This month’s small business star is Emily Barnes, founder of Design for Me. Emily founded her company in 2013, after discovering the need for a more approachable and simple way for homeowners to connect with the right architect, interior or garden designer.

Having previously worked within residential architecture, she is passionate that high quality, custom home design should be easily accessible to everyone.

I never set out to be an entrepreneur

I first had the idea for Design for Me after qualifying as an architect. Over the next few years I worked my way up in architecture studios and the need for Design for Me became more and more obvious to me. I started to keep a file of ideas, research and conversations I’d had with friends and colleagues about the concept.

I never set out to be an entrepreneur, I started Design for Me out of my passion for my profession and good design. I’ll always be an architect, but right now I’m completely focussed as the founder of Design for Me, making sure the business is a success and that it becomes as valuable as possible to both design professionals and homeowners.

Turning people away was frustrating

As a junior architect, I often manned the phones. At the time I was at a large, well established practice, with a very stylish, expensive website. We frequently had to turn people away because we were too busy, or their job was too small for us. I found this frustrating as I knew there would be lots of small / young practices or freelancers out there perfect for this job.

I’ve also had friends and family come to me with their projects over the years. Unfortunately, I couldn’t always say yes when I was overloaded with other work. Instead, I played matchmaker and put them in contact with friends who I knew would be right for it. They were very grateful and admitted that they wouldn’t have known where to start. So now, through Design for Me, I can play matchmaker for lots of other homeowners too.

Market research is important in improving user experience

I initially obtained some funding from a government backed loan service. With this, some savings and a family loan, I was able to get a first beta version of the website built.

Early last year Design for Me launched to a select few architects and designers (around 100) as a free version. This was timed just before attending our first home renovation show in London, where we had a similar number of prospective clients post their jobs to the site.

Over the next few months, we collected feedback and observed how people were using the site, which instantly fed back into the web development. By Summer last year, we got the website to a version that we could launch as a paid service.

Connecting homeowners to the right design professional is a lot like online dating

Design for Me actually has a lot in common with online dating websites, which have enjoyed enormous success in recent years. We apply this method of forming personal relationships to a commercial sphere that is heavily dependent on trust and personality. Design for Me is the only double-sided platform whose primary focus is matching and connecting homeowners with design professionals.

There are a number of databases to find design professionals online. However, they are only marginally more useful than Google. Design for Me has a number of filters to help homeowners find the right person, quickly and effectively. Firstly, in our database itself – we have sought out architects and designers who are best placed to help homeowners with domestic projects. Secondly, in the matching algorithm and search results – where homeowners can easily compare designers and read reviews. And finally by sending the project brief to hundreds of designers at once to find out quickly who’s interested!

People expect to find what they’re looking for quickly and effectively

I think there’s more of a demand for services that save people time, but also provide a solution that’s bespoke to their needs. Nobody wants to “surf” the web anymore. People expect to find what they’re looking for quickly and effectively.

While people have become a lot more comfortable finding people or services online, I think expectations of apps and online services has increased dramatically. There have been some truly innovative and disruptive services come to the market in the past couple of years, like Uber and Airbnb, and so our standards have been raised. We know that, potentially, everything should be that easy, straightforward and efficient. So it’s important to keep up with other industries and sectors, not just your own!

Customers appreciate reassurance and guidance, which in turn builds trust

Whilst the majority of our customers come through digital marketing channels, there’s still a place for traditional forms. Attending home renovation shows is a great way of boosting the numbers of new homeowners. Not only this, it helps us to meet and form partnerships with other businesses in the industry.

Most of our customers have never done a building project before, so they are often nervous. They really appreciate reassurance and guidance from an impartial company like Design for Me and this helps build trust.

On the homeowners’ side, most will probably only require our services once or twice in a lifetime (unless they’re a serial home improver or developer!). That said, a good proportion of our new users come through word of mouth recommendations so it is important to keep customer satisfaction high.

The designers are repeat customers, however. For them, it’s important to make sure we are providing good quality job leads of substance. This is the main reason we ask the homeowners for a small fee to use Design for Me – it helps to make sure they are serious and committed to the process.

Be passionate about your service or product

Over the past year I’ve learned a huge amount about what people need from our service. We’ve been delivering it successfully but still on a relatively small scale. The intention is to take all of this knowledge and build systems into the technology to cope with a much wider user base. So our next challenge will be to get some investment to give this a kickstart and drive a bigger marketing campaign. Getting this far on a shoestring has been our biggest challenge, but the key is to be passionate about your service or product. Remember to enjoy the process, and surround yourself with honest and positive people.

Find out more about Emily Barnes and Design for Me by visiting: www.designfor-me.com

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