Karen Powell as the Reluctant Entrepreneur

How Decor&You founder and CEO Karen Powell’s unconventional path from education and direct sales led her to the top of a nationwide home-decorating chain

Karen Powell was a great teacher. She loved most aspects of the job and enjoyed the students in her business class. But, she was frustrated. Powell, a single mother, was struggling to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary despite having an advanced degree and leading after-school activities. So, after a decade in education, she left the classroom to pursue the American dream.

She set out on her own, determined to find a way to become her own boss, and she looked first at cosmetics before finding a company that trained art consultants. Six months later she had the fourth-highest sales in the organization—even without a sales background—then she built a team that became a top-ten group. When the company expanded from art into accessories, Powell learned all aspects of decorating and style, and she even began recruiting and training new custom decorators.   

Then it all ended. To the surprise of many of its independent business owners, the company suddenly went out of business. For the second time in just a few years, Powell was on her own.

Partnering with Handyman Matters

Currently, Decor&You CEO Karen Powell is working on a pilot program that will introduce her company to existing customers of Handyman Matters, a home-repair business with franchise locations throughout the country. After noticing that small and large remodeling jobs often stall when builders are asked to assist with choosing colors without input from decorating experts, Powell approached Handyman Matters’ owner about working together.

Through the pilot program, experts from Decor&You will provide color-consulting services for Handyman Matters projects. Powell says the move will help her expand further an already growing network of customers and allow her to educate them about the benefits of working with a design professional.

She didn’t have long to lament her fate, though, before others began to encourage her to pursue a similar path—this time on her own. She had, after all, outpaced other sales experts, without their formal training or experience. So, Powell partnered with her friend Josie Cicerale and trained a few other friends to sell. That was in the mid-1990s, and what started small didn’t stay that way for long.

“I don’t usually think of things on a small scale,” Powell says. “I knew what we could become, and I envisioned a whole network of people recruiting and training others to be in a new company that provides a support system and structure but still offers the chance for everyone to function in an interdependent way.”

Awarding Franchises

All Powell needed was the right infrastructure to breathe life into her idea, so after investigating several options, she settled on launching a franchise model. “Franchising was the best way for us to expand in a way that would provide benefits to everyone from the franchisee to the customer to the owner,” she says. Today, nearly 20 years later, her business, Decor&You, has 20 franchisees scattered throughout the United States.

“I was hesitant at first because there is so much responsibility when other people sign on,” Powell says. “They rely on your systems and tools for their own income, lifestyle, wealth, and equity.” Realizing the weight of her role led Powell to take a different approach to franchising: instead of selling franchises, she awards them. A successful franchisee, she says, is a coachable person who wants to follow Decor&You’s proven system.

Powell and other leaders teach decorators about the business side of things, provide market collateral, and lead online workshops on vendor relationships, strategy, and other issues. “There aren’t many things in the industry that I haven’t experienced in the last 30 years, and I’m here to coach our franchisees,” Powell says. Whether she’s helping partners navigate through damaged shipments or providing design input, she enjoys the interaction.

Staying With the Times

As consumer behavior changes, Decor&You has stayed relevant by updating its service model. “Modern clients read blogs and articles on decorating, but … there’s a huge benefit from working with a professional that understands your space and asks the right questions about your goals and your budget,” Powell says.

Through its 20 franchisees, the Decor&You brand assists with interior decorating projects. The brand has unbundled its services to offer niche assistance with color schemes and other décor elements.
Through its 20 franchisees, the Decor&You brand assists with interior decorating projects. The brand has unbundled its services to offer niche assistance with color schemes and other décor elements.

The biggest consumer change has been the increase in product availability. Companies once ordered scarce products at wholesale, marked those products up, and pocketed the difference. Now, consumers can purchase those same products almost anywhere; the challenge lies in integrating product knowledge, design expertise, and personal preference. Decor&You addressed the shift by unbundling its services and offering help with either individual components or a comprehensive solution. The company has programs for color, arrangements, surfaces and finishes, accessories, and lighting.

Recently, Powell worked with a client who felt lost when it came to decorating and almost gave up on the entire process. With three small kids at home, she didn’t have the time or the energy to figure out a plan. She wanted to know Decor&You’s style, but Powell says that’s the wrong question. “We don’t have a look; each client does,” she explains. “When a client asks what I like, what I need to answer is what will suit them best based on what I know about them, their room, and their goals. Then I can provide options that will all work.”

At first, the client was skeptical, but as Powell took her through each step in the plan, she started to see how even a small investment to start can transform a home. Now, that client gives tours to friends and neighbors. “It’s like I’m in education again,” Powell says. “But, instead of teaching high school students, I’m teaching franchisees and clients.”