A New Designer at the World’s Biggest Furniture Trade Show

I started my own design business, Next Dinner Party Designs, about seven months ago now, and I’ve heard of “Highpoint” many times since then as THE interior design event of the year, so I figured I’d venture down south and see exactly what this Highpoint Market hubbub all about and how it might help my business.

Several weeks before the trip, I’d listened to a “prepare for your first Market” and was struck by what one designer said: “Know what you want this Highpoint to be for you.” Are you a shop owner who needs to buy furniture and accessories for the coming season? Are you a journalist covering the event and looking for trends? Are you a designer with a firm that’s doing a multi-million dollar project on for a hotel and you need a ton of beds?

For me, it was this: I’m just starting out as an interior designer and I wanted to meet others who are in the same boat, but perhaps with a few years more of experience. As a solopreneneur, each day I face a number of problems or questions that I don’t know the answer to. It can be really fun to figure out the answers, as there is always a solution, but surely it’s easier to just ask someone who’s already learned from experience.

I arrived in Highpoint on a Saturday morning, and while I’d heard the market was massive, I was unprepared for the over 10 million square feet of exhibitor space. The entire town of Highpoint is a furniture market essentially, between a handful of multi-story expo halls and then free-standing stores (many located in cute historic buildings) lining the streets for a few miles in all directions.

While I had all the networking events and interesting sounding panel presentations marked on my schedule, I was waylaid early on because had this idea that in between all the networking, I’d try and “buy” for clients. I sent a blast email asking friends, family, and clients that if there was anything they’d had their eye on, would they consider having me buy for it them. (Designers join trade programs with companies that allow them to buy essentially at wholesale prices and then sell to clients at retail prices. That’s a major way designers make money). A number of people sent me messages to look for items – a sofa, rugs, bookshelves – for them, and so I had it in my head that if I could buy (and then sell) enough, I might be able to cover the cost of my flight and hotel room for this trip. After about 48 hours, I realized that was not going to happen.

I expected there to be companies like West Elm or Anthropologie at Highpoint, but I quickly learned that designers are rarely working with retail companies. While those retail companies do offer small discounts to designers, those discounts don’t even come close to what other companies – companies the average consumer has never heard of – can offer to designers and store owners. Besides, anyone can order a sofa from Wayfair for cheap, and it is cheap because Wayfair has major purchasing power – they might be ordering 2,000 of a particular piece of furniture from a manufacturer. But when you use a designer, you’re more likely to get something you haven’t seen on the websites, possibly with cool custom upholstery. It will not be Wayfair prices. And these furniture companies that sell to designers, they deliver their furniture in 18-wheelers, which cannot just pull up to a client’s driveway and drop off the sofa. Thus, I’m going to need what’s called a “receiving company” in order to do deals with these direct-to-trade furniture companies. (That’s a company based in the city where the delivery is going that can receive the shipment, load it onto a moving truck, and deliver it into the clients home).

So for that reason, which I realize is pretty boring for anyone not interested in logistics, I wasn’t able to buy large items for clients, but I did buy a few things for a friend/client in the antiques pavilion (the coolest pavilion there) which had shops that could deliver directly to a doorstep, rather than to a receiving company.

But before I realized my plan of buying and selling to cover my cost of this trip was not gonna happen, I was rushing around, clocking 18,000 daily steps, as the frenetic energy of all those thousands of other designers and shop owners was contagious. I saw one lady who marched around a beautiful booth and said “Five of those, ten of those, six of those in black and six in pink” as a man with an iPad recorded her orders. I thought that looked like a blast, but she was appeared to be having zero fun with it. I met up with a few other designers I knew of from online who barely had time to chat as they were literally running to the next thing. The frantic FOMO feeling of it all reminded me so much of when I used to cover political conventions and medical meetings as a reporter. I’d arrive, scan the list of activities and talks, go, but feel my presence at the one things was at the expense of something else, interview folks, and then put together a story and/or video until the wee hours, sleep briefly, and awake and do it all again. It was exciting but also scary because I never felt like I was doing enough, yet I was doing as much as physically and mentally possible for a single human.

In Highpoint, I gave myself a mental slap and said “Emily, this is not a political convention where your boss will call and scream at you at 1am for misspelling “ophthalmologist” in your story. You are your own boss. All these peoples’ stress is not your stress. Besides, you said it was your goal merely to network.”

Lucky for me, on the bus ride from the Charlotte airport to Highpoint Market on the first day, I had struck up a conversation with Lillian, a lovely designer from Long Island, who changed careers from accountancy to interior design more than a decade ago. “Can I ask you a bunch of questions?” I asked, and she generously agreed. She was also there alone and became my evening drinks buddy. Each day ended with a fabulous party with wonderful cocktails, a beautiful spread, and a killer band and Lillian and I discussing what had inspired us that day.

During the day, I attempted to chat other designers up, and definitely did chat up retailers (met some awesome furniture and wallpaper makers too) but it wasn’t easy. There were very few solo attendees. It seemed entire design firms traveled together. It was often hard to break in and make conversation, and when I did, I sometimes got the feeling that the woman (interior design is dominated by women) thought I was hitting on her. Perhaps my opener “How many times have you been to Highpoint” was a little too much in the “Come here often?” vein. Also, at each talk I went to, the crowd seemed to scatter with that “must get somewhere else pronto!” energy that was pervasive all week, so it wasn’t easy to meet other designers.

Near the last day, I attended an off-putting talk put on by some editors of Architectural Digest that was aimed at designers and was ostensiably about how to designers can get their projects featured in AD. The takeaway: Keep dreaming. This message was reinforced when an editor’s response to how to find their contact info was “You’re familiar with where to find the masthead? Well on that you can see the formula for email addresses so you can figure out my email address and if you can’t then one fewer email for me, haha.” I made a comment to the woman sitting next to me how rude I found that response and she said “Well, interiors designers are also unfriendly.” I can’t confirm that – no one was outright rude to me personally, and I’ve actually found all the designers I’ve reached out to over the past months have been generous with their time and knowledge, but I did find it interesting to learn that’s the reputation in my new field.

In fact, I’d wondered if I’d feel like a phony as a person who basically just decided to turn her passion into a business among a sea of “official” interior designers. I didn’t study interior design (or business) and would real interior designers introduce themselves with their names and their credentials? The answer to that was no. I learned that many designers had a totally different career, decided they wanted to do something they loved instead, and then either joined a design firm, apprenticed under someone they knew, or started their own business. When I told people I’d started my own business, largely focused on e-design, just seven months ago, the across-the-board response was “Congratulations!”

After four very full days of seeing every imaginable iteration of a sofa and so many rugs my eyes blurred, I was ready to go home.

A few takeaways for me: It was a furniture market after all so it would make sense that I left feeling like buying furniture from these vendors and selling to my clients is only way I can make money. This honestly was a bit discouraging because I wanted the bread and butter of my biz to be helping foreign service folks like ourselves make their homes abroad live up to their potential and we cannot use our blessed U.S. Postal Service mailboxes to send ourselves sofas and dining room tables. As I started to think “Well, maybe there is no way for me to actually make money at this” I heard a panelist say “Whatever you want your business to be, you can make money doing that.”

If the show Silicon Valley and dozens of episodes of the “How I Built This” podcast taught me anything, it’s that the first iteration of your business is rarely what ends up being the money maker. Sometimes you gotta pivot. While I was at Loloi Rug’s astounding showroom, I was of course drawn to the vintage rugs rather than the new ones, and as a guy unfurled a few Turkish beauties, I told him “You know what, I better not. I’m moving to Turkey next year.” He said “Maybe in a few years, we’ll be buying our rugs from you.” I’d already been thinking about what my interior design business might evolve into when we move to the land of rugs, tiles, lights, and textiles.

In the end, my goal of networking my butt off or maybe talking my way into a group of seasoned designers who’d teach me all they know (I was basically looking for Designing Women to make me an honorary Sugerbaker) didn’t pan out, although I met Lillian as well as a Boston-based designer on the bus ride out of Highpoint and both have already taught me things about running a solo business.

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