Closing The Gap

34-year-old founder of multimillion-dollar company: Go for your dream career, 'it’s worth it whether you succeed or fail'

Lee Mayer
Photo courtesy of Havenly
Lee Mayer

Lee Mayer's living room sat empty for months.

It was 2013 and the then 30-year-old was struggling to spruce up her space. Her new, five-bedroom house in Denver was a big pivot in size from her previous New York City apartment, and she was overwhelmed by choice.

"I had purchased the home, so I felt like I was an adult, and I wanted it to look nice. I just couldn't figure out how to do it myself," Mayer tells CNBC Make It. But she didn't have the money to hire a professional.

"Pretty much every [interior] designer I talked to at that time thought I was way under the budget that they would be interested in working for," she tells Make It.

She knew others had to be struggling with the same problem.

"To me, it felt like there was just a better way to shop for your home," Mayer says. "[I]t just felt like there was a way to bring what designers do that's so special to everyone."

Lee Mayer
Photo courtesy of Havenly
Lee Mayer

Mayer's dilemma was her inspiration for Havenly, the virtual interior design company she co-founded with her sister, Emily Motayed, 30. Havenly allows cash-strapped young professionals, eager to replicate the dreamy interiors showcased on Instagram, to pick a designer from the platform's network or take an online style survey to be matched with one.

With the national average price of an interior designer being $5,984, according to data from HomeAdvisor, and the typical range anywhere from $1,897 to $10,382, there was a market for Havenly's more accessible, affordable design.

A Havenly mini design, which offers one design concept with up to two revisions is $79, while a full design is $199 and includes one design concept with one revision, a 3D layout visualization, also with one revision, and a custom floor plan. Havenly designers provide customers with a list of curated products, sourced from over 150 sellers like Crate and Barrel, Target and Pottery Barn. Customers then order and purchase their picks through Havenly. The products are an additional cost, but Havenly is sometimes able to get a discount from the vendor, and passes on those cost reductions to the customer.

Photo courtesy of Havenly

Taking the leap

When the idea for Havenly came to Mayer, she was working full-time as the vice president and general manger of the auto insurance division at a consumer financial services company, making a healthy six-figure salary.

But to make Havenly happen, Mayer knew she would have to leave her cushy job. Though she holds a degree in engineering from Columbia University, an MBA from Harvard Business School and a slew of experience from previous jobs in consulting and corporate strategy, she didn't have any experience in interior design.

Photo courtesy of Havenly

"I'm kind of a risk averse person — if I have something safe, I felt like I might just sort of keep doing it," she says.

"[But] we just kept getting more and more excited about the possibilities of it, and I just started spending more time on this than anything else and kind of obsessing about it," Mayer says. "It felt like if I didn't give it my all, it wasn't ever going to happen. So I took the leap."

Mayer had a solid safety net of savings that had taken some time to build up, and she had enough work experience that, if Havenly failed, she was confident she'd be able to find another gig. Still, going from the comfort of having a stable income to the unpredictable world of entrepreneurship was a monumental moment.

"I felt confident that I could find a job if I needed to find a job," Mayer explains. "I had plenty of experience under my belt and the financial resources to spend time on this without a salary, so it's funny that I think about it as so risky. Because looking back, I don't know if it was. But it was a pretty scary moment when you're like, 'Alright I'm going to start this.'"

Motayed, Mayer's sister, also left her full-time marketing job to work on Havenly. (She has since moved back to New York City to work for another start-up.)

Mayer used her own money and $150,000 from her family to start the business. Since she understood the basics of coding, she built the first, most-basic version of the site herself and enlisted a single interior designer. She says she worried that if Havenly didn't work out, people would look at her as the, "girl that failed a company."

"I think more broadly it was just fear of failure…" Mayer says. "How would I explain this to my mom, that I took a year off to start a company and it went nowhere? And looking back, I kind of laugh at that a little, because that's just silly," she explains.

"But I think we so often — all of us — put so much pressure on, not just intrinsic pressure on us, but we think way too hard about what's happening, and what other people are thinking about of our successes and failures."

The biggest obstacle she had to overcome when building her business, Mayer says, boils down to just figuring out what to do next. The feeling of having so much to do, she admits, can be overwhelming.

"It can be really frustrating because it's just like you never feel like you're getting there fast enough and you're a little on your own," Mayer says. "It's just you and your co-founder and no one else kind of gets what you're doing."

It wasn't until the first and second quarter of 2015 that Mayer really felt the business start to ramp up, and even now, admits she's still not sure they've had that major breakthrough moment yet.

"To be perfectly candid, [when people ask], 'Oh did you make it?' I'm always still like, 'Yeah, we made it — no, we didn't make it.' So there's always that little bit of tension," Mayer says.

Photo courtesy of Havenly

Another tough obstacle, Mayer says, was the fundraising component of building the business.

Havenly recently raised $12.5 million in a series B, bringing its total raise to $25.8 million, according to Crunchbase. The company's customer base — largely professional women under 45 who live in cities — has grown by more than 14 times in the last two years, with over 50 percent of purchasing customers returning for additional design projects. While she says fundraising has gotten a lot easier, Mayer admits it definitely came with its own set of challenges, and calls the company's first round "nearly impossible."

"We're a female-focused business, people are like, you know, 'Oh an interior design business, how cute.' But we were doing some real revenue by then so it was incredibly frustrating," she says.

Still, despite the obstacles, Mayer, now 34, says, "Honestly it's really the best thing I've ever done."

For other young professionals on the brink of making that leap — whether it be with a new job or launching a side hustle — Mayer says go for it: "It's almost always worth it. And it's worth it whether you succeed or fail, as long as you make a real effort." She says the professional experience you will gain building your own business will be "beyond anything that you will get anywhere else."

"It will be so different and it'll be so interesting, and more importantly, it's so marketable," Mayer says. "Now that I'm in the position where I get to hire people, I see people who started companies that potentially haven't gotten anywhere and I'm always open and excited to hire them."