WithIt – professional women in the home and furnishings industries
During the winter Las Vegas Market, the home furnishing industry’s women’s leadership development network WithIt and World Market Center Las Vegas (WMCLV) partnered to provide an educational event and mentoring session designed to benefit interior designers, independent retailers, and students pursuing careers in design.
The seminar “Influential Women in the Home & Design Industry” featured four entrepreneurs who have successfully navigated such challenges as a midstream career change, branding themselves, and engaging in social media marketing.
WithIt’s regional vice president Kassie Smith, of Kassie Smith Lifestyle Group, moderated the discussion between the panelists: Lori Dennis, Kelli Ellis, Kiersten Hathcock, and Julia Rosien. Each of these well-respected women reinvented themselves by starting up a career in design, and they shared their experiences with the audience.
Kelli Ellis – whose design skills have been featured on TLC’s Clean Sweep, HGTV’s Takeover My Makeover, and on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County – revealed that it was while she was in law school that her best friend encouraged her to audition for HGTV. “Law wasn’t my passion,” she confessed. “My advice to someone is to follow what feels good and whatever makes you feel that passion. That’s what makes you grow,” she stated. “You really have to market yourself and establish yourself as an expert in your field.” Ellis mentioned that Web sites such as HARO (Help a Reporter Out), which are often looking for experts to quote in a variety of different fields, is a good way to start. “Whatever it says on your business card, just forget it. You must go beyond what it says on there and think outside of your comfort zone. I say, ‘If it’s scary, do it!’”
Lori Dennis started out as a stockbroker. “I soon found that all of the money that I was making I was putting toward remodeling projects,” she said. “I was enjoying getting involved with these projects so much that I went back to school, at UCLA, to become an interior designer.” Dennis revealed that she was so into the design field that when she was single, she’d make her dates take her to Open Houses on the weekend. “Take your strengths and add them up so that 2 + 2 = 5,” she quipped.
Becoming an interior designer was more of a case of happenstance for Kiersten Hathcock, founder of Mod Mom Furniture. A stay-at-home mom who was previously a marketing executive for a TV network, Hathcock parlayed her love of woodworking into a cottage industry building toy bins that she sold to friends. “I reinvented myself because we needed money when my husband was unemployed,” she explained. Hathcock thought back to when she’d watch her dad, who made furniture as a hobby, in the family garage. “Furniture design became more intuitive to me than anything,” she recounted. “After I started studying it, I saw that there was an untapped niche for Modern-style kid’s furniture – all I needed to do was learn how to use a table saw!” She taught herself carpentry, called her dad for some woodworking tips, and soon her Modern-style toy boxes began selling. In order to grow her business (as a one-person company she needed to hire some workers to help make more boxes), Hathcock appeared on the ABC TV show Shark Tank, where she was seeking a $90,000 investment in return for a 25-percent stake in her business. Two of the investors on the show made Hathcock an offer, however, before the lengthy process was finalized she managed to put together her own deal with a different investment group last fall.
In the past, Julia Rosien was a writer for The New York Times and The Chicago Sun. “Then the Internet came along and it became harder to make a living,” she said. “I started writing for an Internet-based company and there I learned that you had to keep looking at the horizon to see what’s next. There was no money in the budget to run ads to capture an audience, so I started using social media to reach customers.” Now Rosien runs her own company specializing in social medial strategies. “To succeed, it’s important to imagine what your company will look like one year from now as well as five years from now,” she said.
All of these entrepreneurs recommending branding yourself. Ellis mentioned that she created her own brand by offering The Kelli Kit™, a do-it-yourself tool for consumers to help them with space planning, furniture arranging, and color selection. Ellis said she understands that the notion of branding oneself might seem completely unfamiliar. “It’s hard to step outside yourself to see how others see you,” she stated. “Get some feedback from people you trust. Once you get an idea of what your brand is, it’s easier to market it.”
Dennis agreed. “My message is having less and doing more with it,” she asserted. “When you consider that there are 150,000 interior designers in America, that’s a lot of people out there fighting fort the same business that you are. Find your niche,” she advised. “When you find something you love, you can make it honest and true. I started branding myself as a green interior designer five years ago.” Once you have established that area of expertise, it’s time to market your skill in that category. She also recommended having professional photos of your design work done to put on your Web site. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” she affirmed. “Do not take the photos yourself. If you’re on a tight budget, consider hiring an advanced photography student.”
Hathcock mentioned that she gave a lot of thought as to what her brand would be, what the customer demographic was, as well as what the product would look like. “I knew from the start that it was important that my products be made in America,” she remarked.
According to Rosien, being a small independent company can be a plus. “You have the ability to be agile with social media in a way that big companies can’t. There are no glass ceilings in social media,” she said. Marketing on the Internet can help small companies become bigger. “You need to own a niche on the Internet,” Rosien added. “You have to look at social media as your home. I consider Twitter to be my living room.” It’s a place where you can talk casually and comfortable to others.
“Social media was huge for my company,” Hathcock noted. “Starting out, I had no money. I knew I could build a Web site relatively cheaply, so I did that. I wasn’t a big company; I was a mom building furniture in her garage. I started a blog that people could relate to and the business grew from there,” she said.
What is most important to your success, according to Dennis, is stepping outside of your comfort zone. “It’s about putting yourself out there,” she advised. “Offer to speak on career day at the local high school or donate your services at a charity auction in your community. When you give of yourself, it comes back in spades.”