Many people dream of having their own business, but few take the leap of faith to make their dream a reality. Firstly, define what exactly you believe your business will provide you! It could be money, freedom, power, flexibility, a challenge, or just something to do.
In the beginning
Nearly 20 years ago, I served my three-month internship as an Interior Architecture Assistant at a leading architectural firm in Bangkok. From this first career experience, I knew I did not enjoy 9-5 office work which felt very confined to ‘working hours.’ Even though I had yet to graduate with my degree in Architecture, I promised myself that one day I would run my own business, to do what I want to do, when it needed to be done.
That desire, that promise to chart my own destiny was lost for a while when I was employed as a lighting designer. At the firm, I enjoyed working with my colleagues and learning new things. I started as a Junior Lighting Designer, and in less than four years, I had successfully demonstrated my knowledge and skills and was promoted to Senior. After delivering many successful projects, I became the Lighting Design Manager.
Within the organisation, I had a great mentor who stood by me and held me accountable. He freely passed on his knowledge, allowed me to benefit from his experience, and provided guidance and strength when I seemed to have lost my way. He steered me away from wrongdoings and nurtured me to become a great lighting designer, both technically and emotionally.
Until October 2015, my lighting design career was going well. But I began to be unhappy within myself. Emotions from my personal life spilled over and were affecting my professional life. This depression stole my ability to concentrate, and it stole my feeling of self-worth. I went to work feeling like I didn’t deserve to be paid. I knew that although I still possessed excellent technical skills, my emotional state was swallowing the lighting designer. I needed to pause and pull myself together. I knew that I needed to make a significant change. Mustering up my strength and courage, I resigned. I wrote down what makes me happy and put a plan in place to transform my life. The 2004 promise to myself floated to the conscious mind.
It Happened so Suddenly
Even before I was properly set up as a business, people who knew my work started to refer their connections. I started straight away designing lighting concepts for projects.
Thankfully, I had experience in hourly rates and invoicing from managing my team previously. I felt blessed that when starting my business I didn’t need to go out and find projects, but they came to me at the right time. My career dream became a reality, and I founded Design By Bow.
Temptation appeared in the form of a corporate role at a large engineering firm. I confidently refused their offer multiple times. I was sure that I needed to hold my future in my hands and guide my own destiny. In the end, the large engineering firm and Design by Bow agreed to work together, project by project, allowing me the control and flexibility I desired.
Making a profit is critical for every business, but my main focus is not on the money. My vision of owning my own business was about freedom, happiness and time to grow personally and professionally.
“Taking my future into my hands and guiding my destiny meant freedom of movement and freedom of thought.”
Reconnecting with a simple, beautiful and authentic life meant that the emotions that had flooded my brain were now regulated. I had clarity of thought and a strong focus and resolve. I developed stronger relationships with those around me and added new friends to my circle. I reaffirmed my connection with my faith and committed to making time to serve others.
Because I have never run a business, I surrounded myself with capable people. I was confident to ask for what I wanted and what I needed. I spent my ‘free time’ reading and seeking information. Step by step, my business took shape. I had the confidence and skill of a lighting designer, but I needed to feel that same empowerment as a business owner.
A Detour Before the Light Super Highway
Being an entrepreneur, my brain is constantly generating ideas and looking for opportunities. At one point, I decided to divest my income stream and founded SupaKube, which made protein snacks for cafes. This venture required that I hone my business skillset. I learned to hustle and sell and discovered a completely new industry. I learned to focus on profitability of SupaKube and Design by Bow. After looking honestly at my balance sheets and adding in the opportunity cost, I realised that SupaKube taught me so many things but Design by Bow was the better business opportunity.
I learned to value my lighting design experience and knowledge and invest my time and effort into making it a success. I adopted an ‘inclusive business model.’ No longer did Design by Bow work on impressive projects, but on projects that also ‘serve others.’ Some clients come to Design by Bow because they need assistance and are unsure where to turn. The project may be small, boring or simply writing a lighting report. I firmly believe that good acts lead to more good acts and greater rewards. I value my time but I also believe in sharing my knowledge and experience with others. Through my unique positioning, my business has grown and includes a great variety of projects from small to large scale, from mining to high-end commercial.
I fondly remember a client asked Design by Bow to assist on a challenging project – a lighting assessment and report for a detritus plant. I had not undertaken a project like this before, and I guess not many other lighting designers had either.
Detritus is a recycling plant where they separate waste for reuse. It operates in full compliance with Environment Protection Authority requirements and industry best practices. It sounds amazing but the process to complete the work is unlike creating something beautiful on your computer.
The smell in the detritus plant is worse than anyone can imagine. I climbed up and down each station and water recycling machine to measure illuminances and evaluate the site lighting — at night! Of my hundreds of lighting assessments, this was the most memorable. I can still remember my steel boots on the wet dirt floor and the smell on my clothes when I returned home. I met the challenge and delivered to their satisfaction. That client is now one of my repeat clients.
The words of advice resonate from a respected advisor, “Never say no to an opportunity that is given to you. Even though you don’t know how to do it, you always know where to learn to do it.”
Four years in, 90% of Design by Bow projects come from repeat clients. Helping others brings me happiness which is one of the main reasons I promised to control my own destiny nearly 20 years ago.
Collaboration and Connection
To provide quality outcomes to Design by Bow clients, we need to collaborate and delegate. Working entirely alone is inefficient and often does not produce the best solutions. As a business owner, you need to be consciously aware of your strengths and weakness. You need to surround yourself with capable people to strengthen your weaknesses. Businesses thrive when everyone involved is contributing in the areas of their strengths.
To grow your business, you need to adopt a forward-thinking mindset. There are new ideas and new disruptions in every industry. No matter how much you know and how many people you know, there is always something or someone new. I recommend that business owners connect with as many people as possible. Workshop your ideas, ask for options and experience, and share what you know and have learned. By talking and networking, you increase your knowledge and also increase your chances of meeting the right people to help you improve your professional and personal life.
Being part of professional bodies such as Women in Lighting and WIDAC provides a fantastic opportunity to grow my network and collaborators. I am currently a mentor to a brilliant young designer and sales rep through WIDAC (Women in Design and Construction) programs. Being a mentor assists me as well to be a better leader, and it broadens my view as I gain new perspectives from younger generations. Through serving others I am selfishly also getting back so much more.
The Future is Unpredictable
The COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the world and entrepreneurs are no different. Now more than ever, it is crucial to stay connected. I am more fortunate than most that I started working from home in 2016, years before COVID-19 demanded isolation. The change ‘around the office’ is minimal as my whole team has been working from home since day one. We have an effective collaboration platform and systems to support remote offices.
The biggest change is not seeing clients face-to-face. Yet, we have found that the design briefs can be handled through phone calls and video conferencing. There is definitely a distinct advantage as a veteran of the industry that I can easily visualise the space that needs to be lit. Likewise, delivering the design concept to the client through digital platforms replaces face-to-face meetings and keeps everyone safe.
During isolation and ‘normal’ business, the best way to service your clients is delivering on your promise and delivering their project on time and on budget. Be on call to provide the support and guidance when your clients need you most.
Most of all, don’t let fear stop you from starting your business. Life is filled with choices. Be bold and do not be afraid to make a decision. Do not be afraid to fail.
“Do not be afraid to change. Without change, there is little possibility of creating something better.”
If you are committed to a different way, harness your inner strength. Rely on your discipline, self-improvement, dedicate yourself to hard work, listen to your intuition and appreciate your time. I can offer you my story, but only you can decide to take a leap of faith.