When Passion Trumps Experience

A decade ago, Hanny Lerner knew nothing of the Internet or the meaning of the word reupholster. But over the last five years, the 29-year-old has built MOD Restoration into a multimillion-dollar furniture upholstering and design company largely through her marketing and social media savvy.

You might say Lerner is a quick study. She says she was just driven to become an entrepreneur—long before she knew the meaning of that word, either.

Raised in the Lubavitch tradition, as a member of the strict Orthodox Jewish sect, Lerner, the daughter of a rabbi, had a very sheltered upbringing with no exposure to TV or the Internet.

But as a child, Lerner would host her own summer day camps or carnivals for neighborhood kids, charging entrance fees. “Most kids my age were busy doing things for fun, and I was just trying to figure out how to make money,” she says. “So when I was able to finally get out and be an adult and make my own decisions, I realized dealing with people, selling things, marketing—all that stuff just came naturally to me.”

After marriage at 19 and a relatively quick divorce (which created friction and distance between her and her family), Lerner began to come into her own. She entered college, where she first experienced the Internet. After graduating with high honors in 2006 from Baruch College in New York City she worked for a marketing firm. “My boss told me, ‘You know, one day you’re going to start your own company,’ and then a few months later I left and started my own company,” Lerner says.

Through a mutual acquaintance, Lerner had met a man who would become her partner and spouse. Sim Fern repaired furniture and although Lerner knew little about his work, she persuaded him to start a company with her in 2009. Her idea was to go after larger retailers for contracts to repair furniture damaged while under warranty. Without experience or references she walked into a Crate & Barrel store, struck up a conversation with the manager and landed MOD Restoration’s first big client. Other deals came easily with Crate & Barrel, as well as Ethan Allen and Ashley Furniture, among others.

Hefty paydays didn’t come as easily, though. “We were working so hard, but we weren’t making the kind of money that I wanted to make as quickly as I wanted to make it,” she says. At an Entrepreneurs’ Organization Accelerator program meeting, Lerner asked for advice, and a businessman said there was no way their business would generate the kind of revenue she wanted “because how many work orders or repair orders can you possibly do to make it to that level?” Lerner explains. “I realized that if I was just complacent with the few hundred grand a year, then that’s fine. But I was not. I was shooting for the stars. And I made a decision, literally in one day, that it’s over.”

That was in 2011, so instead of repairing furniture, they began to redesign it. The company went from zero to 90-plus customers in three days, all thanks to a Groupon offer that sold for $95 and could be redeemed for $200 worth of work. “Suddenly we were in business,” Lerner says. “It was amazing!”

Except that they didn’t have people to do the work, so they outsourced a lot of it. “It took us a little while to figure out how to build our own infrastructure and to have our own staff and our own facility, but we got it done,” she says.

There were other things to be figured out—accounting, insurance, employment laws. “Most people, when they start out, think, ‘Oh, I can do it myself,’ which is what I thought I could do—and it took me three years to clean up the mess. Not just me, but it took several accountants, several bookkeepers, to clean up the royal mess from the beginning.”

Lerner recommends getting help with various aspects of the business while making sure to “wrap your head around every detail of what’s entailed before handing it off to someone else. You can lose a handle on what’s really going on, and you wouldn’t know because you just let someone else learn it instead of you yourself learning it.”

Today MOD employs 15 people and does work for designers who are commissioned by their clients, as well as for individuals who seek MOD’s full menu of services, including design.

The face of the brand has been Lerner, who’s often mistaken for a model with her extravagant coifs, flawless makeup and designer  duds.

But this marketing savant also leans heavily on social media and makes sure to keep the website current, informative and hip. She’s fanatical about details—from the fonts used in emails with clients to the quality of MOD’s finished product. She also makes sure the blog is constantly updated.

“Being so young makes me aware of a whole different element to doing business,” Lerner says. “It’s all about social media, branding, marketing—you can’t just sit there and expect business to come from the Yellow Pages or by knocking on people’s doors.”

What’s next for Lerner? A line of furniture in the next five years, possibly MOD franchising—maybe even other entrepreneurial pursuits.

“In my life, I look at everything as a massive learning experience that will take me to the next level, whatever it is, whether personal, business or whatever. This business obviously is my first real company, and I love it to death. It’s my baby, but I don’t think that this is my ultimate.”


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