From the time she began filling little notebooks with drawings of floor plans in fourth grade and rearranging the furniture in her childhood bedroom, Traci Rauner has been passionate about design. She studied business in college for two years before attending a small design school in Iowa for a year. When the design program was cancelled after her first year, Rauner decided to launch her own freelance design business, confident that she had the skills and knowledge to be successful.
She helped clients select furniture for their homes and worked with a seamstress to create window treatments for them. It was also the era of decorative painting, so Rauner stenciled numerous clients’ walls and still gets calls from clients from 20 years ago.
Eventually, Rauner’s interest in kitchen design led her to work in several Madison kitchen design showrooms, beginning in 2001.
“The first was run by a cabinet maker, and I learned the business from him for a few years,” Rauner says. “Then, I went to a higher-end kitchen design showroom for another few years.”
Rauner began to envision what she could do for clients if she struck out on her own.
“I wanted to be able to offer more services to clients, in addition to selling cabinets,” she says.
To do exactly that, Rauner launched her own business, Traci Rauner Design, in 2008, from her home in Prairie du Sac. Rauner had enough strong clients that she weathered that year’s less-than-ideal economic conditions and has seen consistent growth year after year. As her business grew, she held offices in small buildings in Prairie du Sac and Sauk City, and in 2017 she landed in her current showroom: in an 1840 building in Prairie du Sac.
“It’s the oldest building in downtown Prairie du Sac, and I fixed it up,” she says. “I knew I wanted more of a boutique showroom, rather than a strip mall location. I purchased the building last year, so I’m here to stay.”
Rauner’s showroom includes kitchen displays and four cabinet lines that fit a variety of budgets. She offers space planning and interior design services, depending on her clients’ needs and requests. She works with established contractors from all different sizes of companies.
“I like having a pool of contractors to pick from,” she says. “Not every job needs a full crew.”
Rauner serves clients in the Madison metro area, Lake Wisconsin, and up toward the Wisconsin Dells, taking on new construction projects, which she describes as “drawing and designing any room with a cabinet” and remodeling projects, primarily kitchens.
“Kitchens are my favorite because I like the challenge of trying to make it as functional as possible with storage and also fit the style of the house,” she says. “I just finished a kitchen remodel in an early 1920s Craftsman house. We did quarter sawn oak cabinets and tried to make it look like it fit into the house.”
If clients want other services, like help choosing interior or exterior paint colors, or tile and flooring, Rauner provides that, as well.
“Every project is different,” she says.
In 2015, Rauner was searching for a business mentor, and someone recommended the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Wisconsin School of Business (SBDC) as a resource. Rauner was paired with SBDC director and consultant Michelle Somes-Booher. Somes-Booher walked Rauner through a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and talked with Rauner about her financials.
“My first question was about the books,” says Rauner. “Michelle suggested I use QuickBooks and get an accountant.”
When Rauner moved into her first showroom, with higher rent and the need to invest in displays, Somes-Booher provided sound advice. Two years ago, Somes-Booher guided Rauner through the process of hiring her first employee, walking through examples of other companies like Rauner’s and explaining what their overhead, employee expenses, and profit margins looked like.
“It was very nerve wracking,” says Rauner. “How do you write the job description and figure out compensation? It was nice to see her information about companies like mine: overhead, employee expenses, and profit margins. She always had an answer.”
Rauner says many of her meetings with Somes-Booher serve as a “gut check” to make sure she’s on the right path.
“I’m crazy busy right now, like everyone in the field, and I’m always thinking of new areas to expand into, and she helps keep me focused,” says Rauner. “Recently, when I met with her, she suggested I table some of my ideas for now and come back in six months, so I can take some things off my plate and not try to do everything at once.”
Rauner has taken SBDC classes in accounting and marketing and says Somes-Booher has helped her with marketing and differentiating her brand. Rauner counts on professional photographs of her finished products to bring in new clients and has a secret weapon: her daughter Carly, a freelance graphic designer and photographer.
“I call her my creative director,” says Rauner. “She does all my photography and puts everything on Instagram, Houzz, Facebook, and Pinterest. She’s updating my website now and creating investment guides for prospective clients that explain what I do.”
Rauner and her daughter are also producing welcome kits for clients that they receive after signing a contract with Rauner and goodbye kits that include warranties and ask for referrals and testimonials.
Rauner’s business is running so smoothly that she’s now able to focus on long-term planning, and she counts on Somes-Booher’s ability to read the business market on whether the amount of business she currently has will continue or slow down.
“Do I want to hire more employees and expand on what I have right now?” Rauner asks. “The next thing to work on is to improve my systems and processes to set the business up so that if someone wanted to buy it, it’s a standalone business, and not just me.”
And, of, course, Rauner continues to come up with new ideas.
“I would love to do a project in another state, like a vacation home, or to possibly add additional staff to give even more personalized service,” she says.
Accomplishments with UW-Madison SBDC:
- SWOT analysis
- Financial projections
- Hiring advice