In Conversation with Kathy Kuo of Kathy Kuo Home
Describe your business in a few words?
Kathy Kuo Home elevates the home furnishing experience through our curation of timeless furniture, lighting, and decor offerings in tandem with expert interior design services. We provide everything from design inspiration to flawless execution in one vertically integrated platform.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
I remember back in 2007, when I was working for a luxury importer designing and developing furniture, I pitched the concept of an e-commerce home site to my team. Online retail had recently begun and I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to reach customers who weren’t able to interact with us otherwise. Ultimately, the team passed, and shortly after I was laid off due to the recession.
At the time, there were very few websites that featured an assortment of well-made home products. Being in this space, I knew of so many great product vendors and designers, but it was so difficult for the average consumer to find them and sort through individual sites to locate what they were looking for. There was a need for a single online platform that provided an assortment of high quality home decor and furnishings for a range of styles.
I continued to work in the corporate home space, growing in my career, while focusing all of my personal time on the e commerce concept and building the brand I believed in.
I hired a developer who built the site, literally from the ground up, and we started selling! About five years later, when the online boutique started to grow larger than I could manage with another job, I took the jump and went all-in !
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I moved around a lot as a child; I was able to decorate my bedroom and create a new space each time. I would always integrate new meaningful objects from my travels. This really instilled both an appreciation for good design and love for unique high quality products.
That love led me to the Rhode Island School of Design where I studied Industrial Design. After graduating, I got my professional start making appearances on television for home renovation shows which opened the door for working opportunities in the design industry.
I designed and developed furniture and textiles for a luxury importer, created a signature decor line for Assouline Books and then led Bed, Bath & Beyond’s tabletop division.
The experiences, insights and understanding of product design, quality, manufacturing and global distribution became the building blocks of Kathy Kuo Home.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I knew I wanted to be a part of something greater than myself; I trusted my passion and drive to create something special, but wasn’t sure exactly where it would take me at the time. I have a very strong intuition that has guided me throughout my career.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
In the beginning as we started operating the e-commerce concept, we noticed that those who were coming to us for items were already in the design cycle but didn’t know exactly what they needed or how their products would work in their space.
We soon realized if you could talk to a designer that would support and guide you through the process, you could have a seamless shopping experience, and typically ended up purchasing more than originally planned. With that understanding, we provided a very intensive and curated professional interior design and product training to our customer service experts, to give them the tools they need to be true design experts for our customers.
It was something that was lacking among other outlets, and we saw it as our opportunity to set us apart.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
That’s a hard question! I think as we’ve continued to evolve and up-level, we are forced to face new challenges at each stage of our business.
One of our largest and most recent challenges was earlier this year, similarly to most retailers, was when COVID hit. While you can prepare yourself, your team and your brand for so many expected obstacles with growth, there will always be the possibility of the unforeseen – like a global pandemic – being thrown your way. When something unexpected happens that shakes up the world, customer mindsets and shopping behaviors, you must be willing to shift with it.
This experience has been another reminder how important it is to surround yourself with great people. I am very fortunate to have a team composed of smart and creative individuals who believe in this company and are willing to put in the extra work to make our brand vision come to fruition – even through obstacles like this one.
As you grow your business, if nothing else, hire people that you trust, that believe in your brand.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
One of my favorite questions to ask during an interview is, “what is your superpower?” I think everyone has secret strengths that are so unique and special to them, an added value to our team, and it’s important as a leader to see and support that.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
When the pandemic hit, we quickly aligned our business around the new customer mindset that came with COVID.
During this time, we have become even more high-touch with our personalized design and product services. We almost tripled our team of KKH trained design professionals and we invested in the things that don’t scale; building trust.
We are very fortunate to be in the interiors industry – one that has seen some growth as a result of the stay-at-home order – but like every other retail brand during this time, we’ve had to do some quick re-strategizing to cater to this new way of life. We were pushed to accelerate our business goals and ideals more than ever before.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
As we continue to expand, one of our top priorities will be growing our proprietary business. Though we are very fortunate to work with incredible vendors and have a leading assortment in the home space, there are a few additional challenges that we must face as drop-ship retailers, that we could avoid by offering our own pieces as well.
Ultimately, by designing and selling our own pieces, we’ll be able to create pieces around what our shopper is most interested in and isn’t currently offered in the market. This will also allow us to establish a more seamless shopping experience for our customer as well as a streamlined ordering and shipping process on the back-end.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
Relationships are key. Hire a strong team that you trust, work with talented and inspirational vendors, and constantly communicate with your customers. It is all about who you surround yourself with.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
Similarly to the above, learn which items to delegate and which to keep close to yourself. There’s a lot to do when building a brand, so try to out-source and delegate when you can on the routine and unimportant tasks.
That being said, never delegate hiring. Try to interview every single person on your team until you no longer have the time to, but it is the single most important thing you can do is to personally find good people to support your mission.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I do a lot of check-ins, both with myself and my team. How are you feeling? Do you need a break? What will help? We are experiencing some crazy times, and it is very important to give support and feel supported now more than ever.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
Yes! I take the time to work out everyday, even if it is only for 15-20 minutes. I think it’s important to take some time daily for yourself, to clear your mind, and in turn that allows you to better trust your gut.
I am also a single-mother of 2, and although I’d love to spend every waking moment with my children, I think it’s very important and impactful for them, in particular my daughter, to see me going to work every day, being passionate about what I do, and building and leading a brand I love.
You don’t have to choose between having a great family life and a great career, it’s important to find balance with both – and I hope that’s something that continues to be more evident as my daughter’s generation grows up.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
One of my personal passions is mentorship for other women looking to create a difference in this world. I speak at events, schools, and seek out opportunities to support and nurture other female entrepreneurs motivated to make an impact. I think it’s important to use whatever platform you have to help lift up others, and I’ll continue to have that in the forefront of my brand as we evolve!
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day
- Good Sleep – The most important thing you can do for yourself is get a good night of sleep each night. I try to give myself at least seven hours of sleep if I can!
- Well Designed Workspace – As we say, good design can change your life. A well designed office or work space can increase productivity, heighten creativity, foster communication, etc. Use your set up to your advantage!
- Stick to a Routine – Now more than ever, it’s important to set a routine and stick to it. Now that we are always in our homes, it’s easy to become complacent or blend your schedule. Try to differentiate work and personal time, if you can, and give yourself a break! Continue to wake up and go for a walk, schedule the work out classes, have virtual happy hours – a sense of normalcy and stability is so important for our mental health, and our productivity!
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
Being an Entreprenista is very important to me, and something I am most proud of. It’s been a journey building Kathy Kuo Home and I’m incredibly grateful to those who have helped me along the way.
With that, I believe it is our duty to help other women and founders on their journeys as well – now more than ever. Surround yourself with other inspired women, who believe in your cause, and never hesitate to ask and lean on the advice of other female founders. Women should help one another.