Hilah Stahl: “Be careful with advice”

Make sure you enjoy your co-founder not just professionally but also personally. They will be one of the few people in the entire world who can understand what you’re going through, and you will lean on them in many ways. John was a close friend before we started Spoak together, and I thank my lucky […]

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Make sure you enjoy your co-founder not just professionally but also personally. They will be one of the few people in the entire world who can understand what you’re going through, and you will lean on them in many ways. John was a close friend before we started Spoak together, and I thank my lucky stars that we can push through both an extremely challenging problem and a bottle of wine with equal enjoyment and mutual respect.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hilah Stahl, Founder and CEO of Spoak Decor. Prior to founding Spoak, Stahl’s career was in product management where she specialized in innovative and personalized e-commerce experiences. She was the Manager of Product Management at Bonobos, and before that worked at Gilt Groupe and Interlude (now Eko). As a side hobby, in 2014 she co-founded an app development shop called Buster Labs, where she was Chief Inventor. Now, she has combined her love of craftsmanship and self-expression to found Spoak, which is on a mission to make everyone’s house more “them”.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Sure thing! I was raised in Minnesota by Israeli parents who always encouraged me to express myself. I took that to heart and was an extremely expressive little girl who loved to dress in ridiculous outfits. I was already accessorizing with candy bracelets when I was 2 years old! I can’t pretend I dressed well, but I loved the aspect of putting things together stylistically from a young age.

On a more tactical level, I gravitated towards math in school, and always wondered how I was going to be able to build a career that married my love of numbers and data with my more creative, artistic penchant.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

The “ah ha!” moment was when a close friend of mine, after moving in with her significant other and trying to coherently combine their respective furniture and decor in one place, asked me to help her find the last few pieces for her gallery wall. She specifically mentioned she wanted me to do for her what I had done in my place, which was source items from Etsy or my travels and pull it all together. After helping her, a few more of my friends asked — all with the same request — and it hit me that this could be a business.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

My career background was in product management, so I was well versed in the philosophy of just getting something out into the universe to ‘test’ your idea and see if it has any legs, and worrying about how you’re going to build it out or scale it up afterwards.

For this idea in particular, once my friends starting asking me to help them, my first question was whether there was a large enough market for this, so I made a survey in Google Forms and blasted it out as far and wide as I could to get a sense of the market.

Once that was proven, I started emailing people who had filled in the survey offering my services. I would create shopping lists and 3D mockups for them in Keynote presentations. All the while, I was noting the parts of the process that I thought could be automated and improved. When the Keynote presentations were met with high praise, I kept going.

The key for me was reminding myself every day that it’s about taking tiny baby steps that you can learn something from. As many as you can, as often as you can, day by day. If you look too hard at the mountain ahead of you, you’ll never be able to start. This is true for us even now.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Imagine your perfect job, and then work backwards until you can find the tiniest step you can take to make it a reality. After each step, take another one.

But be sure to check in with yourself each step of the way and ask yourself if it’s still what you thought and wanted it to be. There’s no shame in tweaking that perfect job or pastime after you’ve started. I think that’s where the true enlightenment lies!

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Make time to go back to the parts of it you loved the most. When I have a hard couple of weeks, I try to spend a day looking for new artisans, helping with a client project, or styling a photo-shoot — anything that brings me back to the part of the job I originally fell in love with. I sometimes formally block the time off in my calendar as an ‘inspiration half-day’. It’s ultimately better for the company if I take the time to fall back in love with it.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I love the creative aspects of it, both in terms of the long-term strategy and the day-to-day work of continually coming up with ways to surprise and delight our customers and decorators — be it through new features, new content, or new artisans. I have always loved coming up with simple solutions to complex problems, and my co-founder, John, and I get a real kick out of coming into work and getting to do that every day.

There’s no shortage of challenging days, though. In particular, I’ve struggled with separating myself emotionally from the business. Every time there’s an unhappy customer or an unhappy decorator, it tears me up a bit inside. That, and the constant feeling of not knowing what you’re doing but knowing you have to power through anyway. There’s certainly a lot of empowerment in that feeling, but there’s also a lot of exhaustion and imposter syndrome.

John and I work hard to be the eternal cheerleader for each other when one of us is having one of those days. We also turn back to the facts — the data and the numbers — to remind us of our progress and our mission.

And ultimately, you also just let yourself have those days. You work through them, and you don’t beat yourself up for getting down. Then you figure out how to take care of yourself so you can wake up and feel better tomorrow!

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

To be honest, I’m not sure I had any expectations for what the job was going to be. I knew it would be challenging — there’s no shortage of reminders that starting a business is hard — but I didn’t know the ways it would challenge me. Like how deeply intertwined your self-worth can get with your business, how overwhelming some of the more administrative parts can be, or how challenging it can be to find mentorship and coaching, and how isolating it can feel to be an entrepreneur.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

Oh, for sure! Some days I genuinely wish I could clock-in to a job, be told what to do, and then shut off at the end of the day. John and I joke that we’re in ‘survival mode’ on those days. On a more emotional level, I think the key to overcoming it is having someone to go through it with.

On a more tactical level, I also try to get better at recognizing those days and then reorganizing my tasks so I’m working on something that energizes me to remind me what I do this for.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I only knew HTML and CSS, and I tried to build our website from scratch before I convinced John to get on board. I spent weeks on it, and it was idiotic. There are so many incredible services out there to build a website on, but I was so hellbent on doing it myself, and I just completely lost sight of what’s important. I have always been really averse to admitting that I need help (to a fault). It was an important lesson because it reminded me of two things: 1) the importance of asking for help, and 2) that there’s truly no glory in doing something completely on your own. It’s just not what life is about.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

I draw a lot of inspiration from Sara Blakely, especially as a fellow boot-strapping company. I love her sense of humor and the lighthearted approach she has towards enormous challenges. She has a really healthy relationship with the idea of failure and humiliation that I admire.

I also love Audrey Gelman (the founder/CEO of The Wing) for how she has creatively turned a co-working space into a mission-driven multi-pronged empire, without sacrificing their core values of their community.

And lastly, the book “Reinventing Organizations” has changed my life and how I think about the kind of company I want to build culturally.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We try! In addition to the feel-good notion of helping people love their homes, we also believe we are making the world a better place by championing small businesses and global artisans.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

In no particular order:

  1. You will very rarely have all the information to make a decision. You will have to go with your gut more often than you’d like. For me, pitching was wild in this way. Especially in the early rounds, investors want you to answer questions you have no way of knowing the answer to, but you still must be confident in how you answer it.
  2. Similarly, you make legal decisions in the early days that have long-lasting implications. I felt completely ill-equipped to make decisions on this topic — I was naive and overwhelmed — but you still have to. The roller coaster of entrepreneurship isn’t on a day-to-day basis. It’s minute-to-minute. Brace yourself for that, and learn how to quickly cheer yourself up in an emergency. You can get a $2,000 order and a rave review from a customer and then have a cancellation request within a 5-minute window. This is true in general, but also especially as the sole customer service team member. Answering those emails while also being the CEO and founder is a real humdinger. I’ve gathered a wealth of tricks to lift my mood in a matter of minutes if necessary.
  3. Make sure you enjoy your co-founder not just professionally but also personally. They will be one of the few people in the entire world who can understand what you’re going through, and you will lean on them in many ways. John was a close friend before we started Spoak together, and I thank my lucky stars that we can push through both an extremely challenging problem and a bottle of wine with equal enjoyment and mutual respect.
  4. Be careful with advice. When you’re starting a business, you’re fundamentally trying to do something no one else has done before. Advice, of course, is based on what someone else has done before. This is a paradox you will need to become comfortable managing. Not taking someone’s advice is not only acceptable but also encouraged. I have had so many people — including family members and close friends — scoff at the way I decided to do things or strongly encourage me to take a course of action I disagreed with. The people closest to me are the most painful ones to disregard, but that makes it all the more necessary.
  5. Growing a business is less about moving away towards what is not working and more about moving towards what is working. There were so many times I wondered how long we should test something or when I could be certain something wasn’t working until I was given this advice (see #4) and had a light bulb moment. It’s true of life as well — you shouldn’t focus on what’s not working, but rather what is, and try to do more of it.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Spoak was built on the idea that little things can make a huge impact. If I could impart one movement on the rest of the world, it would be embracing that credo: small choices made every day to make the world a better place. It’s the text to a friend on a big day for them, the smile to a stranger, the 10-minute workout just to get some movement in, the abandonment of single-use plastic products, whatever it is. Tiny things — like a baby step! — have ripple effects that can change the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

I have always had a strong imagination. It has defined both my childhood and my adult life. My friends joke at how much I love Disney movies — and they aren’t wrong — but it extends beyond that. Everything is about perspective: the difference between challenge and opportunity or excitement and fear is just how you perceive it. I believe if you’re not in awe of the world around you — the people, the places, the challenges, the love — then you have missed the point.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Sara Blakely. I mentioned a few reasons above, but I would love to pick her brain on both tactical and emotional strategies for building a business that brings good into the world on a massive scale all while not taking itself too seriously.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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