James D’Ambrosio spends other people’s money to make their homes beautiful. As an interior designer and stylist, he loves coming into a space and pulling it all together. He always had an eye for design, and left his tech job to establish D’Ambrosio Designs in San Jose, CA in 1994. Now well-established in his field, James continues to look forward and improve his business.
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How did you get started with your business?
Growing up I always had an eye for color, texture, lighting. I realized I enjoyed interior design when I worked at Macy’s for a couple years putting together merchandise displays. I was working in the high-tech industry for a while; though I made good money, the work wasn’t creative enough, so I left. I founded D’Ambrosio Designs in 1993. Originally it was an event planning and floral design company, but I decided to focus on interior design and rebranded in 1994.
My design philosophy is unique. I don’t have a “look.” I have my own flair, of course, but my designs are a reflection of the client. It’s not about me, it’s about them. To me design is a collaborative undertaking built on trust – the client has to be involved throughout the process. My goal is to accommodate their needs, and to make the space comfortable and enjoyable. In the process I want to make the client a smarter consumer, and educate them.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
I funded the business by myself. I had some help from my parents in the beginning, but since then it has been self-funded. I go to the client’s house and work from home so there’s no overhead. I don’t have a staff, though I sometimes bring people in to do behind-the-scenes technical work like CAD drawing. I’ve been running D’Ambrosio Designs full time with occasional breaks working in retail furniture showrooms. If business is slow or an opportunity comes up, I will work with another company to gain experience and clients.
I’m always open to opportunities that present themselves, and perhaps in the future I will expand the business. I think owning a showroom would be awesome, and it’s still something I would consider working towards.
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Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I worked as an assistant to a well-known interior designer. That’s where I really learned the business – how to set up accounts with furniture companies, how to bill for my time and service, profit margins, markup prices, and technical stuff. I was in charge of organizing the sample room, which I’ll call the resource library because it was a huge learning tool. I also learned what not to do in terms of managing money.
The designer was difficult to work with, so I left after seven months. I had established a good relationship with her clients because I answered phone calls on time and provided good customer service. Some of her clients liked me so much they followed me when I left the company.
Who was your first customer?
The clients who followed me from my job as a design assistant. I have a wide range of clients. About half of my clients find me through referrals. Many are referred through realtors. I will meet with the client, find out about their lifestyle, and take their budget into consideration. I don’t discriminate based on budget – I don’t care about the car you own or your zip code.
What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
I don’t consider this a mistake, but I’ve never been big on advertising. I got enough projects that advertising didn’t seem worth it. Only recently, in the last three years, I started getting on social media. Now I’m on Pinterest, LinkedIn, Facebook, Houzz, and I just redesigned my website.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
Not taking on more than I could handle. I knew I was green, and that I have very high standards, so in the beginning I didn’t take on more than three projects at a time. As I gained experience and got more comfortable with the work I starting taking on as many as eight projects at a time.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
I love that I get to meet fabulous people, that I get to spend other people’s money making their homes beautiful. I get invited to weddings, graduations, bar mitzvahs; I even got two trips to Puerto Vallarta. I give away a lot of stuff, too; I just gave a free consultation to a client who I met at a wedding. I keep it professional, of course, but after a couple meetings a client can be like a friend.
I love to learn new things and discover new furniture lines, wallpaper, fabrics. I like to challenge and expand my clients’ taste. I get a lot of repeat business – I have six clients for whom I’ve designed multiple homes, one for whom I designed three homes. To me that’s the best compliment.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
Procrastination is my stumbling block. I think everyone experiences this when they work from home. Staying motivated, sticking to the schedule, just getting up and doing work can be a challenge some days.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
How much work it takes. There’s taxes, budgeting, proposals, and staying up-to-date in your field. I’m constantly working, even when I’m not. Sometimes when I’m out socializing I meet people interested in my work who become clients, but I try to not to always be on, and to keep work at work.
What I’ve Learned
If you could do it again, what would you do differently?
I would’ve gotten a degree in interior design to learn the technical parts of the trade. I have resources for that now, so I’m not interested in going back to school anymore. My lack of schooling hasn’t hindered me in any way. School won’t make you a designer if you don’t have the eye for it already.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
My parents. My mom worked in business consulting and real estate; my dad was a teacher and worked in the restaurant business.
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
Whatever you go into you must have a passion for it. Passion will guide you. Do your homework and research. If you need a degree, go to school. Commit. It may take a while to start making money; you may need to get funding or work part time while your business gets up to speed.
About the Author — Sarah Tang is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley where she learned to love the diverse personalities of mom-and-pop stores. She likes intriguing storefronts, creative specialty stores, and well-designed business websites.