For me, business has always been a spark; so much so, that I wore a suit in my kindergarten yearbook photo. I started my first official business at the age of 17, designing floral headbands before they were "the thing" at Coachella. Several boutiques in South Miami picked up the product, which lead to a number of private clients, including one that was close enough to the orbit of President Obama that his daughters, Sasha & Malia, wore one of my headbands for an event they attended. This little business was the start of helping to grow my nest egg (in addition to working full-time at a swimwear store, all while going to school full-time). Fast forward to two months before graduating college in spring of 2010, and I had saved enough of a runway to keep me afloat for 6 months without income in NYC. After interviewing for months and not being taken seriously with a Miami Zip Code, I came to the decision to take the leap of faith and just move without a job. So, I found random roommates on Craigslist, moved into a 9' x 8' sized room with a temporary wall in the Financial District (it was cheap back then!), and 9 days later secured a temp freelance job making $14 an hour as a visual merchandiser with Levi Strauss while also working part time at Bloomingdales selling Keurig coffee machines (you do what you have to do!). In the 4 years that followed my temp gig coming to an end, I embraced the "jungle gym," as Sheryl Sandberg coined it, jumping & swinging from a women's sleepwear company, to a manufacturing and distribution company for home products, to a tech startup (where I was fired after 2 weeks), and finally to a womenswear startup that folded after 9 months, leaving 125 employees laid off and the entire organization in the USA shuttered. While all provided invaluable experience, including the tech startup, this last job was the catalyst to reigniting my entrepreneurial fire. They selected five individuals to help bridge relationships to their European counterparts and liquidate assets in exchange for a commitment of 3 months salary, and I was one of them. I seized the opportunity and did as I was asked in just 1 month, leaving me with 2 months' pay to figure out what my next move was. I knew this was my chance to make things happen on my own, so I started brainstorming. I wasn't sure what I was going to do exactly, but I knew I had a retirement age for working for someone else and that being entrepreneurial was my calling.
I came up with two tracks that felt extremely desirable to me, 1) brand development and 2) interior design. During my honeymoon (which coincided with this period), my husband and I discussed these two avenues at length, and every time he asked me, "what do you really want to do?" I would answer, "I just want to make things beautiful." We came up with a list of resources for each path, and though the latter was definitely the harder path (having zero experience in interior design), that's the one I took because I had a deep appreciation for the craft having two grandfathers that were carpenters along with an intrinsic love for thoughtful design. I came back from this life-changing trip with a clear head, enriched with culture, and an understanding of what I needed to do to get this idea off the ground through careful planning and bootstrapping.
For starters, I learned all the programs designers were using on my own (thank you, YouTube!) and downloaded all of them. I would stay up for hours (sometimes 'til 3 a.m., only to wake up again at 6 or 7 a.m. and start over), learning and developing my skillset with the programs. Then I enlisted my network, treating them to lunch, dinner, and coffee in return for the opportunity to ask a million questions. These friends are architects, designers and real estate brokers. Once I had absorbed as much as I could digest in those few weeks, I took my next step and approached a family friend's mother who had 25 years in the industry, asking to apprentice for no pay to learn as much as I could hands-on in exchange for helping to elevate her own business with my newly developed digital design skills. The stars were beginning to align for me.. And I will say, even during my darkest moments, things felt syncopated. I started working for her a few days a week, which quickly turned into full-time and continued on for about 7 months. I was learning about construction and getting myself into the weeds of what renovation was, literally climbing into the walls and asking every question I could think of, while also learning about space planning, color, textiles, construction budgeting/ planning, the D.O.B. (Dept. of Buildings) regulations and timelines. Once these projects came to an end in 2014, I felt ready enough to take my next leap of faith, throwing myself into being an independent designer, and the rest is history. I now have a great team supporting me with projects across the country and a client waitlist into 2020. I'm eternally grateful.
What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?
Being "present" (which is still a hurdle). Everything has a time and a purpose, and you have to trust that timing. Life moves very quickly when you're building a business, and it's very hard to be present, to pause and to reflect on everything you've accomplished to-date. By consciously taking time to reflect each morning and as a team on a weekly basis, I'm doing a better job at appreciating our small wins as a business and reflecting on these highlight moments as they happen. It just takes pulling your head up, taking those blinders off, and appreciating that 1,000 foot view of perspective.
What books are you currently reading? And your recommendation for entrepreneurs to read?
I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I'm not a big book reader! That doesn't mean I'm not reading and learning every day, though. I love researching topics (from brand building, to technology, making tacos, to serial killers). I just love to learn, so I'll read about any topic in-depth that piques my interest. With that said, one of the books that inspired me early on was Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In," and I highly recommend it if you haven't yet.
Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits?
How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?
At the beginning, there were a few friends and family members that warned me that what I was pursuing was extremely difficult and that I should really rethink the decision, pointing out I had zero experience in interior design and that it's a highly competitive industry. I was also told by countless people to go to school for this, which I strongly considered, but in the end, I knew that hands-on learning and a passionate, relentless work ethic were the tickets to success and that no schooling can provide that. Still, for the most part, my inner circle believed in me, and I had the support you could only wish for. I wouldn't change anything.
What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?
Believing in myself. Even on the hardest days, when you're burnt out, exhausted, sick, unhealthy, depressed, anxious and just want to go back to collecting a paycheck, I always remind myself that blazing trails was never meant to be easy. I think about the settlers forging their way west across the U.S., coming face to face with earth in the most savage of ways, but they persevered by believing in themselves and a new beginning. That's tenacity, despite the truly unfortunate impact on Native Americans.
What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
Failing is life's greatest opportunity. You need to fail to learn. And when you fail, fail forward. Keep things in perspective, learn from your mistakes, continuing iterating and never give up.
What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?
It may seem obvious, but don't go into this without outlining a business plan (there are many templates to work off of) and review your network of connections, listing out who they are and how they can lift you. Those relationships can really help get you off the ground and also help you avoid making mistakes others' have already made. Use your spare time in the evenings to learn programs on your own instead of paying for classes (YouTube is an incredible tool!), don't be shy to introduce yourself to new contacts, and most importantly make sure you have enough of a runway financially to take a calculated risk without putting your wellbeing in jeopardy. Bootstrapping gives any early stage entrepreneur the best chance at survival, so continually analyze your burn rate and make sacrifices whenever possible. Always be kind (to yourself and others), be open minded and find advisors you admire who've been through it before. It's never too late to pursue a dream, so if there is something keeping you up at night because you're passionate about it, then chase that path with unrelenting drive & commitment. We only have one life to live; lead it with passion!
Photo Credit: Sean Litchfield