Marie: Hey, it’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. Speaking of which, my guest today is an ambitious and creative woman who has done just that. Cortney Novogratz is a designer that you may know from Bravo’s 9 By Design and HGTV’s Home by Novogratz. Along with her husband Robert, she’s been designing and developing spaces around the world for 25 years. She’s a mom of seven with impeccable taste and a love of design, art and architecture, which have driven her career, rebuilding entire city blocks, renovating a Hollywood Hills castle, and even building a treehouse in Brazil.
She’s an entrepreneurial powerhouse who has a passion for bringing beautifully designed products to the world. Cortney, thank you so much for making the trip and being here today.
Cortney: Thanks for having me, Marie.
Marie: Take me back to the early days because you did not start off knowing what you were doing to do today obviously. From what I read from my research, you were actually an actress starting out in New York City, and your career took a whole ‘nother turn. Tell me about that.
Cortney: I don’t know if we found our career or it found us, but my husband and I bought our first building, it was a condemned building, while we were actually planning our wedding. My job, of course, as an actress was ups and downs and I had a little bit of free time, so I went to work on the jobsite. Opening up everyday, learning everything on the job and renovating it pretty much ourselves. We realized we were kind of great at it. In one sense, I was only 24 at the time, but I knew exactly what I was doing and then I had no clue of what I was doing. It’s kind of a great way to live.
Marie: Well, let me ask you this, how long had you been pursuing acting when you guys got the place?
Cortney: Probably about two or three years. I’d had some small things, jobs, but we always… The one thing is that my husband and I have in common, and still do to this day, is the love of architecture and designs and flea markets. We knew we would always dabble in that because it was something like a hobby that we enjoyed, but we never realized we would actually turn it into a real business.
Marie: He was on Wall Street. You’re an actress.
Marie: You started doing this. And was there something inside, and the reason I’m asking these questions because I know that there are many folks in our audience who find themselves, whether they’re in their 20s or 30s or 40s or 50s or 60s or 70s, looking at a next chapter. Perhaps having been going in one direction and then maybe want to take a right turn or a left turn. I would love if you can articulate what was happening inside of you that was like, “Oh my goodness. This thing is so fun. Bye, bye acting,” or if there was a bit of tension in that decision.
Cortney: It actually was so fun. I knew I was great at it in one sense, meaning that it felt so easy and comfortable. Even the smallest most daunting or biggest daunting task of learning how to dig out a basement or pour foundation or all these things that I had no clue about, I felt comfortable doing it. It felt very easy. Even as scary as a new project is today, the unknown, I still know I can navigate through it.
Cortney: The same with my husband. We felt pretty confident with each other, and we knew we were going to make mistakes and not have all the answers or even have all the money to do a proper renovation, but we knew we wanted to take that risk. I think it was like a calculated risk and the fact that we knew that we would succeed somehow in the end. Then did help that Suzanne Vega, the singer/songwriter, approached us to rent our house out after we finished it.
Marie: How did she know about it or how did you know her?
Cortney: She actually a friend of hers that was a broker and he had said that this kind of fun groovy couple just renovated a house and maybe they’d be up for it. She kind of kickstarted our career and the fact that she believed in us. She rented our home. We became friends. We then moved out of course and took that money and did it all over again.
Cortney: It just kind of snowballed from there.
Marie: What came the point? Was it really when she rented the house that your husband said, “Okay. Bye, bye Wall Street. We’re doing this.” Was that it?
Cortney: It took probably the second house to be honest and then it was really scary because at that point we already had three children. We were going to start a real business. All of our insurance was covered under his job as a broker, but we knew no matter what, we can do it on our terms. If we fail, we fail together. If we succeed, we succeed together. And so he literally walked away. With that, there was all these side steps. We had to sometimes downsize in order to buy up the next property or things weren’t selling when it should have. We definitely sacrificed to live the life we want to live.
Cortney: We still do to this day.
Marie: It started off it sounds like more flipping than anything else.
Cortney: It was. I mean this was 25 years ago before people even called it flipping. We were in the middle of Downtown Manhattan, so most people don’t flip homes.
Marie: That’s right.
Cortney: But for us, we knew we didn’t know how many children we were going to have, but we knew we wanted a large family. We also used to, side note, promote parties in New York.
Marie: Did you really?
Cortney: We were like party promoters even though we were a couple.
Marie: I love this so much.
Cortney: We’ve had friends that actually have gotten married from some of our parties.
Marie: We’re talking like club party promoters?
Marie: You know, Cortney, I may have been at some of your…
Cortney: You probably were. You probably were.
Marie: I’m doing the math in my head. I’m like, “Oh yes. My clubbing days in New York City.”
Cortney: Yes. We would rent crazy spaces and throw parties. We kind of just always created the life we wanted is why we even bought a condemned building in the first place is we were like… Before even Airbnb, we were like we could always rent it out if something goes wrong and we don’t have to ask our neighbors. We can do whatever we want with the place.
Marie: Was it scary renting a condemned building? I’m sorry for anyone who doesn’t real estate, but I happen to love real estate. Every time I seem to come across new friends, it’s always like our little dirty secret. I’m like, “Do you do real estate porn like I do?” They’re like, “Oh my god, yes.” I find myself on Realtor.com and sometimes it’s just fun. I just find it so fascinating to see architecture and to see different style homes and all the things inside and outside, the décor, exterior, everything. In terms of a condemned home, were you guys nervous on that first of all?
Cortney: We were very scared. It was a single room occupancy for anyone that knows Downtown Manhattan. It had a fire, water damage. It had been empty for many years. We literally had no money to renovate it, so we would…
Marie: Where’d you get it?
Cortney: We would get like beers and we would have his brothers come over and we’d rip up a beam or we’d say, “It looks pretty good. Maybe we should leave it.” We literally were going through the yellow pages saying, “Okay. We need a drywall guy.” We just learned on the job. We would lean on professionals in the business, maybe a friend that was an architect or an engineer, come by and say, “Okay. This looks good. This looks sound.” We had an expediter. I never even knew what an expediter was.
Marie: I don’t know what an expediter is.
Cortney: An expediter is what gets everything passed through the city, gets rezoning and things like that. He became very key throughout our career because then we walked away from traditional houses and started buying gun shops, parking lots, night clubs, anything that could be a house that bigger developers would have passed up. We thought, “Hey, it could have a roof over our head and space and we can create… Four walls can be a home. We can create the home we want.”
Marie: I wanted to go into this because I feel like no matter what you want to do, even if you don’t have an interest in real estate or physical buildings or physical products, there is something so genius for all of us that’s available if we want to do something that you can just start. You can start before you’re ready. You can figure it out as you go. I think each of us can have a part of our brain where we kind of hold back or maybe go like, “Oh…”
Cortney: You’re scared.
Marie: Yes. You’re like, “I need to know everything I’m doing before I get into this new career or this new business or this new endeavor.” I think there’s so many lessons in that. I was smiling when I was reading about your story because Josh and I, when we got our place here in New York, it was crappy. The reason that we chose it was because we wanted to renovate it and we didn’t have a lot of money. It had like popcorn ceilings. I’ve never talked about this.
Cortney: That’s the worst.
Marie: Yeah, but I put on goggles and I was at that time bartending. I was starting my coaching practice. I was also teaching some dance. Every time in between my bartending shifts, my coaching clients and teaching dance, I would take a sledgehammer and demo. It was so fun to like just take a sledgehammer and just demo the crap…
Cortney: Finally get rid of it.
Marie: That’s right. It was awesome, but yeah, it’s just that spirit of going like, “You know what? I don’t necessarily need to know everything before I…”
Cortney: I’m going to figure out.
Marie: I’m going to figure it out.
Cortney: Like your new book.
Marie: Everything is Figureoutable.
Cortney: It may have taken a few turns from where you started and I think that’s so important. I try to remind myself with new things and new opportunities if I’m a little scared. Just start. Just start. I have so many girlfriends and they’ll give me great ideas that they’ve been sitting on. I’m so pleasantly surprised with the ones they actually didn’t really do and I keep saying it’s so great because a lot of people talk about things, but they actually then don’t it.
Cortney: You have to begin. Everything takes a turn or where you’ve started, you never have it all laid out. I mean even with parenting, I don’t have all the answers. I’m in a new chapter where my kids are entering adulthood, some of my older ones. My youngest is still nine, but that’s a whole ‘nother new set of tools that I’m learning to gain and strengthen and get.
Marie: Speaking of taking a turn, I’m curious. You guys are going. You’re getting houses. You’re getting spaces. This is all happening. How did it come that you then transitioned into reality TV? Did you guys want that or did that come to you? What was that process like of making a decision because that’s a whole different life?
Cortney: Yeah. Great question. It is a whole different life. Way back then, we had already gotten asked to do our first hotel. We had had some Shelter Magazine, home magazines write about us. The New York Times had written about us. During that process, we also had signed a book deal with Rizzoli, our first book, and we had a number of projects under our belt at that point. Someone had approached us from one of the networks and reality TV was just starting out.
Marie: Yeah. Totally brand new.
Cortney: Just starting out. They basically said, “We’d love to do a reality show with you.” Well, Robert and I are like, “Okay. I don’t know about that.” In fact, his family did an intervention with us.
Cortney: Saying, “We really don’t think you guys should do this.”
Marie: Did they literally like come and sit you all down where you were…?
Cortney: Separately, but in kind loving ways because they’re amazing people, but there was a lot of concern. Robert and I were like, “Well, we got a lot of kids in New York. They’re expensive.”
Marie: You already had seven kids.
Cortney: No. We had six at the time.
Marie: You had six. Okay.
Cortney: We thought, “You know what?”
Marie: They’re expensive.
Cortney: We’re like, “Let’s take this opportunity.” People can see our work more. We can edit what comes out of our mouths and what we show of our kids.
Marie: I’m curious about that because I think I’ve never done reality TV. I think, again, we’re in a very different time than when we first started.
Cortney: Now with social media everybody’s public. Everybody didn’t happen if you don’t post it.
Marie: That’s right.
Cortney: But back then, we were judged for taking that opportunity.
Marie: Totally. But question, did you work it into your contract because I think for me understanding a bit about editing, being involved and having a partner who’s in entertainment, like I know the power of you can get a lot of stuff on camera and then people can craft a narrative. You’re like, “Wait a minute. That’s so not what that vibe was.” Did you work it into your contracts?
Cortney: We didn’t have full control, I’ll be honest, but what we did do is we became friends with the crew. We spoke with our children, to the older ones. My oldest was only 12 though at the time. We had a great village, a support team, that we still have to this day. Nobody does it alone. We relied on those people if I was say doing an interview or out in the field something and somebody else was maybe capturing my child and I couldn’t be there, I had eyes and ears on the ground at all time. It still was a little bit of a risk. I had twin boys that are like puppies at that time.
They could wrestle and fight and that could have been taken and turned in a whole different direction, but we showed ourselves of who we are, our best foot forward, and we protected ourselves with the people around. To this day, we still have great friends that were on that show and that worked on that show. Our children learned that creative process a little bit differently than what we do. It’s creatives as well, but it’s such an incredible experience. It’s better than what they could have learned in school. We only had a great experience with it.
Yes, there’s haters and weird things and people make crazy comments, but I just… We don’t get caught up in that, you know? From that, we got incredible job opportunities that would not have come our way. Then we also knew you can do a little bit or you can do a lot for a little bit of time, but we knew there’s a time to step away then and really be with our kids more and develop our full real job. You know? Anyway, it was a great opportunity.
Marie: Building on that, I would expect that having two hit shows that would open up the flood gates in terms of business opportunity. I think for anyone watching, when you’re working really hard after a certain time or even if you’re just in the beginning of your career, sometimes it’s difficult to be able to know from all this incoming opportunities how do you know what to say yes to. I would imagine that you guys had a lot of incoming.
What was some of the criteria that you used to say, “Oh, here’s like five or six deals on the table. Here’s all these other things that people are saying, ‘Come work with us.'” How did you navigate that? What was your decision-making criteria?
Cortney: I still have to do that today.
Cortney: We’re in a creative field, my husband and I. I don’t really know what the job is next year. We get a lot of opportunities that come our way fortunately and some years more than others especially right off the show. But what we did is and we still to this day, do we want to do the project because they’re cool people or it’s just a great opportunity or we want to travel to that place. Do we want to do this job because it’s really lucrative, but it may not be as fun? We may have to compromise. Every job we weigh the pros and cons of why we’re taking it, who we’re working with.
Sometimes I’ll be honest, having seven kids, I’ve had to do a few projects that haven’t always been fun, but they’re still engaging.
Marie: Well, you have a family to support.
Cortney: Exactly. I still hold my head up high through those projects, but I know the reason I’m doing them, why I’m doing those. Then that offsets because maybe because it was a financial project, I really needed the money. It allows me to do the cool stuff that I love. There’s a fine balance always. I love my work, but there’s still things I do that are kind of crappy and aren’t as fun.
Marie: Well, let’s talk about that for a second because I think that’s really important for people to hear. I’ve tried to say that on so many conversations we’ve had on interviews where it’s like I love what I do so much and it’s not all rainbows and daisies and skipping around. They’re like I don’t wear a green sequin dress.
Marie: Oh my good… This is a show. This is my…
Cortney: Next time give me the memo.
Cortney: I’m casual Cortney today.
Marie: Honey, you look real cute. We’re going to hang out in LA. We’ll get you in sequins. But my point is most of the time especially… I wanted to talk about this with you and I’m so glad that you brought it up. If they see you, it’s like, “Oh my god. This amazing family, working with her husband, her children, was on reality TV. So successful.” But it’s like that’s just the stuff that people see. Some of the day-to-day, it ain’t fun.
Cortney: I mean I think I try to give my kids the advice, you may not know what you’re passionate about right away. But if you find something you truly love and that you’re passionate about––and I loved acting just as much as interior design and now I love interior design more, I can’t imagine my life without it––then the tedious part and the bad part still seems pretty fun. But there’s still headaches involved. Anyone that has success worked to get there. I don’t care what job they’ve done. They work to get there.
Marie: Really hard.
Cortney: If you want success, you have to work for it. You have to go for it. It’s not going to fall on your lap. But if you find something you really love, then it’s pretty fun I would say 90% of the time.
Marie: So you guys spent 25 years in New York City and then you moved to the West Coast. I read that part of it was like you know what, you were feeling like you were hitting a wall work-wise and wanted to grow your network. What exactly did hitting a wall look like for you guys at that moment? Was it in concrete terms such as like, “We’re a little bored,” or is it like, “You know what? Not as much business. Let’s go drum it up over there.”
Cortney: It was a little bit of both to be honest. Every city changes. New York City’s the best city. It always will have my heart and it provided the life I wanted, but it was changing as well. A lot was happening on the West Coast. A lot of creativity, a lot of… Unfortunately, a lot of the guys I was doing business with financially were getting pushed out of the city. Just the grind got harder and harder. It was also important. You know, Robert and I, neither one of us are from New York City. We moved here. Our kids were born and raised here. Even though we traveled, I felt like let’s mix it up a little bit.
Let them have a story. We took off to the west and it was great because it kind of kickstarted our relationship in work and in life again. You just see things through a fresh set of eyes. It was still very hard though I’ll be honest to build everything we had built here and just kind of take off. My footing was off a little bit and so I had to dig deeper, work harder, but I’m so much stronger from it. Our whole family brought us a lot closer in ways that I could never had imagined. The hardships got outweighed with blessings that happened. We will eventually get back to New York. That’s really our home, but maybe my kids, some of them, will make a life out there. I just wanted them to see that there’s such a big world and to really kind of experience both sides. I feel so lucky.
Marie: Does it feel like the kind of hitting a wall work-wise got refreshed?
Cortney: It did.
Marie: That’s cool.
Cortney: I mean it really is so cool because there’s so many neat… I’m in Los Angeles right now and so there’s so many neat things happening there. It’s a great time to be in the city.
Marie: Question for you about partnering with other brands because you’ve done so much partnering, CB2, Old Navy, Tempaper. For anyone watching who may or may not be at the level that you’re at, any advice that you have for creatives or entrepreneurs when they’re getting into any kind of partnership. Are there any tips or do’s or don’ts where you’re like, “Gosh. I wish someone would have told me this before I did this.”
Cortney: Well, I do recommend whatever that partner is going to be maybe go out and have some tequila with them.
Marie: I like this. I like this.
Cortney: Get to know them. That way you really can share and trust each other because it becomes a family. Even if it’s a big corporate company or it’s a small mom and pop team, you have to have a trusting relationship. The goal is for both parties to win in the end. Really leaning on each other with every partnership or collaboration we’ve done. For example with CB2, we were able to take that opportunity, design our first product line. We didn’t want to come in and say, “Oh, we’ve been doing this for years. We know exactly what we’re doing.” We knew exactly what we wanted to create, but we let them teach us and guide us.
The price points, the size, how it could be made, what materials, and we went back and forth. It was great. It was a win-win in the end of how they came to us and we brought our tools and we leaned on their tools. That’s the biggest thing is just communicating. Then also, try to make it easy for that partner. You can’t be a perfectionist. The world is not perfect. You can really have strong opinions and try to make it the best you can the way you’re visualizing it, but you have to let go a little bit and you have to trust them and let them run with it and have some control as well.
Marie: I like it. I have a lot of friends. It seems like there’s a growing… A small, but growing population of folks who work together who are couples. Like a lot of my girlfriends, quite frankly, who run their own businesses, their husbands have joined them and now work in the company.
Cortney: I think it’s great.
Cortney: It’s not for everyone.
Marie: It’s not for everyone. There’s an interesting dynamic obviously. You’re working together. You’re growing a business. You’re taking care of a family. Obviously then there’s the intimate relationship that you want to keep alive too. I’m curious if there have been any things, because it’s been over 25 years for you, clearly you and your husband still love each other, you have a strong family, anything that you’ve discovered with that interesting dynamic that really worked where you’re like, “Gosh. This is a lesson from the field.”
Cortney: Yeah. I mean we actually like each other’s company, so you know, we have a good time. At this point, we have seven kids. Even if we wanted to leave, no one’s going to have us. I think we definitely put our egos aside because it’s…
Marie: What does that look like?
Cortney: Well, for example, let’s say we’re fighting over a floor choice, you know, what hardwood floors. If he comes off more passionate and really strong, eventually I’m like, “You know what?”
Marie: Give him the floor.
Cortney: I’ll let him win. It’s like I’ll put my ego in check because it doesn’t matter. You know? We just kind of learned when to play good cop, bad cop with whatever we’re dealing with, whether it’s in our business, whether it’s with our children, whether it’s with each other. The great thing is like a lot of people we don’t have to have date nights because we travel and go on a book tour together or we’re with each other during the day. If the kids are at school, we can have fun then. We both love what we do. We really chose that. There are there days where we’re like, “Oh, we need a break from each other.”
Marie: If you’re going to tell me no, I’m going to be, “I don’t know if I believe it.” We all do.
Cortney: There’s definitely days, but I’ll say, “Why don’t you go on a trip with your brothers or I’ll go visit my sister.” We have enough sense to know we’re driving each other crazy. I mean we don’t take it personally, but we’re with each other most of the time and really like it. But we also realize the people that work for us, they work for a husband and wife. They’ve got two bosses in a sense. That’s not easy on them sometimes. We constantly remind them or try to joke or have fun and bring them in, but most people realize they get all of us, all nine of us, if they’re coming to work for us.
Marie: That’s cool.
Cortney: I hope they like it.
Marie: For anyone in the creative fields right now, I think one of the other fascinating things about you, Cortney, is just over the year how much you have pivoted and you continue to challenge yourself to do new things. How important do you think that is today?
Cortney: I think it’s crucial to succeed because life is changing so fast. Obviously the internet, we talk about social media. There’s going to be something else around the corner so soon. Looking at stores. Like for a long time my husband and I thought we need to have a store. Then within that year, online shopping just started taking off. We were like, “Wait. Okay. We need to alter and change. We don’t need to do that right now. It needs to go in this direction.” You have to be flexible. You have to stay focused on what your end goal is, but you may take a different turn than what you thought.
We were talking earlier, even with my children I say, “Nobody’s on a 30 year job anymore.” I don’t feel like those should have even existed because if you really want balance is to mix it up and to have a lot of different chapters along the way.
Marie: Give yourself that opportunity to do so. Cortney, thank you so much for coming on today.
Cortney: Oh, I had a blast.
Marie: You’re an inspiration.
Cortney: Thank you. You are too.
Marie: I can’t wait to see all the new things that you guys create.
Cortney: Definitely. I’ll see you in LA.
Marie: Absolutely. Now, Cortney and I would love to hear from you. We talked about a bunch of things. What was the biggest insight that you’re taking away from this conversation, and most important, how can you put that into action starting right now? Now, as always, the best conversations happen after the episode over at marieforleo.com. Head on over there and leave a comment now. While you’re there, be sure to subscribe to our email list and become an MF Insider. You’ll get instant access to an audio I created called How to Get Anything You Want. It is so good.
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