How Kate Lester Runs a Successful Interior Design Business & Keeps it Real

Kate Lester, our Haven Maven of the week (and newest List member!), is now on my list of people I NEED to meet in person someday. I was already stalking her on Instagram, but after today’s interview, she’s officially one of my favorite people. She has a work hard and be nice kind of attitude […]

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Kate Lester, our Haven Maven of the week (and newest List member!), is now on my list of people I NEED to meet in person someday. I was already stalking her on Instagram, but after today’s interview, she’s officially one of my favorite people. She has a work hard and be nice kind of attitude (with a refreshing dose of humor) and she’s incredibly talented at giving her clients gorgeous backdrops for life. If you had a chance to peek at this Hermosa Beach home tour last week, you know what I’m talking about. Today, not only do we get another thoughtfully designed abode to walk through, captured by Lauren Pressey, but some of the best tips and advice on running a business (including hiring employees), growing an authentic Instagram community, running a shop, who she’d sit with on a 5-hour flight if she could, favorite ever paint color and more. It’s a good one loves. Grab your Monday morning cup and let’s dive in!

What do you love about being an interior designer and how did you get your start?

I think the better question is what DON’T I love about being a designer?! I started my work life 12 years ago in a beige office in corporate America after getting my business degree from USC. About a year in, I knew the monotony and formality of the corporate world was NOT for someone like me. So, I quit my job, got a roommate, started bartending at night, and went back to school to study interior architecture. I got an entry level position as a designer’s assistant’s assistant and worked my way to senior project manager. After four years, the next logical step was to branch out and start my own firm. I have an honest-to-goodness passion for design and a true entrepreneurial spirit, so I am stoked every day that I get to go to work and do what I love. As my three year old often reminds me… “you’re making houses pretty” so that helps keep life in perspective when things get stressful. I mean, we’re not curing cancer… so I really try to make a point to remember that every day. All joking aside, owning a design firm is less playing with fabrics and shopping than people think. It’s a lot of managing employees, signing checks, reading reports, and dealing with issues. Lots of issues. But in the end, all of that hard work lets us to create backdrops to people’s life experiences, and that’s pretty meaningful.

How would you describe your design style in just three words?

Classic. Curated. Comfortable.

What is your favorite part of the design process? The most challenging?

My favorite part of the design process is actually winning over the one person who is less involved or interested from the start. It’s a challenge, and I live for it. Sometimes we will have a husband who will say flat out “your firm, and this whole process is outrageously expensive” and I respect that. Some people don’t have any frame of reference how much time and product goes into designing a home properly. So, instead of taking offense, I make it my mission to ensure that they are included and educated in our design process and curation every step of the way. Educating clients makes them feel more involved and gives them a sense of ownership in the project when discussing it with their friends and family. I want them educated so they have trust. For me, my team, and the whole process. In the end, that same hesitant husband will often call to ask if I like a new piece of art he found while traveling, and if it’s ok to buy it! That’s when I know I have done my job; and is one of the most rewarding parts of the entire design process.

The most challenging part? Everything else. Haha! Getting a creative block when you are on a deadline, working with a contractor who doesn’t respect you, your table getting lost on a container at sea… I could go on and on, but these challenges just encourage me to be a more creative problem solver. I was just telling someone the other day, that what helps me when I have an issue, is to say to myself “what’s the worst that can happen? Will I die? Will I lose my business? Will anyone get hurt?” When the answers to these questions are no (because they always are) then it enables me to breathe; and address the problem more pragmatically. Once you do that, coming up with a creative solution becomes much easier and less emotional. Try it, it works.

Walk us through a typical day in the life of KL Interiors…

I wake up around 5:30 or 6:00am and try to workout at least four times a week. (Soulcycle keeps me sane and centered.) Then I kiss my daughter and hug our nanny, because she is literally the only actual adult in our house and I don’t know what I would do without her. I head into the office, where it’s usually a mix of job site meetings, reviewing drawings and elevations, calls with contractors and clients, and that’s just before lunch! Then, we all argue about who is going to pick what we eat and gossip about the latest episode of the Real Housewives. This usually leads to a talk about how I really need my own reality show because I am way funny (ahem, I am looking at you, casting agents). After lunch, I spend some time working on design concept development, and usually have a meeting or two with our office manager and retail store manager to check in and see what needs my attention. I go home around 6, (and order door dash because I am a terrible mom/wife who never cooks) then enjoy some much needed family time with my husband and daughter! Maybe it’s a walk down to the beach to watch the sunset or get ice cream… just having time together is nice after a long day. Then, back in my home office to do a few more hours work before bed. This is when I focus on social media scheduling, writing blog posts, and doing interviews like this! I go to bed around midnight and do it all over again the next day. It’s crazy, busy, and absolutely insane but I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way.

What is your best advice for growing an engaged community on Instagram?

Be YOU. When I first started out I was sure that if I made my social media like all of the other successful designers out there, then my social media be successful as well. But it wasn’t, because my voice was missing and it was BORING! It wasn’t until I really embraced infusing more of “me” into my social media that it really took off. I am a little bit sarcastic, lack a filter, and embrace all of my shortcomings and quirks. I curse too much, love my casual beach-life culture, don’t apologize for my obsession with expensive handbags, and flying only first class wearing sandals I bought at Target. I noticed, that when I found my voice, social media became more effortless and people embraced that vibe. I think followers love to see pretty pictures and perfectly styled photo shoots, but there is lots of that out there, so I always try to add a funny tidbit or anecdote. A healthy dose of reality is the perfect juxtaposition to a carefully curated space.

With a diversely talented design team in your studio, what is your best advice for others who want to expand their business and hire employees?

Keep it small and spend a ton of time and energy finding the right people. Cultivate a culture in your studio and make sure it is one that employees are proud of. When people want to come to work, they are more productive and happy. So, find your tribe, love them, and pay them well. Also, team building. We do a lot of market adventures and Friday happy hours.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a business owner?

That everything is a business, including interior design. There are many designers out there that are insanely talented… and broke. Then you see some that are less talented and flourishing. Find your passion and monetize it. Respect your intellectual property and stand by your fees. Educate your clients on why you are worth every penny, but be firm an assertive. Know your numbers. Run reports and make sure you are making a profit. I could literally write a whole book on how so many designers shy away from the actual BUSINESS of design. Don’t. Become an expert on your business model and work smarter, not harder. Remember that your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have. Use it.

In addition to running a full-service interior design firm, you also have a shop filled with gorgeous goods for the home. How do you balance design work while managing your shop? And what are 3 favorite items from your shop?

I don’t! I have a store manager who is amazing! But I am a crazy control freak so I am still very heavily involved from monitoring social media posts, to buying product to styling the store. Balance is a myth. Every day something/someone is getting neglected, and that’s ok. You are only one person, and you are doing the very best you can. (I should really sell pillows with this saying on them.) Just make sure it’s not the same person or thing too many days in a row, and you will be ok. The store is my happy place and it’s filled with so many awesome treasures! My three favorite items right now are the Bistro Striped Hand Towels (they are SO SOFT), the Hand Carved Chain Links, and the Indigo Wallcovering!

What is your proudest accomplishment to date?

I think I would have to say that my proudest accomplishment to date is building a brand that enables me to create and embrace my entrepreneurial spirit and developing a business model that sustains. I strive every day to be a strong woman and role model for my daughter and to build something our whole family can be proud of! I hope that I can be an example for anyone who wants to push boundaries, take risks, explore, and embrace her own entrepreneurial path.

If you could sit next to any other designer in the world on a 5 hour flight, who would it be and why?

Martyn Bullard hands down. He’s funny and we’d probably get drunk.

If you had to use only ONE paint color throughout a home, what would it be? 

Simply White by Benjamin Moore. It’s is THE only white that matters.

Instagram account(s) you’re currently crushing on:

I have a total designer obsession with @cortneybishopdesign @janettemalloryinteriors & @danscottidesign I don’t actually know any of them but I stalk them on the regular. Their feeds are perfection.

Current favorite book and/or podcast:

Do yourself a favor and read EVERY book by Liane Moriarty. She’s amazing and writes books that make you forget about reality for a few hours.

3 apps you can’t live without:

Instagram (duh), Door Dash (because the jury is still out if I am an actual adult), A Design Kit (to make stories prettier)

Favorite beats usually playing in the studio:

80’s rock. Nothing gets your creative juices flowing like a little Journey.

Photography: Lauren Pressey

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