Jan Henshaw Longwell lives just over a hill and around a couple of corners from me in Thetford, VT. We met through mutual friends. I wish we met through my hiring her for interior design services but I live with people who kick their shoes into walls so…that hasn’t happened yet.
Jan has been her own boss for over 30 years with just a few moments of someone else being her own boss. An art student who majored in anthropology, she learned interior design by doing interior design, started her own business when she moved to the Upper Valley from Boston, and raised her family at the same time she figured out how to find and delight clients. Jan is no slouch.
How did she do it? Let’s find out.
Jan, how did you do it?
I was working at an architectural design firm in Boston but in marketing. I decided I’d really like to work in interior design and would have gone back to school but my husband – Don and I met at the architectural firm, he’s an architect – and I decided to move to Vermont to start a family. There aren’t any design schools near the Upper Valley and there was only one local, interior design business so, I started working on my own. I learned how to find clients, source pieces, and manage projects by doing it. I took jobs as they came and eventually things blossomed.
It couldn’t have been easy to do that while raising your kids.
There was a lot of juggling but it was my choice. I did often wonder if it might have been easier somewhere else – like Boston. I had to travel a lot to design centers in Boston and clients who were mostly in the Woodstock area or no further north than Norwich. And I had to think in 20 minute windows, the amount of time I had between driving one of the kids somewhere or running errands.
On the other hand, being self-employed offers tremendous flexibility. I could be part of the kids’ lives and still have a business.
So self-employment made things easy and fun? (I didn’t really ask Jan that. It’s just a good segue into this next important point.)
Starting my own business wasn’t a short-term plan. I work to help support my family and, like any job, it isn’t all fun. Interior design can be stressful. Renovations are tough. I don’t like having to call plumbers and yell at them because they haven’t installed the tub yet. I’m not good at that. Construction is still a man’s club. And couples don’t always agree on things which can set up a hard dynamic.
What other advantages come with self-employment?
You can be really hands-on with every part of your business. You’re always learning so you evolve and grow. I learned a lot from people in the trades. I met an interior designer from Woodstock who mentored me and Don helped a lot.
You can also quickly adapt to different directions and go where the opportunities take you. That’s especially important in a market like this. I sold awnings for a while and did some real estate staging work which was a good way to fill in between other projects. Don and I were hired to design and build a house in Barnard which was a challenging three-year project.
Sustaining a business for over 30 years is a strong indication of success. What does it take to be successfully self-employed?
You have to have a lot of drive and you have to be a good time manager. Sometimes I’d rather be gardening and it took me a while to learn to ignore the laundry. You also have to be super organized and understand that 95% of your work time is spent getting the next project. You need to know your market and have to check out the competition.
When you run your own “gig” you have to watch out for the isolation factor. Motivation is key and being connected to other people helps maintain commitment. Especially in my field, it’s important to be connected for self-promotion as well as staying sane!
But being successful depends on what success means to you. Is it money, flexibility, family, balance? The Upper Valley is a hard market for interior design, or harder than other markets, but it was a great place to raise our kids and they have a real appreciation for it.
There’s really no easy way to start your own business. If you have the drive just do it. Find opportunities and grab them.
What’s next for you?
I’m thinking about where I should take my business next. The market is changing. People shop on line now and call to ask how things will look in their house which is pretty hard to do without seeing the thing or the space. But I’m at a place where I can be more selective with projects. I’ve also thought about getting involved with SCORE (a local organization that offers free small business consulting) which is a great place to get and give advice.
Jan and Don's work in Barnard is featured on Houzz.com.
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