In 2013, after an 18-year-long stint at lighting design firm C.M. Kling + Associates, designer Andrea Hartranft considered whether it was time to go out on her own. As Hartranft turned 50 and began to think of retirement, she started to ask herself if the time to start her own firm was going to be now or if it was never going to happen. Crediting her family, friends, and potential clients with giving her the confidence to finally take the leap, Hartranft decided to go out on her own and has now been Principal of Hartranft Lighting Design for seven years and expanded into three different U.S. cities.
Hartranft’s entrepreneurial ambitions are not uncommon among designers. Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies feelings of employment precariousness, designers may be considering more seriously their desires to start their own firms.
According to Hartranft, the first thing that all designers must consider are their motivations behind wanting to do so, “Asking yourself what is your motivating factor for taking that leap is a really good place to start. Sometimes your reasons for wanting to go out on your own could be resolved with a conversation with your employer.”
After setting the seal on her decision, Hartranft began to assess where her opportunity was, finally electing to put her efforts into the market in Charlotte, North Carolina, despite living in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
“I did not have extreme expectations for Washington, D.C., even though that’s where I live. I thought that there was opportunity [in Charlotte],” said Hartranft, “I had great relationships there, and it made a lot of sense to me to start in Charlotte. Washington, D.C., has a competitive market, and I felt like I might be behind trying to start up when there were so many established firms already.”
On that point, it is often the relationships built over the course of a lighting designer’s career that allows him or her to find success in the beginning stages of working solo. In fact, an excess of financial capital is unnecessary if you have the experience and are thrifty.
Hartranft recommends having a month’s expenses in the bank to start. “I learned that I really didn’t need as much as I thought I was going to need,” she said.
While Hartranft did have financial backing, she does not believe she needed it looking back. Instead, Hartranft encourages designers to be prudent in where they spend their money, believing that costs can be kept low if they are willing to sacrifice.
“I think your first year is a year of eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly; whatever you have to do. Mark Cuban talks about sleeping on the floor, really late nights and all of that. Everybody’s story will be different,” said Hartranft, “I had some really dear friends who let me stay with them every time I was in Charlotte. I was loaned a car until I was able to get a car, and I didn’t do that until I had enough money in the bank to feel like it was safe. I don’t think you have to have an office.”
“Asking yourself what is your motivating factor for taking that leap is a really good place to start.”
By keeping her costs to the payroll of herself and the other person working with her and only necessary additional expenses such as insurance, Hartranft was able to focus on marketing her firm in Charlotte, “I had a very good working relationship with architects and the airport folks in Charlotte, so I was able to hit the ground running, maybe a bit easier than if I had nothing to start with. I don’t say that’s lucky; you make your own luck.”
It is these relationships cultivated through her time in the lighting industry that allowed Hartranft (and really any aspiring entrepreneurial designer) to head out on her own.
“The reality is I was 27 years in — I had worked really, really hard to have a good reputation in the industry, to do good work, to support the profession,” said Hartranft, “Those foundations thankfully had been laid so that when I started the firm, I wasn’t starting from scratch.” While industry relationships and the willingness to sacrifice are important when heading out on your own, designers should also be aware of the tools needed for the business side of running a firm. In addition to anticipated needs, such as computers and printers, designers need to decide whether to outsource certain jobs, such as bookkeeping and taxes, to other professionals. Hartranft has an accountant, a bookkeeper, and an attorney.
“Use the tools that you need to get where you want to go for the least amount of cost. Sometimes that’s in the form of not a full-time or even a part-time person,” said Hartranft, “If you’re willing to adapt, you figure it out and you find a way to make it work.”
Fortunately, Hartranft says an office is not a necessary cost when starting out, “The good news about what we do is that we can do our work from a computer no matter where we are. I spent many hours at the Cluck N Cup in Charlotte — that was my office. It was where I could hang out and get my work done and have good coffee.”
“I think your first year is a year of eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly; whatever you have to do.”
Designers are encouraged to be honest with themselves in their estimations of initial profitability. While the first year may see little to no profit, Hartranft is proof that success will come with time. As her business in Charlotte began to take off, she was able to begin focusing on other markets and bringing on more employees. Today, Hartranft Lighting Design has offices in Charlotte, D.C., and Boston and is made up of 9 designers. High levels of design experience within the team have allowed Hartranft freedom to travel less often, something she appreciates, especially with this year’s uncertainties. HLD celebrates employee initiative by providing bonuses for client acquisition and repeat projects. Hartranft explained, “I believe that people should be rewarded for helping to grow the firm.”
Furthermore, Hartranft believes that her team’s scope of design is as important as their geographic diversity in terms of bringing in work. “We are doing pretty much every sector of work. Not having all of our eggs in one design sector is really what’s been very helpful,” she said. Additionally, technological understanding and staying up to date on the latest innovations in lighting technology are instrumental in a firm’s success.
While Hartranft has been able to stay on top of accounts receivable, she does warn that payment can be delayed, as architects wait to be paid by their clients before sending in their own payments to her firm. She also suggests keeping to a billing schedule. “Keeping to a billing schedule really helped because, after the first few months, money was coming in regularly, as we were billing regularly,” said Hartranft.
Even as her firm gains more and more recognition, Hartranft has stayed humble and does not forget to give back to the industry that has paved the way for her successful career. She advises designers “to give back and give forward.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of designing lighting.