A CEO on Turning Your Side Hustle Into a Legit Business

Updated 12/18/17
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Courtesy of Fossil ; DESIGN: Viviana Duron

If you've pored over MyDomaine's home tour section or turned to Instagram for interior inspiration, chances are you've come across the work of Amber Lewis. The founder and CEO of Amber Interior Design has accrued a serious following thanks to her laid-back yet refined California cool aesthetic.

While she might be a household name among décor fans, Lewis's career took an unconventional route. After a brief stint in fashion school and a few semesters in the UCLA interior design program, she started a blog to document her experience as a first-time homeowner. Lewis had no formal training but an eye for great design. Fast-forward eight years, and she now runs a thriving full-service residential design firm and an e-commerce business and even designed her very first watch in collaboration with Fossil.

It's proof that there's no "right" way to pursue your dream career and that passion and talent can trump training.

Given her inspiring story, we invited Lewis to kick off our very first MyDomaine Mentors series, which gives you direct access to ask smart, successful women your burning career questions. You asked, she answered: Amber Lewis shares what it really takes to turn your passion project into a thriving business.

Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Amber Interior Design

When you decided to start your own business, what were the first few months like? Did you have consistent clients, or was it a struggle for a while?

"One of the reasons I started my business was because I began to get asked to help people design their homes. [During this time,] I made sure to self-promote what I was doing through blog posts and social media; I would show everything, even things I thought would be boring to readers, but it ultimately became content for the blog, and then the blog basically became a personal referral service."

Is there is one main thing that you credit with catapulting you from a great designer—like many others across the country—who no one really knew to a tastemaker and wildly popular household name in the design industry?

"I get asked this question all the time, and I still am not sure how to answer! I think timing and luck were huge factors for me. I was lucky enough to get my work in front of the right people at the right time, via the blog and social media. As I have grown, I have [also built] an amazing team that ultimately allows me to say yes to more opportunities that come my way. I hope to stay relevant by trying to evolve my designs, all the while staying true to my aesthetic. I don't want my work to become boring and run of the mill, so I am constantly trying to push myself creatively.

"Of course, as designers, we are always at the mercy of what our clients will and won't let us do, so I try to be choosy before I say yes to every project that comes our way. As a small-business owner, this has been the hardest rule to follow, but I want my brand to stand the test of time and not burn itself out. I want my business to be regarded as a serious firm, not just a 'pin-worthy' repeat of the last five jobs we have done!"

Is going to school for interior design important, or can you get into the field by interning and getting experience?

"I would say that school is important for almost everyone. I personally won't hire anyone who doesn't have experience in design school or at least a few years of working for a designer under their belt. I had faith I could harness my inner entrepreneur, so school wasn't in my plan, but I completely recommend it. I wish I had finished!"

What's the one thing you wish you'd known when starting out?

"There's always unexpected opportunities and partnerships that are going to come up, and you never know who you could partner with. Something that I learned when I first started my career is that you always need to be open-minded. For example, I recently collaborated with Fossil to design a watch, which was so unexpected but also so fun and rewarding to see a watch that I designed in stores now! The opportunities are really endless if you are willing to take a (creative) chance!"

john hardy jewelry
Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Amber Interior Design

Given that you're not formally trained, how did you get your first client to trust you, and was that a challenge?

"I showed up and did the work! I put in the hours for next to no pay and would throw my all into everything I was working on. At one point, I had a client who literally asked me to help her with her wedding and the décor-related [aspect of] it. Of course, I did and said yes to almost anything I was asked. Eventually, I proved to my clients that I was worth it, even though I wasn't formally trained. I could hustle, and that worked out for me."

How did you market yourself in the beginning, and what did you learn from that process?

"I didn't consciously market myself, and I think that was what I had going for me! I was 100% me, and it eventually became what people expected and still expect from me. As my business grows and as my online shop expands, marketing will probably come into play soon, but for now, being my own hype man and staying true to myself have worked out all right."

How do you find new vendors and artists you want to work with?

"I spend a lot of time shopping. It's my job. When I see something I like, I will often research the company and the product to make sure it's in line with my brand. I like companies with a story and working with brands that have a soul."

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Who should we feature for our next MyDomaine Mentor? Share your suggestions below for the opportunity to ask them your burning career questions.

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