Officer to Designer

By Taylor Mallory

After getting a B.S. in marketing apparel and a master’s degree in management, Jill Caliri, 29, didn’t go to work for department stores like most of her peers. Instead, she went into the Army as an officer in the First Cavalry Division and spent her final year of active duty in Baghdad. That’s where she earned a Bronze Star for her service in combat, and it’s where she made the decision 18 months ago to open her own interior design franchise, Interiors by Decorating Den (IDD), once she returned to South Hadley, Massachusetts. Still a business beginner, she expects to bring in $200,000 to $250,000 in sales this year. Here’s how she got there.

Of all the franchises, why did you pick Decorating Den?

I spent my last year in Iraq ordering books about careers in design and doing online research. I saw a tiny ad in the back of Home magazine about Decorating Den. Then I wrote two business plans – one for opening a business myself and one for the franchise. The costs were the same, but buying a franchise would give me a turnkey system, name recognition, advertising and ongoing support. When I returned home from Iraq in April 2005, I visited the corporate headquarters and knew I’d found a good fit.

How did you finance it?

I saved money while in Iraq. I had a nearly new, paid-off SUV I put up as collateral for a personal loan for $17,000. This covered my living expenses for the first year until I could start paying myself. Later, when I bought a larger SUV for the business, I traded the first one in and rolled the loan together for an additional $28,000. I basically financed the entire franchise fee [$25,000 when she started] with my cars and kept enough in the bank to live on. I’m proud to say, after six months the business was paying for itself and that loan. Now I plan to start drawing a paycheck.

What’s your funniest experience?

I sent out my first round of advertising just before I took off for IDD training. When I got back I had a response from my mailings – my very first lead. I started jumping up and down, screaming with excitement. The person in the next hotel room complained to the front desk about the noise! That call was my first little taste of success and a reality check that I’m really a business owner.

What would you have done differently?

The biggest learning curve I took on was sales. I would have called more leads from the beginning. I’ve never been pushy, but I could have done a better job of following up on soft leads. I got spoiled when, in the first few months of my business, I really clicked quickly with a few really great clients. I thought they all would be like that. But I’ve learned not to get frustrated when that isn’t the case.

Where did you get your experience?

My Army career taught me how to deal with all types of people, surprises and problems. When things are going wrong, I just think how no one is shooting at me, no one is getting physically hurt and no one ever died because their sofa didn’t arrive on time. My marketing education helps too. I take what I do very seriously and strive for perfection with the details, but I know it’s a luxury service – not life or death.

What were your best resources?

My fellow Decorating Den owners. We have an intranet where we can post design dilemmas, query for ideas and solicit opinions on topics ranging from draperies to tough clients to unusual or hard-to-find items, and we get multiple answers within hours. Also, my regional manager is just a phone call away – whether I just need a cheerleader or have a business question.

What advice do you have for women thinking about buying a franchise?

Not all franchises are alike; some offer more support than others. A franchise isn’t necessarily easier than any other small business startup, but it is nice to have a support system. You must be passionate about the business you’re considering because you will live, eat, sleep and breathe it. I cannot imagine not loving my business. And be prepared not to be able to design and decorate the day away. You may also have to be your own marketer, bookkeeper, manager, order taker and stock checker. The list is endless. I’ve had to find passion for managing my books and developing marketing strategy or I wouldn’t get to do any designing.

How has this changed your life?

I have control over my life. In the military, I didn’t always have a say in where I lived, how long I stayed or what my job would be. Now I have complete control over where I want to take my business. I get to live exactly where I want, and I arrange my schedule for my personal life. And sometimes I work 60 to 70 hours a week, but that’s my choice. And that flexibility will be extremely important to me when it’s time to have children, one of the main reasons I left active duty military service.

What’s a typical day like for you?

There’s no such thing! I try to map my day – maybe a new client or a presentation in the morning, run to the upholsterer or floral supplier, an appointment in the afternoon, run to the workroom, come back to return the day’s calls and e-mails. Office days are a little more relaxed since I’m on my own schedule. I try to jog in the morning and get to work in comfortable clothes. In the beginning, I’d be all over the place on appointments, then try to do paperwork starting at 7 p.m. I was burning out, so scheduling office time was an important lesson for me. I’m not always good at sticking to it, but I’m learning.

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of PINK Magazine.

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