As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Noa Santos.
After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in architecture and business, Noa Santos started his career working at one of New York’s top interior design firms. In 2012, the Hawaii native launched Homepolish, a high-end design platform as a solution to make interior design more accessible to a wider audience and help accelerate designers’ careers. Today, the company represents the country’s top emerging residential and commercial interior design talent — creating one-of-a-kind spaces for over 10,000 home and offices nationwide.
Jason Crowley: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Noa Santos: I’ve always wanted to do something related to homes — design and real estate have always been passions of mine. So after studying Business and Architecture at Stanford, interior design felt like a natural career to explore.
Crowley: Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
Santos: The first New York firm I joined was dominated by a pretty traditional partner. After getting my footing, I wanted to try to modernize things a bit — build us a functioning website for example — in the hopes of growing our reach and appealing to a new audience of younger, affluent clientele. I didn’t think this strategy to be particularly polarizing or revolutionary but idea after idea was received with a flat out “no”. It’s tough to feel you’ve found your passion and to be so eager to contribute only for those efforts to be continually diminished. The true danger is self-doubt when you begin to question the value of your ideas altogether.
Crowley: What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
Santos: Luckily, during that time, I began to develop relationships outside of the office — a family of friends (and a partner) with whom I felt comfortable sharing ideas. I continually found their encouragement to be the fuel I needed to keep exploring an alternative world of interior design, different than the one I was experiencing from nine to five.
Crowley: Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
Santos: In hindsight, there wasn’t a precipitous event when the clouds parted and suddenly I became the Joan of Arc of my life. I think, like most great battles, it was and continues to be a game of inches. Every day new roadblocks appear and every day I have to knock them down. Success, for me, is getting up every day and looking forward to the struggle that comes with life and certainly with business. If you can look at a challenge as a way to grow to the next level, then roadblocks look more like opportunities and luck looks more like perseverance. You string them all together and call it a success.
Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Embrace your smallness. I find peace in embracing how small I am. This is a tough one to swallow because we’re all taught that we’re the center of the universe. But if that’s the case, the sheer weight of our self-importance and the gravity of every decision we make can be paralyzing. By embracing my smallness, I’m able to take greater risks and fail without feeling that the sky is falling.
- Craft a strategy that behaves like water. Your actions need to be strong and powerful but they also need to adapt to a world that is almost entirely out of your control. The way I make decisions is to probe, sense, and then react. First, take small actions, test. Then listen. Then react to the best of your ability. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum.
- Find and frequent an escape. Burning out is almost guaranteed if you don’t find some respite from the chaos of building a company. It might be a hobby or it might be a person but your mind and body need a vacation so you can run this marathon.
Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Santos: I’m lucky enough to have married the person who has been my greatest champion and fiercest asset. We met eight years ago at a tiki bar in West Chelsea but, given that we’re both born and raised in Hawaii, the encounter felt more like a fateful meeting of old friends than luck. Ross has a perspective that is, in many ways, the polar opposite of my own. The levity and fun that I’ve had to painstakingly weave into my daily routine, comes naturally to him. He manages to combine his softer traits with a professional acumen that has, in no small way, propelled my ambitions to the next level. No surprise I locked it down with a ring!
Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Santos: Professional tools are the next frontier for Homepolish. We’ve managed to build a singular brand and service and now we’re making the experience of designing, renovating or building your home (or any other space for that matter) as streamlined and efficient as possible. We’ve always believed the right team to be critical in any project’s success but we want to make sure that team is doing the important work, not the busywork. We’ve launched Collection — a tool that makes sourcing, managing and purchasing furniture and decor a lot easier — to great fanfare but there is so much more to build. I’m looking forward to a future in which the creatives, artists, and craftsman at the heart of this experience are able to spend the majority of their time focusing on what they do best because of the efficiencies we’ve built for them.
Crowley: You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂
Santos: Design is meant to solve a problem. When we design a home for ourselves, we are rising to the challenge of creating a place where we can be our best selves. But design doesn’t stop at home — there are so many critical challenges we face today, perhaps more now than ever before. And we have more intelligent, capable people than ever before. If I were to hope for something, it’s for those intelligent people to design more, to solve more hard problems — at home, in schools and universities, in our forests and seas. I believe the future of our world and our people will depend on good design.
Crowley: Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
Santos: Success is connecting as many dots into a compelling narrative as possible. (For most) It’s not a single event like winning the lottery and it’s more about a mindset than a final arrival. So make yourself available to as many dots as possible and you’ll probably find yourself getting pretty lucky.
Crowley: How can our readers follow you on social media?
Santos: My Instagram (a lot of room photos) @noasantos and @homepolish