Our Mission Is to Be of Service

Part Six: Ten Things You Need to Know about Apartment Therapy

Apartment Therapy officially started in 2001, but it wasn’t a blog. It was an interior design company devoted to helping people make their homes more beautiful, healthy and organized at affordable prices. Back then, I traveled with my tools on my scooter and visited my clients weekly, helping them with floorplans, furniture purchasing, contractor hiring and even repairs. In the beginning, I did a lot of the work myself, but I also strove to teach as much as possible so that my clients wouldn’t need me all the time.

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For example, I had a totally sweet client that loved everything I did in her home. She used to say she was going to mark everything with tape on the floor so that it wouldn’t move until I came back. I always told her that I WANTED her to move things around. I wanted her to get to know how things were arranged without tape, so that she could do it herself. Teaching people to fish, not giving them fish, was what it was all about in my mind.

This approach was important so that I could keep things affordable and widely accessible. While there were some who would hire me to do everything for them, it was through teaching and giving "prescriptions" to others — a week at a time — that helped people learn how to get a lot done themselves (hence the "therapy" in the name) and not spend money on my time.

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This unique approach to building a business had two immediate effects: I received a lot of press, and then a lot of people called me. In fact, there were so many people in New York who wanted help with their homes, and I was offering such a curious solution — a designer/teacher/repairman on a scooter who you could hire by the hour — that I very quickly was stretched to my limit in terms of how quickly I could work and get around town. It was exhausting. At one moment, after I was written up by Daily Candy, the phone rang for weeks and I responded to over three hundred inquiries — many with initial consultations.

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My dream at the time was to grow Apartment Therapy into a large, hip service business just like another one that had just started up in Chicago: the Geek Squad. I had a vision of dozens of blue and white Apartment Therapy scooters crisscrossing the city to help people make their homes fabulous. But every time I sent my assistants out on a job with a client (oh yes, I got help as quickly as I could), things did not go well. The design business is not a typical service business, and I learned that the very personal and intimate nature of dealing with someone’s home, particularly their style, meant that clients wanted ME, not a substitute. This made growing the business very challenging, and I could see that the logical way to go was to work with fewer clients who could pay enough to keep the business going. That's how the interior design business typically works, and I soon realized it was not the business I wanted to be in.

Apartment Therapy was different. It was about accessibility, affordability, and an emphasis on learning as you go, so that your home becomes YOUR home and not the product of a hired hand. For it to grow, I needed to reach a larger audience with low prices, and not kill myself in the process.

While I didn’t have any immediate answers as to what to do next, I kept my nose to the grindstone, grew my client business manageably and kept my eyes open for clues as to what would come next.

This has always been my approach. When in doubt, stick to your knitting (stay on mission) and the answer will come. Often the answer knocks right on your door.

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Me and my brother, Oliver, at Domino party in 2005

In 2003 two things happened at once: I received an email from a publisher who wanted to know if I would write a book, and my brother moved back to New York after working for five years in digital media in San Jose.

While my brother’s introducing me to the world of blogs would change the company entirely, it was the book that allowed me to see that design in this country was undergoing a huge transformation, similar to what had already happened in the food world, and that Apartment Therapy could ride this wave.

Next:

7. Design is the New Food

Previous:

5. All Good Paths Have Missions

Good Links

>> Introduction to "The Ten Things..."
>> Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure

(Images: NYTimes article by Ruby Washington, Geek Squad via Flickr, Domino party in Gawker )

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.