Learning from Shanna Tellerman's Path of Building Modsy

She launched an interior design service, but she hadn’t accounted for treadmills. Or dog beds. Another customer wanted their design to incorporate a cat jungle gym.

“People are very, very unique,” says Shanna Tellerman, CEO of Modsy, a design service that renders a photorealistic digital model of your home and stocks it with shoppable furniture and goods to your taste.

The technology is astounding. With a background in 3D visualization, Tellerman built a product so life-like it literally causes people’s jaws to drop. When Modsy tested its prototype on focus groups, participants were stunned that their virtual homes not only looked incredibly real — they were gorgeous.

“That’s when we knew we were building something pretty special here,” says Tellerman. Later, those focus group videos helped convince investors of Modsy’s market fit before launching in 2015.

Modsy now employs a full-time team of 90 in its San Francisco and Portland offices, plus contracts over 200 freelance designers in its style network. Upon closing its Series B in December 2017, the company has secured a total $33.75 million in funding from the likes of Comcast Ventures, Northwest Venture Partners, and more. In 2018 Tellerman recruited executive power players for its CTO, COO, and VP of finance positions.

She needs the help. Modsy is a complex consumer-facing product that becomes more complicated as it grows. The company sends designs to customers every day, so its pipeline has to be efficient and accurate. “If we have a thousand more customers than we planned next week, it’s going to throw everything off because we have to have enough staffing for it,” says Tellerman.  

Treadmills and dog beds were relatively minor customer demands in the scheme of things. Tellerman hadn’t expected them, but her team adjusted. What she wishes she realized sooner was just how important price is to pulling the trigger on a big purchase like furniture.

“Thinking about that buying behavior in the first year would have been extremely valuable,” says Tellerman. After all, today’s consumers are expert comparison shoppers; they research costs and read product reviews. “But I also think we’re at a point where people are a little bit overwhelmed, especially when it comes to furniture,” says Tellerman, whose idea for Modsy came when she and her husband were so stumped by furniture shopping that their new apartment sat virtually empty for two years.

At Modsy, a customer’s design is linked to an aggregated shopping cart that layers the company’s own discounts with those of partner sites. The platform also allows customers to swap design suggestions for products at lower price points. Modsy monetizes by collecting an upfront service fee as well as taking a commission on any furniture sales.

Despite the company’s success, Tellerman says worry is constant for a founder. Are people going to buy this? Am I going to be able to pay the people I’ve hired to continue to build this? “That fear never ever goes away as long as you run a business, as far as I can tell,” says Tellerman.

She’s beginning to make peace with the inherent uncertainty of her career, however. Nothing tested her more than preparing for her first child. Unlike the majority male-led companies, where executives rarely take full paternity leave, Tellerman needed to plan for a period of complete absence.

“When you’re a woman you have to prepare to actually completely physically remove yourself and be completely unavailable,” she says. For her that meant at least six weeks while her body healed from labor and she bonded with her newborn.

Tellerman decided motherhood was the perfect opportunity to empower her team. She sat down and listed every single thing she did and asked herself three questions: 1) Is this a thing I should be doing at all, or can I hand this off for someone else to own? 2) Who can take this over while I’m out? 3) In what circumstances, if things came crashing down, would I be available, and how do I guide my team to make that call?

By the time she gave birth last fall, she knew she was ready. And when she returned, her team was thriving.

When asked the primary benefit of being a founder, Tellerman laughs. “That’s a good question. This is a super stressful job and it’s kind of a crazy thing to do.” But it’s her love of building something with a group of people that keeps her coming back for more. She calls the creation process “magic.”

Her mantra as an entrepreneur, which doubles as one of Modsy’s core values is simple: “Assembly required.” The creation, the journey, is the thing they’re doing every day. It’s not about the end outcome. It’s not about some future goal. The assembly is the job.

Even when that job means assembling a treadmill.

Learning from Shanna Tellerman's Path of Building Modsy