Laurel & Wolf
Social Media Handles:
West Hollywood, CA
Short Business Description:
Beautiful interiors are what we do. Laurel & Wolf is the affordable, accessible and fun way to design your space.
Leura Fine, the Founder & CEO of Laurel & Wolf, has accomplished what very few women have – she has raised $25.5 million in venture capital money, launched a tech company with an interior design background, and created dozens of jobs, all in the span of two years. It may be difficult to comprehend how one person could accomplish so much in so little time, but when you meet her it all makes sense; Leura is confident, energetic and just gets shit done. This badass female founder was kind enough to invite us into her beautifully-designed office, located a stone’s throw from Melrose place, to tell us about how she is thriving in a man’s world, paving the way for women, and doing it on her own terms (cue the Badass Ladies Club).
Before launching Laurel & Wolf, what did you do?
Leura Fine: I was an interior designer. Laurel & Wolf was very much born out of my own experiences working in the interior design world, both at the high-end of the market at a design firm, and then also owning my own interior design practice.
What made you transition to tech?
Leura Fine: I saw that there was an enormous problem for most people; most people can’t afford traditional interior design services. I thought, “How do we make this something that they can afford, and how do we give designers the opportunity to earn a living doing what they love? – not having to worry about building a business, or the paperwork, or the admin, or finding clients, but really just doing the fun part, which is the design. I’d seen how other industries were being transformed by technology, or moved into the future by offering new ways of doing business and streamlining things – creating efficiencies. I thought, if the travel industry and the transportation services industry and so many other industries have leveraged technology to build new types of businesses, then why not interior design?
Did you have any formal business training before launching?
Leura Fine: No, I have never taken a business class. I had not taken a math class since about eleventh grade in high school – so yeah, definitely no formal business training.
What was your biggest fear before launching a business?
Leura Fine: Everything but nothing. I think that our first product was a very basic version of what we wanted to build. So we knew it wasn’t going to be amazing, but you wonder if it’s going to be enough. That’s definitely something I thought a lot about, and also how fast would we grow.
Your Glass Ceiling Turning Point
Was there any specific moment that led you to launch a business?
Leura Fine: The moment I had the idea for Laurel & Wolf, I was in my car coming back from a very long client meeting in Malibu. I had been sitting in traffic, and I had taken a physical style board that I had created the old-fashion way, and presented designs to clients, where I had used a hot glue gun, samples, and images on foam core. We’d had a multi-hour meeting late at night, and nothing had been decided on. No decisions had been made; they wanted to sleep on it, they weren’t sure et cetera, et cetera. I was driving home in traffic and I was like, gosh, I am now going to have to bill them for six hours of my time, at a $150 an hour, and they’re not going to be happy about it because nothing happened. I’m not happy about it because it was a waste of my time even though it’s money in the bank. That was time that I could’ve spent sourcing other products for another project or finding a new client or just having dinner with a friend. There were billion other things that I could have been doing in that moment. I thought it’s just not the best use of their money. It wasn’t the best use of my time, and there’s got to be a better way of doing this.
How did you get the courage to make the jump into entrepreneurship?
Leura Fine: I’ve always had super-supportive friends and family. My dad built his own company and my grandpa was an entrepreneur as well. So when I called up and was talking to my parents about it, they were all for it. They were like, “If you work hard, apply yourself and learn and find the right people to help you do this, I’m sure you can do anything you want to do.” My friends were also super-supportive of it. The moment I really decided to build Laurel & Wolf, I had gone on a long walk on the beach with one of my best girlfriends, who happened to be kind of adjacent to the tech world. She didn’t know a whole lot about tech, but she knew a little bit, which was a lot more than I knew. I told her about the idea and she said, “Leura, if not now, when? You are a very talented interior designer and I’m sure you can build a great design practice, but guess what, you can also design until you are 112. Tech moves fast, other people are going to have this idea because it’s a great idea, why not you?” And so, that moment is what really convinced me to go in and build.
Did you have a mentor? If so, how did you meet that person?
Leura Fine: I don’t have one specific mentor. I’ve had the great opportunity to spend a lot of time with different people that I admire. At every stage of the business, I have looked to spend time and connect with people who were a couple of phases in front of me. When I was in the first year of the business, and we’d done a seed round, I was looking at founders who were 50 employees and up. Now I’m spending time with companies who are in late growth stages, or who are public. I’m looking to them to hear stories about what went wrong, and less about things you need to do, because I think every business and every company is very different. The things that went wrong that really surprised them, or what were some of the harder things that they had to deal with – those stories have been incredible to hear. I’ve gotten opportunities to meet some great women along the way who I admire, for example, Mariam from Minted – it’s a great company who we work with a lot, and this is her second company. She had a very successful first company, and she’s a mom who runs marathons in Africa for charity in her spare time. She is a superwoman.
The Business of Your Business
How did you finance your business?
Leura Fine: I started with trying to be as scrappy as possible because I was putting my own money into the company; doing as much for as little as possible. Instead of making the decision to build an entire working product with a dev-shop, I paid $5,000 to build a couple marketing pages to validate the concept, and did everything by email while we were servicing paying customers. I paid for salary for our first employee, and made decisions like that because I wanted to feel that we knew what the business was going to be, and had a basic game plan in place. Once we had some of those matrixes in place and decided, this is a business, this is something that people want and here’s how we plan on making money, then we went out and raised venture capital. We started with the seed round, which most companies do and it was a combination of angel investors and smaller funds. That first round is always very challenging.
Is there anything that you didn’t know before you started that process that you wish you had?
Leura Fine: The best advice that I got was from a friend who warned, “People will continue to let you chase yourself around in circles.” Unfortunately a lot of the first round comes from validation from others; being able to convince one angel investor to invest because this other angel investor invested, or one fund to come in because this other fund came in, and it ends up being a chicken and egg and if you don’t set guidelines and boundaries then you can’t control the process. And I think that going in and saying, “This is the deadline, you’re in or you’re out,” as scary as that may be, was the only way that we ended up getting our round done. I was only a few weeks in and it was already making me crazy, and I didn’t know if I was ever going to get this all together because we did a convertible note, and there’s no technical close date on a convertible note, but all the investors want to know what’s the close date.
So, things like that. Sometimes you wonder, “am I being filmed? is this candid camera? None of these things make sense because you know that there is no close date, but you’re asking me for a close date. You want to know who else is committed. They want to know who was committed,” and it’s like herding cats. You really have to control your process, as scary as that is, and about halfway through the process I got this advice from a friend, I decided to follow his words of wisdom and it worked.
How did you find and vet designers and employees?
Leura Fine: Vetting the designers was easy because I was a designer; I knew what we were looking for, and going through their portfolios I knew what to look for in terms of their education, the number of years that they had worked, etc. What was really challenging was hiring our first developer. I even have poor Googling skills, how am I going to hire a developer? And once again, I definitely relied on my network; I relied on friends. I had a close friend of mine who happened to have been the CTO of a company that our first hire came from – the first person we hired for the business, who is now our lead developer. It was really funny because I remember watching very anxiously as they met at the Starbucks in Barnes & Noble on Third Street Promenade. He grilled him for two-and-a-half hours, and I was pacing back and forth waiting to know the outcome. He said, “Leura, if you weren’t such a good friend, I would totally steal this guy from you because I think he has a lot of talent, a lot of potential.” So, I hired him.
We say the three things that bind all Laurel & Wolf employees are that they are people who care about people, they’re creative thinkers and problem solvers, and there’re people who are innately optimistic. It’s a combination of going on gut, trying to find the right people who will fit, dive in head first, roll up their sleeves and just kind of work to get stuff done, and who believe in the mission, and also relying on other friends to help vet for more specific tactical expertise.
How did you get customers?
Leura Fine: Through word of mouth, friends, Facebook, and partners. We worked a lot with partnering with other companies in the early days. I was pitching partnerships before the website was even live. We were building and I knew it was going to take a while. Really, any way that we could think to promote the business for free; a lot of that was through network, word of mouth.
Have you experienced any growing pains?
Leura Fine: Something that we’ve been having a lot of conversations about is scaling internal process and scaling people. All of those things can break a business just as easily as not having enough customers. As you try to push growth, if you don’t have the right systems in place internally, it can be debilitating.
I think that you don’t want to slow yourself down too much with having a lot of process, or things that take too long, but it’s funny because we recently hired our Chief Marketplace Officer, who was a COO of a publicly-traded company. He has a phenomenal background, and he said all CEOs think that if they say something once that people will get it, and they just can do it. But most people need to be told four or five times what you actually need to do in order to hear it. It’s so true – some very basic things like documenting a meeting or sending out notes afterwards have been so helpful, even in the few short weeks that he’s been here. So, you’re like, “We are a startup, and we don’t want heavy processes, we want to move fast,” but sometimes putting those things in place is just incredibly important, especially when you’re scaling so fast.
Where do you find inspiration?
Leura Fine: I find inspiration in a lot of places. I definitely find inspiration in fellow entrepreneurs – I love spending time with other people and hearing their stories and their journeys. I find a lot of inspiration just in creative things: I love going to see art. I love theater. My fiancé always teases me because I hate having a meal. I refuse to go and just like sit and eat. The only way I want to eat is if we go to a cool food truck festival and have a fun picnic, or I want to check out a new coffee shop that just opened up, or check out the lobby of a hotel. I’m always looking at new spaces and wanting to see the design. I find a lot of inspiration there, from a visual perspective. And travel – travel is the number one place to find inspiration. I think it allows you to turn your brain off, experience other cultures, and see the way other people see the world. I think that’s really important, even if it’s just going to Texas for a weekend and seeing how do people live in Texas. What is their normal day-to-day life? Or if you’re in Morocco or Hong Kong, I think that seeing the world through other people’s eyes is really important.
Are you part of any professional networks?
Leura Fine: I’ve started my own professional network. It’s called The Badass Ladies. I started it as a joke because when I started the business, I was going to all these networking events for tech, and being invited to CEO dinners, and it’s all dudes and in not necessarily great venues with not great food. I like to eat in beautiful places – I came up in the design world. So, I was used to spending time with a much more diverse group of people and talking about things. The conversation was very different. I also thought men have been relying on getting together, eating and drinking and shooting the shit for hundreds of years to then do business together, why can’t women get together and do the same thing? It started off as just a cocktail party with a bunch of other female founders and then we expanded the network; it’s female CEOs, females in venture capital, leaders in technology and product as well as female leaders in media. We’ve done dinners, cocktails, art nights, all sort of different events in LA, New York and San Francisco. We’re trying to decide whether we want to make it a formal thing, like a club. We’re probably doing one every six weeks.
The thing that’s nice about the Badass Ladies is that, for whatever reason, women love to get together and we love structure. We want it to be educational. We want it to be informative. We want there to be mentoring. We want there to be something being done. And the feedback we’ve gotten from the women who attended the Badass Ladies’ dinners is that it’s really nice to just get together and eat and drink and shoot the shit and have conversations about life and about business – it’s a way of just connecting. The only thing that we do from an agenda perspective is everyone has to go around and say their name, what they do and why they’re a badass lady – the answers are amazing.
What do you do to stay sane?
Leura Fine: I love to ride horses, so when I have time I go riding. I love to cook when I have time. This weekend I cooked dinner for ten people over at the house on Sunday. I love having dinner parties. I love to travel. My fiancé and I spend a lot of time outdoors when we travel, so we scuba, we hike, we swim, we ride. Definitely physical things in the outdoors keep me sane. I’m not a hardcore adventurer, but I hate to sit still. When I’m going on a beach vacation, I do not lay on the beach. I’m walking on the beach, kayaking, scuba diving, swimming – you know active things.
How do you balance work and personal life?
Leura Fine: Poorly. Luckily my fiancé works in the same industry as I do. We get to go to a lot of dinners and business functions together, and he is very patient. That helps a lot, and he is very much supportive and understands where I am in terms of the stage with the company and my career in general. But every now and then lays down the law and is “Okay, this weekend we were going away and you can only check your e-mail once a day.”
It’s helped a lot because, honestly, I would just keep going and then burn out. You have to keep in mind, and I think every founder struggles with this, that it is a marathon, not a sprint. But you’re basically running the marathon, especially in the tech world, like it’s a sprint. But it’s so, so, so important to find time to decompress and to find the headspace to think about the business and get away from it a little bit. I think every time I do take a little bit of time off, it’s been really great to come back with – the team is always terrified because I come back with 200 pages of notes on everything. But I think it definitely gives me better perspective.
What is the best thing about running your own business? The most difficult?
Leura Fine: I would say that the best part about it is that I have the opportunity to build a team of incredible people that I get to choose to work with, and that is something that’s supercool. We’re bringing together these incredibly diverse people who all have different talents and ideas and we’re all working on building this really great thing together and that’s amazing. Our team is like a family and that to me is so important. The hardest thing though is, and they say it gets easier with time, I hate firing people. When you do bring someone on board and it doesn’t work out, that is the worst part of my job.
What are you most proud of?
Leura Fine: Outside of just the company, I’m proud of how we’ve grown. I’m proud of how I push myself, personally. I think there are a lot of things from the business side that I’m very proud of – my team and what they have accomplished. But personally, I think there are so many things that I now spend time on, on a day-to-day, whether it’s tech with the engineering team or the product team or the finance team or whatever, I have had to learn so much so fast and I really have to understand how it all works together. I am proud of how I’ve been able to push myself to learn that fast, and to evolve, and also know that when I’m falling down I know where to look for support.
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out in business?
Leura Fine: Follow your gut. It’s important to get advice from others – I think that there’s lots of great advice, and there is also lots of bad advice. It’s important to do the research, to look at the data, and to look at all of the things that can be black and white. In my experience so far, every time I’ve ignored that gut instinct, whether it was about hiring someone or about something we wanted to launch, it’s failed; it was the wrong hire, it was the wrong thing to launch, it was the wrong thing to do. I think you have to trust your instincts.