Ten years ago, Ali Budd launched her own design firm out of her basement in Toronto. Now, she manages a team of 10, transforming interior spaces and taking on a range of high-end residential and commercial projects across Canada and the United States. She has become renowned for her excellent taste and regularly works with clients ranging from business leaders to NHL players.
Here, we discuss her career path, how being a mother inspired her work ethic, and why she thinks that design trends are bullshit.
Walk us through your career path. Have you always wanted to work in design?
I actually majored in English at Huron University College at Western University, thinking I would go to law school after graduation. After some advice from my late father to follow my heart and my passion, I decided to go to the International Academy of Design for interior design instead. After I got my diploma, I started working at an architecture firm and then a design firm. I always knew I wanted to run my own company, but I thought it was important to have experience in the industry before I jumped in.
What was your experience like launching your own business?
I was actually newly married when I started my business out of the basement of our house by myself. At the beginning, I took on anything and everything that came my way. I remember one Saturday early on in the business, where I brought two friends to a client’s home to help me assemble Ikea furniture because it wasn’t within the budget to hire someone.
For anyone starting out, I think it’s important to take on anything that comes your way, do a great job, be creative and learn how to problem solve because you never know what will lead to something else. I started working with one client doing small finishing projects in their house which eventually grew into larger projects designing their basement and nursery. Flash forward a few years and this client bought a house in Rosedale and asked me to build and furnish it from top to bottom—that really changed the trajectory of my career.
You’re now celebrating your 10th anniversary. How has your company evolved over the last decade?
We’ve evolved so much—from Ikea to 10 million-dollar homes! Initially, I was always trying to think of what my old bosses would have thought or done, but the second that I let that go and started focusing on what I believed was the right decision, my work got better, and my business grew.
I didn’t have a set trajectory in mind when I started Ali Budd Interiors and I think that allowed me to always be on the lookout for new opportunities instead of fixating on one path. When my ex-husband and I split, the necessity of being able to support my children really lit a fire under my ass to grow the business even more. That’s when I started using Instagram to communicate my brand, because I didn’t have the budget for PR but I wanted to grow the business. Even though I was going through a hard time in my personal life, being able to focus on my company became an amazing outlet for me.
How did you build your brand from scratch to a team of 10?
Instagram has actually been a key player in growing my team. I don’t believe in the boundary of work and home; I wanted to create an environment where people want to come to work and be present and I think that shows through on social media. We really use our humour and show the in’s and out’s of the business and our projects and we’ve kind of created this mini reality show that people have really responded to.
Besides that, I really believe in there being no politics in our office and I think people find that enchanting—I don’t care if you come in at 9:30 am instead of 9:00 am, or if you’re there the latest. I trust my gut when hiring; while education and experience is important, it’s not all about that. I want to see people’s passion, work ethic, and that they really want to be here. It’s partially about aesthetic but it also takes a certain personality type to deal with all the moving pieces of a construction project.
I’ve also transferred all of the hiring of our interns to my team and it’s been a great team-building exercise. They know what it takes to be successful here and they can vouch for people they think deserve to be here.
In your experience, how important is social media to your business?
Social media has been invaluable to building my brand because it allows you to create the brand you want and showcase the elements you want to highlight. In the design industry, social media has been a great connection tool to get in touch with other designers in NYC and LA. Instagram has also been instrumental in building our client base. Even though it seems like a full-time job, it’s been imperative for me to keep control of our feed in-house because it needs to stay authentic to who we are and what we do.
What is your advice for other women looking to make it in the design industry? What does it take to make it?
TV shows have painted this industry to be fluffy but it really takes a lot of hard work. A lot of this job is out of your control so you need to be able to balance a lot of different people and be super organized. Customer service is everything—we are a luxury not a necessity, so you need to think about what you’re providing a client that’s different. Any designer can walk into a store and pick out furniture, so you need to have a distinct vision and aesthetic. You can’t emulate other people and you have to find a way to be true to what you think because people hire you for your opinion and your advice.
What are you working on these days?
There are lots of exciting projects happening this year! We’re currently working on designing a $10 million cottage on Lake Joe in Muskoka—I really love the country, believe it or not—and we’ve also got a lot of big residential projects on the go, including one in Washington, D.C., that we’re close to wrapping. I’m also working with custom leather jacket brand namesake to design a really cool retail studio space in Toronto. The owner is a badass and our brands align so well. We’ve also got some pretty amazing commercial bids out right now for restaurants and I hope this becomes an area we can pursue.
On top of all of this, I’m having a baby in May and renovating my own house right now!
What design trends should we look out for in 2020?
I think trends are bullshit—you should just do what you love. We no longer live in an age where there’s only one or two publications dictating what we like so you can find inspiration everywhere. I always encourage people to stay away from trends with a short shelf life and look for design concepts, themes, and inspiration that could be based off what’s current but that has staying power. Fashion trends are different because you can easily change your look every day, whereas with design, you’re going to live in the space everyday and you need to really love it.
What are your tips for readers who want to identify their own design style?
Start with Pinterest; that’s a huge tool for us. With many things in life, including design, you can’t communicate what you like until you dive into images and start dissecting spaces you love and connect with. Even if you’re eating at a cool restaurant, staying in a hotel or going about your day and you see a space or a piece of furniture you like, take a picture! Build a database of things you love and that give you the warm and fuzzies.
One of my best pieces of advice is to never start shopping without a plan. Even if you’re completing your own project, it can be worth it to hire a designer to make a floorplan for you because that can be really overwhelming and then you know what you need to shop for.