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Décorelle’s Journey to Luxury Interiors with Ellen Odoi

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Esther is a business strategist with over 20 years of experience as an entrepreneur, executive, educator, and management advisor.

Décorelle’s Journey to Luxury Interiors with Ellen Odoi

Today, we delve into the world of luxury interior design with Ellen Odoi, the visionary behind Décorelle — a full-service design firm transforming spaces in the Washington D.C, Maryland, and Virginia areas. As a certified Women’s Business Enterprise and Minority Business Enterprise, Décorelle stands out for its commitment to elegance, sophistication, and bespoke beauty.

In this interview, we’ll explore the journey, challenges, and inspirations behind this thriving business, gaining invaluable insights for aspiring entrepreneurs and design enthusiasts alike.

Join us as we uncover the story of how Décorelle is redefining luxury interior design, one space at a time.

The Genesis of Décorelle

SBS – What inspired you to start Décorelle?

Ellen – I feel like my story is a little different. Mine is about a little bit of passion — and maybe my sister having a little bit more faith in me than I did (she’s younger, and she owns a part of the business as well).

This is something I was doing for my family; it wasn’t something I was doing for monetary gain. I didn’t know it was a talent. I just thought it was something that I liked doing. For example, if you like fashion, you just dress nice, or if you like makeup, you just start doing your makeup. I never translated it to “Maybe this is something I can do for a living.”

I was in college at the time, and we would have competitions about our dorm rooms and who could make it look nicer. I would win every year and never think anything of it. I figured I liked this; I didn’t think of diving deeper into it. The older I got, the more I realized I liked to do it more and more, so I started doing it for my family. I became the person to ask, “Do you think this looks good in my bathroom?” We wanted to change our bathroom for aunties and uncles until a friend of mine, Chutney, asked me if I would help her with her townhome and that she would pay me. I said, “Sure, I’ll just do it.” In the middle of that project, I realized this was a little bit more than doing this for fun. I enjoyed this. I had a passion for it. I eat and breathe and love beautiful spaces.

This was when Snapchat had just come out. I would video myself doing the spaces for fun; people wanted to see it. They would ask, “Have you finished that wall you were painting?” and ask for updates. I made a statement on Snapchat that maybe I should do this for real. That Christmas, my sister surprised me, and my Christmas present was that she had registered our business. She came up with a name. People always ask where Décorelle comes from. Well, it’s just the word “décor,” and my name is Ellen — the perfect combination. We wanted it very simple, very different.

I finished my friend’s house, and then another friend came to the house and saw it. That’s how it started. As most businesses do, we recuperate our family members and friends. I would just do it for friends and family.

We started our Instagram page, and I would put spaces I had done for them there. I remember the first time I got hired by someone I didn’t know. That was very nerve-wracking for me. They came on our Instagram, messaged us, and said, “We have a powder bathroom. Is this something that you can come and look at?” We had to think about that. Do we charge to go out and look at something? How much are we going to be charging these people? It’s so funny. When I started, we used to charge $275 a room. It’s very laughable now. But also, our projects have become extremely big, where we’re building homes from the ground up. 

Empowering Impact

SBS – How has the Women’s Business Enterprise certificate impacted your business?

Ellen – We got certified last year, so it’s very new to us. I was also in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program for 17 weeks last year, and that’s actually what pushed me more to get WBE because we talked to many experts in our fields. We realized that if we ever want to get into government or state contracts, they look for these things. Sometimes, they like minority-owned businesses or want women’s businesses because they specifically want to support that avenue.

So, though we have not technically used it yet, we got it for the purpose that we will eventually start applying. We want to tighten up our procedures and policies before we start bidding to do the embassy of the US and France or something like that comes up. There are things like that where you can bid on as an interior design firm, and sometimes they will say they want a minority-owned or a woman-owned business. We wanted to ensure we’re ahead of the curve of what we want to do in the future. 

I worked for a WBE-certified business before I went full-time with my business, so I already knew about the certification even before applying for it. It was something that I saw I would have to renew for that particular company. It was an advertising agency in DC, and it was woman-owned. I’m a businesswoman at heart, so I looked at many things and realized that this business was WBE, and a lot of the contracts they would get sometimes required them to be that. I told my sister that I would love for us to be WBE-certified in the future because we don’t ever want to come into an opportunity, and then they ask for that, and we don’t have it yet.

Also, I’m very proud to be a woman-owned business. We have to always fight for where we belong in the world. Thankfully, my field is woman-dominated, but you have to stand out from the rest of the crowd as well. 

Navigating Challenges

SBS – What were your biggest challenges in interior design, especially luxury interior design? 

Ellen – Whenever I get asked this question, there is always a real answer and an interview-appropriate answer. I am honest, real, and raw, even with our followers on Instagram. I think in any business in general, there are things that you deal with as a business as a whole, and it’s consistent throughout, whether you are a barber, a fashion designer, you sell something, or you’re in the service business, like us.

Customer service has been one of the toughest things I have faced as an entrepreneur over the years. There is this lie that the client is always right, so you’re always put in this position of having to please and apologize — even when you have nothing to do with the situation and even if the client is wrong.

With anything that involves a certain level of money, people just feel privileged. There is this consensus, “I am paying you this much, and all your attention should be on me. It doesn’t matter how many clients you have. It doesn’t matter that you are exceptional to everybody. I’m giving you all these hundreds of thousands of dollars to do my home, and I expect to be your only client. I expect nothing I say is wrong and nothing I do to delay the project.”

We even have situations where we send contractors to clients’ homes, and the clients cancel and send the contractor away, saying, “Today doesn’t work.” Meanwhile, they’ve already accepted that today did work, and the contractor put them on their schedule. When we cannot get on that contractor’s schedule in time, again, those clients say, “This project has taken so long.” Meanwhile, you’re the one who canceled! 

Those things sometimes make me question, “Am I in the right field?” This happens every day with us. It’s something that, no matter how long I’m in this field, I can only get better at. It doesn’t mean that it will ever feel good.

Now we have some exceptional clients, dream clients. If something is delayed, we just explain to them, and they just say, “No problem. I want my house to be perfect. I trust you guys.” We have some clients that even if we want to email them, we’re nervous because they are just not very understanding. That’s the nature of the world, right? You’ll get some good cropping; you’ll get some bad. As a business owner, you just have to deal with it all.

We’re always making sure that we’re trying our best to deliver exceptional service and going above and beyond for our clients, even when they don’t notice. We even do a lot of things behind the scenes that clients don’t know. For example, if we take on a lot of costs because of any inconvenience it may have caused to them, even when it’s not our fault. These are things that I don’t tell these clients, so when they react in certain ways, it’s kind of painful. You just take it, and you just know you paid extra money on your dime to make sure everything works perfectly.

Honestly, the human nature of any type of business makes you want to walk away. I saw this as the head of other companies (when I was a director at a mental health facility and an operations manager with a marketing agency in DC). This was all before I was just a full-time entrepreneur. There are all different types of people that you’ll have to run into in the world, and you just always have to adjust to the people.

I have a reputation for being very kind. Luckily, my sister is very strict, so it works out well, like when a client is unreal. She will typically be the one to take the brunt of the blame, and she will send them a stern email, “This is what you did, and these are the consequences. We can only mitigate as much as possible, but it is unfair to think we need to pay for follow-up shipping. We’re not covering delivery because you said you would be home and weren’t home. So, when they deliver again, we’ll charge you how much it costs to ship the item or attempt delivery again.”

This is something we deal with every day in customer service.

Harmonizing Styles

SBS – How do you align your designer style with clients’ preferences? 

Ellen – I typically design very contemporary looks, with maybe subtle hints of transitional in there. I love to put a vintage piece in a very modern space. Luckily for us, I make it very clear on our social media that that’s the kind of design that we do. So, for anybody that comes to us, I assume that that’s what they want.

Once in a while, there will be a client that comes to the virtual room, and there is a questionnaire that they have to fill out before they even get to schedule to speak to us. We can eliminate clients based on budget and things like that.

If somebody would come to us and say, “I have a $5,000 budget. I want to renovate my master bathroom,” we don’t do that kind of work. We’re a luxury firm, and $5,000 is nothing when you’re renovating a bathroom. You can go to Home Depot and buy some tiles and upgrade your bathroom with them, but if you want it designed by us, you’re eliminated. We send an email and say, “Your budget is not a good fit for us. However, if you’re willing to increase, we would like to have more of a conversation with you.”

It’s the same thing with style. We ask them, “What is your style?” and many of them will put contemporary or modern. My red flags are always traditional or glam. I am not a glam designer. I do not believe that should be part of the design styles. It is not timeless. It can feel very cheap and tacky, so you will see that many designers will not design that way. Glam is something that someone who just doesn’t know design may do (I’m not faulting anyone for this), but most designers will not design a glam home. Everything will not be gray with ferns and shiny silvers or golds and things like that.

So, if they put something there that doesn’t align with us but if their budget is proper, I still like to talk to them because sometimes they don’t know their style. They think traditional just means traditionally what everybody likes. I like to tell them, “Do you like our work? Is that how you want your space to look?” If they say they do, I’ll say, “Okay, then you’re not traditional. You’re contemporary.”

We built a brand. We built a style and a look, and people who gravitate towards that come to us, so there’s never any tug-of-war between the client and me about how the space will look. Now, for individual pieces, I sometimes have to convince them that, for example, this light is essential for the space and will make the space, and I ask them to trust me on it. 

We’ve made it a point to have a look. I always used to say I never want people to recognize my work — but it’s become that. When they see a space, they say, “This is a Décorelle space.” I think it’s just a thing with designers. It’s like a signature.

Designing Success

SBS – How much has your design process evolved from the beginning?

Ellen – Huge. When we started, there was no questionnaire and no discovery call. We didn’t even charge clients for consultations. That changed very quickly when we realized I would go to a potential client’s home without knowing their budget and potentially waste money and time. They would just call us, saying, “We want to do our bathroom and stuff.” We’d say, “Okay, can we schedule me to come by and see the space?” I would waste gas driving an hour to a location, spend an hour with them (sometimes even more), and drive an hour back to my home only for them to say they don’t think they have the budget for it or something like that. I wasted four hours with these individuals and had to pay for the gas.

We quickly changed that early on, so now it’s solid. People will try to reach out to us on Instagram, which we’re fine with, but we immediately direct them to our website. There’s a book button. Once you book, there’s a questionnaire for you to fill out. Once you are aligned with us, we will send you a link to book a 20-minute discovery call. The discovery call is free, and there is no discussion of our fees or anything on the discovery call. We want to hear you out and find out what you’re looking for and your timeline. Some people want a whole house designed in two months and have no idea what the process is, and I say that this is not Wayfair. We don’t go to Ikea and pick up your furniture and install it that day. We don’t have furniture that comes in two days; it doesn’t work that way with exclusive pieces.

I’m also big on personality. I don’t like to work with difficult people. They say you must take all types of people when you’re in business. No. We’ve learned very hard that what we do is time-consuming. A lot of our clients are with us for six months or more. The majority of the time, they’re with us for at least a year or two because we’re doing their entire home. So, I do not want to work with someone who already gives off red flags during our initial call. Before, we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t turn down any money. But when you grow, and you have a reputation (and you want to uphold that reputation), you get a little bit of privilege to be able to say, “No, I don’t want to work with you. Your budget doesn’t work “ or “No, I don’t want to work with you. Our personalities don’t align.”

If everything is good, we have them pay for a one-hour consultation with me. That’s the first time that they ever get to see me. It’s on video. We used to do it in person, but I do not do that anymore because the clients can still decide they don’t want to go along with it. So, we talk first, and we talk numbers. I’m very real with them. I’m a very kind and light person. I think I am the least difficult person you’ll ever get to work with, so that comes off when I’m talking to these clients.

There are red flag questions that we have, and a lot of designers do this. The more you grow, the more you know that when they start asking these questions, they will be this type of client, and you can eliminate them because you don’t want a year of this.

We have a whole process just to start the project. Once the project starts, there’s a secondary process that has to do with project management, shipping, expectations, on-site visits, install days, construction schedules, etc. That is something that I told my team I want to perfect this year. So, every year, we want to get better and better and better. There is no such thing as “My business is perfect.” There are things that we want to change around. We’ve noticed things in the past few years that left us or the client dissatisfied, and we’re always trying to figure out how we can make this experience better for all parties involved. 

Materials Matter

SBS – How do you select your materials and ensure they are of the best possible quality?

Ellen – Funny enough, I have boxes sitting here because I must review some marble samples. We have an amazing relationship with these vendors that will send us samples for free because we use them all the time. In one box, for example, there is a custom marble tile that I have designed, and it’s going into my client’s home. I designed it, and then they sent me a sample so that I could see what it looked like.

Now, these are people that we’ve worked with for years. I like routine. If I use a brand and I know that a lot of their stuff is just great quality, we have a great relationship with their reps, and the shipping is always great, I use them again. We stopped working with some vendors because it takes six months for them to send one item, and during those six months, they will back order. Or shipping is extremely expensive. You’ll spend $2,000 for freight for a couch, something that’s just ridiculous.

It’s just based on time and experience. For example, we have a marble place about an hour from me. I love them because of their customer service. I love our fabricator there. We have a great relationship. We’ve now learned how to work with each other. The way he sends me things is great. Drawings are sent and I have to sign them. You test out other people and the way they do things. We had a fabricator for a marble place, and we tested them out, and he hand-drew everything.

In comparison, this team I’ve been using for a while will do it electronically with accurate numbers. All these numbers are all over the place. I never fully understand, but I trust them because they’ve done it for us many times.

There are certain brands that we work great with the reps. We love our SUNPAN rep, Lauren. We’ve worked with her for a very long time. We work with Surya or Loloi a lot when it comes to rugs. We have a wonderful relationship with Four Hands. We’ve been using them for a long time, and I think we’re at the highest level of their purchasing power. Arteriors is another example. The Alder and Tweed brand is amazing. I’ve met with the owners, sat with them, and had conversations with them. They know we want to launch something in Africa and are willing to send freight over there for us.

So, it’s just these relationships, the quality of the goods, and the time. This is not a business where you can just get up and start doing it out of nowhere. You can, but you’re going to start with how we started. You’re going to start with Ikea and Wayfair. 

Tech in Design

SBS – What role does technology play in your design process and business?

Ellen – Huge. Almost everything I do is electronic, from designing to the systems we use to communicate with our clients. We use Ivy, so everything is on there, and our accountants can access that. Our QuickBooks is connected to that. Invoices are sent to clients. Clients have a list of everything that is in each space. Each space is organized. We can see how much taxes and shipping are. If clients owe us money, it shows.

I also use Photoshop. I use different design tools to design the spaces. I work with the wonderful rendering team of Duke Renders, and they use technology to do many of their renderings. I have such a wonderful relationship with the husband and the wife who own the business, and they’ve become like family to me (again, relationships).

We use software for scaling the space. To put the space together in 2D, we use Photoshop. If I didn’t have my iMac, it would be impossible. Long gone are the days when the rooms are drawn out. That was back in the day when we would do interior design. You would sketch out the room, the furniture pieces, and how it would look. Now, you can show a photorealistic picture of what the space looks like. 

Trendsetters’ Radar

SBS – How do you stay updated with current trends in interior design? Is it important to you? 

Ellen – It definitely is. I like to see what colors are trending. To be honest, we designers tend to curve the trend ourselves. When we go to market, we pay attention to what we’re ordering for our clients for the following year, and we pay attention to fashion. Fashion is a big thing. Most interior designers are very fashionable because interior design and fashion go hand in hand. I am known just as much for fashion in my personal life as for interior design. Kelly Wearstler and Jeremiah Brent are the same. They’re very fashionable.

Fashion determines a lot, and I am big on that. I watch all the shows (New York Fashion Week, Milan Fashion Week, Copenhagen Fashion Week, and Paris Fashion Week), pay attention to the colors and the trends, and realize that they end up seeping into interior design. I love that the two loves collide.

I am someone who doesn’t stop learning. I’m watching interior design on YouTube (I don’t watch TV) or reading. I always have magazines that come to my house, including Architectural Digest. There’s always some Architectural Digest around me. I like to pay attention to other designers as well. I like to look at my favorite designers’ work.

Right now, AI has become a thing, and I like to stay ahead of the curve. There’s going to be something where AI is going to be able to make life a little bit easier for us. People think AI is going to take our jobs away. It’s not possible. Interior design is only 20% of design. The rest is project management and business focus. If AI designs a space, AI will not tell you where to get the furniture pieces. The project management side is something that’s never going to be able to be done right by AI. So, unless AI will tell you exactly where to get everything from and who to book, see if the electrician did what he’s supposed to do, negotiate prices, or give you discounts on furniture, your job is safe.

I pay attention to what is new in the industry. I joined Midjourney to learn how to use AI to assist me in some of my designs. Photoshop has implemented AI as well. I’ve put on my list to find time to sit down and figure out what it is that it does in Photoshop that can make life easier for me. Before removing the background, you would have to do all the work manually. Now, there’s a prompt; you can hit it, taking the background off. It’s making my life so much easier when I’m putting together 2D stuff.

I also want to know how to prompt AI in Midjourney to, let’s say, design an entryway so that I can have an idea of how it looks. I don’t let it design the space for me, but I let it present my vision before I put it together. Is this idea that I have actually going to look good? Are these mint green cabinets with this Carrera marble going to look good? I like to see what it produces and if it looks good together. Will it look good if I take my 20 hours and put it in Photoshop with the dimensions that I have? So, I use AI to aid me and to guide me. It’s something that I’m learning because it’s not going anywhere. It’s meant to help you. 

We use ChatGPT to help us write our prompts that go out when we send invoices. I wanted to update all that language, and we used ChatGPT to properly and professionally ask clients to remit an invoice or do something else. It does it so well. Now, all these prompts are written for my team, and they just copy and paste them and then adjust them for the client. We’re using it to make our lives easier. It certainly isn’t going to take over our job. 

So, I pay attention to what’s new in fashion, what’s new in furniture, and what kind of lime wash became a big deal. For example, slats became a big deal. Does it make sense to use it in my design? It doesn’t necessarily mean I must implement it, but I should know what’s happening in my industry. 

Wisdom from Experience

SBS – What kind of advice would you give a woman (or a man) just starting in your industry?

Ellen – If you ever want to start a business, there are three things you should do.

You should make sure you have passion for it because there are things where you will not want to keep going anymore. As a successful business owner, I will tell you that there are times when I get very frustrated, and then I will look at different spaces on Instagram or my favorite websites or magazines, and I fall back in love with it all over again. Passion sustains you through the difficult times. You’re a business owner. Finances go up and down, up and down.

Find a group of people who need what you do, and those will be your customer targets, and then do it with excellence. This is something that will take years of practice. My team and I are very good at knowing what we’re doing wrong. My sister would call out our team members and say, “There’s no reason a client should ask this question. You guys should have already updated them. This is where you dropped the ball. We should have done a site visit on this day after this contractor finished because this client is saying this, and we would have caught it had we been there” or things like that.

Doing things with excellence and quality is important, and that includes selecting your clients. Having a whole bunch of clients because you want to make money is not the best. I would rather have fewer clients and do an excellent job. They will then recommend more clients, and then you’re perfecting your craft as you work with people who understand what you’re doing and the industry and the shortcomings that come with it. Businesses have their benefits and downfalls. Working with a luxury company means we’re going to order from trade. It means your furniture is going to take longer. It means your project will not be done in two months. It means it will take six months for that room to be finished. But it is worth it.

The third thing is being consistent. Be consistent in everything that you do. I am a little bit of an OCD when it comes to that. I’m big on how our Instagram looks. I’m big on how we present information to clients and even on how we send it to them. I’m big on how our pictures and reels look, so we work with a professional photographer. I’m big on how our website looks, so we spent a lot of money working with JPW. They designed our website and did an amazing job.

We just like to do things with excellence. If you want to be a luxury company, then you have to put your best foot forward at all times. It’s not always going to be perfect, but as long as you’re willing to learn and grow, you’ll be successful in anything that you do. 

Follow Décorelle on Instagram and TikTok to discover their latest luxury interior design inspirations and projects.


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Décorelle’s Journey to Luxury Interiors with Ellen Odoi