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How Susan Wintersteen Skillfully Juggles Design-Build Work and Family

Find out how this pro has found career success without dropping the parenting ball — and how she patched a big business vulnerability

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With five young children when she first dipped her toes into designing 20 years ago, Susan Wintersteen of Savvy Interiors in the San Diego area had plenty on her plate. Learn her surprising take on work-life balance, how she grew her side hustle into a thriving design-build corporation with more than a hundred five-star reviews on Houzz, and her secret to staying organized through it all.

Unexpected Evolution

“I never really saw myself as being a designer” in the beginning, Wintersteen says. “I went to school for psychology, and I thought I was going to be a marriage family counselor or work with kids on some level.” As she was working on getting a master’s degree, however, she and her husband had their first child, and she promptly switched tracks.

“I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and take care of my kids. It was super important for me.” Over the course of having four more kids and putting her family’s various homes together as they moved, a talent for design blossomed — and friends began seeking her advice. 

Then “I just decided one day that I just wanted to do design just as a little side thing,” Wintersteen says. “At that point, I was just hooked.”

Fantastic Flexibility

Wintersteen believes “there is no such thing” as work-life balance. When you’re at work, you want to be with your kids, and when you’re with your kids, you feel like you should be at work.” Luckily, being a designer meant she didn’t have to make an all-or-nothing choice.

“I worked very early in the morning before they went to school, or I would work during school hours. And then I would be doing my ‘homework’ at the table with them while they were doing their homework. My clients were extremely accommodating as far as letting me bring my child or staying home when one of them was sick. It really gave me an opportunity to be home with them a lot more, and they were always the priority.” Sometimes she would even take summers off to focus solely on her kids while school was out.

Now that her children are all adults, Wintersteen is glad to have stayed the course with her career. “It really gave me something to default into, where I didn’t have this feeling of ‘Oh my gosh, I’m an empty nester; there’s nothing to do. I’m so bored because I’ve spent my life caring for my kids.”

Growth Mindset

What started as a “little side thing” kept growing and evolving. “Then we got our general contractor’s license and became a corporation.” Now the majority of Savvy Interiors’ work is about 75% construction and 25% furniture and styling.

“The first phase was the learning phase, that first four to five years where you’re figuring out the industry,” she says. “Back in those days [around 2002], there wasn’t the online presence of designers talking to one another, being able to ask questions or figure things out. You were an island unto yourself.”

So Wintersteen learned by trial and error. “I was willing to sacrifice income and work a little harder just to get the education under my belt,”. “I made my mistakes and did all of the things that you’re not supposed to do.” 

That decision paid off and led to phase two. “It was, ‘Okay, I’ve got this figured out, now I want to do more complex things and bigger things.’” “I wanted to try some things that I hadn’t done before.” Living up to her company’s name, she brought on staff with the right skillsets to do just that; Savvy Interiors has had anywhere from eight to 15 staffers over the years.

Pillar of Support

With more complex projects comes more organizational complexity. “If you have an interest in having a professional business, then you have to treat it with a process that’s professional,” Wintersteen says. “Having a software program to track all of the proposals, purchase orders and invoicing has been critical to our firm.” And the more high-end the client, “the more the expectation is that you are organized and you have a process and you have crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s.”

Houzz Pro - the all-in-one client and business management software trusted by over 3 million design pros - helps Wintersteen’s business on several levels. “Houzz Pro allows me to give clients clarity around what to expect,” plus  I “can track purchases and purchase orders and be able to reconcile them.”

Wintersteen particularly appreciates the templates and customization ability in the Estimate Builder. “It’s been a game changer for us to be able to organize information and do our build books there.” 

Protecting Profits

Staying organized and client-focused alone don’t guarantee business success, however. So Wintersteen also uses Houzz Pro to “run financial reports, to make sure that at the end of the day, I’m not working for five dollars an hour — that this is in fact a profitable business.” In fact, “the biggest mistake is when designers have no idea what their numbers are and don’t know their profitability. They’re working a gazillion hours a week, and then they’re wondering why they can’t pay their bills.”

Wintersteen learned about protecting profits the hard way. “Once I did a whole design project, and somebody pulled out at the eleventh hour. I realized how vulnerable we were, because we’ve been taking on larger projects that have a much more substantial impact on our business than smaller projects.”

How did she patch this vulnerability? By changing her client contract to include a minimum-expenditure commitment. “If I take on your project, I’m going to assign it a value. Like, ‘I think this project’s going to be a $750,000 remodel.’ You’re going to commit to spending at least that much. If you decide to pull out, you’ll owe me a percentage of that contracted price to break your contract.”

Lifelong Learning

Phase three of Savvy Interiors is about becoming more exclusive: “fewer projects, larger scale, more complex,” Wintersteen explains. And given this design-build pro’ eternal curiosity and interest in learning new things, who knows if the evolution will even stop there? 

“I have to have something that’s highly engaging to my brain in order to be interested in it. With design, I think that the ability to always learn something new, probably, is what keeps me going.”

To learn something new yourself about simplifying your business processes and becoming more efficient, start your free Houzz Pro trial today.

Next: Check out our free webinar on trends from the October 2023 Maison et Objet show in Paris, featuring Susan Wintersteen along with designer Anastasia Harrison.

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