Lily Kanter has had an amazing career. After leaving Microsoft at aged 35, she opened the Mill Valley Baby & Kids Company, and now she’s the CEO and cofounder of Serena & Lily, a Sausalito based California life style brand for the home and fashion. I'm extremely excited to share an exclusive interview with Lily Kanter.
After retiring from Microsoft, why open the Mill Valley Baby & Kids Company?
It was hard to find exactly what I wanted for my baby’s nursery so I set out to create a high end baby store. At the time, Gordonsbury was the only option and they had three collections - safari, farm, and flowers. It was very refined and didn’t have wide appeal. I had it in my nursery but it was very expensive and had a specific look. Bellisimo was also in the marketplace but I didn’t love it.
What inspired you to start Serena & Lily?
In October 2003, Serena, a freelance textile designer and decorative painter, walked into my store the day I was giving birth to my second child and left her portfolio. The next day, I stopped by the store to introduce my new baby to everyone when I saw her work. I literally called her that day and told her, "I love your portfolio. When are we going to meet?" She said, “Didn’t you have a baby yesterday?” I told her "It was my second baby, I'm fine.”
We met a few weeks later and I went through all her portfolios. Our conversation went something like this: Lily: "The world needs baby bedding.” Serena: ” It’s funny you say that because what I want for my nursery doesn’t exist today.” Lily: “Really? Do have something in mind?” Serena: "I do." Lily: "Great, bring it to me." We partnered two hours after we met and launched a baby line. Six months later we were selling our products in 600 stores.
Partnerships fail more often then they succeed. Besides a shared vision, how did you know that Serena was the person you could partner with?
Intuition and we’re both strong communicators. Partnerships are like a marriage; we've had our ups and downs and it requires constant over-communication. We completely have distinct domains. Serena is in charge of the creative and I'm in charge of the business. The good thing about our partnership is we can talk each other off a ledge at different time periods. Having a company is a series of extreme highs and lows and there's nothing in between.
When Serena & Lily first started, what expectations did you have, and how have they evolved?
There was never an expectation. We just put one foot in front of the other. Customers who bought our baby bedding wanted more as their baby transitioned to big girl/boy beds. In response to this demand, we created a line of kids bedding. Then two years after that we created a line of adult bedding, two years after that we did furniture and decorative accessories. The business evolves according to demand. Over time, we were able to employ more people who knew what they were doing. For years, it was just the two of us and an assistant. In fact, employee #1 still works for us. She packed our original boxes and is a lead in the warehouse today.
Who influenced your business and design style?
Serena does all the designs which are our own. I would describe it as classic, timeless, iconic with a new twist. Our business is inspired by Ralph Lauren in terms of it being a lifestyle brand. We’re also very influenced by heritage brands like Hermès. However, we really are charting our own path around a unique brand built on a foundation of pattern, color, and style.
In 2013, Serena & Lily abandoned the wholesale concept, opting for a 100% direct to consumer model. It couldn’t have been an easy decision to withdraw out of retail. Why did you decide to do that?
We were building up our direct to consumer business, when the economy crashed in 2008. Many of the independent specialty stores went out of business. That made our wholesale distribution go down. We found that as we were building our direct to consumer business we were competing against our wholesale channel. We would drop a catalog in the mail and retail establishments would offer incentives like discounts, free shipping, or gift cards. So people would look us up and buy elsewhere. At that point, our direct to consumer business was bigger then our wholesale business so we "unplugged.”
What was your first big break?
Getting to decorate Violet Affleck’s nursery (daughter of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck.) We had a two page article in People Magazine for designing her nursery and became the nursery designers for the stars. That was a nice pop early in our business in 2006. We continue to design a lot of Hollywood nurseries.
Any advice you can share with other entrepreneurs?
The entrepreneurs that succeed get knocked down every day, get up, brush themselves off, and start a new day. There’s no easy road, you have to remain optimistic, keep an open mind, and you have to be tenacious. Surround yourself with smarter people then yourself. I know I make it sound easy. It has not been easy and takes a lot of perseverance.
You donate and support a huge range of wonderful charities but what are the causes that speak to your heart?
I’m involved with Jewish Family and Services because they are doing amazing work for the community. My kids go to Brandeis Hillel and I’m a very passionate supporter of the school from a heritage stand point. I’m very involved with Free the Children, a 20 year old organization started by a 12 year old. Free the Children inspires kids to change the world. Their event, We Day California is unbelievable, with 20,000 kids screaming for social change. They've built 650 schools around the world, they have five million Facebook fans, and the kids are about 10-15. We’ve been to Kenya on a family volunteer project with them and this year we’re going India to do another volunteer project. My kids love them and have raised a lot of money to support them too.
What are your favorite things to do in your hometown, Mill Valley, CA?
I play tennis every weekend at Boyle Park. My husband and I walk to town every morning on the weekend with our dog and go for coffee either at Equator or The Depot. 90% of my grocery shopping is at Mill Valley Market. We eat at El Paseo once a week. Last night we were at Bungalow. I do all of my clothing shopping at The Store or Margaret O’Leary and I buy a ton of my home decor from Summerhouse.
Do you have any favorite shops in the Bay Area?
We just introduced apparel this past spring. Nearly everything is sold out. We have the two store in the Hampton's and San Francisco and we’re opening two more retail stores in Los Angeles and Westport, Connecticut. And we have a beautiful apparel line coming out this fall that we’re really excited about.
Lily Kanter is the co-founder and CEO of Serena & Lily, a home and lifestyle brand with a fresh, California point of view. For more information, visit the Serena & Lily website, Houzz, Facebook, Pintrest, and Instagram.