“Brooklyn-based Brit” Sheena Murphy scrapped a strong career in HR to follow her passion for interior design at age 30, a time when some women find themselves settling down rather than ramping up. Murphy absorbed all the education and experience she could muster within a relatively short 18-month stretch, and quickly found herself at the helm of her own design firm called sheep + stone. Though the career switch and fledgling entrepreneurship were intimidating challenges for her, Murphy has a trick for dealing with the inevitable bouts of fear and anxiety that come into play, and that is answering her grandfather’s well-posed question, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Although bumps are unavoidable along the road to small business success, Murphy has learned it’s not the failure that’s important, it’s how she chooses to handle it and move forward. This outlook allows her to actually enjoy the work for which she pivoted her life to do, and enables her unique perspective that focuses on craftsmanship and a respect for the environment and humanity, starting with one’s own. She continues to find inspiration for her work in all things outside of interior design, which in her practice, makes for a more balanced design, and designer. —Annie
Why did you decide to start your own business?
After changing careers at the age of 30, I knew it was something I eventually wanted to do. I also knew that trying to become a successful designer in New York would not be easy; it is an incredibly competitive market, full of so much talent.
I am originally from England and my background before going back to school for design was in Human Resources, so it was important that I gained enough experience to navigate the market, and really understand the industry before I started taking risks. As it turned out, I didn’t actually wait that long, and the turning point was a very inspirational conversation over Spanish food (and probably too much wine) with an old friend from London about a-year-and-a-half ago.
I have always been dramatically impacted by space and I loved my new career, but realized that I wanted to do things a little differently; I wanted to prioritize the environment, make responsible design and sourcing decisions, and have more creative and operational freedom than I would get working for someone else.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
I spent a good amount of time during and after school working in interior design and architecture to get a stronger sense of where I wanted my focus to be, and how my work might vary from others in the space. It was important to understand the profile of my ideal client, what I wanted to achieve for and offer that client, and what made my model a marketable business. I prioritized what might set me apart based on my skills, weaknesses, and passions.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
It actually wasn’t business advice. When I was considering a move to India several years ago, my grandfather, who had to leave his home in Ireland to move to England in the 50s, asked me a question: “What’s the worst that can happen?” I have often asked myself this question since, including when I was thinking about starting the business. It is so simple, but something I go back to whenever fear or anxiety come into my life.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Realizing that I am accountable for absolutely everything that goes into starting and running a business!
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running your business?
I learn so many lessons every day; the lessons feel endless, but in the very best way. Three things stand out:
1. While there is an amazing amount of talent in this industry, it is surprisingly small, and relationships are one of the biggest keys to success — so be nice.
2. It is easy to undervalue yourself as a small designer, and in an effort to get clients, sell your services at a rate that doesn’t reflect your worth. I did this in the first few months of starting sheep + stone.
3. Getting the right designer-client match can make or break a project, so I found that meeting with and informally interviewing potential clients before signing paperwork can be a helpful process to go through for both parties.
Can you identify a moment of failure in your business experiences?
So far, I have been extremely lucky and although failures have been frequent, none have been irreconcilable. Failure is inevitable, and I think it is how we handle it that’s important. Although I take my business and client’s needs very seriously, I know that what I do is fun and it allows me the incredible ability to do what I love every day, so I try not to get too hung up on what goes wrong — knowing that there really is nothing about what I do that can’t be fixed.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
My personal time; I am the first to admit that I am not great at switching off. As a consequence, I see friends less and spend less time at home. However, the team is now starting to grow and that is allowing me to spend a little more time outside of the office, being stimulated by things outside of interior design, which is important for my family, my perspective, and my sanity!
Can you identify your greatest success in your business experiences?
I get an extremely strong sense of accomplishment every time I get a new client; it is a humbling feeling knowing that someone has come to you because they like your work and believe in what you do. Designing someone’s home is a very personal process for both designer and client, and regardless of how big or small the project, I am truly grateful for the opportunity every time.
Which business resources would you recommend to someone starting a creative company of their own?
When I read, it tends to be on subjects completely unrelated to design. I am more of an advocate of learning from the environment that surrounds me. I find the best way to be engaged in your profession and gain knowledge is to be part of the conversation; meet and work with other designers, artists, and makers related to your discipline, attend talks and events, and be an active part of the community you are servicing.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Really get under the skin of your market — I’m not talking about writing a business plan, but you should know what’s happening in the industry and understand how you fit in.
2. Be clear on who you are and what you want to achieve.
3. Get comfortable with what you’re good at and what you may need help with — it takes some soul-searching and brutal honesty, but it is absolutely worth it!