Entrepreneur: Ashley Baker Gensler
Business: Loom Decor
Years in business: 2
During her time at a top New York City interior-design firm, Ashley Gensler became frustrated by the exclusivity of the industry; most products are available only "to the trade," and high fees limit access to great design. Armed with an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a background in design, Gensler set out to change this industry standard, launching Loom Decor in 2012. She and co-founder Nichole Ocepek have built Loom into a comprehensive online resource for high-end custom textile furnishings at prices accessible to customers and designers alike.
Gensler talked with us about why they started the business and what technology made it possible.
BND: What problem were you hoping to solve with your business?
A.G.: Fundamentally, I believe DIY decorators like me should have the same access to gorgeous, high-quality decor as professional designers do, and at an accessible price. Unfortunately, the traditional interior-design market is highly exclusive, offering most products only through professional designers. Antiquated supply chains and structures make most of those products, especially fabrics, too expensive for 99 percent of homeowners. So, I set out to make custom home decor accessible to the masses. Combining easy-to-use online configuration tools, complimentary design assistance, and access to more than 400 designer-quality fabrics and customizable products, Loom offers the same high-end custom textiles highlighted in the professionally designed homes of shelter publications, but at a fraction of the cost. [Ignoring Technology? Why Your Small Business Can't Afford It]
BND: Could your business have existed 20 years ago?
A.G.: Not in terms of the ease of service and experience we provide, nor to the market we serve. There have been workrooms doing custom decor for interior designers for a hundred years, but empowering consumers to design their own decor was not an option 20 years ago, for several reasons.
The technology for dynamic visualization and online configuration, which is key to customers' ability to see what they are about to purchase, was not available (at least not at a cost that would have made sense).
Consumers' interest in personalization and DIY was just evolving at the time. The expectation back then was that you would hire an interior designer (if you could afford it), and if you couldn't, then you would just have to settle with what was available in stores. Thus, the mentality to want to purchase custom decor specific to your style and vision was not in the consumer psyche. Now, we have a plethora of blogs, DIY shows and online resources that not only educate and empower, but encourage the average homeowner to want to take on their own decorating projects.
While you could likely access some of these services in stores or by calling someone (in which case you would have to know a lot about what you wanted), an online experience 20 years ago would have been so clunky that nobody would have wanted to use it. After all, most people didn't even like to shop for basic items online 20 years ago, let alone be involved in the design process.
BND: What modern technology (or technologies) has made your business possible?
A.G.: Dynamic visualization software is the No. 1 technology that has enabled our business. This technology is at the crux of the experience of creating or modifying your own furnishing. These are big purchases for homeowners, and they live with them for a long time.
Most people have a very hard time visualizing the choices they are making — like what a certain print will look like as a curtain — and dynamic visualization software allows us to show them exactly what their product will look like before they buy it — not just some unrealistic rendition, but with photorealistic quality. This also allows us to show a catalog of thousands of furnishings. Each product silhouette is available in hundreds of different fabrics. We don't even need to take inventory or photograph all of those items individually, which would be cost-prohibitive, knowing that we would have to keep up with the latest trends and carry more unique, chic styles than a mass-market ready-made approach can allow.
BND: Is there a technology you can't live without?
A.G.: My iPhone. As an entrepreneur, I'm so busy that I feel like I have to make use of every little moment. So, I have my smartphone out on my commute into work, emailing away and planning out my day before I ever step foot into the office. Plus, it's great for jotting down ideas when I'm out and about, and for browsing design mags and Pinterest for creative inspiration. And, let's be honest — who doesn't love the games (when I have five minutes to play them)?
BND: If you could hire one extra person right now, what would you have him or her do?
A.G.: Marketing, marketing, marketing. The hardest part of starting up a business is getting in front of your potential customers and breaking through all the noise. Not only are we up against large, established retailers, but as a new company, we don't have a long history with Google or with the industry, so we have to build credibility to jump-start our SEO, increase our press coverage and build an email list, among many other things. It's starting from ground zero, and you don't have a business if you don't have customers.
BND: What technology do you wish existed?
A.G.: We would really like to be able to show our products in our customers' homes. I wish there were a much more sophisticated way for users to take photos of their rooms and, with just a few clicks, make a 3D model that they could then start "modifying" as part of their decorating process.
The basic technology exists — larger companies are already using apps and programs that allow them to create 3D modeling and use augmented reality. But it's the user experience that is still clunky. The imagery is often unrealistic, which can sometimes be a turnoff (for the furnishing you are considering).
BND: What app are you relying on most right now?
A.G.: My Measures & Dimensions on the iPhone and iPad. My husband and I are house hunting, and it's coming in very handy for recording dimensions during open houses. It lets you snap a picture using your camera and write dimensions directly on the image. Plus, our stylists swear by it for measuring windows for drapery.
BND: What technology do you think is most overrated?
A.G.: Google Glass. First, it kind of freaks me out. Someone once showed me how it works and said, "See? I just blinked and took your picture." I mean, at least with a cellphone, you can see when someone is being creepy! Second, it's already bad enough that we are glued to our phones half the time when we are out with friends (me included). Imagine if everyone were staring off into "Terminator" space. Talk about impersonal!
BND: What's the most valuable nontech skill an entrepreneur needs?
A.G.: The ability to communicate a vision. As an entrepreneur, you have to be able to not only envision what you want to build (or, better yet, what your customers want to build), but also describe it in a compelling way not only to investors, but literally everybody you encounter in business. That includes your customers, to get them to purchase and advocate for you, as well as your partners and vendors, to get them to work with you and believe in your concept. And, most importantly in my mind, you need to communicate your vision to your team, not only to convince great people to come work for you, but also to get them all aligned to work toward a common vision.
Originally published on Business News Daily.