Interview with Alan Brainerd, Entrepreneur

Alan E. Brainerd started his St. Louis interior design company, Alan E. Brainerd Interiors, in 1984. Today, he is one of the top interior designs and continues to operate Alan E. Brainerd Interiors, handling over 30 projects at a time across the U.S. and Mexico. He recently opened Great Estates in 2013, a store that collects some of the region’s best estate and consignment sales located in St. Louis MO. Yet, with these successful businesses, he still finds time to teach “The History of Interior Design” at Maryville University.

Can you please talk about how you became interested in art/the art world? What sparked your interest? Anything specific that inspired you?

I really cannot recall a time when I wasn’t interested in all things artistic. I believe it really is a part of someone’s core or DNA. I think my grade school art instructors inspired me. I wasn’t very good at drawing, but I loved the process of creating something.

Did you have a business plan when you started your companies? If so, did they stay the same or constantly change?

I began my interior design business when I was 21 years old. I certainly did not have a business plan for that company. For my estate sale business I had been in business for 27 years by that time and had a better idea of what worked and what didn’t. But I learned from older mentors in both businesses. For design there were two women who owned an interior design business in my hometown and I would just go to their studio and observe how they worked. One of the women was more the creative side and the other was the business side so I could see all aspects of the business at work. For the estate sale business my Aunt had an estate sale business when I was in my 20’s and 30’s and I worked for her so I had a pretty good idea how to run that business.

You have to change with the times. The interior design business is an entirely different animal than it was in 1984 when I hung out my shingle. There wasn’t even the Internet! Can you imagine? The estate sale business has changed as well. Fewer people want fine things, as we have become a disposable society.

Do you think business plans are necessary for entrepreneurship?

I suppose a business instructor would say yes. Frankly, I think guts and passion are far more important.

Did you have to take risks? Do you think taking risks are necessary?

Being self-employed I take risks every day. Some things work and some things don’t. Trial and error is a part of the whole process. Hopefully I have learned from my mistakes and don’t make them again. I think risks are necessary. Who wants to live a predictable boring life?

Did you face any challenges? If so, how did you handle them?

Of course I face challenges. I handle them head on and know that there are 1000 right answers (usually). I believe in positive thinking and energy. What I do is not life or death so really most of everything I deal with is fixable. As a client once told me, “If you aren’t sitting across from a divorce lawyer, an oncologist or a funeral director it is a good day!” You simply do the best you can and learn from each project or sale and make the next one better than the last one.

Are you happy with how your businesses are now? Anything you would change?

Generally yes. What I would change I really don’t have any control over. I miss the days when the client understood and appreciated the process of interior design and weren’t as concerned about having right now. I also miss the days before the big box stores when people wanted their own individual look and didn’t think that Restoration Hardware or Crate and Barrel set the bar for interior design.

With the estate sale business I wish people understood real value and weren’t so concerned with being cheap! It is a balance to make the homeowner happy and the buying customer.

For both businesses, the days of paying retail are over.

What do you find unique about your career field?

Every day is different. Every project is different and there is no set standard for the interior design business regarding pricing, education or fee structure. You have to be able to effectively communicate effectively with the drapery workroom, the vendor who sells the goods and your high-end client and are able to speak on their level and use the terminology that gets the idea across. I deal with all socio economic levels on a daily basis.

What sacrifices have you had to make to succeed in this field, and do you feel the sacrifices were worth it?

I think self-employed people sacrifice the stability of a paycheck every two weeks, stock options and company benefits. Has it been worth it? ABSOLUTELY!

Are you happy with your companies now? Anything you would change?

Yes I am. I am actually preparing a change that hasn’t been made public yet, but I think it will be for the better. I always try to work smarter not harder.

What do you love most about owning your own companies?

The flexibility that being self-employed can bring out weighs the long hours, sometimes 70-80 per week. I love to travel so it affords me the possibility to do what I love.

What 3 pieces of advice can you offer developing arts entrepreneurs?

Passion is a must. If you don’t absolutely love what you do, why bother?

You should not be driven by money but the satisfaction of doing something you love and doing it well, and then the money will come.

Always know that your relationships with family and friends are by far the better mark you will leave on this world than the career you pursued.

Allison Perry is a student in Developing an Arts Venture Plan, Arts Entrepreneurship at Meadows School of the Arts, SMU.

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