Six years ago, I was sitting in my mom’s upholstery shop, eating lunch, reading a book.
She was out of town. I was just holding down the fort on my day off, putting in a few hours to help out.
(at this time, I was actually working as a full time sales person for another shop, not really doing much in the way of upholstery.)
A woman walked in, looked around and asked, “Are you the daughter? Somebody told me to ask for the daughter…”
Well, I supposed I WAS the daughter. Probably? My mom has FIVE daughters, but I’m the only one who’s usually hanging around an upholstery shop.
This woman then introduced herself as Teri Carpenter, AKA, “Mama Carp“
She was/is a blogger, and the sister-in-law of one of my mom’s long time clients.
Teri is very creative – she cooks, and crafts, and writes and bakes and sews (recently she’s been focusing a lot of her energy on the most AMAZING quilts!!!)
She also loves PEOPLE, and FAMILY, and LIVING JOYFULLY.
So she’d wandered into the shop with a pretty great idea . . .
She’d seen a story about a photographer who drove around with a couch, taking photos of random people he encountered (kind of like the popular facebook blog, Humans of New York?)
Teri imagined a more personal spin – photos of family and friends on a special, one-of-a-kind piece of furniture.
For awhile, she had looked at new pieces, but was disappointed in the quality and character (or lack thereof)
Then she came across a little settee in an antiques shop. . .
It needed a bit of help, to be sure, but quality and character?
She started to imagine what might be done with the piece (bit of tufting????? It sure would look good in red . . . )
And that’s when her sister-in-law told her, “Go to Parlin’s Upholstery. You need to talk the daughter.”
At this point, I’d been doing upholstery (mostly part time) for several years, but that stands out as the first time someone came looking specifically for me.
And it caught me off guard.
Some of my mom’s clients were actually upset if they discovered their work had been delegated to me, the less experienced professional.
They had no interest in being anyone’s First Client.
Why would Teri come looking for me???? What on earth did I bring to the table that my mom or another shop didn’t bring more of??
From where Teri was standing, I brought creativity. And enthusiasm. And ingenuity.
My mom was the more experienced professional, yes, but she was also busier, and had developed more rigid preferences for how to do things. She already had her VIP clients (of whom Teri’s sister-in-law was right on top)
At the risk of throwing my mom under the bus, she wasn’t particularly interested at that time in going down some project rabbit hole with a new client. And that’s fair!!!! As a professional gets busier, we likely begin to cull our workload, focusing on things we enjoy, or the projects where we’re most efficient. I’ve certainly done so!
But I hadn’t entered that phase yet. I was just sitting at a table. Reading a book. I hadn’t yet begun accepting applications for First Clients.
But that day, Teri caught me at a special time in my career: The beginning.
I’m certain we sat and talked for two hours, considering changes to the back – let’s add tufting, but keep the channels. How about nailhead instead of this gimp? How many yards of fabric? What about the cushion?
I gotta tell you – it’s extremely rare these days that I’ll sit with a client for two hours. Somewhere around 30 minutes, I start to get an eye twitch, thinking about all the work that’s not getting done.
But this is one of the perks of BEING a First Client!!!! What we lack initially in experience, we often make up for with other attributes, because those first clients are so important.
So despite my reservations, we dove in – and the project was a blast!!!!!!! Teri got the kind of unique, eye catching piece she’d imagined, I got the opportunity to execute her creative vision and challenge my skills.
And when she came to pick up, she arrived with camera in hand and asked me to climb up for a picture <3
On the way home, she stopped for a photo with her mother-in-law <3
And later, the little red couch made an appearance at her 30th class reunion <3
(Teri pictured here with her husband and children)
6 years later, I now have lots of clients – but Teri always gets to be the first! We’ve done so much work together – every time I think she’s run out, she finds something new to get excited over.
The title of First Client still comes with perks – Due to our long, established, positive relationship, I still spend more time at the consult stage with Teri. When she comes up with crazy projects that fall outside my “palette of services” I say yes, even though it would be a solid no for most anyone else.
For example, Teri and her husband recently designed and built a custom Murphy bed unit into their home. She had the idea to install upholstered panels into it, so it would look like a delicious upholstered wall when the bed was folded up. First she imagined diamond tufting, then I suggested biscuit tufting . . . We exchanged pictures via messenger and then Teri came to the shop and we spread out on the cutting table, moving buttons around to get the spacing right. The panels would actually be relatively simple, but getting them into the Murphy bed, with a good fit, no visible hardware, the proper weight, a way to pull the bed down . . . .
This kind of project is RIFE with potential issues.
So not to be a party pooper, dear stranger, but if you show up tomorrow and ask me to bid a project like this, I will sweetly-but-firmly decline.
It’s not that I’m trying to be difficult, it’s just that now I’m juggling a business of my own, in addition to teaching.
I simply cannot get sucked into a project that may end with multiple installation issues, weight/balance problems, trips to the house to wrestle hardware, maybe even a dissatisfied client.
But Teri, I know.
I trust her to communicate, to know what she wants. I know that she and her husband are extremely smart, and extremely handy. When she says they can get it installed, I know she can and will. If I ask her to send photos and dimensions, I know she’s going to do it. When I insisted she pick up one sample first, in case there were unforeseen issues (which shockingly, there weren’t) she promptly said, “of course!”
I trust her to listen to my recommendations, as she trusts me to know what the heck I’m talking about.
I have a few first clients:
My older sister, who has a house full of my work, including some of my earliest student pieces, like a small tufted chair that makes me cringe now to see.
A high school friend’s mom, the first client project in my very own space, who overpaid on the invoice and told me not to argue: ” I discussed it with my husband, and we’re not arguing. You didn’t charge us enough.” And she was right. Silly me, I thought she was looking for a good price, which I did my best to deliver. In reality, she was looking for a good product/experience, and the opportunity to support my brave new venture.
My friend, Ann, a designer, who gave us the opportunity to bid small commercial projects with her client contacts, even though there were most certainly larger, more recognized shops competing for the work. Ann who trusted us to deliver craftsmanship and service that would be a credit to her referral.
And Teri – the first client whose chair received a name so we could tag and discuss it on social media (Vivian, after her grandmother)
Teri who brought a decorated pumpkin for the shop our first Fall.
We don’t have many First Clients. They are very special people.
And when you’re just starting out, and those First Clients come knocking, it’s easy to focus on all the things you DON’T yet have to offer.
I don’t know much about this! I haven’t done much of that! Maybe you should take this to someone who’s more experienced!!!!!
Listen: There’s ALWAYS someone more experienced. (Except, I suppose, for about 10 minutes at the very tail end of our career.)
When that first client wanders in, trust me: If they wanted someone more experienced, they’d go find someone more experienced.
If they want YOU, they probably have good reasons. It could be your very inexperience that they crave, your enthusiasm, your fresh perspective, your not-yet-burned-out-on-customer-service attitude. (It could also be your “still building my skill set” pricing, but that’s a slightly different blog post)
First Clients are our ground floor investors. They get in on the action early, and in exchange receive an intangible part of the journey. Hopefully our businesses grow – and although later clients can be special and wonderful and extremely important, they’re will only ever be a few FIRST Clients.
I’m now at a place in my career where I’m looking for clients who value experience, as well as looking for ways to pass the craft along to others through teaching.
But Teri is still among my clients, one of my First, one of my Favorites.
Still . . . if “Teri” walked into my shop tomorrow, as a new client, we wouldn’t necessarily be working together. I might send her to a newer upholsterer, someone with more space in their schedule for prototyping and long, wandering, pie-in-the-sky conversations.
And that would be okay!
I’m actually really happy to know that there are other people out there, other opportunities to be a First Client.
So if “Teri” walks into your shop tomorrow, or sends you a message on Facebook, or catches you at a class reunion, don’t automatically shut the conversation down by deflecting the project to someone more experienced: Embrace the opportunity to grow. Give THEM the opportunity to be a First Client. Take a deep breath. Do the best work you can. Keep striving to get better. Supplement your growing skill set with enthusiasm and good communication.
And tell them thank you.
(A simple note may suffice. But an 1800 word blog post works, too)
Who do you consider your First Client? We’d love to hear about the early days of your upholstery journey – whether they were decades ago, or just last week.