On a lunch break at a recent install, we sat down with Devon Tobin to chat about our company’s recent boom, the challenges of co-owning her own business, her partnership with Co-Founder and Co-Principal Miranda Cullen, and why she thinks personal connection is so important in the interior design business (especially during a pandemic). Read on for our in-depth conversation.
Did you ever imagine you’d be the Co-Founder and Principal of a women-owned design firm, with 16 employees and two companies? (That just so happens to be in a huge growth phase and one of Denver’s top interior design firms in the middle of a pandemic)? What’s that like?
No, I didn’t imagine it at all, which is what makes me get choked up when I actually allow myself to think about it. I think I get nervous to ever really sit in success, because it feels like it’s so fleeting. I don’t want to lose the opportunity to keep growing. A couple years ago someone said, “Duet Design Group’s at the top,” and I had a complete panic about it. I thought, “if we’re at the top this fast and this early, then the only place to go is down. We can’t be at the top. We have to keep pivoting and keep moving, because up only means down.” So I feel like right now when other businesses are struggling to figure out what’s next, this mentality of ours to continue evolving and looking at different ways of doing business – like with the growth of Inside Stories – has allowed us to see success during a time when the economy feels uncertain and unstable. It’s shown that this course is the right course.
I think there’s also a new shift in me to become an amazing mentor and leader and not care so much about my own personal success but the success of the team and the company itself. That’s a really fun, cool shift. I know Miranda feels that too – that it’s become so much bigger than Devon Tobin and Miranda Cullen. And that to me means there will be a legacy well beyond us.
How does Co-Founder Miranda Cullen complement you and your management style in running a business? How would you describe your relationship and partnership?
Personality-wise, we’re opposites. Miranda’s more quiet and soft-spoken, I’m more outspoken and loud. I want to empower people, and she’s more focused on getting things done quickly and effectively. So those opposites and that dynamic creates a culture of balance.
It’s incredible to partner with someone that has equal drive, passion, and talent and also have these opposing leadership qualities. It took us a long time to figure out our dance, and we definitely have our ups and downs. But ten years in, we’ve figured out how to get through them together and we’re so committed. Divorce is not in the conversation. We just know we’ll get through any challenges together because we’ve got to see what happens on the other side.
With all the craziness of owning your own business and employing a whole team of designers, how do you stay inspired and energized for your own design work?
So, I’m ultimately a creative and artist, and downtime for me is probably work for others. Going to art museums, reading design magazines, really engaging with clients, and being excited to take on so many different styles and flavors keeps me ever-evolving.
I also think what’s unique about Duet Design Group is that Miranda and I are still genuinely spearheading all of the projects that come through, even ten years in. We’re not coasting. We’re still designing hours upon hours with the team, and then doing the business development, human relations, and marketing on top of it. But if we don’t spend at least 60% of our time being creative, we start to feel like something’s wrong, and we’re not really good at anything else. So we just make a point to remember that the only reason we’re still doing this is because we have to create, and if that’s taken away, we will not be okay. Because we still design so many thousands upon thousands of hours a year, it keeps us at the top of our game.
“Because we still design so many thousands upon thousands of hours a year, it keeps us at the top of our game…”
Can you speak a little about the culture that you’ve aimed to establish within Duet Design Group and why that’s important to you?
At some point in my early 30s, I realized that I wanted us to create a company culture that I would have personally wanted to work in. I knew that there needed to be a sense of leadership, so that employees looked up to me, admired where I’d been, and had confidence that I could get them through what we needed to. But at the same time, I’ve never really wanted us to create a culture where an employee felt like there were glass ceilings. I always say the only glass ceiling is one that you yourself create. To me we’re going to be as great as those around us, and if the team wants to keep growing the business, Miranda and I are here to grow it with them.
We also try to encourage the team to be who they are. Show up, and it’ll be a fun experience. Then go home and enjoy whatever it is they do there, and don’t think twice about it. I don’t like saying work-life balance, because I don’t think that exists. I think it’s more about enjoying work, living life the way you want to, and feeling that you’re living in integrity with yourself. I think that will create work-life balance.
“We also try to encourage the team to be who they are. Show up, and it’ll be a fun experience.”
In your own words, what are some of the key traits that set Duet Design Group apart from other small businesses?
We really listen, and we have no agenda. Our job is to create environments for others, not for ourselves, and I don’t think that’s the way most creatives come at things. I think most come with what they know they’re good at and stick to it. But Miranda and I have developed a way to create designs that a client doesn’t quite know how to articulate or do on their own but are actually already in their head. We pull out what they want and make it a reality. I think it’s why what we’ve built with our business is not reproducible, because it’s our character and who we are as people. We don’t have agendas, and we care about being great creators of great spaces. So at the end of the day, our clients win, we win, our employees win, and everyone feels good.
2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have especially stressed the importance of personal connection – in life and in business. Why do you think personal connection is so important in an industry like interior design? How is it important to Duet Design Group’s business?
I feel like as awful as it is to say, we needed a pandemic. We needed a moment in time to really stop and realize that things are off. It’s ironic – I remember saying to my husband that we’re all devastated, because we miss our friends and family, but the only way we could all keep each other safe was to be away from each other. That struck a chord for me immensely, because I could see how interdependent we are as a human species. Just by talking to each other we can make one another sick. But we can’t get through this without personal connection, and there is nothing more relevant right now. We’re really realizing the profound effect we all have on one another.
I also think it’s more important now for our home environments to allow us to personally connect more and stop connecting via social media and phones. I can’t even tell you how many people are now asking us to design docking stations where kids need to leave their phones and iPads for the night. It’s become so much more important. The second they walk into their home, people want to connect in their spaces – in person, in real time, in their environments. They want to have memories around those fireplaces and those dining tables. There’s nothing more needed right now.
“They want to have memories around those fireplaces and those dining tables.” Project: JASMINE