Karen John, Heartwork, Entrepreneur
A few years ago I went down to Philly for an event that supported women entrepreneurs. I met a group of incredible women. I had lunch with them and spent the day with a few of them afterward. One woman, Jane Hoffer, was looking for her next gig and willing to move even though she had teenage kids. That random event brought Jane Hoffer to littleBits through me where she was the COO for the next few years. littleBits has grown many times over since Jane walked in the door and it was time for Jane to make her next move. She is now the COO/President of Heartwork. We got together and I asked her to intro me to the founder, Karen Johnson. I really love what Karen is building and as always all of Karen’s dots connect to get her to where she is today.
Karen grew up in Stockton, CA. Her father is an Ob-gyn and her mom is a self-starter entrepreneur. At one point someone was stealing from her father’s office and Karen’s mom got in there and cleaned up the books. She saw that they were spending a fortune on outsourcing the lab work and decided to bring it in house. She bought a bunch of buildings across from the hospital, turned them into labs and changed their business model. It was a time when healthcare was changing and her mom saw the writing on the wall. That was 30 years ago.
Her mom also loved designed. She worked with a designer to do the office with pink filing cabinets and pop-art. This designer was super creative. Karen met him when she was about 9 years old and he made an impact on her. He took spaces and mixed then with old and new. It inspired her to think about going in to design when she applied to UCLA.
Karen graduated from high school and went to UCLA where she majored in art history and business. She became involved with Exposure Magazine while she was there which was a start-up mag in the design world. It was eventually bought by Fairchild and everyone had to go get jobs elsewhere but she just continued on with school. She found a program for her junior year abroad in Florence that was around Italian design. She spent the summer there getting to visit every top designer. It was eye opening. Europeans were always design oriented connecting with the brand through and through. There was also a separation there between creativity and business. One of the studios that intrigued her was Antonio Citterio, of B&B Italia. She got to know him and his wife.
After graduating UCLA she went back to Florence to do a bike trip with her parents. She called Citterio’s wife and asked if she could stay and shadow her or be an intern. She told her that she had no design degree but she said yes. She let her do a color board and realized she had a nose for it and they offered her a job. The advice Karen got was to apply to design school if she loved design and so she did. She went to the Domus Academy in Milan. Every single big designer spoke to the students in this program. She began speaking very broken Italian but by the end she was fluid and fully entrenched in the design world.
The program lasted a year and the majority of people in the program were architects. Karen had no interest in being an architect. She returned to Citterio and worked there for the next 3 years. His wife said to her “what are you going to do here? There are 10 famous architects who are men and live a long time so think about what you want to do in design.”
Karen met David Kelly at Stanford who was good friends with many of the designers in Italy. She started to look at programs there that were around manufacturing and engineering. The collaboration between engineering and design really got Karen excited. She applied to both the engineering and business school at Stanford and ended up at the engineering school. It educated her to understand industrial manufacturing. She did a project with Boeing while she was in school and realized what she had learned in Italy at Kartell made her think differently than everyone else. She understood modular concepts that were the key to ventilation which is what she was working on. At that time in the US nobody but Ideo was thinking about design differently. She graduated from the program in 1998.
While she was in SF Karen had done an internship at Intel but did not find it creative enough so after graduation she moved to Austin, TX and took a job working for Trilogy. It was the most creative culture she has ever worked in. What she realized is regardless of technology and culture your biggest asset is the people. She stayed for two years and at one point moved to Paris for the company. Karen worked in operations and sales since she was not a developer. Trilogy was an enterprise software company that went into different verticals like computers, and selling cars online. After a year in Paris she shut down the operation there for them.
Still not figuring out her sweet spot in the world of design she kept getting pigeon holed into operations. Karen realized she wanted to start her own business at one point but wasn’t exactly sure how so she decided to go to Insead, a business school in France. One of her ideas while she was at the Domus was what she wrote her thesis on, selling home design products in a mail order catalog which was poo-poohed. Reality is that was exactly what Design Within Reach did. Her Mom had sent her the catalog while she was at Insead so when Karen graduated from school she returned to the US knowing she was ready now to start her own business.
Karen returned to SF where she ended up meeting with the founder of DWR. He told her that she was definitely not a buyer and after their interview he called her back and said he wanted to hire her for product development. It was finally the perfect fit. The company had just gone public. She stayed there for 5 years. She also did some consulting on the side for some furniture companies who wanted to get into the consumer business. Many of them were frustrated because DWR came out of nowhere and was killing them.
Karen burnt out on the business. Instead of her annual trek to the furniture fair she went to a conference in Amsterdam called What Design Can Do. The conversations were around agriculture, design and furniture. A professor who she knew from the Domus was now running Benetton and it hit her straight between the eyes on the importance of asking what the client wants and creating a real space around that.
She had been living in NYC and decided to start Heartwork in Portland where it was less expensive to live. She stayed for a year drilling down on the concept. She went back to her modular days thinking about how to change the $4b storage market. What happened was that architects and designers were knocking on her door forcing her to think about the market in reverse. You meet the needs of the client, manufacture everything in the US and over time add materials to the supply chain to create personalization. Working with businesses also had the long tail of consumers wanting to buy the product too. Generic offices do not work anymore, one size all isn’t in and because manufacturing has changed Karen was able to provide the right product.
She launched Heartwork in 2012 and has been on a roll ever since. I really love the product. Very smart and simple too. I wish Karen and I had been connected back in 2012. It would have definitely invested in her company. Her history couldn’t be more perfect for what she is doing today. Her passion for design and her curiosity pushed her to figure out exactly how to bring that all into the company she had built today.