Think back 10 years. If it were a Tuesday night and you were in the soft window treatments business and had an AOL account, there was a buzz in the air. More accurately, there was a glow from your computer screen. After work, across the country (9 East Coast, 6 West Coast), members of the DraperyPro forum were logging into a chat room for a live, and often lively, discussion.
“We were so religious about attending those!” remembers Dian Garbarini, the founder and coordinator of the DraperyPro forum. As technology has changed and many opportunities have opened, the once-at-week chat room has evolved into a daily e-mail digest and the DraperyPro Web site (www.draperypro.com). Still, the idea and reasons behind the forum are as strong and present as ever: to provide a network of professionals sharing ideas, solutions and their commitment to the industry they love so.
Her work in pioneering and running this valuable soft treatments network might be enough to place Garbarini at the top of a list of dedicated professionals. But there is more. Garbarini also has been a speaker and instructor at window coverings educational conferences and Window Coverings University, and she remains willing to give her time and effort to helping others in the industry. And let’s not forget her “real” job: Designs by Dian, a shop-at-home fine window and soft furnishings business in Mission Viejo, CA.
“I love this business and have never felt burnout,” she says. “While I continue to learn every day, I enjoy knowing that by sharing my knowledge and talent with others, that I have contributed to others’ lives.”
All that makes Dian Garbarini, Draperies & Window Coverings’ 2008 Retailer of the Year.
Many things have changed about Designs by Dian over the past 21 years—that is, except for the essentials: Garbarini works out of her home and she always—always—works with clients in their homes.
“For a while I was just being a workroom and not involved with the people,” says Garbarini. “I did not like that, at all. I like being with the client who would see the end result and do backflips with me. That’s where I really got my thrills. I saw the happiness in people’s faces and I realized that was very important to me, so I don’t do the work unless I’m interacting with the client.”
Garbarini doesn’t work solely retail. She has designer clients, too—some of which go back to when she first started. But even when working for designers she needs to be with the client. “I’m not just working behind the scene, I’m actively involved and that’s what I feel is most important to get a successful job for everyone involved,” says Garbarini. “Unless I’m involved with the client directly I find there are so many miscommunications. I just have to ask all those questions. I have to be very meticulous about the way I approach the job. I don’t just assume that whatever [the designer] specified is what is really needed on the job.”
What has changed for Garbarini is her approach to business and making it a success. “The difference between my business today and what it used to be is I used to do a lot of small jobs—no job was too small, so I’d do a pillow or two or three for a client or I’d do a valence for a client—and now I’m doing larger jobs and charging more. Now I’m a lot more savvy about how to sell, and that’s a good thing for the client because I can help them better.”
Garbarini credits this change to taking the Professional Window Coverings sales class in 1995 after first meeting Steve Bursten a few years earlier. “He always had visions for me that I wasn’t ready for. It wasn’t until ’95 that I was ready to listen to him,” says Garbarini.
“I knew that I needed to make more money and I had reached a plateau—not that I wasn’t doing well—but I had reached a plateau that I just couldn’t get past.
“What an eye-opener. I was amazed,” she says. “I thought I did a pretty good job of selling before, but there was never a real formula that I was following. That’s when I really got a good education about business planning and setting goals and tracking my business, whereas before it was just whatever . . . it was after the fact, at the end of the year how did I do, instead of being proactive in guiding my business and being very mindful of average sale and how I was doing overall.
“Now I’m operating my business more efficiently and it’s a process that’s better for the customer and for me. It was a turning point for me,” Garbarini says.
“I’ve always had the repeat and referral business. I’ve never, ever had to pound the pavement or make cold calls or just drum up business. It always fell in my lap. But I didn’t want to assume that it would continue to fall into my lap. [It’s like] you have a garden and, yes, there are seeds in there, but you have to make sure that those seeds get watered. I did not have time, or did not make the time, to keep those things going. Once I realized the importance of that and I nurtured it and got back to my client base, it has really been wonderful.
“I’ve got some wonderful clients that I just love and because I love them they refer people that I like and so on and so on. I’ve created the process to get referrals.”
The Web We Weave
Six-year-old Dian probably had no idea that someday she’d work with a celebrity designer or on the interior of a yacht for the owner living in Tahiti. Yet, that’s how this story goes.
Sitting with her grandmother, Dian learned her first stitches. “It was a lavender chintz and yellow thread, and I sewed a yellow triangle with that yellow thread,” she clearly recalls. From there it was making doll clothes, then her own clothes throughout junior high and high school.
After working her way through college as a waitress, Garbarini graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of California, Irvine. She really didn’t know what she wanted to do in life. Her mother suggested interior design, and the next threat in Dian’s career began.
While taking interior design classes, she met a woman who did model homes for builders and needed help on proposals. Dian volunteered. Soon she was working for the woman part-time. “It was a real exciting time. I got thrown into this. She would take off to New York and I’d be left there having to make all the decisions—deciding on wallpapers and fabrics and furniture. That was really a sink-or-swim experience.”
In the late 1980s, as home building slowed, Garbarini took a job at Calico Corners. “That’s when I realized this was what I wanted to focus on—the soft treatments,” she says. She took the big leap in 1987, “not really knowing what direction I wanted to take my own business,” she chose Designs by Dian because it was an all-encompassing name.
Her first clients were referrals from the model homes she worked on a few years earlier. Her client list continued to grow. “At Calico Corners, they did not except jobs using customer’s own fabric, so that was how I got a lot of my initial clients. Others that worked there would refer them to me, and it was completely legitimate and the manager was fine with that. That’s how I started my base,” she says.
Once she made the decision to focus on soft treatments, Garbarini also placed her business card in the card file at the design center. “That’s where I gained some designers, and I got my most favorite clients from that. I’m still working to this day with those clients that I met from those early days. They’ve moved several times or they have second homes and kids . . . If I had a chart that showed the web of how all the connections were made that would be interesting. I’d love to see that,” she says.
At a more recent window coverings event Garbarini got the opportunity to meet designer Michael Payne. Her original intentions, she admits, were just to meet him at a book signing. As they talked, he asked her who he should go to for some professional advice.
“I was thinking in my mind, What the heck do you mean? You are a designer!” says Garbarini.
In turns out Payne was doing a major remodeling on his home and needed some blackout treatments for large, arch-top windows in his bedroom. “I said, I can’t really advise you on what to do unless I see the space,” she recounts.
“I took him seriously that he really wanted to have me help him so I pursued that. I got in touch with him and we made arrangements to meet and the rest is history.”
After working on Payne’s bedroom, he called back to see if she could help him with the rest of his home. They have been working together for two-and-a-half years and, now that his home is done, he is bringing her into projects he is doing with his own clients. Right now they are working on an 84-foot yacht for that client who lives in Tahiti.
This string of connections might seem to be simply a matter of good luck. Dian doesn’t see it that way. “I’ve never been one for setting specific goals, but I certainly take advantage of opportunities when they fall within my reach. I don’t think it’s luck, I think I unconsciously put myself into situations that good things happen.”
A Network of Pros
Soon after Dian Garbarini began her own business she also began to extend her network. She attended industry educational and trade events where she met people like Cheryl Strickland, Lavelle Pinder and Boots Parker. She began to realize that helpful information was out there if you would look for it and could find someone willing to share it.
“It was the days before the Internet and you just had to seek out things on your own. You just had to kind of wing it as far as pricing, figuring things out . . . nobody was really there to teach what we do.”
In 1994, she read an announcement from Rory McNeil, TechStyles, for Window-Pro, an Internet chat group hosted on America Online (AOL). “That was really exciting to participate in something that was worthwhile over the Internet,” Dian says.
“I participated in Window-Pro very actively for a year and realized that there were people on the forum that did draperies. It was a weird venue to be discussing soft treatments on the hard treatment site. So with Rory’s blessing, he thought starting another forum would be a good idea. That’s when DraperyPro came about. I think Margie Nance was the one that actually came up with the name DraperyPro.”
DraperyPro went online in 1996. One of its most important features early on was a weekly live chat room for AOL members. It became quite an event for DraperyPros that lasted six years before evolving into an e-mail digest and Web site.
“We’ve been active for 11 years and I learned so much from that,” says Garbarini. “I learned what other people were charging and realized that I wasn’t charging nearly enough. It really gave me courage to raise my prices and also in knowing that I can sell anything, and not even have a clue of how to get it accomplished but knowing that I can turn to the people that I had met within the industry,” Garbarini says.
Today, DraperyPro has 300 members around the world. For a nominal annual fee, members can contact and network with others in the soft treatments business across the United States and in Canada, Europe, Japan and Pakistan.
“I’ve met some wonderful people,” Dian says, “and made some friends that I’d hate to think that I would never have met had I not been involved in the Internet.”
DraperyPro Goes Online
Dian Garbarini relives the forum’s startup on
Web Only: A Network of Pros