This story originally appeared on Above the Fold, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s digital platform featuring analysis, commentary, and real stories about the intersection of government and business.
Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our new series celebrating small business owners who are making the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer by hiring their very first employee. Check back periodically for new installments.
In her more than two decades of design experience, Bridget Gaddis has worked with some of the world’s most famous names in luxury, from Prada to Gucci to Burberry. However, jewelry and handbags were never her forte. Gaddis helped designed their stores – that is, until she started her own business.
Since setting out on her own in 2011, Gaddis, an expert architect and retail design specialist, has been building a client base comprised of small, independent businesses – not unlike her own – that until now haven’t had access to the high-end retail design services they needed to compete for attention with larger retailers on their streets.
“I had learned what made the high-end stores to appealing, and as a result, I knew what these independent retailers were missing and why they couldn’t compete,” said Gaddis, who runs her firm out of an office in Alexandria, Virginia. “It has become a bit of a niche for me, so instead of working with luxury retailers, I’m working on optometrist offices, pet supply stores and yoga boutiques.”
Her decision is paying dividends. Her firm’s list of clients has ballooned, prompting her to hire her first employee, Julie Minkunas, earlier this year. And Gaddis say she’s just getting started.
During an interview, Gaddis discussed her unique relationship with Minkunas, her biggest fear about bringing on her first employee, and her favorite thing about being an entrepreneur.
How did you get into the architecture business?
“Right after college, I spent some time with a couple developers in tenant coordination, then worked in store planning for a large retailer for about seven years. I later moved to New York to work for a design firm that specialized in retail. In 2011, my husband took a job in Northern Virginia, which brought us down here from New York City. I decided that I wasn’t going to go back to work for anybody else. I had always wanted to start my own practice, so that’s what I did.”
Why did you make the decision to cater to small businesses?
“When I started out, my contacts were all national and international clients. However, I quickly realized that wasn’t the best market for me, mostly because those projects typically required a large team. I learned that the best opportunity for me was to try to pick up the local, independent retailers.
From my past experience in both store planning and tenant coordination, I had come away with this ability to nurture these small businesses. Plus, I was starting to build a small company myself, so I understood their needs and the challenges they faced.”
Harrison: What has been your favorite part about running your own business?
“I have been able to find and follow my own vision. That’s what fueled me in the beginning that’s what has kept me going these past four years.”
Harrison: Why was now the right time to hire someone?
“It had become too much for me to handle by myself. When I would get a project, I would spend all my time working on that project, to the point where I couldn’t continue with the marketing. It’s a problem I know affects many small businesses, and it started to hit me big time. I knew I needed someone who could come in and help.”
How did you find your first employee?
“I was very lucky. I had kept contact with a colleague of mine from one of the design firms in New York, and I nurtured that relationship until eventually, I lured her to come down and join me. I had known for a long time that we would work well together, that this could be a possibility, and finally the timing just fell into place. She also went to school here and worked in D.C. before moving to New York, so she knew the area.”
What kind of skills and characteristics will you be looking for as you continue to build a team?
“It’s a hard question, because when you’re a small business owner, you want someone who can do everything. Moving forward, though, there are some specific skills I hope to find in someone. For example, I have thought about bringing on an intern who could help with certain design software that has come out in recent years. I have found that students coming out of school today are well-trained in that area.
Mostly, though, I’ll be looking for individuals whose goals match what my company can offer and whose vision matches my vision. It wouldn’t work otherwise. I’m also looking for people who I can get along with, because in a small business, you’re working so closely together. It’s not like you’re going to be in some separate department.”
What’s the most nerve-wracking part about hiring your first person?
“I think the most challenging part will be making sure that we have a steady enough workflow to keep busy. I think I have figured out a way around that for now, though. I recently met a residential architect two streets down from me, and we are working on partnering to basically share resources. I have talked Julie into doing some work for him when my workload isn’t enough. It’s something new we’re trying.”
What are you most excited about in terms of making your first hire?
“I have to tell you, I was really glad to not have to sit here by myself anymore. I love that I have someone to talk to and bounce ideas off now.”
Do you think one employee will be it for now, or do you plan to continue to expand?
“I didn’t do this to sit still. Not that I set out to become some big firm, but I have worked in some very nice small and mid-sized businesses, and I would like to recreate a business like that. I want to build it up so it has some value, and expand to more clients, so there’s a steady workflow and we can help even more small businesses.”
What does it mean to you to not only have created a job for yourself, but to now have created one for someone else, too?
“Honestly, I never really thought about it. Hiring someone was something that was necessary to move my vision forward. It never really occurred to me that I was, as you say, creating a job for someone. It was just the next step in building my business.”