Life & Business

Life & Business: Inigo Elizalde

by Sabrina Smelko


Our heritage can often be the most powerful source of inspiration — from the memories of a physical place, to the colors and textures we’re used to from our upbringing, to the devotion to a traditional craft. Our roots never truly go away, and when embraced, often lead to great things.

Born in the town of Manila in the Philippines, in the midst of a powerful typhoon, the whirlwind that is Inigo Elizalde’s career and life hasn’t stopped since. After moving to NYC, Inigo enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting before starting work as an Art Director at Rafe NY, a lifestyle brand known for its handbags and textiles. After years of soaking up all of the knowledge he could, and sharpening his teeth in all things production and design, Inigo got burnt out and reluctantly decided to quit his job and move back home to Manila. During his time in the Philippines, he was approached by a friend to create some designs for a rug collection. The moment he stepped foot into the rug mill and saw his creations come to life was all he needed to fully realize his desire to create his own brand and studio. After mustering enough courage, he moved back to New York to launch the textile brand Inigo Elizalde Rugs with just a head full of ideas and a heart full of passion.

A proud member of GoodWeave, Inigo specializes in Nepalese hand-knotted rugs, as well as hand-tufted rugs, flat weaves and dhurries, drawing inspiration from nature and his Spanish-Filipino heritage. All of his rugs are handmade using traditional methods with the goal of making people feel more alive through considerate use of colors and textures, and great attention to detail and quality. Though those first few years were back-breakingly difficult, Inigo is now proud to have a talented staff, an office in New York, and five impressive rug collections under his belt. Today, we’re thrilled to have Inigo join us to share his extensive and refreshingly honest wealth of business knowledge, and more about his struggle, his start and where he finds himself now. –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

I started my own business because I like stress, pain and anxiety — and throw in sleepless nights, hours of worry and backbreaking work. Ha! I’m kidding. I started my own business because I wanted to create a work environment that functioned more like a collaborative design studio rather than something corporate. I wanted to be creative and invent a new way of working for myself.

To be perfectly honest, this business sort of fell into my lap. I had been working in fashion as an Art Director and Branding Manager for many years and got into a work situation where I simply became burnt-out, so I took a break. During that break, someone made me an offer to design a line of rugs for their showroom, I said yes, and the rugs were made and immediately sold out – and BOOM, the birth of a new business was made. Also, coming from a family of entrepreneurs, I have lived with the process of building a business from the ground up and understood the challenges and the benefits. At the end of the day, knowing that goals are attainable with proper planning led me to do this. And most importantly, I REALLY don’t like people telling me what to do.


Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do? 

I have always had a love for textiles, painting and drawing since as far back as I can remember – I have a degree in Painting from RISD – so I see what I do now as a combination of these things. I first learned about the world of rugs and rug-making when I started what I like to call “this experiment”: I was in my hometown, Manila, after leaving my job in NYC, and an old family friend who happens to own a rug mill asked me to come up with some designs for her company. I gave them some designs and thought that was that, but my friend had other intentions. She basically hijacked me and took me to her giant, amazing, beautiful mill, and I fell in love with the sight of things being made and people working together to make them happen. The minute I stepped into that mill, I knew this was it for me, and while we were watching my designs being made right in front of my eyes, the lightbulb went off in my head. I fell in love with the whole process of seeing something I designed and loved made in front of my eyes. It’s one of the biggest joys I can think of. Still now, when I have the amazing privilege of sitting and watching our weavers work on our rugs in Nepal, I’m telling you, if I had a tail, it would be waggin’!

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

“You have to do this on your own.” I had tried to get work at rug showrooms in the D&D building and was turned down by everyone! In hindsight, I now think, “thank goodness!” You have to have strength and courage and conviction to start your own thing and see it through all of the ups and downs.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Starting it alone; physical exhaustion. Rugs are not light and lugging them around in a suitcase for meetings all over the city was pretty taxing. Just the basics of finding a place to work out of was also hard – oh the “offices” I’ve had! Mentally being alone with nobody to bounce ideas off of was also a bit tough. When I started, it was just me doing everything: design work, mill research, manufacturing research, sales, accounting, packing and shipping. It was very tiring. I would arrive all sweaty and crazed to meetings, so I had a pause, did some accounting and realized I had amassed enough funds to be able to rent a shared studio space to call an office, and it was uphill from there.


Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

You reap what you sow, and how a little generosity can go a very long way – with clients, with potential clients and especially with my prize: my staff. Choose your battles wisely, learn patience, and keep a sense of humor. Terrible things have happened to the point where the only thing I could do was laugh in the general direction of the problem at hand and move on. I’ve also learned to trust, especially with our many manufacturers. We give them our designs and they have the challenge to make them, which they do beautifully. I’ve also learned that it is super important to just be yourself and let your freak-flag fly. If I design something unique and sell it to someone, I am giving them part of myself to share and being true to myself is important.

Another lesson I have not really learned myself, but want to impart anyway, is that you have to set boundaries for yourself and your work. I had a deal with myself when I started all of this that if my business was not doing well by the time I hit 40, I would throw in the towel and head back home. But I have to admit, that when I hit 40 and we were doing phenomenally well, a little bit of me cried when I realized that I now had to put this into overdrive and not give up and work even harder! I’m quite content these days with how everything is going, but it’s important I take real weekends off and keep the laptop shut when I get home from the studio. But at the same time, I am rarely without a camera to capture inspiration with. Just keep in mind: live life, you only have one! (I think…)

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

It’s not black and white, and I wouldn’t call it a failure – it was more of a realization – but at first, I spent a lot of time looking at the competition, reading design magazines, obsessing over what was out there and how I could measure up, rather than focusing on what was inside of me and the special things that make my work different. I had to go inward and focus on my unique voice. So I focused on my own vision, on creating a company culture that reflected my values, and holding important what I found important.


If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I would cook more, eat more, and sleep more.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Vacation time and personal relationships. I usually travel for work and did so much at the start that it kind of hurt a relationship I was in. (It’s all good now though!)

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

I was out of the country recently for work, so my staff was basically running the NY studio, and since we were Skyping every night, I could see they were a bit stressed because we were super busy and I kept throwing new projects at them. When I got back to NY to my desk, I received an email from a colleague and friend that we work with a lot. She told me that in my absence, my staff had more than taken care of her every need and that they never dropped a single ball. That made me so, so, so proud. As for my greatest success, it is basically just remaining sane after six years doing this and being happy and being able to pay our rent and pay my staff and work on beautiful projects. It’s great to work with talented people, getting to travel to exotic lands for work and sourcing and just being here, still trucking along. Success to me is getting better and better with experience and knowledge, still working hard on ever-growing projects, and still smiling.


What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson and Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Gold Book of Yes! Attitude: How to find, build, and keep a YES! attitude for a lifetime of SUCCESS. That said, not paying too much attention to a lot of advice from these books and winging it in my own way has worked. Being a Branding Manager in a previous life also helped a lot. Business is in my blood and I am not a lazy person and work very hard at what I want to achieve. I migrated here from halfway around the world to do this. I do not feel self-entitled, which is very dangerous when you do your own thing. I also find that it is important to take the time to think things through. There is no rush, you are on your own clock and make your own deadlines, but you must make deadlines. I don’t think any books can really teach you these things.

One very good resource that I was privy to was my former job. I started as their graphic designer and knew early on that I would eventually want to do something on my own, so I turned myself into a sponge – I soaked in EVERYTHING. I soaked in knowledge about design, production, lead times, costing to the trade, to the market to the stores. I learned photography and graphic design – my degree is in Painting, received before the dawn of the laptop, so I had no clue about this one – materials use and ad campaigns. Basically, I learned how to run a design business, so when I left after giving it my all for what seemed like eternity, I had mega knowledge under my belt. Its funny, I recently had dinner with my former boss and told him, “You know, I really would not have been able to drive my business to where we are right now if I hadn’t worked for you. I learned everything from you.” His reply: “ Um, I think you may have learned everything NOT to do!”

Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

I’ve definitely learned to choose my battles and can sense red flags right off the bat. If I sense a red flag with a project, I tend to walk away or just tell the client that it is not going to work out. But I’m a super “YES, WE CAN!” kind of guy, so I’ve only done that once! We rarely say no to any of our clients. It is all about incredible customer service!

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In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Do you have enough capital to start and maintain a business, even through lean times?

2. Do you have the courage, patience and nerve to see this thing through?

3. Do you have a network to draw on for business?

4. Are you knowledgeable about the business you are starting?

Okay, that’s four, but I could surely go on… If you don’t have proper funds, please don’t be deluded – you need them. Nothing is free. Save up, take up a loan. NYC is very friendly to small business owners and start ups, and there are lots of programs to help you along. Please read all the fine print.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

Self-discipline and having enough courage to steer my staff and business to bigger, better places on a daily basis. It’s also hard not to doubt or second-guess myself. It’s scary to constantly trust your gut and go from there. There’s always this tiny little monkey on my back asking me “Are you sure this is the right decision?” It’s very annoying. But, at the end of the day, it all boils down to this: I’ve always said and told everyone I know that if I had a good singing voice, I would NEVER stop singing. I have found my voice, and this is how I sing.


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  • Great article – but please- a little more careful copyediting. RISD is not located in NYC as stated in the article. It is in Providence, RI

    • Heidi

      I re-read this to be sure, but I don’t see anywhere that says RISD is in NYC? The intro says he enrolled there after a move to NYC (so he left NYC to go to school)… is that what you mean?


  • I am not a small business owner, and for the time being don’t aspire to be, but I nevertheless got so much inspiration from this interview. Love the honestly and I loved the last two lines. Thank you!

  • This is fantastic, I really appreciate the Life + Business column so much and especially the honesty in this interview with Inigo. It’s really easy to be discouraged when starting a new business but it’s so helpful to hear the truth from creative business owners about how they started. It’s reassuring to hear about the challenges of doing everything and feelings of isolation and to know that’s part of the process. I especially love the point Inigo made about being obsessed with the competion but having to look inward to find his own voice in order to stand out. I leave inspired to create and ready to attach my massive to-do pile! Thanks for a great interview as ever and for highlighting Inigo’s amazing work.