Melissa Steach – Design & BDM of CORT Interiors

[quote style=”boxed”]Art cannot exist in your head, only ideas, and ideas are of no use if not enacted. You have to be willing to make ugly if you’re ever going to make good.[/quote]

Melissa is a Designer, Author and I-O Psychologist. As an overall “Business Creative”, she combines her formal education with life experience for a fresh approach to the use of creativity in workplace environments and leadership models. Her unique perspective led her to successfully develop a new interior design service for CORT Furniture, a Berkshire-Hathaway company, creating a new stream of revenue resulting in a half million new sales in less than one year. She is proud of her new role as Interior Designer and Board Advisor for DTLA One, a non-profit which converts shipping containers into homes for individuals transitioning from living on the streets to participating in society as self-reliant citizens. Some of her accomplishments include Amazon best-selling author, recipient of the Emison Art Fellowship and appearances on HGTV and Bravo. Melissa is currently pursuing her PhD.

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently working with DTLA One, a non-profit which transforms used shipping containers into single-person homes for homeless and low-income individuals living in downtown Los Angeles. My role is officially Board Advisor Member in Design and I-O Psychology. Unofficially, I’m bringing on more talent, overseeing our website, and otherwise “gettin’ in where I fit in” in order to help the founders and other members realize this awesome and audacious dream to create communities that will help a population who is most often ignored, become vibrant, viable, and contributing members of society. I also currently spearhead CORT Interiors, the interior design division I developed for CORT Furniture.

Where did the idea for CORT Interiors come from?

The idea for CORT Interiors came out of observation. I was hired by the company to “develop something new.” I never imagined that something would be interior design, but once I’d accepted the job and therefore the challenge, I realized that the business of rental furniture was sorely lacking in taste. We had a competitor who although a fraction of our size, constantly beat us out on larger bids which involved design. It just so happened that I had design expertise, small business experience, and a competitive spirit. A new service was born when I saw this was a niche that had opportunity and a wanting public to service.

How do you make money?

I make money with CORT through business development, sales, design, and even delivery. The point I’m making here is that even though I technically work for a large company, I am an intrapreneur. The service does not grow unless I deliver the numbers and which sometimes requires me to literally deliver the furniture. Sometimes, to get the support I need for the “division” to grow, I have to do the work of many. I can go from wearing a suit to changing into jeans and sneakers in the car in order to work on an installation. Whatever it takes to satisfy the client and get the job done, is what I’ll do, the growth keeps coming because of it.

I identified the need, initiated the business plan, created a training and development strategy, identified vertical markets and set about changing our existing customers’ perceptions of us from what we once did, to what we can now do. It took doing a few strategic, high-profile “freebies” to begin winning bids. Then w charged, but still bid low in order to win the jobs and once we delivered enough to be considered reliable, we slowly raised our rates to meet our competitors’. We now charge more than our competitors as we’ve proven we deliver above and beyond. We’ve gained business, rather than lost.

What does your typical day look like?

As mentioned early, I can go from a client meeting in which I’m giving a power point presentation to a room of execs to another client meeting where I lose the suite jacket and go over wood samples. I may then have to take it down yet another notch in order to deliver an item of furniture and hang a piece of art at another client location.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I bring ideas to life by doing. The most valuable thing I gained from years of art school training is the ability, and the nerve, to do. Art cannot exist in your head, only ideas, and ideas are of no use if not enacted. You have to be willing to make ugly if you’re ever going to make good.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The return to appreciating craft really excites me. There is nothing that can duplicate the “human touch”. No matter the sophistication of giclee or 3D printing, there is an indelible slickness that smacks of fabrication. Marrying “craft” with technology so that ideas and the items they create can be shared the world over is a phenomenal gift. There is so much talent in the world. There are so many people who want to support it. It’s inspiring to see how talented people are, how special people are, how similar we all are.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The worst job I ever had was as a receptionist. I made a shockingly good salary as it was for a hedge-fund and the time off and benefits were great. But sitting on my behind, answering the phone, and pushing buttons to alert Mr. So and so that his next appointment had arrived was mind numbing. I kept thinking that if my butt hurts from just sitting here, what must be happening to my brain?

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

If I were to start again, I would be a lot less concerned about what others think. If an idea isn’t working out, move on. There will always be more ideas. Oftentimes, it’s the “failure” of the initial idea that leads you to the winning idea you could’ve never imagined otherwise.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

As an entrepreneur, I consider it my duty to study. I am always reading, and I mean everything. The world is getting smaller every day and nothing exists in a vacuum. A good idea in one medium may be a good idea in another. Inspiration is everywhere and iteration is a key to growth. I stay curious.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

My most illuminating failure as an entrepreneur was to sink tens of thousands of my own money into a good idea, but a half-baked plan. Okay, I’ll be honest, a no plan. I learned that no amount of passion and hard work makes up for poor business skills. I overcame it by taking a course in business and finding a partner who may not be able to see the difference between blue and purple, but can sure as hell balance the books.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I reside in downtown Los Angeles and have often times found myself thinking someone should open a business called “Just Desserts”. This business would deliver only dessert, in cute little cars, until 3 a.m.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

If I could change one thing in the world, I would focus on big business and how they treat their most expensive investment: employees. I would educated these companies on the simple act of appreciative employment by showing them the bottom-line effects (as it’s in the pocket where you’ll find a company’s heart) of treating your people well in regard to fair pay, work life balance, and continuing education. I feel that most large organizations treat their employees like wet rags; they squeeze and squeeze until they get every single drop out, then toss aside once dry.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

Something about me that very few people know is that I flunked my pre-requisite statistics class twice before I finally passed, barely with an 80%, which allowed me to be accepted into the PhD program I’m currently in.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

My three favorite online tools and/or resources are not very exciting, but here you have it:
– LinkedIn: you get all the information you need and contacts you actually want, without the feeling that you too should brag, borrow or maybe even lie about how “exciting” your life is…
– PepperPlate (do Apps count?): I’m an okay cook, but a helluva an eater.
– I love the English language. Their blog is especially fun for anyone nerd enough to care.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Although I’m an avid reader, I’ve just listened to this one lately on Audible and it’s actually a collection of interviews which I highly recommend over reading the transcripts… Anyway, the Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth“. I imagine this is not your typical recommendation, but I believe it may have been sensed earlier that I’m a big believer in culling ideas and information from all over. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell speaks of the Hero’s journey, the meaning of life, the role of God and so on and if you listen to the content of these sessions, rather than the form, you will find some rather profound business advice about what captures the imagination, motivates into action and ultimately instills a sense of loyalty, in people. Listened with an ear towards sales and customer satisfaction, an entrepreneur could gain valuable marketing and branding insight as well as become a better person, or at least a more responsible business person, in the process…. Fingers crossed.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

– @ShondaRhimes: She is creative, groundbreaking, and uses her business to extend her point of view.
– @cnnbrk: To stay informed.
– @theonion: Ridiculous humor is always good, and a good laugh always welcome.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

I just wrapped up a new installation in which we completely overhauled an entertainment venue that had been decorated by a very well-known decorator 20 years ago. In the space, this decorator painted a life-sized mural of a centaur, which I suspect resembled him very much. I laugh every time I think about the size of the huevos, not to mention the ego; it took to do this – and to do it so blatantly. It was audacious and hilarious and so bad it was brilliant. There are times when that sort of bold deserves an ovation. Man that cracked me up.

Who is your hero?

Can I say women? Women are just bad-ass and inspire me every day.

Do you think your business should be your passion?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of passion in business lately and am not really thrilled with the conclusion I’ve come to. Basically, I no longer believe passion, at least in the way we generally think of it, is necessary in order to have a successful business. For instance, your passion may be something you’re not very good at. Or, your passion, once burdened with the expectation of paying the bills, may be suppressed. How many times have you heard a writer say, “I used to love to write until I became a writer?” Whatever happened to hobbies? I think that sometimes, your passion makes a wonderful hobby. Something you do just for you, simply because you enjoy it. However, there may be a great idea related to your passion that makes a business. Something that is indirect, that supports your passion, and that you don’t mind pressuring with the responsibility of making money.

Do you think you’re living your purpose?

Yes and no. I believe that the more confident I become as a person, the more present I become. So yes, I feel I’m living my purpose… in the moment. But do I feel this is it? That I’m going full-throttle, no-holds-barred into my business and life and that I’ve come to the place where I feel in my heart I’ve the potential to be… No. But, I do know that each day brings iteration, another opportunity, and ever greater self-confidence for me to do just that. And then that will pass and so I’ll be right back to no, but yes again someday soon.


Melissa Steach on LinkedIn:
Melissa Steach on Twitter: @melissasteach