The popular homegoods brand Serena & Lily has expanded over the past decade from its beginnings as a line of design-focused nursery goods to its signature take on organic, modern decor throughout the residence. Its co-founder Serena Dugan remains the company’s chief creative, drawing from her background in art and decoration to create an ever-expanding array of offerings imbued with her own sense of relaxed sophistication. “We’ve always been a design company with a point of view on style, the home, and how we want to live,” Serena explains. “Each new category we’ve gone into has felt like a natural extension of that vision.”
Along with co-founder Lily Kanter, Serena leads a successful company that has expanded its reach into furniture, bedding, apparel, and lifestyle items. “It was all a challenge, but it was all exciting and I was fueled by the vision of an aesthetic, a product, and a brand that was forming,” she admits. Serena recognizes the opportunity to learn from struggles had along the way, and constantly reminds herself, “If it was easy, everyone would do it!”
To her, the business seems almost like a child. “I brought it into the world before having kids, and feel a responsibility to its success that’s deep and personal.” And, like with family, each proud moment along the way provides tremendous joy. “Highlights and successes had the same feeling, the same glory, when we were tiny as they do now.” —Annie
Photography courtesy of Serena Dugan
Why did you decide to start your own business?
At the time that Lily and I met in 2003, I was a freelance decorative artist and textile designer and Lily had a beautiful baby boutique in Mill Valley. After meeting at her store, we commiserated over the lack of great options in the baby bedding world. I explained that what I would want to buy didn’t exist and she asked me to describe it to her. I described a far more sophisticated vision than what predominated nursery design. Having seen my line of hand-printed textiles, she, in that first meeting, asked to partner and start a line of baby bedding. We set out to truly shift the design paradigm in the nursery, and I believe we really did that, with principals that have carried well through the whole home and fashion as our line has grown up.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what it would be?
We started with nursery, but didn’t feel that it was strictly a baby line. We felt like it was home decor, and the products at the time were for the nursery. We’ve always been a design company with a point of view on style, the home, and how we want to live. Each new category we’ve gone into has felt like a natural extension of that vision.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
This mantra: If it was easy, everyone would do it! (I remind myself of that often.)
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
You name it. Neither Lily nor I had a corporate retail or manufacturing background, so we learned it all on the fly. We didn’t know what “cut and sew” meant, what short vs. long-lead press was, the nuances of a VC terms sheet, how to choose a warehouse that was the proper size… you name it. And in those early days you’re doing it all and it’s sink or swim. It was all a challenge, but it was all exciting and I was fueled by the vision of an aesthetic, a product, and a brand that was forming.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
To know what I’m good at and what I’m not so great at. Don’t try to be involved in everything, and double-down where I’m of most value. Chances are that’s where I’m happiest, so I have greater horsepower where I have the greatest longevity.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experience?
I prefer to see what could be “failures” as a personal opportunity. Challenges are plentiful when you’re chasing a big idea, whether it’s challenges achieving the right quality in a product, challenges bringing a pattern to paper that I see clearly in my head, challenges finding the right storefront in NYC, or challenges balancing the creative needs of a design-driven brand with the real needs of a growing business. But each day and each challenge brings learning and growth, and I rise in small measure through the challenge.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
This business is my first child. I brought it into the world before having kids, and feel a responsibility to its success that’s deep and personal. Therefore I never leave it… it comes home with me when I leave the office, regardless of how big we grow or how old the company gets. But just like kids, I feel pride and joy for our successes here and can’t imagine it differently.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experience?
Highlights and successes had the same feeling, the same glory, when we were tiny as they do now. They are all of the points of pride around achieving an objective. I love the milestones, because they are the moments that you can sit back and look at something and see what you’ve worked so hard on. Holding our first catalog felt the same as looking at the sign going up on our first store, or seeing the first shirt dress in our apparel collection. They’re moments of pride and reflection, and thank goodness for them, otherwise there would be no way to signpost all the hard work and say, “I’m proud of us.”
What business books and resources would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I’m a big fan of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It made a huge difference in guiding me towards my passion in life… as self-help as it sounds — no one needs more guidance than the designer/artist/rogue entrepreneur! You have to find internal guidance in a big way, and learn how to constantly access it. The Artist’s Way is a bible to so many creative people I know. I also really believe that the universe supports creative risk, and you should knock on every door available to you. Ask for informational meetings. Learn as much as you can. Work your references, and believe in yourself and your mission.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Are you truly passionate about what you want to introduce to the world? Do you believe it needs to be said and you are just the right person to say it?
2. Do you have the resources — both personally and monetarily — to accomplish your goal AND be successful once you’ve hit the phase right after accomplishing your goal?
3. Do you have strength to weather both success and failure, and the optimism to see failure as necessary on the path to success?