We recently had an interview with Joseph Lim, the founder of Art et Domain, to share his personal experience of running an Interior Design and Art consultancy business.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your business, what inspired you to start Art et Domain?
I started this business back in 1994, in Jakarta. The word ‘et’ in between Art et Domain is ‘and’ in French. The concept was that we help provide Art in any Domain, be it a house, apartment or even an office. I graduated with two master’s degree in international relation and business administration. Even though I studied business, my strength and passion were in art.
Initially, I ran an art & artefacts retail shop and provided art consultancy to hotels, developers and other related businesses on how to decorate and jazz up their space. In 1995, I opened another branch in Singapore, while the Jakarta branch was run by my brother in law. I did relatively well in the ‘arena’ of showhouses and thus was approached by many developers as they liked my style of decorations.
Then in 2000, I opened another branch in Mont Kiara, KL where I partnered with Sunrise. I oversaw the decorative aspects, while they did the design. And in 2002, I decided to start this current branch I have in Bangsar where we are now geared more towards designing.
How did you know of Sunrise and how was that partnership formed?
I had a friend who supplied them fabric materials. She was the one who introduced me to them. At that time, I had only one staff running everything. Slowly we grew to about approximately 50 staff members in our KL operations.
Is networking important in your field?
Networking is very important. You never know how one relationship can grow to another. For example, I was introduced to a job opportunity with Sri Tiara (service apartment), which led me to many other jobs. I was also involved in another project called Suasana Sentral Loft. From there, others began to take notice of my work and they started to approach me. Relationship building is very important especially in my field of work.
Other than networking, you must be able to fulfil what you promised to your clients. Business sustainability is ‘quality’ and ‘the ability to deliver what you promised’. Many youngsters disregard this aspect and want ‘quick cash’. Perhaps in the internet business you might be able to do so, but when it comes to this industry, it boils down to your portfolio and how satisfied your clientele are. The credibility of your brand is built from your portfolio.
With that being said, I’m sure you didn’t have many contacts in the beginning. So how did you get through the struggle of not having enough contacts and yet having to invest into this business without knowing if you’d succeed or not?
I think this is an inevitable reality that we have to face as entrepreneurs. Yes, in the beginning it was tough, especially in Singapore. People aren’t willing to do business with you when they are unfamiliar with your brand. You just have to pull through and stay positive in your attitude, and above all you have to ‘squeeze your way’ through. At one point I didn’t get paid for a year until my company turned around. When your business is in a bad position, you’ll have to use your savings to sustain it. My staff were paid, it was just me who didn’t get a salary. (Laughs.) If you are only able to sustain for 3 months then my advice is don’t start this business, because the chances of surviving are slim. You have to give yourself at least a year to figure things out and build your momentum.
In all your years of doing business, what were some of your lowest points and how did you overcome them?
The lowest point was when I couldn’t get any business in the first year. I didn’t know how or when will my business turn around. In this case, you really need to surround yourself with people who are supportive and positive and you yourself have to be optimistic and mentally strong. If at any point I decided to quit and give up then that’s it, I wouldn’t have all the successes today. Besides that, you can’t just sit and think that things are going to turn around, you’ve got to work at it. Getting the right opportunity, at the right time and place, and meeting the right people are important but if you don’t put in the hard work then they’re all pointless. Ultimately, hard work is needed if you want to seize an opportunity.
In addition, good business doesn’t necessarily mean good money. A lot of businesses look promising on paper but at the end of the day, if you can’t collect payment, then it’s all for naught. You may have to go for smaller jobs at the beginning. Sometimes you have to lower your pride and just swallow this ‘bitter nut’. My advice is to study the background and the credibility of your clients before going in, especially in the interior design (“ID”) industry.
You mentioned having a strong portfolio is key. But what if a new entrepreneur doesn’t have a strong portfolio?
Focus on building strong relationships, especially when you are just starting out. If you manage to build a strong relationship with others, they will be more willing to give you a chance even if you do not have a strong portfolio. Since my target market are developers, you’d want to build long-term relationships because they usually have many projects in their pipeline, thus once you’ve ‘captured their hearts’ they’ll continue to engage you for other projects. Regardless of the project’s value, you should always give it your best shot. Prove to them that you can do a good job, and once you’ve done that, they’ll trust you.
However, one of the challenges in my industry that many may not know is that in the first few years of the business, when it was still relatively small, I was able to provide more personalized services to my clients. But as the company grew bigger, naturally there were more clients and projects. I became more preoccupied and couldn’t be as hands-on as before. Most people assume that growth is good, but in my line of business it’s quite challenging to grow big, because you’ll lose control and credibility.
Do you think it is viable to groom ‘successors’ in your line of business?
Yes. For the past 5 years, we have been grooming a group of associates with the vision of having them take over the business one day. We groom them in different facets, some in design and some in marketing. But to be able to groom someone to be identical to me, it is just not possible. Since the barrier to entry is low in my industry, if that person has the same level of calibre, he or she will prefer to start his or her own business. This is the hard reality and dilemma that I face. If only I can split myself into many parts. (Laughs.)
Do you still remember the first job that you got?
Wow, that was a long time ago! The first job I got was through a friend’s recommendation. Back then, there weren’t many businesses that specialized in art consulting. When I was working in Singapore with Far East Organisation, one of the managers there introduced me to two designers, a Singaporean and a Japanese, who were building show houses. They mainly do design work and one day, they told me ‘Joseph, here is the budget, go and help me dress these show flats.’ That was my first job. I truly learned a lot from them. They were like my ‘sifu’ (Master) in designing.
4 to 5 years later, one developer came up to me and told me that I should do the entire design work and not just the décor. Far East Organization had some back log, as there were roughly 15-20 unsold units of apartments, thus they gave me a budget to design and decorate all those unsold units. That was how I transitioned into designing.
How did you market yourself, since internet wasn’t as widely accessible back then?
Back then, people used to flip through magazines and newspapers a lot more than they do now. Advertising through magazines was the best option for me. Prestige Singapore approached me and did a write up on me. I also did some paid advertising with several interior design magazines. But the era has changed. There are so many new platforms today where you can market yourself such as Instagram, Facebook, or even creating your own website.
If someone were to start their own ID business now, what advice would you give them?
For my case, I started from art consultancy, so I already had a substantial base of clientele before moving into the ID business. But if someone were to graduate from ID and wanted to start their own business, my advice is to gain some working experience first. Because who you mingle with in the working environment is very important. When you work in a company, you get to enhance your skills and showcase your talent. From there, others wouldn’t mind supporting you when you decide to start your own company afterwards. It’s part and parcel of the work that you’ll have to do when it comes to networking.
But if someone really wanted to start an ID business without any working experience, then you’ll truly have to see whether there’s a market opportunity and be price competitive. Since nobody knows your brand, you’ll have to charge your services at a lower price.
The thing is, most people only see the glamorous side of success but not the hardships that were endured to reach there. Take Jack Ma for example, most of us are only aware of his successes today. People only publicize things that they want you to see, they don’t show you the difficult times.
Any last words before we end the interview?
Whatever you do in life, you must enjoy doing it. When you do what you love the chances of success is higher. I travel back and forth from Singapore every week. Most of my friends think that what I’m doing is absurd, but I don’t feel so because I enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy my relationship with my clientele here and they really appreciate me and my work. I’ve been running this business for 24 years, and I enjoy every bit of it.
I always tell other people, ‘If I have money today, I’ll eat rice. If I have less money tomorrow, I’ll eat porridge. And if I don’t have any money at all, I’ll eat grass. Despite all this, I will still love what I do.’ Stay strong in your beliefs and vision, and others will see them too.
45E 4th Floor Bangunan Bangsaria,
Jalan Maarof, Bangsar Baru 59100 Kuala Lumpur,
Telephone: (603) 2282 1662