Train. Hard. Toughness comes not only from being street smart. Mental toughness comes from becoming confident in your craft and that takes hours of practice. Practice your craft relentlessly.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Andria Cowan. Andrea is an interior decorator and designer from the region of Haliburton, Ontario who specializes in Aging in Place Design so that we can continue to enjoy our home even as we age so we can live in it comfortably and safely for many years to come.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path of being an interior decorator and designer?
This is my second career. My first career, which I had for 22 years, was as a front line police officer in the City of Toronto. I took an early retirement option away from being a sergeant. I had managed a platoon of forty or fifty people and there was a lot of violence and crime around me. I reinvented myself at 40 which included going to school at George Brown College to earn my credentials. I got my Aging in Place Certification in Upstate New York and became active in professional environments that would support my new passion project. Personal development was the key in bringing me down this path of success.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First, can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I came from an established and respected place in my first career placement. I made great money. I had to accept that in reinventing myself, there would be so much change outside of my control. I had come from a place of getting paid twice weekly and making over $160,000 a year to taking a job that paid $16.00 an hour. Still, nothing was beneath me. The opportunity to learn was rife and I knew I had to pay my dues in the trenches. I resorted to taking a design job, any job that would allow me to prove my worth in the industry. One of my very first gigs was working as a countertop girl. I could not have an ego about what I thought my worth was. I had to take that job because I needed to learn the ropes. I worked diligently and paid my dues in the trenches. I learned about what transferrable skills I could use from having been a police officer and where I could apply them. It took a while for me to understand which of my skills were transferrable because the move from policing to interior decorating isn’t a natural one. Nonetheless, things like managing people, understanding risk, understanding what it is to be professional, following rules, policy and procedure as well as having integrity are all values that still apply.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
It dawned on me one day that while it is is one thing to be a professional designer it is a completely another thing to run your own business. It was a massive mental shift coming from a place where I got paid every other week to sit up at night worrying constantly about cash flow. I had to regroup by understanding and responding to my competition. I continued to invest in training, constantly putting my best foot forward and those ideals were synonymous with some of the values I learned from working with the Toronto Police Service. I pushed forward by continuing to look for ways to be better and through my professional relationship to the Designers and Decorators Association of Canada, I met other entrepreneurs. It was fascinating to meet the National Chair of the Association. It was inspiring to acknowledge that 95% of the membership were entrepreneurs and that 98% of them are women! And many have been so good about sharing their journey. I was able to and still have the opportunity to meet empowered, like-minded individuals. This was a value add to me. Having a mentor was also incredibly so helpful to me. You have to pay that forward. You have to make investments so that you can gain access to professional associations and you also have to give back to the ones coming behind you. I will never forget becoming a volunteer at my local Chamber of Commerce and being asked what major component of entrepreneurship keeps entrepreneurs up at night. What is it they asked, that occupies business owners, nagging them at night to the point where they have lost sleep? Duh! Cashflow!!!” came the prevailing cry. From this, I internalized that I am not alone. It occurred to me that other people have the same worries as I do. One moment you can have $150,000 in the bank account and the next day you might be worried about making payroll. It was a mindset and the professional involvement that served as a lifeline to me when I felt most down.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
I know that Grit impacted my credibility. As a new business, and because this business depends very heavily on partnerships, I needed to establish myself in this sector so that people could trust me and have confidence in my ability to serve in this sector. If people don’t believe in me then they are not going to believe in my business. So, I volunteered a lot in the beginning. I volunteered in the local Homebuilders Association, participated in my local Chamber of Commerce. I am the local chair of the Professional Association of Decorators. I hustled hard to identify a niche market and I was able to create a market for myself. I was asked by the National Kitchen and Bath Association to participate in a panel as a subject matter expert about the Aging in Place Design from the ABA. For people to ask me to serve in this capacity was a pretty large honor. The Toronto Star captured some of the work we have done specifically to Aging in Place Design. Achieving this type of recognition was a testament to my grit and determination to succeed. I got myself into these types of organizations, I met with professionals relentlessly, I marketed myself there and focalized my product, putting myself out there. I niched myself, I was aggressive about niching myself, B2B and B2C — I looked for opportunities to become the subject matter expert. I don’t get paid to work 9 to 5 and much of my closed business happens outside of conventional working hours. To that end, grit entails making an investment in your business and in yourself. If you want to excel and become successful, you cannot attach an hourly salary to every step. You cannot put a dollar value on every activity. You cannot expect to build an enterprise without putting in more hours than what is typically required. This is the central hallmark of grit.
So, how are things going today?
To put things in perspective, in 2016, we did $260,000 in business with a team of two and in 2018 broke the $1,000,000 mark with a team of four. For the NKBA to invite me to become a subject matter expert in Lakeside design and in serving residents to modify their homes so they can live in them comfortably and safely for many years to come through Aging In Place design is precisely what I envisioned insofar as my objective to succeed. We are in a great place. Also, I’m no longer working for the man… I am a man or a woman. And that is a fantastic feeling. I have been feeling so grateful that there is so much going on in my life that I am in bliss. This for me is like having a baby for the first time.
What do you think makes some companies stand out more than others? Can you share a story?
My message is for the millennial entrepreneurs among us. This perceived difference between generations is a bit of a hoax. I think the millennial generation gets a pretty bad rap. When I was in my early 20s, even though I worked for the government, I took every single opportunity to create extra money for myself. If you want to succeed and be an owner in your business, you are going to have to accept that you are going to have to go the extra mile. The idea that you are presenting forward as an age of entitlement, can be lain to rest if you rise to the occasion in becoming a thought leader in your business. If you grind you will soar and you can create your own category in business. Your education, your pedigree does not ensure it. You can be so competitive and you can own your truth. Think about how to make yourself different. Lastly, look at your stigma and then defy it.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the industry of entrepreneurship to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
There is too much focus on my view on and work/life balance. Understand that there is a distinct difference between being an employee and being an owner. There are times I come in later in the day but there are also times that I stay at the office into the night hours. I have different expectations of myself than I do of my employees. If you are transitioning into a different business or you are preparing to go into something new, you have to prepare to put in mad hours. You just have to accept that. In my previous life, I missed Christmases, my own birthdays, my daughter’s birthdays and I had to accept that there were a sacrifice and a compromise in my personal life that I would need to take in order to make a living. I am not more entitled to anyone else, and also thriving has to come from a place where you are going to have to put the time in and create that opportunity for yourself.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have had many of cheerleaders, I have a cheerleading squad! I would say professionally, there have been many people who have served to bolster my rank as an interior decorator. One such person goes by the name of Mary Dancey. She was someone so real who just talked straight to me. I like that. This goes back to my time as a police officer where credibility is always in question. It is nice to know that we both feel like equals at this point. When you meet someone and do business with them, be authentic. Speak truthfully. That’s my advice. It’s nice to know that she feels we are equals at this point. She was the one who enabled me to get here. She played a significant role in helping me to be honest and to have a heightened level of accountability. Whether she meant to be one or not, she has been a superior mentor to me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
By being a volunteer and investing in professional associations has been of great benefit to me in giving back. I think that by me making myself available and committing my time to others in the profession of design lets me know that I am paying it forward and this fundamentally is the best gift I can give.
One of the best things I could have done was to develop a niche market for Certified Aging In Place Specialist and Accessible Design. We have done a lot of good work here. There is a lot that goes into being in a niche market. We have fun and to touch base with the community and do a bit of direct marketing at the same time, we host an Ice Fishing Hut Competition, where you win an ice fishing hut makeover.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how entrepreneurs can develop Grit?
And Cowan’s 5 pieces of advice on how to develop grit
1. Take a leap of faith, or Don’t. The entrepreneur needs to decide to be one. I went from having a cushy job with a pension but I wasn’t happy. Think about your current situation and decide whether you are going to change it. If you aren’t going to hack it in the game of entrepreneurship 100% it’s really just a hobby.
2. Differentiate your Authenticity. I would rather be part of the 2% in my industry that caters to a specific market with variability than to be an average player in my field. Be known for something significant.
3. Train. Hard. Toughness comes not only from being street smart. Mental toughness comes from becoming confident in your craft and that takes hours of practice. Practice your craft relentlessly.
4. Learn Humility. Think first about how you can serve. Your pedigree does not ensure your success. If you come with a willingness to learn and to take an apprenticeship at any cost, you will barrel down the right path. If you come up against a situation that forces you to look at something you don’t like about yourself, grow from it, no matter how difficult.
5. Grab a Mentor. My certifications and degrees would mean nothing if I had not made the right alliances or joined the right professional organizations. Rather, your ability to have people know, trust and like you will serve to propel your business forward. Determine whose career you would like to have.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I feel very passionate about mental health and addiction. I am a recovering addict from addiction to alcohol. Inspiring others to work towards healthy recoveries and playing a role in that process would be amazing. Having our society and our government support is massive. In Canada, the initiative is good with room for growth. I can’t think about anyone who has not had a down and out time. I know I have. We can all relate to that and need help when that happens. I feel that seeing and talking to people about that truth as well as inspiring people to live their truths and to have our society and government support people who are struggling this way is what makes for a great movement.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think by taking a lot of volunteering on in various sectors and by investing in professional associations. There is a benefit to me and also to my business when that happens but also by me making myself available and committing my time to others in the profession. I know people have benefitted from that. Through having found a niche market called Aging in Place, we were clearly identifiable as the subject matters in a particular area. Aging in Place and Accessible Design so we can stay in our homes as we age is an area in which we are comfortably able to serve. We believe it will lessen the rate of depression amongst those who might otherwise be relegated to retirement homes and communities.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
National Association of Home Builders in Upstate New York (Rochester & Syracuse)
I am a recovering alcoholic myself so I feel that seeing and talking to people about that truth as well as inspiring people to live their truths and to have our society and government support people who are struggling that way.