How I Got Here
By: Sara Lynn Brennan
I grew up in a small town called Corry, Pennsylvania. Where I’m from, interior design wasn’t really a “thing” and if it was, I never knew about it. There were a couple gift, home decor and antique shops in our little town, but that was about it. My mom and I would often paint, wallpaper, decorate and rearrange furniture for fun, but until “Trading Spaces” I had no idea people did that for a living!
As a kid, I never once thought about owning a business. But as far back as I can remember I’ve always been competitive, obsessed with details and very resourceful - all traits of a good entrepreneur. I understood my own abilities and figured out how to differentiate myself so I could succeed. The first time I can really remember making the conscious choice to succeed was when I was on the track team in High School. I ran the 400M dash and was good, but not great. I wanted to win races, but I needed a new plan. I noticed that nobody on our team ran the 300M hurdles and a light bulb went off. I could do that. It’s shorter than the race I was already running and I’d have a much better shot at winning. Genius! So I practiced and won my first race and many others to come, eventually competing at the state level and becoming my team’s MVP by my senior year. I saw a gap and took advantage of it, in true entrepreneurial spirit.
I got pretty good at being a “strategic hustler” as I grew up; I even tried out for the Women’s Volleyball Team as a Freshmen “walk-on” in college and made the cut! And I didn’t know it at the time, but making these decisions to succeed, while also being resourceful, was shaping me into the entrepreneur I’d one day become.
Speaking of my college years, it’s probably important to note that I met a handsome basketball player on campus who was here on a four year scholarship, not a second more. We dated and ended up getting married - almost 15 years later, he’s still here with me. Academically, I studied science (remember, I had no idea Interior Design was an option) and I earned myself a BA in Biology, a Concentration in Neuroscience and a Masters in Secondary Education: Pedagogy and Practice. Yep, that’s a mouthful to say. After I earned my Masters Degree, we moved to North Carolina and I began to teach, but it never felt “right”. I knew I was a good teacher and my students loved me, but being confined to a middle school classroom (I know, now you’re really questioning my sanity) wasn’t what God created me to do with my life. The song, There’s Gotta Be Something More by Sugarland would literally play over and over in my head - just like my track experience, I knew I had more to offer.
I taught for 7 years and eventually stepped out of the classroom to become a wide-eyed (or should I say droopy-eyed) Stay-At-Home Mom to my son, Mason. Boy, that little baby taught me more in his first week of life than 18 years of schooling ever did! I really struggled with motherhood at first, I don’t mind admitting that, it was scary and exhausting.
But I found a local “mom” group that kept me sane during those baby years. My “mom-friends” and I eventually started a little blog, called WIRL Mommas. WIRL stood for What It’s Really Like and we wrote about pregnancy and motherhood and the stuff that nobody ever told us. Everyone loved reading about our mishaps and horror stories. We even ended up getting on the Charlotte Today Show to talk about what we were doing! But eventually our children started to grow up and take up more of our attention (they weren’t taking 2 naps a day anymore) and we had to end our blog, but it was super fun while it lasted.
Our little mommy blog inspired me in so many ways; I loved the idea of sharing REAL life with others, the way your sister or best friend would talk to you. I knew we had a good concept going, so I started a business and created a social sharing platform/website called WIRL Project. It was basically like a Pinterest for Stories. I have to say, it was AWESOME! The site was growing rapidly and I had over 100 authors and contributors writing for me. I saw that people loved reading and sharing stories in a real, authentic way - I knew I was on to something good. So good that I actually “pitched” to investors (yes, like Shark Tank) and had some real interest!
During this business venture I was named one of Charlottes Top 30 Under 30: Future Leaders of Charlotte and had extremely high hopes for my business. I thought to myself, This could be it, this is what I was meant to do! But I’m sure God laughed at me as He watched me think I had it all figured out. He reminded me of His bigger plan and blessed me with the news that I was pregnant with our daughter, Shae. This pregnancy was difficult from the start and unfortunately, since I was a one-man-show mom and entrepreneur, I had to step away from WIRL Project to take care of myself and my baby. I have not touched the website since then. Bummer.
After Shae was born, we sold our home in Charlotte, NC, hopped the county line and moved to Waxhaw, NC. House hunting and moving with a newborn and a toddler was a challenge - but I learned so much about the our area and the housing industry through this process. I learned what it was like to work directly with tradesmen and women as we refinished our hardwood floors, painted the whole house inside and out as well as several other “punch list” tasks and design decisions. All this “work” was valuable experience for me, I just didn’t realize it at the time. As for our new place, this was our “grown-up” home, which meant we invested in quality pieces of custom furniture to create a space I didn’t have to totally transform every 2 years because it was falling apart. Our new home really allowed my design skills to shine - so much so that family, friends, tradesmen, even HVAC guys, would come by to fix something here or there and they’d ask me if I was a “decorator”. I never knew how to answer this question, but I always bashfully replied that design was my passion and I loved doing it. I guess it showed.
Sometimes while sitting at home with my two kids, I dreamed of being an Interior Designer, but my educational path didn’t seem to lend itself to that option. I wanted to give our kitchen a makeover, but figured I needed help so I hired a local designer to help me through the process. During one of our meetings, I asked her if I could “shadow” her someday so I could learn more about the industry and what it was really like. Her response changed my life. She very rudely said in her soft spoken, southern drawl, “Honey, I don’t mean to be ugly, but if I let you do that, what does that say about me and the quality of my work? I went to school for this and you did not. I can’t have someone like you calling yourself a ‘Designer’ around me and my company.”
Two months later, I opened my LLC and became a Designer.
I often think of that “ugly” comment from this designer - she had no idea what she was doing. You. Don’t. Tell. ME. I. Can’t. Her words fueled me and motivated me as I started to dream about my new design business, but I needed a plan. A few months prior to this comment my friend, and now Photographer, Val asked me if I would let her “shoot” my house for her portfolio. I was flattered, and initially didn’t know if my house was “worthy”, but when I knew I needed a “Design Portfolio”, I had to be resourceful so I called her up. She took beautiful photos of my home and for the first time, I saw what everyone else saw in my designs - I realized I was actually pretty damn good at this.
Starting a business is much like having another baby; you have to grow it, invest in it and nurture it. Although I’d had two other businesses in the past, this who design thing was different. Plus I have two small children of my own who greatly depend on me to survive! I felt overwhelmed and energized at the same time. Innately I was good at design, but I quickly learned that design is only about 20% of what you do as an interior designer - the rest was a lot of behind-the-scenes business “stuff” and I knew I had a lot to learn. It was time to get resourceful again.
Early on, while I was working on the backend of my business, I made custom wreaths and arrangements and sold them locally to get some cash flowing. I had a knack for creating these floral designs and people loved buying them, so it was a win-win! This naturally lead to friends and neighbors asking me to help design their spaces and that’s how I got my foot in the “design” door. I got my first authentic I don’t-know-you-already client in January 2018 and I knew this was going somewhere! I used the skills I’d learned from all of my life experiences and resources, created a design plan and executed it to perfection. New clients started calling me left and right and within my first six months I had 15 clients! I was so proud of myself and started to feel a newfound confidence like never before.
That being said, being confident does not come easy for me. I’m extremely hard on myself, have a lot of self-doubt and second guess everything. You might not know it, but I am a pretty anxious and introverted person. I tell you this because I want you to know it’s taken a lot of work to be able to stand in my space and live out my dream - it is both exciting and exhausting. With the help and support of family, friends, coaches, clients and even a therapist, I’ve come to land on what I call “Casual Confidence” - the attitude of knowing my worth as a person and a professional while having a positive inner-voice. By sharing this paragraph, I hope to help others find their own “Casual Confidence because it’s made such an impact on my personal and business life.
In my first year in business I’ve had more success as a designer than I ever dreamed of. I’ve been published in four national magazine publications, written an e-book, hosted “Meet the Designer” events that people actually came to, created a new website, created a new logo, branded myself and my company, coined my own design aesthetic and I’ve been contacted by a HUGE television production company. Wow! Pretty awesome, right? Sometimes I’d like to say to Ms. “I don’t mean to be ugly” - How do you like me now?! But she’s not worth my energy, I’m a busy lady now.
All of my life experiences have lead me to be exactly where I am today and I couldn’t be more excited about what’s to come. It looks like this is where all signs were pointing to all these years. My designs just keep getting better and better and I keep growing more and more as a person, wife, mom, friend and business owner. I’m thankful for every experience I’ve had along the way because I know it shaped me to be who I am today! And this is just the beginning guys - just the beginning.