Interior designer Robin Wilson is no stranger to adversity. For the past 20 years, she has run Robin Wilson Home, a lifestyle brand that includes furnishings such as cabinetry; towels; and textiles, while battling the issues that Black entrepreneurs face every day from a lack of funding to a lack of recognition.
Wilson is the first Black woman to have a custom cabinetry line sold at 400 kitchen & bath dealers nationwide; and the second Black woman (B. Smith was the first!) to have a textile line at Bed Bath & Beyond. Further, her line generated over $82 million wholesale in licensed brand revenue – with over a quarter billion dollars in retail sales. Yet in still, she could not get VC or seed capital.
Today, fresh off the excitement of being named on Real Simple’s and New York Magazine’s honorable mention lists of interior designers, she is also the author of Clean Design Wellness for Your Lifestyle (2015, Greenleaf).
We recently caught up with the Texas native to learn more about her journey.
TNJ.com: What first attracted you to the home design space, and what keeps you interested many years later?
Robin Wilson: As a child, I loved to rearrange the furniture in my parents’ home. Later, I loved to attend open houses and to review floor plans for buildings and to imagine the model units for a developer. My clients started to ask me to design their spaces after we renovated them – and what an honor and how exciting it is to enhance someone’s living space! The applause is when you get a phone call after someone has lived in their space for a few weeks or years, and they say that their space is timeless and allows them to feel ‘at home’ – especially at this pandemic moment.
TNJ.com: You are considered an expert on “eco-friendly sustainability” and “clean design.” What do those phrases mean, and how do they factor into your work?
Robin Wilson: The easiest way to define my expertise is to recognize that I developed the CLEAN DESIGN protocol by guiding clients to solutions that remind them that their home is an ecosystem – what you put into it will affect your health. We were early adopters of low-to-no VOC paints, and also no added urea formaldehyde adhesives in cabinetry. If you think about it, if you use a lot of chemicals in your home, and then seal yourself in without fresh air, then your indoor air quality can be 8x worse than outdoor air.
My book, CLEAN DESIGN: Wellness for your Lifestyle (Greenleaf, 2015) is a primer on this subject. Eco-friendly sustainability means that you can ‘up-cycle’ vintage furniture, which is often more durable than disposable furniture. If it is scratched and brown, you might find a good piece for a discount, and you can do a DIY project that will keep furniture out of the landfill. My goal is to guide people to solutions that help their budget and their basic lifestyle.
TNJ.com: Despite the great success you had from 2009 to 2018, you were unable to get VC or seed capital. Tell me a bit about that experience.
Robin Wilson: I think that my story regarding seed capital is a common refrain for women and people of color who are entrepreneurs. During the time when my firm was generating revenue with over 400 stores selling our cabinetry nationwide, while also selling textiles at a big-box retailer, we were unable to get seed capital, VC capital or even a bank line of credit.
I remember printing up my deck and going to at least 50 meetings. The worst experience was a NYC meeting with 14 attendees and one woman said, “Why would people buy from a black brand? I don’t know any brand that looks like you…” and I just looked at her with my mouth agape. Someone kicked her under the table, but the damage was done.
From that point forward, I decided to max out the credit cards, and went the Friends & Family route and raised $250k. That is not enough to really go to the next level, but it got my marketing started, and we succeeded by bootstrapping and scraping by – at one point, I had to couch surf and had all my things in a storage unit. What is most galling is that we actually had revenue! And there are others who walk in with an “idea” and no revenue, and they somehow get $1 billion.
My hope is that things have changed with more awareness of systemic bias in the investment community – as I am an experienced entrepreneur who is working hard to launch a brand extension in 2021.
TNJ.com: How did you, ultimately, fund your company?
Robin Wilson: As mentioned before, I really harmed my fiscal stability by bootstrapping, using credit cards and gutting my retirement fund. I also went five years without paying myself and still was asked by VC people “if I was putting my all into my entrepreneurial venture”. When the friends and family group stepped up, I was grateful but we spent that quickly to build the brand. It is time to see if a VC or PE firm will step up and support a woman owned business as we celebrate our 20th anniversary year!
TNJ.com: You recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of your company. What do you know now about being an entrepreneur that you didn’t know 20 years ago?
Robin Wilson: The advice that I tell everyone who wants to be an entrepreneur is to remember that you will at some point “pay everyone else, and will not pay yourself” and there is no way to plan for every issue when you start your business. The goal should be to make sure that you have a strong strategic circle of advisors who will help you make good decisions – and there is a little motto: Make sure you have the ABCs or you will end up with 1-2-3. Translation: Hire a good attorney and a good bookkeeper or you will have $1.23 (and yes, that happened to me!).
You will work harder than ever, and if you have found your joy, this entrepreneurial venture will both challenge and change your life. Each day that you wake up as an entrepreneur, you will be betting on yourself, your ideas and your team!
TNJ.com: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs of color looking to enter the home design space?
Robin Wilson: I recommend that you find a niche – such as a small spaces or man-caves – so that you can be the leader in your community in that space. You will build your clientele and then you may be able to branch out to expand into other areas.
TNJ.com What’s next for Robin Wilson Home?
Robin Wilson: We are launching a brand extension of Robin Wilson Home that will beta-test in Q4 2020. Expect a strong website and product launch in early 2021. Cannot wait to share the hypoallergenic products and message as we launch our new brand, plus consumers should expect a new book. When you recognize that 60 million Americans suffer from asthma and allergies, we have a strong message and many consumers who are loyal to our brand. We are also expanding our CLEAN DESIGN focus with both a B2B and B2C during this pandemic moment and hope to continue brand growth.