Biz Ladies Profile: Piet Houtenbos

Stephanie Todaro, 2013


Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from New York-based designer Piet Houtenbos. Starting off his career in the vintage furniture design industry, sparked Piet’s creative interests and biz savvy.  After working for established design businesses and selling his own designs on the side for a time, he eventually decided to embark on his own. Today he shares with us some of what he has learned and is still learning along his creative business journey.


STEPHANIE TODARO: Why did you decide to start your own business?

PIET HOUTENBOS: At the time it was just sort of the thing to do.  Early on I was selling the grenade oil lamps while designing furniture for modernlink.  After that I slowly grew it into a small fledgeling business with a few more expensive things while at the same time taking full time jobs from time to time (thats how I paid for the more expensive things!).  It was a lot of fun seeing a product that was all yours penetrate slowly or rapidly into the world.  At some point it just turns a little more real and you have to follow the path that unfolds.  It could be quick for some people or a slow crawl, but eventually if you keep dabbling it’ll happen one way or another.

ST: When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

PH: Well, like I said, I got my start with those funny but poignant grenade oil lamps.  At the same time I was surrounded by some incredibly timeless furniture at modernlink where I was working.  I found a world of incredibly beautiful things designed in the 1950′s and 60′s and became very inspired by it all.  The impact of working there and watching people buy furniture and objects that were 50 years old at a price way higher than its original price made me realize the power of good, thoughtful, considered design.  It wasn’t that I wanted to emulate midcentury modern design (which is what I was doing at the time). I wanted to try to design things that were new but stood the test of time in some way, with my own thoughts and style.  Don’t design a lot of things, just a few well considered things.  And hopefully those things will be loved for many years and help to push design forward in some small way.  It didn’t matter really what I was designing and I didn’t want to design one genre exclusively, like furniture or, home accessories.  I hoped that designing a broad range of things would help me become a better designer.  And it has.  The same basic design ethos pretty much flows through all products.  You just have to figure out how to apply them to a new flavor of soup every time.

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

PH: “Not yet, you’re too young.”  They were probably right but I did it anyway!

ST: What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

PH: Doing it alone.  I think the best piece of advice I can give is find someone who shares your interests and ideas and do it as a team.  Maybe it’s two strong designers, maybe it’s a business person who’s got a keen eye for design, just someone who you can bounce ideas off you, someone who’s strong where you’re weak.  Its important on many levels.  For one thing, it’ll keep you from daydreaming all day!

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

PH: Listen to people – but in the end do what you think is right.  Everyone will have their opinion.  You’ll be wrong as much as you’re right and you’ll learn the best lessons from making your own mistakes.  Be humble and realize someone else may have a better solution than the one you came up with.

ST: Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

PH: I almost went broke trying to bring the Diamond Mirror to fruition.  The process of making them was so hard and time consuming I thought I should only subject the best glass in the world to the process.  I sourced a few different extremely expensive glass materials and despite some very simple and direct problems with using them, I pressed on trying to think my way out of the materials inherent problems within. It was my design side totally taking over and not letting the business side have any say.  After trying countless things and finally stepping back, I realized even I couldn’t tell the minute differences between the qualities of glass and it was simply a bunch of time and money wasted on the ill-fated pursuit for perfection.   The important thing learned the hard way (but I think you have to learn it that way) is that perfection is a myth, and don’t let your heart take you too far off course.

ST: Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

PH: It never seems to be from any particular business savvy I have.  The greatest feelings always come from people, or blogs, or magazines or newspapers that want to feature your work and you can tell they actually love it.  It’s a small satisfaction that tells you you’re doing the right thing.  And you know, I actually think blogs are becoming the most powerful way to get your work out if you’re a new young designer or even a veteran.

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

PH: Ha, I think The Innovator’s Dilemma is a good book, but I haven’t read it yet!  The Long Tail is an oldie but goodie.  I would also read Seth Godin’s blog every day.  Somehow everything he says sounds so simple and feels like you already knew it (but didn’t).  It’s like a design you look at that’s so pretty and well thought out and you think, man I wish I would have thought of that.  The reality is you didn’t, or at least you didn’t go out and make it like you should have.

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

PH: If you dont think its good enough then it isn’t.  Keep trying till you get it right or throw it away and start over. Be frugal with what you have.  Be picky about what you do when you can. Don’t do it all by yourself.  Its pretty hard to work in a bubble, and when you’re not great at something find someone who’s better.

ST: Thank you for sharing your story with us today, Piet!