a Delhi-based interior designer.
for us, because it helps websites for SEO. And it's helped my interior design business because sometimes people get to us because of a certain blog. We were advised by the web developer that it was essential to do a blog post a week just for SEO.
BH: Women are generally a little shy about bringing up money and negotiating rates. So how did you overcome that?
SD: I haven't ever been shy about asking for money or presenting my rates, because I believe if you've got a product to sell, or you have a service to give, you should have a fair exchange. When I started initially I was working for friends so I didn't really need a contract. But soon enough, I figured the importance of one, a good legal contract helps you get your money when it's due to you. When I started out, I was younger, I was a little nervous. But then I had bills to pay so there is no way I was going to be shy about asking for what I was due. For those who feel awkward, another way is to have an accountant so you don't have to do the asking. Or there are fantastic templates available online that you can use.
When I started out, I asked an interior designer how she charged and she said by the square foot. I never thought that was a fair way to charge because sometimes you're just doing a lot more work on some projects than you are for others. And I thought charging for your time is the best way. We track our time on an app called Clockify, people across the office can download the app, and you just click on a Start button when you start working and stop when you stop. And we send reports to clients every other week. So they know how much time we're spending on their project.
BH: How has your experience been working with contractors and civil workes on site, who are usually male?
SD: On projects that I worked alone on they were receptive to me, because there was no one else to take instructions from. But when I did have an architect working with me I did find that they were more comfortable with him, but I didn't really feel bad about it because I figured here people are comfortable with the same gender. They do, however, take instructions. And Indian women are very good at giving instructions. I mean, you're used to doing it at home, you've seen your mothers do it. So you develop a relationship and I think what's really important is boundaries. You assert yourself in different ways, rather than being loud and sort of aggressive because that is not my personality.
BH: What differences have you seen in your interaction with clients, contractors, workers in different parts of the country?
There are cultural differences when you work in different parts of the country. For instance, temperaments in Delhi happen to be vastly different from those in Arunachal, Arunachalis happen to be very different from the Tamilians. And I've figured that it really helps to first observe for the first two weeks of working in a certain place, get the hang of how people react, how people want to be spoken to, and then deal with the project going forward.
BH: How are you able to manage and execute projects in different parts of the country?
SD: Well, not all projects are turnkey projects, a lot of them happen to be consultancies. So I only have to visit once in a while, or somebody from the team visits site once in a while. Everything nowadays is just done online.
I do tend to get attached to projects and want to be there and when I was starting out I had to see the process. But now that I know the process, it's just easier for me to delegate work and not be so stressed about it. I still tend to get a little worried that I'm not there, but once you start trusting people to handle it for you it's not that difficult.
BH: How do you manage your team from your two studios in Delhi and Goa?
SD: Prior to lockdown I had one studio in Delhi, I'd get into office, people would be there, you'd be able to monitor their work. And once lockdown started, we still had work going on. I've built a team around me that I can trust and so we just do everything online now. It's through Zoom and WhatsApp.
BH: What advice would you give to young women getting into the design business today?
SD: I'd first say that you've really got to love what you're doing, you've got to have a passion for it. Otherwise, you're not going to be able to sustain your career through the hard times. Secondly, get your finances in place. Either learn from someone else, or read a book like I did. Have a contract and see that your client honours it and you honour the contract. And thirdly, don’t worry too much about where you're going to get your next client from. I've discovered that word of mouth works brilliantly, you're also going to get the kind of clients you want, if people are talking about you within their circles. So go a little easy on that.
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