AN ENTREPRENEUR WHO WOULDN'T BE STOPPED BY ANYTHING
c.2013 New York Times News Service
Hanny Lerner estimates that 80 percent of her customers find her company, MOD Restoration, at the website she designed. Lerner, 29, does not code, but she has experience in user-interface design and created the screen blueprints for her site.
None of this would be especially notable if not that, for most of her life, Lerner didn’t know that the Internet existed. The daughter of a rabbi, she grew up in what she calls an “ultra-Hasidic” home, where information about the outside world was limited. Not until she was estranged from her family and community did she fully experience the broader world.
She founded MOD, which has about 10 employees and is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2009 to handle furniture repair claims for corporate clients like Crate & Barrel. But after two years, she switched to reupholstering, kick-starting the new business with a Groupon deal. This year, she said, she will finish with sales of just less than $2 million, serving customers like the Barclays Center and Long Island Hospital. She explained her unusual journey in a recent conversation that has been edited and condensed.
Q: What is your educational background?
A: I attended Hasidic schools as a child. By eighth grade, I’d started acting out and questioning everything. I’d ask, ‘Why do you do this?’ And the answer was ‘faith, faith, faith.’ I was kicked out of school in Brooklyn because I was a bad influence. None of the other local schools would take me. So my family shipped me off to an all-girls Orthodox boarding school in the boondocks of Ohio. Then, after high school, the culture of ultrareligious Hasidic Jews is you go to seminary for a year in Israel. So I did that. But they threw me out after they caught me at the mall going to see a movie. So I had to go back to New York, where, at 19, I married a Hasidic boy and started attending Brooklyn College. By the time I graduated, with a degree in business finance and marketing, I was divorced. Nobody in my family or community would speak to me.
Q: What were your first steps after leaving your marriage and community?
A: I had $30,000 that I’d saved up and used for a down payment on an apartment. I was always saving. When I was younger, I worked for my mom, who’s a dentist, in her office. As a little kid, I ran day camps and carnivals, so I saved money from that. But most of it came from buying and selling cars online, which I did for about a year and a half.
Q: How did you get involved in that?
A: Where I grew up, no one cares about material things. But I loved cars. I bought my first car, a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, at 18, sold it a few years later and made a $4,000 profit. So I kept doing it. When I was 20, I met a guy who sold used cars in Queens, and I asked if I could learn the business. I saw that plenty of people were buying used cars — and eBay Motors had just come out.
Q: What was your first real job after graduating from college?
A: Working as an associate at an interactive marketing firm. When I started in 2008, I didn’t even know what Outlook was. I was making money, but I’d never had a proper job. I figured I needed to learn a thing or two. On the job, I couldn’t tell people I didn’t know how to do something, so I’d just Google it. After four months, I was promoted to director of digital marketing.
Q: How did you even get hired?
A: A religious friend of mine worked at the company. He helped me with my résumé — we got really creative — and he taught me what I needed to know to go on an interview and be a marketing expert. I killed it in the interview.
Q: When did you leave the firm?
A: After about a year and a half — eight months after I founded MOD.
Q: Why furniture repair?
A: While working at the marketing firm, I met Sim Fern, who was 24, like me, and repairing furniture for Jennifer Convertibles. I thought it was fascinating that someone our age was fixing furniture — who does that? I suggested he start his own company, but he said, “No, that’s not for me.” I told him that if he wasn’t going to do it, I would. So I started the company. Then I convinced him to quit his job and come onboard once we got our first customer. We got married that year. He’s now MOD’s vice president — and we’re in the process of getting divorced, while remaining business partners.
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Q: Who was your first customer?
A: Crate & Barrel in Paramus, N.J. I was shopping at the outlet malls there and went in and asked to speak to the manager. It was this nice woman who was studying to become a minister. In Manhattan, they would have laughed at me. But I convinced her to give us a chance. After that job, she referred us to other Crate & Barrels. Once you have one big client, it’s easier.
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Q: Why switch from repairing furniture?
A: It was 2011, and our sales were about $350,000. I was in the Entrepreneurs’ Organization Accelerator program, which is for businesses with sales under a million. At a meeting, I said I didn’t see how I’d get to a million repairing furniture for a few hundred dollars a claim. Someone said I was in the wrong business. That night, I told Sim we were getting out of the repair business. Reupholstering had an element of fashion to it, which I love, and instead of hundreds per job, it’s thousands.
Q: How did you get started?
A: I called Groupon and said I wanted to run a discount. We didn’t have a single upholsterer on staff. I knew nothing about upholstery. But Groupon thought I was an upholstery company because why would they think I wasn’t if I’m offering the service? We sold 90 Groupons the first day. We rented 100 square feet in a friend’s kitchen and bath supply warehouse and packed it with furniture to reupholster. People thought it was a furniture store. We hired one employee to do the work and then called every single reupholstering company we knew to subcontract out the rest.
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Q: Was it difficult to handle the rush of Groupon customers?
A: It was really stressful, but people were satisfied. Some wanted to see our office, which was awkward. We’d do everything we could to talk them out of it. But one person insisted on dropping her furniture off. She turned around and left when she saw our space.
Q: How did you get clients after the Groupon deal?
A: At first, we took whatever came to us. As our online presence grew, designers started calling. Then we transitioned to clubs, hotels and other big clients.
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Q: How did you build an online presence?
A: We tried paid advertising on Yelp, which was successful. With Google AdWords, it was trial and error. But we hired a consultant to handle it for us. We tried Citysearch and Angie’s List, but neither worked for us. In the beginning, we advertised on Facebook, and didn’t get a single click. It’s better now, but not as effective as Yelp or Google, which we still use. And Groupon still works for us.
Q: Do you speak with your family today?
A: My father died when I was 16, and I am in touch with my mother and sisters.