Social Media Handles:
Los Angeles, CA
Short Business Description:
Kalon Studios is a California based design studio. We’re known for work that is simple yet beautiful. Easy, timeless pieces. And for our sustainability.
We were lucky enough to be invited into Michaele Simmering’s beautiful Highland Park home and office to witness a typical day in her life as a wife, mother and business owner. She runs her company, Kalon Studios, from home with her husband Johannes, and has achieved what so many women want: she built a business around a life she desires and her family’s needs. Her emphasis on balance, fulfillment and sustainability were even more inspiring than the beautiful pieces meticulously curated around her home. As a former writer, perpetual student, and now a business owner, she has had the opportunity to live in cities around the world. Her outlook on life and business are so incredibly grounded, we can’t help but hope that her philosophies will at least partially rub off on us (and you). So enjoy a peak into her beautiful home, filled with Kalon Studio originals, and the words of wisdom she imparts on us.
How did you start your career in design?
I came to design in a nonlinear way. My background and true love is writing. But when I became pregnant with my first daughter my needs completely changed. I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to support my family through my writing. I was lucky to have connected with some established writers who took me under their wing and were helping me build my name but through them I also saw the financial reality of that world. Writing, like any art, is something you do for the love of it not for the paycheck. People sometimes refer to designers as artists but they’re not. Design is a fundamentally commercial profession. Our pieces are designed for mass production. Function is part of it. It’s completely different than art. But it’s creative, and I need that outlet.
I’d been working in freelance in design for several years before I got pregnant. Mostly on the periphery. Johann and I were looking for a way to both work from home so we could share the experience and load of being parents. More broadly we were both interested in finding a way to financially support our lives that allowed us to live life the way we wanted. We also were looking for something that offered the flexibility to travel between the states and Germany. Johann is German and we have a whole life there. We’d already been doing some design projects together. And so my official career in design happened very naturally. It’s allowed us to naturally integrate our home and work life which is important to me.
What did you do before you had your own furniture company?
I moved around a lot. I lived in France and Germany for several years working freelance in the arts and as a writer. Travel forces me to detach from routines and to realize that most of what seems important really isn’t. I like to live outside of my own country and culture for the same reason. To not be bound by social custom is incredibly liberating for me. I also stayed in school forever. Years after I officially graduated I kept finding myself back in university. I think there were four I went to in France and Germany. I can’t think of anything better than sitting in a room being taught by people who are experts in their field. My retirement plan is to audit university classes. I’ll be the old lady in the corner weirding out the students. While I was in Germany I received a Fulbright and was in the arts grant circuit for a while then I moved to LA to go to grad school which is when we started Kalon. Working freelance required an incredible amount of discipline and time management. Ultimately, you’re the only one who cares about what you’re doing so there’s very little at stake except for what you decide is important for yourself and your work. It takes a lot of courage. I think all those years prepared me for running my own business.
Did you have any formal business training before opening? If not, how did you know which early steps to take?
None. My father was an entrepreneur so I’d grown up seeing the naked reality of it. The constant risk taking and creativity it requires. Beyond that though, none. My last math class was in 10th grade so I was really coming at the whole thing with very little in my tool belt. The learning curve was steep and fast.
What was your biggest fear before starting Kalon Studios?
I don’t operate from a place of fears and regrets. I have big picture ideas and they guide me but beyond that I am very present focused. When we started Kalon the plan was to give ourselves a year. If it didn’t work out we’d walk away with a solid learning experience. I think we were very level headed about it.
Your Glass Ceiling Turning Point
Was there a specific moment or experience that made you certain you wanted to have your own business?
From a very early age it was clear to me that I was interested in living my life my own way. I rarely shared the immediate concerns of my peers and felt very self aware about how clear I was about my path. I was lucky to be raised by parents that really fostered that. My parents gave me an incredible work ethic but they also gave me permission to focus on life experience. They were the ones encouraging me to move to Europe when everyone else was moving to NY to get serious about their careers. The idea that life was something that would have to wait until after work, in the day or in retirement, was completely antithetical to me. So many people I know are buried by their work and completely drained. I don’t want that for myself. For me there is a constant ebb and flow and the continual challenge of finding balance. It’s about moderation. I want to finish each day feeling completely satisfied that I’ve actually lived my life and experienced the world around me seen the sky, laughed with my kids, loved my family. There was a time when I was surprised by where life had taken me but when I look at it now I see myself as a consummate entrepreneur. I was really never going to end up doing anything that wasn’t doing it my way.
Where did you find the courage to do so?
Risk taking is part of running your own business. I’ve always been willing to try something out and see what sticks. It doesn’t mean I’m never scared but I tend to seek out those moments of unknown. I think I really thrive in them. Then there were all those years of moving around, learning new languages, endlessly trying to get new projects off the ground, learning to let things fail without losing the desire to keep trying.
Did Kalon start off as a side project, or did you start this company as a full-time commitment?
It started as a one year commitment. I was still in school and I was a new parent, but other than that, it was an all in commitment.
Is there anyone who influenced your journey or is a mentor? If so, how did you meet that person?
I’ve been lucky to have a few inspiring mentors but I would say the person who has influenced my journey the most is Johann, my husband and partner. We’re able to do what we do because we share a life goal and vision. The stakes and rewards are the same for both of us. I think that makes for a solid partnership.
The Business of Your Business
How did you finance your business?
We bootstrapped our company. Everything the company made went back into it and so it paid for its own growth. We have never taken any funding. Johann and I are incredibly careful about growth and money. From the outset, we ran a lean company. It’s allowed us to survive some catastrophic set backs.
What were the first 5 steps you took to launch?
We signed up for and participated in a trade show. This set a real timeline for us. We opened a bank account and registered the business, built a website and put together some printed matter to pass around at the show. We contacted some press. And then we threw ourselves out there.
What outside contractors have you hired to help build your business?
We outsource production. It’s always been our weakest link because we can’t control someone else’s business. That is to say that the things we do in house run better. When there are problems we can stop everything to address them. We’re generally into working smarter not harder. So we can employ new solutions. Other companies have their own approach. We can’t force them to do it our way. Though we try.
What obstacles have you face that you were most surprised by?
Production has been our greatest hurdle. It’s unending. Logic says it should be a simple transactions. The producers make the pieces and we pay for them. But it’s rarely worked this way. American furniture manufacturing is in a dismal place and the work ethic and quality isn’t what you would think it would be. It takes continuous hands-on effort to get the pieces where we want them to be.
Where do you see Kalon Studios in 5 years?
There were years when Kalon was a year-to-year experiment. When I felt myself holding the door open to doing something different. Maybe it’s just getting older and a mindset shift but the company has been sustaining us for 10 years and its clear now that this is what I do. I’m not going to wake up in a few years and find myself working in some different field. So until now Kalon has very much been a present experience. It’s a slow-growth, bootstrapped lifestyle business. So some of that is just par for the course. Its been pretty amazing to grow and develop a hard-goods family business during a decade when the world is fixated on explosive growth, VC funded tech companies. The difference couldn’t be more stark. In 5 years, I think Kalon will be a larger version of itself. More products, more larger scale projects. Our kids are older now and we have more time to dedicate to the company. And with that has come a strong desire to really push the company and see what we can do with it.
What is it like working with your husband Johannes? What went into the decision-making process of opening Kalon with him?
It’s definitely unique. I don’t know many couples like us. But Johann and I built the world we live in because we wanted to spend every minute together. It sounds crazy, I know. But it was a very deliberate and conscious decision. Opening Kalon together was a natural outgrowth of that. Like I said earlier, we had a clear vision for the life we wanted together and were looking for a way to sustain that. Kalon was born from that place.
As a woman in business, are there any specific and unique challenges that you face?
Manufacturing is a male dominated world. There is little space given to women. Actually, I’ve found that to be true for most of the working world. But it seems like there’s an explosion of women owned creative businesses in LA right now and that’s incredibly empowering. Most of them are married and have kids and have partners who are fully on board. My mother was part of the early wave of professional women who put off marriage and family. She put herself through college in a time when her father said it was a waste of his money to educate her. So she was a pioneer and definitely shared my ideals but even she is bewildered by the shift that’s happened domestically. That a man would opt to be the primary caregiver, which I see in dozens of the families I know, blows her mind.
How do you draw boundaries, or not draw boundaries, between work and personal life?
I really don’t. My partner is my husband. We work from home. We are parents together. The pieces we design are the pieces we live with. There is no beginning and no end.
Where do you find inspiration?
From everywhere. My life is constantly fueling me. This is why travel is important, because it breaks the bubble and forces in new, unexpected influences.
Do you have any tips or tricks for balancing being a business owner with having a family?
I think that answer is informed by what your priorities are. For me, mine was my family life. I end each day asking myself what I want to do better the next day, where I want to put my focus. Every time, it’s on my kids. Knowing that, I make my decisions based on what’s going to give me the opportunity to do that. When I was a kid the adults around me were constantly telling me to hold off on work responsibilities and to prioritize life experiences. That advice still informs my decisions.
What caused you to be so focused on sustainability in your business?
I have a deep respect for the earth and all of the life in it. I don’t believe that humans have an innate right to dominate or own it. We are part of it. Our lives should be lived in balance with nature and with one another. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. We live in a world fueled by mad desires to dominate. Humankind has pushed nature and society beyond the brink. Nature and economics are completely out of balance. We must proceed with caution and care and with a profound respect for the environment and the humans with whom we share this planet. Like most parents, I want my children and their children to have the opportunity to live in this world and to experience all its beauty. I don’t want them to have fewer opportunities because of the choices made in my lifetime. I don’t see sustainability as a choice. It’s an obligation.
What are you most proud of?
That I’ve been able to build something that reflects my values. Through and through. And that same thing has sustained my life for 10 years.
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out in business?
Give your self permission to make mistakes and to live your life. When things go wrong everything lands on your shoulders it can be insanely overwhelming. Don’t let it bury you. Chase the dream but be willing to let go of threads. Do it the way that works for you first, the way that meets your needs, if it doesn’t work then make concessions.