Singapore, Design Startup –
Armed with passion and business smarts, interior designer EVGENIYA LAZAREVA follows her dream of starting her own design studio
She moved to Singapore from Kazakhstan four years ago and decided to stay, loving the country for its safety, culture and greenery, and the promising opportunities for business in the region.
After working for a few design firms through the years, the Russian interior designer felt it was time to live her dream of starting her own business. The ease of creating a startup in Singapore fuelled her drive, and soon Hot Design Folks Interior Design Studio was born.
Working from home, Evgeniya says it is important finding your niche; and keeping network connections in the design industry plays a key role in getting projects. Also essential is a good relationship with vendors such as Artelier and Brintons for furnishings such as curtains, carpets and fittings.
A Chat with Evgeniya Lazareva on starting her own Interior Design business
1 What made you decide to set up your own design company?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs; the idea of doing something on my own has been planted in my head since a very early age. Times were tough in the post-USSR context, even for people with higher education like my parents who were geologists. In the early 90s they established, and have been successfully running a family business in fashion for a few decades now. This set a very strong example for me as to what I would like to achieve in my life.
2 How much physical office space does an interior designer need, and can you run the business from your home?
Daily commute to a dedicated office helps to switch into a productive work mode and is essential for a lot of people. At the same time I know enough designers who run successful practices from home. It all boils down to a personal preference and, of course, budget, especially when it comes to young businesses. When cash flow is not yet regulated, it is very important to be selective about the tools that are absolutely essential to deliver a successful project. In the first few quarters or even in a year, a fancy office may be out of the question.
Having said that, it is important not to underestimate the value of a workspace, as this is where we spend most of our time. Wherever this may be, at home, at a co-working space or at a rented office; it has to be comfortable and solely dedicated to work. A good minimum would be a decent sized, well-lit desk to allow enough space for your computer and for sketching. Probably the most important factor is a comfortable work chair, which makes a real difference when you work long hours. Don’t try to skimp on this, trust me, your back will thank you!
3 What official requirements do you need from the Singapore Government for doing this?
Being an interior designer does not require any specific approval from the government, as compared to other functions like doctors, architects or lawyers. However, you do need to have a solid support or a partnership with contractors who have relevant certifications to work in Singapore and can deliver your project.
On the company side, a design studio is like creating any other startup in Singapore. The government is very well organised, efficient, and has a clear process on how to set up a company here, which can be done online in 24 hours. To set up and own a company as a foreigner here, you need the respective workpasses to do so.
4 Is there a lot of competition in the local market for interior design projects?
Singapore is densely populated with talent from long established moguls of interior consulting to home grown independent star designers. It is definitely very competitive, and striking out on your own can be intimidating.
However, with the advantage of being in the centre of a rapidly growing Southeast Asian market, there are many opportunities for any scale of business. The key is finding your niche and offering great service to earn your clients’ loyalty. Your reputation is as good as your last project, big or small!
5 How do you market yourself and get these projects and clients?
In the design industry personal network connections often play a key role in getting the projects. This is especially crucial when you are just starting out. Personal recommendations are needed in building trusted relationships and securing projects.
As a founder, I do most of the marketing to promote the studio. I am passionate about what I do and the conversations often tend to lean in the direction of the design quite naturally.
6 Do you need a good foundation working in design firms before going solo?
Just like in the times of great renaissance masters, it is important to be an apprentice and learn the tools of the trade before embarking on a big solo career. The truth is, the universities of today do not teach the practical application of design beyond the drawing board. So, why invent a wheel, when you can draw on years of invaluable experience by working for an established company.
I like the quote by Alfred Sheinwold: “Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won’t have time to make them all yourself.”
I definitely agree with the first part and that is why it is important to gain experience while working in other companies. Still, there will be plenty of time for mistakes, but that’s just an integral part of entrepreneurship.
7 How do you keep up with the new technology and trends that change so fast in the global world of architecture and interior design?
The innovations in this industry are definitely very inspiring. The interiors of today can be interactive ever-changing spaces thanks to VR technology. Personally, I am very passionate about the innovations in the area of renewable energy and ecological materials. As a designer, I make responsible choices that can help alleviate the world’s ecological crisis.
I also believe it is important to keep a fine balance between the latest trends, the new technologies and the good design classics. In order to create innovative interiors whilst being consistent and true to my style, I apply a 70-20-10 scheme to the designs – 70% experience, 20% trend and 10% innovation.
8 What software is essential for your work?
There is a lot of software out there to facilitate design work. AutoCAD, Photoshop and SketchUp have long been identified as the industry’s favourites for the creative part. Beyond 3D renderings, mood images and material selections, (surprisingly for some!) design involves a tremendous amount of paper work. Excel spreadsheets and word documents are useful during documentation and construction phases.
9 Is social media like having a website, pinterest and other platforms essential?
I would say it is absolutely mandatory to have an online presence for any business that is striving to stay competitive. Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook are all great tools to reach out to your target audiences and grow the awareness of your brand. The best part for entrepreneurs is that it is absolutely free to start your marketing campaign simply by creating an online profile.
The flip side is the maintenance of multiple social profiles, which can be quite laborious and requiring a solid amount of work. However, with a bit of planning and research, this can turn into a fun and enriching practice to boost your business.
10 How does a pretty, young female designer like you handle grumpy, non-english-speaking male contractors who think they know better on your projects?
I love working with contractors and carpenters – you learn so much about materials and how things come together. A big friendly smile and being creative with sign language helps a lot when there is a language barrier.
So far, my experiences have been mainly positive. I see it as a collaborative process where contractors and us designers work together to create something beautiful. I may have many ideas and the knowledge of latest trends, but at the end of the day, they know better when it comes to construction. When I have disagreements on site, I try to understand where the person is coming from – why do they suggest ‘A’ and not ‘B’. Often there is a good reason why things do not work the way the designer intended, for example the feasibility of the design within time or budget constraints. It is best to keep calm, identify the issues and work with the contractor to find the best solution together.
11 What do you carry in your bag at all times?
When I am at work, I always carry business cards (actually these stay in my bag at all times), a notebook and assorted pens, a scale ruler. An absolute must is a tape measure, which I tend to carry everywhere and not only on site.
12 How do you dress to meet clients and how do you dress on the job site?
Dress code for meeting clients varies between a smart office look for the regular meetings and a more occasional wear for the key presentations. It is important to look professional and leave a memorable impression. I often choose something with a bit of a twist and a pop of colour for the important meetings. We only get one chance to make a first impression and I believe the designer’s wardrobe should reflect his or her personality.
Site visits are more practical; I tend to wear trousers or jeans, something that I’m not afraid of getting dirty. Closed comfortable shoes to avoid having nails or other metal scrap in my feet. Last but not least, a hardhat for active and large-scale construction sites. Safety is first and foremost here!
13 The big money question – What kind of budget do you need to set up your own Interior Design business?
There are really no industry standards and it depends whether a design entrepreneur chooses to develop the business naturally or opts for an accelerated growth.
The majority of us creative dreamers go for the longhaul option of a natural growth. It is important to do some future planning. There will be dry times and times where the only source of support will be your savings. Whether you are working solo or in a team, in the beginning, the main business cost will be your basic salary. Doing simple math of monthly expenses helps to understand what the numbers may be.
Registering your business is quite straightforward and can be done online within a day, thanks to Singapore’s automated administrative system. The basic costs are relatively minimal: a one-off governmental fee to register a company (S$315), annual fees for corporate secretary and accountant/auditor ($600 and $1500). Add to that a domain, website hosting and email costs at about $450 per year. The total of the efforts and money invested is rather insignificant when you think about all the opportunities ahead.
But the real big money question is how to price your work for clients in order to strike a fine balance between cost and quality, and staying competitive.
A foreword to fellow design entrepreneurs: You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. There will be mistakes, ups and downs, but it will be all worth it in the end. If you have a dream, my advice is to go for it!
Story by Carol Kraal. Photographs courtesy of Evgeniya Lazareva and Hot Design Folks Interior Design Studio