Laura Engen: on The Importance of Hard Work and Asking the Tough Questions
Laura Engen Interior Design is a full-service design firm. The owner, Laura, has never been a stranger to hard work; her first job was detasseling corn in the scorching summer heat! After interning and working for a few talented designers for six years, Laura decided it was time to strike out on her own. She started her business without clients, savings, or a plan, but she was motivated, and that was enough. Read more to learn how she succeeds through hard work, asking the tough questions, and following her heart.
Tell us about Laura Engen Interior Design.
Laura Engen Interior Design is an award-winning, full-service design firm. We help prominent professionals in the Twin Cities and around the country design, remodel, and select the finest furnishings for their luxury homes.
We are skilled interior consultants who act as a liaison between clients and builders. Our firm helps homeowners make design decisions while saving time, money, and stress, which allows builders to complete projects on time and on budget.
Our firm offers an array of design services, ranging from project management and space planning to furniture selection and color consultation. We collaborate with a team of the region’s foremost contractors, painters, tile and flooring specialists, cabinet makers, lighting experts, and other professionals.
What was your first job growing up, and what did you learn from it?
I detasseled corn in Olivia, MN. I was 13, and I needed a way to make money for school clothes shopping. We started each day before the sun came up because of the late July/early August heat; it was miserable. Everyone would load into an old-school bus and get taken to a field in the middle of nowhere. We’d then spend 8 hours walking up and down cornfields, in the mud, pulling out the tassels on top of the stocks. In the end, I made good money, and only had to work a few weeks out of the summer. I felt like I’d worked hard for my money, which made me stop and think about what I spent it on.
Tell us about your career path before starting your own company.
I consider my internship my first real design job. I only worked for Eminent Interior Design for three shorts months but was treated like an assistant (since the real assistant was on maternity leave) which forced me to learn quickly.
Next, I meet with Bruce Kading, who was hiring a new assistant because his was retiring after thirty years. I was lucky enough to get hired! I worked for Bruce from 2006 until 2012. I was a part of amazing projects all over the country and met some of my best friends in the design field.
After six years, I was getting antsy. I wanted to take a larger creative role and handle less project management. I approached Bruce about taking on a few smaller clients or looking for new ones, but ultimately it just wasn’t the right fit for his business. He gave me his blessing to take on independent side projects, so I started looking for clients and other design opportunities.
Not having the guts to start my own business yet, I took a job with another local designer I’d long admired. She needed someone to manage smaller projects - I couldn’t have been more excited about the opportunity. I thought having a fresh start with a new designer would give me the creative outlet I craved. But, It was a tough transition; I’d gone from an office where I knew what to do and how to do it, to someone with a completely different approach to design and business management. After five months, I knew I needed a change, so I left and leaped into starting my own business.
I had no clients, savings, or business plan but I was motivated and excited, which was enough. I wanted people to take my business seriously, so I got a shared office space at IMS, set up my LLC, designed a website on Squarespace, and had business cards made. Over the first few years, I did a ton of contract work for other designers. These partnerships allowed me to see the ins and outs of their businesses, gaining me their trust and later, client referrals.
Slowly but surely, as the economy improved my client list grew, then I was getting repeat customers and referrals from past clients and designers.
Tell us the story of why and how you started your business:
After being employed by other designers for more than six years, I was ready for a change. My husband and I wanted to start a family, and I had concerns about working for someone else and being a mom.
Starting my own business should have been a hard decision; I should have been really scared, but I wasn’t - not even a little. My husband couldn’t have been more supportive; he didn’t hesitate for a second when it came time to take the plunge.
What is a typical day like for you?
I drop the kids off at school, from there every day is different. Like any practical mom, I try to schedule all my meetings on the same days, so I don’t have to do my makeup daily. (That’s normal right?)
Some days I’m running non-stop to meetings, showrooms, and job sites or picking up sick kids and going to Dr. appointments. Otherwise, I sit at my desk all day responding to emails and creating spreadsheets. I like the variety and flexibility that being self-employed gives me; it works well for my family life.
Tell us about a hard time in your personal life.
It’s still difficult to talk about to this day; my dad died in car crash when I was 24, and it was devastating. It still makes me cry when I think about it. But, I like to think he’s somewhere watching me and cheering me on. It motivates me to keep going every day and make him proud.
What advice or tips would you give a new business owner?
Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions, like, “what’s your budget?” It was the most uncomfortable discussion when I started, but I learned my lesson the hard way when clients didn’t want to pay their invoices. Better to have that awkward conversation up-front and weed out anyone who’s not a good fit, then put in the work and not get paid.
What’s next for your business? What are some of your short-term or long-term goals?
My short-term goals stay the same every year - I want to get paid for doing what I love and make people happy in the process.
My long-term goal - I would LOVE to establish and run an office space for designers and creative professionals. A place where they have a desk when they need to get out of their home office, a conference room to meet with clients, and a resource library for sharing samples. One thing I miss about working for someone else is the office environment, so I’d like to create a space where people can gather, collaborate, and feel like they’re part of a group.
What do you believe is your single strongest skill that’s helped you succeed?
Hard Work. I will do whatever it takes to get the job done. If I overpromise a deadline, I will stay up as late as needed to get it done right. (Trust me, there have been a lot of late nights.) As a solo business owner, you have to wear all the hats. Putting your head down and working hard can make up for a lot.
Tell us about your life outside of your business? What do you like to do?
Honestly, I think I’ve forgotten what I like to do; my family consumes all of my time outside of work. Of course, I love what I do; I’m always designing in my head. I’m constantly on the lookout for the perfect accessory when I’m on a Target run for diapers and milk.
In a perfect world, I’d have a date night once a week with my husband; I love going out to eat with him and just catching up. And I’d see more movies - I used to see movies in the theater all the time.
How do you balance your career and family/personal life?
It sounds corny, but I follow my heart. Some days, I feel the need to put my business on the backburner and focus on my family and personal life. Others, I feel highly motivated to work on growing my business, which means working on the weekends or taking evening appointments.
A couple of times a year, I play hooky and leave the office mid-afternoon to go shopping or see a movie. I think it’s important to recharge my battery from time to time so I’m ready when business comes along.
QUICK FUN FACTS
What’s your favorite charity?
It's not technically a charity but I’m a member of the Jr League of Minneapolis, and I love what we do. We’re a non-profit, all women volunteer group that creates projects to better the community. For example, one of our projects is called Backpack Buddies. We pack food for kids to take home over the weekend so when they show up for school on Monday morning, they’ve eaten and are ready to learn.
What age do you want to retire at?
I hope I always have a great work-life balance, so I never have to retire. Other people have passions outside of work, but my work is my passion, so I hope I’m always involved with design in some capacity.
One travel location on your bucket list?
England, I’ve never been and would love to go!
Are you an introvert or extrovert?
I think I’m an extrovert? If I stay inside for too long I go crazy; I kind of love walking around Ikea or Target just to get out of the house. However, I like to do things alone. I don’t feel I need to be with people all the time, so maybe I’m somewhere in the middle.
What is your favorite blog, podcast, or book?
My favorite podcast is A Well-Designed Business by LuAnn Niagara. It’s all about running an interior design business and has helped me focus more on the business side of things. I highly recommend it!
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