Architecture & Design, Inside Track, and Small Business & Startups

Inside Track: Turning houses into homes

Self-taught interior designer helms growing home décor subscription box company and QVC line.

April 20, 2018
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Farah Merhi
The origins of Farah Merhi’s business can be found in social media. She knew she struck a chord when her number of followers on Instagram increased from the thousands to 4.7 million. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Farah Merhi’s “aha moment” came in the middle of a home improvement project.

As she and her husband remodeled their living space in 2012, she created an Instagram page called Inspire Me! Home Décor to document the process and share ideas. As her follower count rose into the thousands, Merhi felt something shift into place.

“It made me feel so fulfilled, so I knew interior design was the career path I wanted to focus on,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is it; I want to wake up every day and do this.’”

Merhi is founder and owner of Inspire Me! Home Décor, a monthly home décor subscription box service she launched in August out of a small office in Cascade Township after years of building an online brand. Merhi now has more than 4.7 million Instagram followers.

She also sells her Inspire Me! line of products — which she describes as “classic, elegant and glamorous” — through QVC, Wayfair and Houzz.

“I launched (Inspire Me! Home Décor) because there was no other platform like mine,” she said. “It was too modern or too traditional. I’m more into glam that doesn’t sacrifice practicality.”

Of Lebanese ancestry, Merhi was educated in a private American school in the Congo. After high school, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, she moved to Michigan to attend Henry Ford Community College while staying with relatives in Dearborn.

 

FARAH MERHI
Organization:
Inspire Me! Home Décor
Position: Founder/president
Age: 34
Birthplace: Kinshasa, Congo
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Married with three kids
Business/Community Involvement: Not yet. I would like to in the near future. It’s been nonstop trying to get this startup going.
Biggest Career Break: “Having my own show on QVC and launching my home décor line. It took my brand from being another page on Instagram to being a brand where I have actual products I sell to the masses.”

 

“Growing up, I was always stubborn, opinionated, talked a lot, and it was always my way or no way. Everyone said I should be a lawyer,” Merhi said.

With that in mind, Merhi transferred to Grand Valley State University to study political science, with the goal of enrolling in law school afterward.

Three semesters away from earning her bachelor’s degree, Merhi felt “unhappy, miserable and empty.”

“I decided to drop out. People said, ‘You are so close! Why don’t you just finish?’ But three semesters is not nothing. It was a lot of time taking away from me figuring out what I wanted to do,” she said.

Trying to pinpoint what would be lifegiving instead of draining, Merhi went through a self-discovery phase of starting various businesses, one of which was a bakery making customized wedding desserts called Unique Edibles.

“It did well, but it wasn’t ‘it,’” she said. “I needed to figure out what made my heart happy. What could I see myself doing for a long time?”

During the home remodeling project that provided her epiphany, Merhi found herself reflecting on her upbringing.

“Growing up, we would buy a house, and my mom would make it into a home,” she said. “It really resonated with me.”

Armed with a newfound goal to become an interior designer, Merhi enrolled in classes at Kendall College of Art and Design. But then she became pregnant and was ordered to stay on bed rest. She used that time to grow her social media following from 400,000 to 750,000 people.

“Then I started getting job opportunities — brands reaching out wanting to partner with me,” Merhi said. “I was at a crossroad: Do I go back to school and get my degree, or do I continue on with this platform and get the opportunities I was getting? I did the second, and it has paid off.”

A 3-D interior design company hired her as its lead virtual stager and moderator, staging multimillion-dollar properties for prospective buyers using digital tools.

After a year and a half in that job, Merhi’s Inspire Me! Home Décor Instagram page hit the 2-million followers mark, and she took it as a sign.

“That’s when I quit my job and had to focus on becoming my own boss. I didn’t want to work for anybody,” she said.

In addition to her Instagram page, she launched a website, a blog and a YouTube channel on which she showed followers how to tackle interior design projects.

“We would take questions and show them how to style, mix and match colors, and my platform was just growing and growing,” she said. “At that time, brands were starting to see the importance of social media, the importance of influencers.”

Merhi hired an agent, who pitched her to a licensing agency that helped her develop her own product line. From there, she signed a four-show contract for live television appearances to sell the products on QVC last fall. In a two-day period, many of her products sold out. The network has invited her to make return appearances on QVC France next fall.

Around the same last fall, Merhi launched her subscription box service.

“Monthly subscription boxes are the thing now, with clothing and food,” she said. “Home décor has not been tapped, or if it has been, they have gone out of business in three or four months. I thought, ‘How can I do this for my Instagram family and be successful for me and them?’”

Currently, customers can choose from a one-time “surprise” décor box for $64.99 or $55.24 at the monthly subscription rate.

The company also offers a seasonal box for $274.99 or $247.49 for subscribers.

Merhi and her team source the items from a number of vendors. Each month has its own theme, but customers can specify if they want gold, silver or neutral finishes. Each box includes styling cards to give subscribers an idea of where and how to use the goods.

Inspire Me! Home Décor uses a local fulfillment center to assemble the monthly subscription boxes, while Merhi and her team of three employees style and compile the seasonal boxes.

She said the value she adds is her expertise and her consistent style.

“You have an expert curating for you and hand-picking items for you, teaching you how to put them together and styling your home. It’s like someone coming into your home and picking the items and styling it for you without that person being there,” she said. “It’s how not to pay an arm and a leg.”

Merhi said now that she has a working formula, she is planning to start scaling the business by launching a big social media marketing campaign.

“We’re going to partner up with influencers on social media and have them push Inspire Me! Home Décor boxes,” she said.

Although she said her company does not disclose sales figures, its current number of subscribers has far exceeded initial goals.

“When we first launched the first month, we said if we get 10 subscribers, great,” Merhi said. “Within the first month, we had 120 subscribers. It was insane. We learned a lot within that month.”

She said her target demographic is the millennial generation.

“I’m seeing more and more millennials interested in infusing their personality and design aesthetic in their homes,” Merhi said. “For a while, we were going in a direction where people were more focused on work and neglecting their homes.

“Now, I’m starting to see a sense of inner peace starts in the home. You’re at peace with yourself. You go to work feeling good and come back looking forward to being at home.”

Merhi said besides her mom, her dad and husband are her two biggest inspirations, teaching her about having an inner drive and going the extra mile for those you serve.

“I carry that into my business with my followers and my subscribers,” she said, “and it always does pay off.”

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