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Rosa Santiago Zimmerman’s Winning Combination: Design Expertise & Business Acumen

How she built a successful firm that expands and changes with the times.

Houzz Pro

FEBRUARY 8, 2024

For more than 25 years, interior designer Rosa Santiago Zimmerman has been helping people in the greater Atlanta area and beyond make their house a home. These days, her firm, RSZ Design & Development, takes on dozens of projects a year, and is expanding to the home development space in multiple states. Here, the six-time Best of Houzz winner shares what she has learned about running her growing firm, how she uses technology to double her project capacity and offers advice for those fresh out of design school who dream of following a similar path.

Prioritize Business Acumen

Santiago Zimmerman considers herself a businesswoman first.

“I started a couple of businesses,” she says. Then, one day, “I said to my husband, ‘We have these businesses. We can eat. We don't have to worry about food on the table. Can I go back to school?’ He's like, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to become a designer.’ "

That was a quarter century ago, and having a business background has made all the difference in her success, she says. “What I would tell new designers coming out of school is … you need to understand that at the end of the day, interior design is a business.”

Some of the biggest mistakes designers make are on the business end of things, she says. “Make sure you understand the business of the business,make sure you self-educate on what it requires, and make sure you have an accountant and an attorney at your side to be able to catapult you to that next level if you want to have your own firm,” she says. 

Design schools still do not focus enough on these skills, she says. “You come out knowing how to fluff a pillow, knowing the difference between chenille, Damask, and velvet, but you have no idea what to do with this,” she says of running a business. 

Master Your Market

Putting her business savvy to work early on in her design business, Santiago Zimmerman sought to fill the gap that other designers in the greater Atlanta region were barely interested in. 

“I go to the 10, 15, 20, 40 acres, where you have a 6,000 square foot home with your pool and your guest house,” she says.“Those are my homes.” Her competitors stay closer to the Atlanta Metro area. “Most of the designers in Atlanta won't even pass the perimeter,” she says.

Besides finding her market niche, she also emphasizes her firm’s approach to designing a home. 

“We come from the school of thought that home needs to be and feel like home,”she says.“Our tagline, our mantra is creating spaces you'll love to live in, and now with the rebranding, the tag line has evolved into "creating a world you'll love to live in!"That means creating a space that fits her clients’ definition of what home feels like. “The majority of our clients are clients that are financially comfortable, but who are not wanting a museum for a home,” she says.

Communicate From Anywhere & Everywhere

The company founder also focuses on making sure everyone is on the same page. “Communication is key in everything we do. Without communication, the project fails; we fail,’’ she says. 

That means being able to collaborate with her team to fit their hours and hers. I am a huge cheerleader for Houzz Pro,” she says. “It's one of the most complete tools out  in the industry, and it is a tool that makes my very busy life easier,” she says. 

Using Houzz Pro, she collaborates with her team, clients and others on projects even when they are not working the same hours as she is. While she works from 4 am to 4 pm, her daughter - who is an intricate part of the team - is a new mom and prefers to work late into the evening. Contractors and project managers have their own schedule and therefore via Houzz Pro everyone can stay up to date and tuned into the stages of each project

With Houzz Pro Project Collaboration, Santiago Zimmerman easily adds notes to shape a rendering or source products, and then virtually hands it off to her daughter. “It just makes it seamless,” she says. “We don't have to speak, it's all there. She goes in it when she can, and she handles what she needs to. Then when I wake up in the morning, I have a rendering,” she says.

Communication and transparency with clients is just as easy. She asks clients to make notes within Houzz Pro. “Tell me if you like it, tell me if you don't like it. Tell me number two option, number three option. Again, they can do it at their leisure, I can read it on my end when I get to it.”

Use Technology to Show Your Vision

Houzz Pro tools like Clipper, Mood Boards and 3-D Floor Plans are her go-tos for sourcing products and creating the visual story that clients expect. “That is absolutely essential because as everybody knows in this industry, the reason why we get hired is because our clients can't visualize it,”she says.“That's why we have an industry because we can see things our clients can't,”she says.“This is a visual industry.”

Santiago Zimmerman depends on other Houzz Pro tools such as the measuring tools, Mood Boards and 3D Renderings when conveying the concepts for each respective project. Yesterday I said to a client, how about black wallpaper? He said, OMG what?  I showed him the rendering, and voila, the black wallpaper was approved. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

Santiago Zimmerman readily admits that she has a tendency to take on too much, but  as her business grew, she realized she needed to expand her team and delegate. Houzz Pro has been key in helping her scaling business run more efficiently.

“I can double the amount of business that I take on with Houzz Pro software because it just makes it seamless for us to be more efficient and productive,” she says. 

The Houzz Pro Client Dashboard helps her provide the kind of transparency that builds trust with clients.“The first sentiment that we both need to have with each other is trust,” she says.

“I believe in having a firm that is 100% transparent for our clients. The ability to be able to share that dashboard with our clients and say your accounting is available to you 24-7-365 is key,” she says.

Houzz Pro makes it easy to resolve potential disputes. “That paper trail, that timestamp, that date stamp is crucial for us,” she says. When a client has a question and says, ‘where are we on the budget?’ she reminds them that they have access to their Client Dashboard at any time with all of their approved expenses.“We also make it a point to email our clients a link to their Dashboard every Friday; creating a fail-proof communication loop that keeps everyone informed. 

Choose Your Clients 

Projects are more successful when you first assure that your clients are a good match with your services and philosophy, she says. “We go through an extensive vetting process of making sure that we are going to have that synergy.” 

It starts immediately in the sales process. First, we send a questionnaire out and the questionnaire is very general. What's your favorite color? Do you like ruffles or polka dots.. what are your goals for your home? That kind of stuff,” she says. 

Santiago Zimmerman reads every questionnaire turned in and then schedules a meeting to determine if the client fits her firm. “It's not necessarily about design. It's about the synergy that we're going to have working together,” she says. Just like with any successful relationship; personal or professional, having that chemistry is essential for a successful project. 

“You're going to allow me into your home. Are you going to trust me? Are you going to like me? Are you going to believe me? Are you going to want to work with me? If that clicks, then it's a yes. If that doesn't click, we're done,” she says.

Looking Ahead

With a solid number of years in the interior design business, she continues to reinvent the work she does.

She has moved to Florida and embarked on an expansive shift for her company. “We rebranded two years ago and we are moving into development,” she says. “We are working right now on doing our first mini subdivision. We're going to be doing five houses,” she says. This means a transition from working one on one with individual homeowners to developing new homes. 

And off the job site, Santiago Zimmerman is making history. She is the creator and executive producer of an unscripted docuseries in the design and home improvement genre, as the first Latina at the helm of any design series; ever.

Santiago Zimmerman, who was born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, is pushing the envelope with her series due to its format. She is focusing on showcasing everything in the industry, from design to construction, the project management process, the backstories of the contractors that work in her projects, the locations they feature, and the amazing stories clients have to share. The series is a family series, and can be found on Rosa YouTube channel @RosasREALReelz

As part of the series, there is also a children's book and animated cartoon in development. Think of a Latina "Bob the Builder". Both the book and animated series will be bilingual in English and in Spanish, so she feels like Bob the Builder says “Si se puede.”

On her right wrist, Santiago Zimmerman has a tattoo with the words INTENTION, GRIT, GRATITUDE. She says she wakes up every day with a grateful heart. She says the world can be an ugly place, but perspective is everything. She chooses to focus on everything great and beautiful; not the ugly. One of the most beautiful things we have in this world is an opportunity, she says. “All you need in life is an opportunity, with an opportunity, the world is yours.”

Learn how Houzz Pro business software can help you run your growing business more efficiently and transparently. Create a free Houzz Pro account. 

Houzz Pro is the all-in-one tool for marketing, project and client management built specifically for remodeling, build, and design professionals.

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