Designer, merchandiser, architect, leader; these are just a few words used to describe Meredith Mahoney. Meredith has been a driving force behind the rapidly growing lifestyle and home décor brand, Wayfair. If you’ve opened a home décor magazine in the past couple of years, chances are you’ve probably stopped to admire something from Wayfair, and something Meredith has had her hand in.
Meredith’s background in architecture and furniture design set the stage for her booming career in merchandising. After graduating from MIT Meredith became a visual merchandiser at a local Boston store where she further developed her merchandising and branding skills. Meanwhile, Wayfair was a growing startup in need of someone with voice, vision, and brand experience. The two came together and were a perfect match.
Meredith is now the founder and design director of Wayfair’s recently launched Birch Lane. Meredith Mahoney is sharp, driven and creative, and we can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve next.
Name: Meredith Mahoney
Location: Boston, MA
Current Title: Founder and Design Director of Birch Lane
Education: Architecture and Furniture Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
I graduated with a degree in architecture, and while I love my design education, working in an architect’s office just didn’t seem to fit. I was walking through Boston one day and noticed this new store that I had never heard of before with beautiful windows and really lovely hand designed signage. There was a sign in the window advertising an open visual manager position, and I applied that day. It felt so good to be creative and work with my hands after thinking I was going to be sitting at a computer full time.
You started your career at Wayfair in 2010 as senior category manager for youth and baby apparel, and have held multiple (coveted!) roles since. How did you set yourself apart and help construct your role into what it is today?
When I started at Wayfair, my skill set and expertise in product and merchandising was not typical at the company. I joined at a perfect time, when Wayfair was just starting to develop the brand, the voice, and the product assortment. I looked and shopped like our customer: I had a young family, I was a new homeowner, and I was someone who loved to shop online. I was able to provide a point of view that was newer to the organization. We were also starting to expand our stores to include Joss & Main and eventually Birch Lane, which required someone who knew how to build brands.
You have breadth of experience in merchandising and buying, and were quickly promoted to director and general manager of merchandising for lifestyle brands. Have you always had an eye for design? How did you establish yourself as an expert in visual marketing and buying?
I have always loved design; I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something creative, and I turned that into a career after studying architecture and furniture design at MIT. I’ve always been a ravenous consumer of design, from magazines to museums to retail—I’m very lucky that what I do for a living isn’t much different than what I do for fun.
Walk us through a typical workday at Wayfair.
Every day is different, but the thing that remains constant is the fabulous team that I work with every day. A typical day may include a spring assortment review with the textile buyer to review bedding we’re designing for next year, a meeting with our site designers to comment on a new online shop design, and a chat with our CFO to go over financial planning. I try to leave unscheduled time daily so that I can work informally with the team. We sit in open seating (no office, no cubicles!) so it’s nice to listen in on ad hoc meetings happening around me.
What excites you about the ecommerce industry, specifically in home decor?
We’ve just scratched the surface in terms of market size, and as people become more and more comfortable with purchasing online, there’s only upside for home. We’re also working on some really interesting site features that will make shopping for your home easier and more fun.
Your educational background is in architecture; how do those skills translate into your current role?
Architecture is a perfect path for someone who is creative, but has a lot of left brain influence, which is great for me! Studying architecture taught me about discipline, restraint, and conveying a point of view without words. Building a brand is a very similar experience; it takes a lot of discipline to understand what your brand is about and to avoid being tempted too much by fleeting trends.
Tell us a little bit about Birch Lane. What inspired you to create this brand?
I love shopping lifestyle brands that have a strong point of view and a compelling visual presence, and prior to Birch Lane’s launch last year, there hadn’t been a new home brand introduced in many years. With Wayfair’s expertise in site design, customer experience, and furniture delivery, we knew we had a solid foundation to create a new retail brand. I decided to focus the assortment around classic pieces that customers could easily work into their homes. When designing new product, we also make sure that we keep the pieces fresh and inspiring so that customers look forward to seeing what we present. I always challenge the buyers and the creative team to think about someone like me, who sees every catalog in print, picking up a Birch Lane catalog and flipping through it. What would wow them?
In both your previous and current role, you’ve been responsible for managing large teams—a task that requires immense leadership skills. How did you learn these skills? Based your experience, what is the most important quality in a leader?
I’ve been very lucky to have great managers, and that’s the key to becoming an effective manager yourself. Being a leader is a balancing act; you have to be decisive and keep things moving, while leaving time to solicit feedback from your team. I’ve had the best luck surrounding myself with highly effective team members, pointing them in a direction, and then getting out of their way. That breeds a level of trust that’s critical as part of a startup. It’s also essential that your team knows it’s OK to make mistakes. I’d much rather have a team that takes risks and has a few missteps than one that always follows the safe road.
Wayfair went public in 2014 and has undergone significant growth in the time that you’ve been with the company. What unique challenges come with being with a company in its early stages? What are the benefits?
The challenge is always deciding how to use limited resources to best grow the business. We have many, many more ideas that we have people to do them! The benefit is the flexibility that comes with having a small team. Everyone can be heard, and if something isn’t working, we don’t do it anymore. It’s that simple.
What advice would you give someone who’s considering beginning a career at a startup?
Make sure you believe in the goals and the leadership. Most weeks you’re going to be living and breathing the business, 6+ days a week, and that pace is impossible to maintain if you don’t have a passion for the vision.
Developing and growing a brand such as Birch Lane is no small task. How do you find time for balance?
It helps that I love what I do and the team that I get to work with every day, but beyond that, I make sure that I go silent a few hours a day to be with my husband and my kids. My team doesn’t hear from me from 5pm – 8pm each day while I run point on dinner, baths, reading, and tucking in. I also think about my workweek as a fluid thing; if I need to be out of the office for a morning to volunteer for a class party, I catch up on a Sunday night. Most parents I know haven’t worked an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule in years!
What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Birch Lane. No question.
What’s up next? What career goals are you still working toward?
My primary focus for the time being is Birch Lane, but Wayfair has a few things up its sleeve that I’m excited to be working on. Stay tuned!
Meredith Mahoney is The Everygirl…
Go-to coffee order?
Tea! English Breakfast, extra hot—and keep it coming!
Best advice you’ve ever received?
Advocate for yourself. Know where you want to go, have a plan to get there, and make sure the right people know about it.
Favorite thing to do in Boston?
On a really cold sunny day, bundle up my two little girls, drive to the beach to look for shells and sea glass, and then go for fried clams at Woodman’s in Essex.
Book? Try magazine—almost any will do…I especially love House Beautiful, Southern Living, Fast Company, and Real Simple.
Favorite way to treat yourself?
I want to say go for a run, but let’s be honest—I’d love to go to sleep an hour earlier.
Morning or night?
Morning, definitely. The earlier the better.
I wish I knew how to…
Knit. A lot of creative woman I know do it, and it seems so darn relaxing.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Jenna Lyons. I’d order a salad, but I’d want to order a BLT. Actually, I’d probably order the BLT and vow to eat a salad for dinner.