biz ladiesinterviewsLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Emily Henderson

by Stephanie

Biz Ladies Emily Henderson Photo by Angela Kohler

Today’s Biz Ladies profile comes to us from interior designer, Emily Henderson. While Emily knew she was destined to be in the design world from a young age, she received national support when she became the season five winner of HGTV’s “Design Star” series. Since then, she has gone on to host her own HGTV show, “Secrets from a Stylist”, start her own interior design business and successful blog, and collaborate with a variety of creative entrepreneurs and publications.  Today Emily shares a bit about her creative business path with us.  Thanks for giving us this glimpse into your journey, Emily! — Stephanie

Read the full interview after the jump…

Biz Ladies Emily Henderson photo by Zeke Ruelas

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

Running a SUCCESSFUL business as a creative person is like a drunk horse walking on a tight rope the size of a silk thread.  While it’s totally possible it’s really, really awkward at first. I have been freelancing since I was 24 – first as an assistant stylist, then a stylist and then after “Design Star” it seemed pretty obvious that working for someone else wasn’t totally in the cards. But I didn’t really ‘decide’ to start a business until two years ago after we stopped shooting my show and I had to answer the ‘what now?’ question.

My business started overnight and systems weren’t set up even though employees were hired. It got totally out of control…fast. I never really defined the business because it was constantly changing. Obviously I’m an interior designer first, but the blog has definitely started to become a bigger part of my business than actual client work – so it has been evolving from there and I’m totally open to all of the changes. Now I have a specific end goal that I’m working towards and if a project doesn’t help me along to that end goal, then its the wrong project for me.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Sell a product/service you’d actually buy yourself. Seems like a no brainer, but there are so many times that I could have done something cheap and easy or just kinda generic, but I always ask myself  ‘Would I want to live in this room? Would I buy this pillow for this price? Would I read this blog?’ And if the answer isn’t a total ‘yes!’ then I change it. I consider myself my best customer because I know that so many people need the same things at the same price point as I do. I’m not sure if this makes it the most profitable that it can be, but I’m almost always really proud of what I’ve done.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The most difficult part of starting my business has been, and will always be, figuring out how to charge for services. Basically…how to make money. This is partly because most other designers and bloggers aren’t forth coming on how/what they charge so you feel like you are pulling numbers out of your ass. I tried a percentage of the budget + commission.  I tried fee + commission. But now I just do an hourly rate and call it a day. Its still not perfect (how do you charge for that 5 minute email in the middle of the day?) but it has worked way better for me so far. The evolution has been interesting for sure. The first few houses I think I made minimum wage after paying everyone properly. Thank God I love doing it, but a girls still gotta get paid. That’s all changed now.

Biz Ladies Emily Henderson photo by Bethany Nauert

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Grab a cup of coffee, nay, a double red-bull – this could take HOURS. I’ve learned so much, I feel like I could write a biblical-sized book about it. Generally, though, all of my lessons have to do with not having systems and protocol set up – accounting, admin, and managing employees. My personality, in particular, is laid back, cool, relaxed, understanding, assertive but ‘fun’. I’m a good time and I want everyone around me to have a good time. But unfortunately, I’ve learned that I have to shift my personality to run a business or else time and money is wasted. I thought I could just hire people that could manage themselves, but I realized that if there are systems and protocols in place, it makes it easier for everyone to be successful.  Expectations are met. Invoices are sent out on time. Deadlines are kept.  And while people do get ‘in trouble’ now and again, at least things are clear as to why, whereas before I was sending mixed messages. I’ll ALWAYS struggle with this, but at least now I can manage it better.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

Oh yeah, and this one I’ve never spoken publicly about. Once I had to reduce my personal fee because my client felt I wasn’t giving them attention worth the fee I had quoted. They were wrong. And between me and my team, they were getting the DEAL OF THE CENTURY even before I reduced my fee. But I had said yes to the job while every cell in my body screamed ‘NO’; they just didn’t have the budget to get the home they were expecting nor did they have the budget to hire an interior design firm at all. So my first mistake was saying yes, and my second was not making it clear that I just do the general concept and oversee everything else. I’m not necessarily at every meeting. I’m not actually installing the curtains.  It was my fault for saying yes to the job and for not making it clear what my role in the company is.

That job took five months and after I paid everybody properly (because i couldn’t reduce my employees fees/rates) I think the company profited $1200. Lesson learned. Now I have a minimum budget I require in order to take the job (and lots of recommendations for other designers if it’s too high). I also make the expectations VERY clear at the beginning about what my role is and what they’ll get from me, the senior designer and project manager. In case you are wondering why I would say yes to the fee reduction, the answer is when you are designing someone’s home it is soooooo personal. The last thing you want (even worse than not making money) is for them to walk into their house everyday and remember a really negative situation – so you acquiesce and kinda just take it.

Biz Ladies Profile, Emily Henderson

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

I think its about to happen. I am working on my first major commercial space (its a party/art/wedding rental space in LA) called ‘The Fig House’ that should be done in about six weeks and i’m already EXTREMELY proud of it. We are transforming this crazy weird property into an art deco and 80’s inspired party with tons of indoor/outdoor space, lots of commissioned artists and including a ton of local/community members help. I get to be SUPER creative and pretty much control the vision of a 10,000 square foot space. I’ve had an incredible team of people helping (I hired the right people! Yay!!) and the owner has given me full reign to be as creative as I want to be – he’s VERY smart and knows that the more you limit a creative person the less you should have hired them. Its not open yet, so technically I can’t say that its a wild success, but creatively and business-wise, it was a job that I should have taken and I’m so glad that I did. I mean, check out these stained glass panels (24 of them!!) that I designed (with Judson Studios) for the stationary glass doors.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Stop reading this and book a tutor RIGHT NOW to teach you Quickbooks. Your business could start slow and you might think you have an accounting and invoicing system that works, but like many of us, the business often takes off overnight and if you aren’t ready, you are kinda screwed. I thought I had a system, but I didn’t. I just learned Quickbooks this year and it has totally saved me – mentally and financially. I now know how the business actually makes the most money, how we spend money, and can make decisions about its future based on that. Every tax season until now, I was riddled with anxiety and tried to rectify the meager books. I have hired people over the years to help me with bookkeeping, but my business is so complicated that I really needed to hire a consultant to help me set it up properly. I had to learn the system myself first. It’s fine to delegate bookkeeping to someone else, but trust me that you need to at least know how to do it on your own. Don’t just give ‘the business’ part of your business to someone else that claims to be an expert. I made that mistake too and lost a LOT of money from someone claiming they knew what they were doing.

Biz Ladies Emily Henderson photo by Bethany Nuaert

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Do they want to buy their own product/service? Moreover how are they unique to the market?

2. Is it what you want to spend your spare time on? You gotta love it – you just do – in order for it to be successful. I always say take what you love to do on a random Saturday and make that somehow your job. It’s absolutely possible.

3. What is your end goal? Define your end goal and every day, everything you do should be getting you towards that goal.


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  • Selling something you love is great advice. How can you pitch a product to someone else if you don’t really love it yourself. I try to only put pieces I would wear or love on my website and plus if it doesn’t sell hey I can wear it!

  • Great advice! I am also looking into quickbooks! And I totally go by that rule that you should be selling products you would buy yourself.

  • I think you have a great point about sharing information and talking numbers. When I was at ALT SF last month, one of the pieces of advice that stuck out is that the only people you help by not talking concrete numbers is the people outside of your industry. If you’re trying to build an industry (blogging, interior design, whatever), collaborate and share information. If I charge X, and let you know that, you can charge 10% more and contribute to growing the industry.

  • “Sell a product/service you’d actually buy yourself.” – A no brainer, yes, but great reminder!

  • Awesome interview! So many points rang true, like the drunk horse on a tight rope, and the fact that designers/bloggers aren’t forth coming about sharing their fees. So many great pieces of advice, Emily is such a rockstar and I love her honesty!

  • I love Emily’s blog! She gives great tips that work for any budget, and lists the source for a lot of her cool finds. I loved her posts on what size rug to use for a room and on the basic things she uses in a lot of the places she decorates.

  • This is such great advice! I absolutely love Emily’s blog. She’s always so honest and she’s really funny. lol

  • Love this interview and love Emily Henderson! Great to get a glimpse into her success and know that you aren’t alone with learning how to run a business. Her writing cracks me up too.

  • Great advice. So many people forget to cover the “boring” admin/fiscal side of the business and focus solely on the “fun” part that they like. Having a system that works for you to take care of that is one less thing to worry about so you can focus your energy on being creative. Doesn’t have to be fancy either–I just use Excel and it works great. :-)

  • I really appreciate the wisdom shared in interviews like this. It is a challenge to run a creative business, and I related to the points Emily made about being clear with a client up front about what the fee includes, etc. This was a wonderful post, and so helpful.

  • This is cray! I literally was thinking about Emily’s blog before I clicked onto this page. I hadn’t checked it out in a while. Gotta get it back in the rotation. :)

  • WAIT, so Secrets from a Stylist is cancelled? But it was the only show worth watching on HGTV (okay other than house hunters international and MAYBE property brothers)

  • I love her designs and her blog. Great choice of a guest, D*S!

    I was so sad that Secrets of a Stylist isn’t on TV, even in reruns, anymore. It was by far my favorite HGTV show. If there was some way to get the old episodes on iTunes, Prime, etc., I’d totally do it!

  • These are all really great tips. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who started slowly and then realized my organizational systems were, um, not sufficient. Love your work, Emily! Thanks for this post.

  • Love this! I was so bummed that we couldn’t watch Secrets of a Stylist in Canada (that I could find), love Emily’s style!

  • If you have no background in accounting or business management, please don’t try to learn them from Quickbooks or any other accounting software. Take a course from the local community college or hire a bookkeeper to teach you. I have over 40 years accounting experience and am also an artisan, so I know how to set up a small business and my main focus lately has been in triage accounting… trying to correct the accounting of small businesses so they can pass an audit. There are way too many regulations, especially regarding taxes, to try to learn on your own and you get so much satisfaction when your business is set up correctly.

  • Great interview and great information. I’m in the process of figuring out some of these issues myself – would I want to buy whatever it is that I’m trying to sell? and what’s my end goal? What am I working towards? It’s still very difficult for me to determine what’s an opportunity for my business and what’s a distraction. Once I’ve really nailed down my end goal (and I think your end goal has to be much more specific than “I want to make money”), it should be much easier to decide what’s an opportunity and what’s a distraction.

  • I love this girl. This is a great interview — thanks for sharing, Emily. I’ll miss seeing you on TV! (I watched each of your episodes at least 2-3x each, haha)

  • It’s so true how awkward it feels to start/run a business as a creative person. I appreciated how forthright she was about her learning curve, so refreshing, and she’s adorable. Great interview D*S!

  • Great interview! You had me from the lead sentence (which I tweeted). It’s so helpful to hear greatest mistakes and lessons learned from someone who’s made it. Thanks for your honesty and helpfulness!!

  • Thank you Emily for the candid advice! I’m feeling more inspired to continue to run my creative business!