How a Hot $100 Million Design Startup Collapsed Overnight


But what had some-more vicious ramifications for a company’s destiny was Santos’ unaccompanied concentration on press, with scarcely all increase in a early days going to marketing. That’s not surprising in a startup, though during Homepolish it happened, ex-employees say, during a responsibility of building out a company’s infrastructure. It’s misleading how many of Santos’ concentration on PR — and his success removing interviews — can be attributed to his then-boyfriend (now-husband) Ross Matsubara, clamp boss and character executive of oppulance code selling organisation Nike Communications. (In 2012, Matsubara, who we don’t know personally, sent me an email pitching me a story about Santos, when a association was dual months aged and had “70 clients on a watchful list.”) But Matsubara was a unchanging and autocratic participation in a Homepolish office, and Homepolish parties were mostly stocked with a reward wine brands he represented.

Even as Homepolish was shopping a full-page tone New York Times ad — some $150,000, before we supplement a tone — a wait times for chair quotes were adult to dual weeks, an perpetuity in a universe where clients are used to pulling a symbol and carrying something delivered. Designers contend there was no proceed for them to check orders; there was no proceed bureau strike to call, and follow-ups had to be finished by email. Problems with orders abounded, contend mixed designers, including chair orders that simply didn’t get placed and equipment that showed adult during a wrong address. The whole system, says former Homepolish engineer Erica Riha, “gave me nightmares.”

“These guys have been flourishing 100% year over year, they’re profitable, their expansion has been scarcely 100% organic, and business adore them,” Hunt told Forbes during a time.

Still, employees hoped a kinks would work themselves out. Many had backgrounds in pattern and believed strongly in a company’s “design for all” ethos. “It was one of those communities we responded to since of how vehement everybody was,” says an early former employee. Adds a second one, wistfully: “It was like magic.”

InIn Jan 2016, Homepolish announced it had lifted $20 million in try capital. Santos told interviewers that Warby Parker’s Andy Hunt had been a one to proceed him to invest. “These guys have been flourishing 100% year over year, they’re profitable, their expansion has been scarcely 100% organic, and business adore them,” Hunt told Forbes during a time. He took a chair on a board, along with other entrepreneur-investors, including Rent a Runway’s Hyman and Bonobos’ Andy Dunn.

Santos was likewise upbeat: “We also have no skeleton for apropos unprofitable,” he told a New York Business Journal. “I consider distinct many startups we’re not looking to get on that fundraising treadmill.”

Santos and Nathan argued about how to use a distillate of cash. Santos wanted many of it to go to marketing; Nathan suspicion it should go to coders to strengthen a behind end. But within 6 months of a appropriation announcement, a arguing stopped — Nathan left.

The liquid of appropriation and Nathan’s depart was not a good combination. There was some-more “disposable income,” as one manager put it, though “less comprehension about how a appropriation was being used.” Suddenly Santos, who had essentially focused on marketing, found himself struggling to conduct a nuts-and-bolts of using a company. As one former worker — who stays sensitive to him — put it bluntly: “He was never a business person, and he was never unequivocally positioned to hoop that.” (Another worker says she listened someone impute to him as “the youth CEO, since he was still training how to do it.”)

The appropriation was ostensible to go, in part, to building out a apparatus that would energy a company’s in-house grouping service. The apparatus had flattering branding, “true to Noa form,” says a former employee, though it lacked some compulsory record features, and Homepolish hadn’t done a hires indispensable to build or contend it. “Instead of doing that when we had a pile of income on hand, we got a imagination bureau and had a lot of selling parties,” says a former worker who saw a numbers. “By a time we satisfied we indispensable it, all that shake room had been blown through.”

Like many startups, Homepolish had attempted and rejected a lot of things in a initial 3 and a half years, though a gait accelerated. Instead of strengthening existent offerings, a array of new programs were rolled out and afterwards roughly immediately suspended as unsustainable, withdrawal employees wondering how many suspicion had left into them in a initial place.

It didn’t assistance that many of them were things a association had already attempted before. For example, Homepolish had launched with a tiny marketplace — “champagne accessories on a splash budget,” was a aphorism — that was quick abandoned. But in post-funding 2016, a association scrambled to arrange a group and afterwards entrance an e-commerce store called “H marketplace,” that enclosed a Homepolish candle with scents of amber, sandalwood, and freesia. That marketplace was left 3 months later. The same happened with a devise to pierce designers on as full-time employees. Homepolish had attempted this with about 15 designers early on, and attempted it again in 2016. It was roughly immediately suspended as unsustainable.

Things altered so frequently and so abruptly that employees hold their exhale when Santos upheld their desks, not wanting to get looped into his latest idea, that would be full speed forward before soon being forsaken a integrate of weeks or months later. “You’d have to settle him and make him happy, and afterwards dual weeks after it would be over and you’d be behind to your unchanging job, dual weeks behind on work,” says one. If employees attempted to pull back, Santos close them down. “He’d say, ‘I’m not meddlesome in conference your opinion on this. we usually need we to do it,’” removed one ex-staffer. (Two others removed identical wording.)

Several months after a funding, Santos also stopped pity sum about a company’s health. According to 5 former employees, stats like how many hours were sole and how many designers they had sealed adult had been common during weekly all-hands meetings. (In one of a company’s early offices, they had even been created on a wall, nearby a company’s core values: “Be a Solution,” “Dream Smart,” and “Keep It Fun.”) But according to ex-employees, this stopped unexpected in 2016, and a all-hands meetings themselves became many reduction frequent. “Everything got a lot some-more secretive,” says one ex-employee.

InIn May of 2016, Homepolish sealed a 10-year franchise for a code new 11,306-square-foot office. The seeking cost was in a high-sixties per block foot, according to a Commercial Observer, or roughly $750,000 a year. Homepolish had skeleton to scale, though a space was triple a company’s prior digs and some-more than twice a distance Homepolish indeed indispensable for a series of employees it had, estimates one former Homepolish blurb engineer who saw a space. It was decorated, appropriately, as a showcase for a company’s talent. One often-photographed room was a kitchen, designed like a residential one, featuring distinguished low blue cabinets with coronet hardware. Above a stone-top island hung a burble candelabrum with coronet fixtures. Only, it was a knockoff with inexpensive fittings, steel embellished to demeanour like brass. “It usually seemed kind of unchanging with a suspicion of observant you’re going to broach something that is glamorous and considerable though is indeed a inexpensive stand-in,” says a designer, who left a following year.

Noa Santos attends a Hamptons Magazine Celebration with Debra Messing on Jun 13, 2019 in East Hampton, New York.Noa Santos attends a Hamptons Magazine Celebration with Debra Messing on Jun 13, 2019 in East Hampton, New York.Noa Santos attends a Hamptons Magazine Celebration with Debra Messing on Jun 13, 2019 in East Hampton, New York.
Homepolish CEO Noa Santos. Photo: Mark Sagliocco/Stringer/Getty Images

At a time, a association was an attention darling. “Game changer,” wrote a successful pattern blog Design Sponge. “Rad and disruptive,” pronounced Goop. The staff during Details repository wrote of their “obsession” with stalking a Homepolish website to see photos of a best association offices. Clients were pouring in faster than Homepolish could handle, and a prolonged waitlist was ruining a company’s Yelp rating. Santos wanted some-more designers opposite a U.S., and fast. “We usually need bodies,” he told employees, vowing that there would never be a waitlist again. This was one of a increasingly singular times employees pushed behind opposite Santos, with during slightest 3 of a company’s comparison managers warning him that peculiarity and use would suffer. “There were a lot of people revelation him to be careful,” says one ex-staffer.

Undeterred, Santos scarcely doubled a series of designers from about 300 to 500. In a process, a vetting of designers — that formerly concerned carrying them pattern representation bedrooms with singular time and bill — was relaxed. A patron use manager remarkable an uptick in complaints from both clients and designers, a latter of whom grumbled about not removing adequate work.

The founders could be “intimidating and scary” to a immature employees who worked for them, says an early former employee. Santos frequently lifted his voice and “would plainly bluster people, saying, ‘If we don’t do this, we can reinstate all of you.’”

By a commencement of 2017, there were already signs Homepolish was not behaving as expected. On Valentine’s Day, around 15 people (about 15% of a company) were summoned to meetings during restaurants and coffee shops nearby a bureau and fired. Some were privately told it was since they “weren’t contributing to a increase of a company.” Among those culled were 4 of a many senior, longest-term employees — ones who infrequently disagreed with Santos. Soon, not a singular staffer from a early days remained.

InIn 2017, Santos also done 4 fatal decisions: The initial was to sensitively start posterior a vital partnership with Modsy, an online interior pattern use that had lifted $11.75 million over a prior year and half. The second — since of a relentless vigour to scale quick — was to take out a loan “in a millions” from Silicon Valley Bank, according to a former employee. “Day series dual [after a lift in 2016], we was like, ‘We need new money.’ It’s usually kind of a inlet of a beast,” Santos after told a pattern biography Business of Home.

The third large preference was to change Homepolish toward a higher-end customer. Out with a $500 and $5,000 projects, and in with a $500,000 and $1 million ones, as it were. (As a selling dialect put it, “Olivia Wilde” would reinstate “Jennifer Lawrence” as Homepolish’s ideal client. Wilde was superb and sophisticated; Lawrence done headlines for pizza-stained dusk wear. “You could have a splash with possibly one of them, though usually Jennifer would get drunk,” one ex-employee says, recalling a selling presentation.)

It had turn transparent to a government group that usually removing some-more small-budget business wasn’t going to assistance Homepolish strike a expansion targets. Small stop-and-go projects mostly undone designers, compulsory a lot of patron government time, and, says one ex-staffer, “ended adult refunded” since of a company’s “happiness guarantee.” An worker who worked in operations remembers dual unbroken COOs, conjunction of whom stayed long, “always yelling that a sky was falling.”

But this conditions didn’t get communicated to a rest of a company, who were left to bewail that catering to a 1% was not a goal they had worked for with that near-religious startup zeal. Nor was going after oppulance clients a viable business proposition. Santos “started to divide a people a code was built for in sequence to follow people that practically this association was never going to get,” says one former employee. High-end business didn’t indeed need Homepolish; many interior designers catered to them already. And a devise for removing these clients didn’t seem totally suspicion through. “A whole group was hired for high-end sales, and afterwards were shuffled to other jobs,” says an ex-employee.

By worker estimates, 75% of a care group that started in 2018 didn’t finish 2018 with a company.

ByBy all accounts, 2018 was a blur. Turnover was high: By worker estimates, 75% of a care group that started in 2018 didn’t finish 2018 with a company. “The aloft we got, a harder it was to work during a company,” says one.

The year was also important since Santos, who mostly worked in a bureau until late, was left for scarcely prolonged chunks of time: First since of a behind problem, and afterwards for his Jun marriage in Hawaii. The eventuality took a impulse from a Alfonso Cuarón reconstitute of Great Expectations — with furious greenery and custom-made immature tuxedos for a grooms — and was featured in both Vogue and a New York Times. Pantone cards had been sent to marriage guest to beam outfit preference and Santos’ father had wanted down a accurate shade of black-green Nars spike gloss ragged by a “warrior army” of bra-less, ivory-suited bridesmaids. (Later, Santos spent 20 mins of an all-hands assembly display photos of a affair.)

But when Santos returned, he struggled to infer to investors he had something that could scale. The association introduced a new plan government apparatus for designers that sourced, tracked, and managed shopping chair and accessories from code partners — though there was small inducement for designers to adopt it. “It seemed to be adding mixed stairs to something that’s already kind of complicated,” says one designer. “And to explain it, there were 12-page documents. we was like, ‘Why is this so hard?’” Former employees contend a apparatus suggested how small Santos indeed accepted designers. (“He always told designers he was one of them, though he worked for a pattern organisation for a year,” says one.)

By Jan of 2019, it was apropos transparent to employees that Homepolish was floundering. About 15% of a association was laid off on Jan 3 — days before a three-day “2019 Kick-Off” in New York City, a initial time a whole association would all be in a same room. Remote employees were obliged for any luggage charges with their economy simple flights. They were asked to stay with friends, Homepolish employees (the COO hosted 3 people), or as a final resort, in common hotel rooms. The association skimped on catering for a behind holiday celebration hold on Jan 10 — a cost-cutting pierce that backfired when last-minute pizzas had to be systematic since employees had been downing thriving amounts of donated drink (from Matsubara’s clients).

Despite these signals, a atmosphere during a kick-off was upbeat. The 75 employees left had their tarot cards review and listened to presentations, that common a unchanging message: “We wish to make a operation as gaunt as probable to continue to attract a forms of fundraising conversations we wish to be carrying and keep a terms in a favor,” as one former worker described it. But by a finish of a month, Homepolish would find itself inextricable in a large PR predicament that would lead to a undoing.

On Jan 31, Ilana Wiles, who runs a renouned blog called Mommy Shorts, posted about a botched Homepolish restoration of her Manhattan condo. She enclosed some-more than dual dozen photos of a restoration — wonky lavatory tile, messy finishings, a kitchen light that prevented her from opening a tip cabinet. She also posted a photos on Instagram, where she had some 160,000 followers.

Wiles’ supporters swarmed Homepolish’s Instagram feed. “Go repair The Wiles good before posting some-more over unprotected photos that don’t uncover a workmanship defects,” review one comment. Some enclosed a hashtag #fyrefestofhomerenovation. Santos met with Wiles Feb 7, though a emanate continued to drag on, with him revelation her on Apr 16 that he was conducting an inner investigation. By May — 3 months after — Wiles was fed adult with waiting. She posted an refurbish to her blog, observant she had satisfied that Santos was punting. “GUYS. WTF,” she wrote. “You can tell Noa and Home Polish [sic] what we consider of this response and a work they did on my unit on their pleasing Instagram account.” (Wiles did not lapse emails seeking comment.)

By June, a story had been picked adult by inhabitant media, including and House Beautiful. As time upheld with no fortitude — and as roughly each day a new and impossibly pleasing picture seemed on a Homepolish Instagram feed — a Mommy Shorts brigade grew angrier and angrier, posting comments faster than anyone could undo them. They also trolled a particular feeds of a designers, possibly or not those designers had anything to do with a Mommy Shorts project. Designers like Riha no longer wanted to seem on Homepolish’s Instagram. “We were like, we don’t wish a photos on there since we don’t wish to be dragged under,” she says.

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