I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Scott McGlon, Entrepreneur-in-Residence with the New Venture Accelerator1 at Auburn University to ask several
questions for our ASID members about boundaries in business. Mr. McGlon has successfully owned nine businesses in six different industries in his career and has achieved a remarkable level of entrepreneurial success. Now, he is giving back to others in his role at Auburn University, mentoring students, faculty and interested individuals from the community in how to succeed as entrepreneurs.
My reason for interviewing Mr. McGlon was to inquire about his perspective on boundaries in business as an interior designer. Some common boundary issues that arise in our profession have to do with protecting valuable networks that have been established through a great deal of effort: finding the right team, building relationships with reliable and high-quality tradespeople, networking and community outreach, and careful decision-making that helps us have a great reputation in our community. It makes good logical and business sense for interior designers to have boundaries about the contact information for their
project team members; however, it is common for other individuals in the design and construction industry to ask an interior designer to give away this
information. Responding in this situation is a challenge surrounding boundaries. I gave this example to Mr. McGlon and asked him for his thoughts on what the designer should do.
As he works for an accelerator for new startup businesses, I assumed Mr. McGlon would answer the question about boundaries with something along the lines of, “That’s just how business goes these days.” However, his response was very different than what I had assumed and was quite affirming of the effort designers put forth into building and maintaining professional networks. Referring to himself as a straight-talker, McGlon answered strongly and clearly that interior designers are well within their rights to protect the valuable networks they have built. As the former owner of a company that revolutionized the process for custom outdoor furniture upholstery and the current owner of a highly successful real estate business, McGlon is familiar with the interior design profession first-hand. He noted that subcontractors are a crucial part of the success of a project and that being able to secure a team of good subcontractors is of critical importance to be able to complete a project on time at a high level of quality. In other words, the entrepreneur’s team is intrinsically tied to the success of the business. Regarding boundaries, McGlon shared the following key points for our ASID Alabama chapter members:
1. An interior designer’s network of tradespeople, such as fabricators, painters, installers, and millwork manufacturers, is the interior designer’s trade secrets, but designers need to consider them like it is their intellectual property. According to McGlon, most people understand that intellectual property includes objects that are patented, but intellectual property is a much broader concept. Ideas or processes that allow an interior designer’s business to be different than others are trade secrets, which McGlon recommends thinking of as though it is the designer’s intellectual property. Thus, the information for your network of tradespeople should be considered as though it is intellectual property. An interior designer may feel extreme pressure, particularly in a small town where they may feel they need to be perceived as friendly to be successful, to give away project team information to others when they ask for the designer to share. McGlon was abundantly clear in stating that interior designers are well within their rights to protect the contact information of their subcontractors and would be wise to protect this information if they know these tradespeople are too busy to be able to take on any more work. Giving away contact information for subcontractors whose schedule is already filled with projects might cause the interior designer to lose that subcontractor, which could be detrimental to the designer’s own business. Like many areas of life, there is not a totally yes or no answer though, and there may be some situations when interior designers may choose to share team member information. One example of this might be if the designer is certain that the tradesperson has excess capacity to take on more work. Ultimately, the decision to share important information with others is the designer’s own personal decision to make based on many factors; however, the guidance here from McGlon on boundaries is that the designer should be very careful about giving away information. The interior designer’s team should be considered as though it is intellectual property, so designers should not feel badly about saying “no” in a situation where someone is pressuring them to share contacts for team members or any other trade secrets that are critical for success of their business. There are many ways to kindly tell someone “no,” and time spent practicing and learning the skill of doing so may make a great difference in an interior design entrepreneur’s success.
2. It is important to distinguish between relationships and partnerships in business. According to McGlon, the difference between a relationship and a partnership in business is that as a relationship involves one party providing something to the other, in a partnership both parties are offering something of value. For example, another interior design entrepreneur may offer great advice that helps you succeed in your own business. If you are also reciprocating with advice or something in return, this would be a partnership. Partnerships can also occur between an interior designer and a tradesperson; however, problems can occur even in partnerships when one party oversteps the other’s boundaries. For example, a subcontractor may reliably provide a high level of service for an interior designer for many years, and in return, the interior designer gives that tradesperson a strong and steady stream of substantial projects over time. Suddenly, the tradesperson starts asking for more publicity, such as having free advertisements for their business included in promotional materials for the interior designer’s business. In this case, McGlon advises evaluating carefully whether this is a relationship or a partnership. Even in a partnership, one partner may become greedy, and the designer must make a decision at this point. McGlon advised designers to have an open and honest conversation in this situation, stating the value the interior designer brings by designing the custom work, bringing in the clients and providing the subcontractor with a steady stream of work. If the designer feels that this is sufficient reciprocation, it is perfectly reasonable for the designer to tell the subcontractor that they do not feel comfortable including their contact information or business name in the designer’s promotional materials. Like McGlon’s first point about intellectual property, in this situation it is perfectly reasonable and often advisable for the interior designer to say “no.
3. There are resources available to help designers make tough decisions such as protecting boundaries in business. McGlon is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Auburn University New Venture Accelerator, which is a wonderful resource for students and faculty at the university as well as for small business owners in the state of Alabama. As a land-grant university, one of the key missions of Auburn University is community outreach. Please check out the list of organizations below to learn about resources that may be helpful to you. There are business advisors, free online webinars, resources, and educational workshop series available to interior designers. Participation in any of these can lead to becoming “more savvy” in running a business. ASID is also
here to help through its resources specific to interior design small business owners. There is a library of recorded presentations online which the designer
may watch on-demand. In a difficult situation involving boundaries, please remember that you don’t always have to answer the question immediately with a
“yes” or “no.” You can take a little time to do your research through these resources available to you and determine what would be the best course to take.
Resources for Interior Design Entrepreneurs:
ASID Small Business Resources: https://www.asid.org/career/small-business-solutions
Auburn University New Venture Accelerator: https://nva.auburn.edu/about-us/
Auburn University Small Business Development Center: https://harbert.auburn.edu/research-faculty/centers/small-business-development-center.html
Alabama Small Business Development Network: https://www.asbdc.org/
A huge thank you to Mr. Scott McGlon, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Auburn University New Venture Accelerator for his generous gift of time and expertise for this interview!
The New Venture
Accelerator is jointly managed and governed by the Harbert College of Business and the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation.
Kelly Martin is an Interior Design Lecturer at Auburn University whose passion for teaching and research centers on interior design for human health and well-being.