Case Study: How To Take Your Business to the Next Level

Case Study: How To Take Your Business to the Next Level

Christi Barbour and Christi Spangle, interior designers and co-founders of Barbour Spangle Design Group, recently collaborated with Gail Doby, business coach and consultant, on business strategies that would create new opportunities for their successful 15-year-old interior design firm. Doby refers to interior design firms with $100,000 - $249,000 or more (product sales and interior design fees) as achieving "Stability" level and works with these companies to help them achieve continued growth.


Designers Today: What were some of the challenges faced by Barbour Spangle?

Gail Doby: Christi Barbour and Christi Spangle had been in business for almost 15 years when we completed our first VIP Day. We spent this day analyzing their financial model, their personal goals and a new business strategy directed toward their desired outcome.

Barbour Spangle Design had just survived the 2008 - 2010 recession and they were experiencing common fears that many designers struggled and failed to overcome. Prior to the recession, the owners were full of energy and excitement, and after experiencing the challenges of the recession, they found themselves questioning their decisions and facing "analysis paralysis." Christi and Christi utilized our SOS calls to walk through their decision process rather than use their valuable time debating the pros and cons by themselves. We typically resolved challenges within one phone call.

What were some of the solutions you recommended?

Doby: First, we examined their personal financial situation (separately) and then evaluated their business financial model to see how the business could support their personal goals. During our VIP Day, I suggested several modifications to their business model, cash flow management and profit targets for them to implement immediately. A VIP Day begins with a 30,000-foot view of the current state of the business and company goals and then we dive in to jointly evaluate where a business can improve. Owners walk out with a prioritized plan they can execute starting the next work day.

I talked to Barbour and Spangle about their role and initially encountered resistance when I suggested that they were "co-CEOs" of their business. They were more comfortable thinking of themselves as "doers" and team members in their own business. I suspect they didn’t want to appear as if they were better than their team and yet by not accepting the title, they weren’t reaching their potential. They were facing stress and burn-out with the demands of working both in and on the business and felt guilty thinking of themselves as business people that happened to provide interior design business, and as a result, they were "in the weeds." Today, they do see their roles as co-CEOs and Principal Designers. That simple mindset shift led to remarkable changes.

What are some of the general takeaways from this partnership with Barbour Spangle that other design firms can use to improve their businesses?

Doby: Understand what your role is and how you can best serve yourself, your business and your clients. Take full responsibility for your results.

How you manage the resource of time is crucial to your success. Your responsibility as an owner is to set the vision for the company, create a plan and budget, and then build and manage the team to get the work done.

Your primary role is to bring in business which means that you are the #1 marketer and sales person for your business. After that, you are the project and client satisfaction manager at the highest level.

100% of us have blind spots and those blind spots are what hold us back in our businesses. Sometimes we need a mirror to be held up for us so we can see the truth.


Designers Today: What was the driving factor behind your decision to partner with Gail?

Christi Barbour: Christi and I were working hard in our business, and we were struggling to know exactly what to do to change the situation. We are driven and motivated, so that wasn’t the challenge. Being creatives, we were reeling with ideas and "what ifs" and yet we sometimes felt frozen in place and we didn’t execute our ideas because we weren’t sure if there might be a negative outcome. We were tired of being in neutral and we were ready to remove the roadblocks.

On a personal level, I was looking to grow and develop as a leader. We had been in the business for 15 years and I needed and wanted more. On a business level, a partnership is like a marriage. We deal with money and time challenges daily and sometimes the responsibility feels heavy. I felt as if we needed to engage the outside opinion of someone that understood our challenges and could help us balance our individual styles within the context of the company’s future vision.

What triggered hiring Gail was the angst we felt after the 2008 recession. We didn’t feel the effects of the recession immediately. However, by 2010 we found that our decisions were based on the fears we felt from the financial setback, and those fears were holding us back.

Christi and I are very determined to live our lives and manage our business on our terms. We realized that we needed new skills - especially leadership skills. I would say to anyone considering coaching and consulting that it isn’t sunshine and roses immediately. Sometimes the work is scary, but you must trust the system and you have to have the chops to execute and push through your insecurities and fears. Our first VIP Day turned our business around quickly and we felt more positive about our business relationship as owners and the direction we were going. We finally let go of the fear.

What business challenges were at the top of your list?

Barbour: We were in "neutral" meaning we weren’t sure which way to go with our business. We wanted to move forward and at the same time, we wanted to avoid common mistakes that Gail saw most design firms making.

What recommended solutions from Gail were the most impactful in changing the way you do business?

Barbour: We revised all job descriptions in the company, developed processes and procedures for most aspects of our business, and we have evaluated our employees and their roles so they are happy, effective and functioning at their highest level. We’ve documented the words that describe the culture that our employees love and that serves our clients and ourselves personally.

Further, we learned to share the load with our employees. In the past, we felt the pressure or weight to come up with the ideas and solutions, and now we involve our team in finding solutions to the problems. We’ve learned to hire smarter people and learn from them.

How has your work with Gail increased your profitability and efficiency?

Barbour: We have had at least a 10-fold increase in efficiency, and the company is far more profitable thanks to Gail’s recommendations. We’re also members of Gail’s Boardroom which we see as the platform for personal development to take care of our personal needs as business owners, to set goals, improve our work-life experience and clarify our vision. And we also have quarterly calls with Gail to set new objectives, deal with current challenges and realign and plan for our next 90 days.

The results though are not only found in our ledgers. We have wide-open, limitless thinking and an anything-is-possible attitude that our clients embrace and our team thrives on. We are passionate and joyful which is reflected in our work and our relationships. That energy attracts great clients with similar mindsets.

What advice would you give to other design firms considering this type of partnership?

Barbour: Trust and action are the keys to success in a coaching | consulting relationship. You need to do certain tasks regardless of your fears. Trust your coach and trust the process. There could be no bigger tragedy than to invest in this advice and then not do the work. Be honest and transparent and share the gory details. There is no silver bullet. You will work hard and you will accomplish incredible results.

We have consistently focused on integrity, friendship and trust in our partnership and our business. We focused on creating a workplace culture that we and our team loved. By really digging deep into our personal values, and uniting our business with those values, we were able to easily articulate our company’s core culture for our team. In doing so, we all became more aligned with our purpose.

We view Gail like a business counselor. It’s like an apple a day… business wellness requires counseling, conflict resolution, identifying next steps, deciding on a direction, making good decisions, letting go and implementing the suggestions. Being mired in "what if scenarios" is exhausting and we are no longer willing to struggle with being stuck.


Gail is one of Designers Today's most prominent contributors - focusing specifically on the business side of interior design.