Designing big pretensions

    One of the greatest dangers in owning a small business is forgetting that there is a major difference between big business and small business.
   When a small business pretends it is a big business, quite often it becomes no business.
    The point was driven home to me again the other day when I began to look for a designer for a new retail store that will be opening early next year.
    Itís a big store, over 8,000 square feet, and I needed help. In the past, I had done the store designs myself, in true small business fashion. I made plenty of mistakes, learning along the way, and got slices of professional help from time to time.
    But now the company had grown and the project was larger than I could handle. Gee, I thought, I must be entering the big time. I had better do it like the big corporate types do.
    The concept I wanted for the new store was similar to a chain of stores owned by an international corporation. They carried many of the same lines of merchandise we would be carrying. And the layouts of the stores, and their fixtures, were just what I had in mind.
    Also, it turned out that the independent designer for many of their stores was based in San Francisco. By coincidence, I had met him a few months ago, told him about my upcoming project, and he expressed an interest in working on it.
    Perfect. I had latched onto the designer who had created these magnificent stores that had earned hundreds of millions for an international corporation. And now he would be working for me to do the same.
    We met to discuss the project in detail a few weeks ago. He brought along an associate and we toured the site. Then we went back to my office and I glanced through his portfolio of completed projects, most of which were of the stores I wanted to emulate.
    "Beautiful, just beautiful," I gushed, admiring the photographs. "This is exactly what I have in mind for this new store."
    "Thereís no question it would work very well for you," he replied. "The space is ideal. Iíve got dozens of ideas already."
    We were a match made in retail heaven. What luck to find this designer, so close and so available to me. I went through the portfolio again, appreciating his "touch" more than ever.
    "How much does this company spend on the interior of its stores?" I asked, knowing these looks donít come cheap.
   "In general," replied my designer, "about $200 a square foot."
   I nodded and tried to compute in my head the $200 a square foot to my 8,000 square feet. It didnít register. I nodded again, said uh-huh, and subtly hit the keys of my calculator.
    "$1.6 million!!!" I cried, my big business demeanor falling with a thump to the floor. "Thatís insane!!!"
    The designer, reeling, could see that he was no longer dealing with Lee Iacocca. He backtracked as fast as he could.
    "These guys (the international corporation) really go overboard. They spare no expense. You could easily do your project for half the cost, or $100 a square foot."
     I didnít need my calculator any more. "Eight Hundred Thousand Dollars," I cried, blowing my cover once and for all. "Iíd say weíre not in the same ballpark, but first Iíve got to find your universe."
     The designer backtracked some more, saying there were ways to get the square footage cost down much lower than even $100. But it was clear his heart was not in it. He was a designer to the stars and he didnít relish scrimping and saving.
     We talked a while longer, with much less enthusiasm. I asked him to send me a proposal for his services, which he did the next week. His fees were reasonable, but I had already decided his style was out of my league.
     There was no question he would have designed a spectacular and, most likely, very effective store. But Iím simply not ready for his mode. When I met with another designer the following week, we also clicked on ideas and overall look of the store.
     But there was one major difference. When it came to costs, he spoke my language. When he explained how he could use an alternative material at one-fifth the expense and achieve the exact same look as the real thing, I hired him on the spot.


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