home demolish

Instagram Versus Reality at Failed Interior-Design Start-up Homepolish

Homepolish CEO told designers the company owes “millions” to the bank. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer

Back in 2016, home design start-up Homepolish raised $20 million in funding. This week, CEO Noa Santos told designers it’s all gone. “We frankly don’t have the funding left to run the business on an ongoing basis,” Santos said in a video conference call on Wednesday with the company’s remaining employees, according to a recording provided to Intelligencer. “The bank has the legal right to all money it is owed, which is in the millions, before any potential creditor would receive any money owed to them, that includes me.”

The company laid off most of its staff and abandoned its Manhattan lease in August, the design trade publication Business of Home reported last month. In June, remaining staff were placed on an “unpaid leave of absence.” “Many were then asked to sign contracts indicating no formal promise of backpay or a bonus,” BOH also reported. (Santos told BOH he intended to offer those things, despite the contracts, if he was able to secure more funding.) On the call Wednesday, Santos said that designers will not be paid any owed earnings and customers will not be receiving refunds. Santos urged the more than 200 people on the call to “think intelligently … as opposed to jumping to legal action which could work very much against all of us.”

Founded in 2012 by Santos and partner Will Nathan — Nathan, a former investment banker and early BuzzFeed employee, was an early design client of Santos’s — Homepolish was supposed to make for a seamless and trustworthy interior-design experience at a slightly more affordable price point than your typical design service. (Designers charged a flat $130 per hour, plus furniture commission, Santos explained to Forbes in an interview for a 2016 “30 under 30” list. Santos was 27 at the time.) The idea was Homepolish would act as a middleman, connecting clients with pre-vetted designers and contractors, for an undisclosed cut. Homepolish also offered clients discounts on furniture brands, including West Elm. Notable clientele, according to the Homepolish website, included Karlie Kloss, Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine Cohen, and billionaire heiress Hannah Bronfman. (Bronfman and her husband are described as “DJ influencers.”) On Instagram, where the company now has nearly 2 million followers, Homepolish drew attention thanks to a perfectly curated feed of aesthetic #goals.

In lieu of payments designers are owed, Santos said they could cobble together a “resolution” from a list of three options. One: allowing designers to keep working with any clients and referrals they’ve gained through Homepolish. Two: continuing to assign new clients to designers. The Homepolish website is still operating normally and Santos has not disclosed its financial state. “We get clients coming to us everyday,” Santos said, telling designers they could keep “100 percent of what you charge, compensating you in exchange for any financial shortfall.” And three: Santos said he could promote designer’s work on Homepolish’s social-media channels, “so you can continue to build your personal brands.” Santos did not respond to requests for comment.

The Homepolish name was tarnished in recent months, notably after Ilana Wiles, an Instagram influencer known as @MommyShorts, started posting to her 160,000 followers about her “absolutely awful home renovation experience” with the company earlier in 2019. (Melanie Elturk, CEO of Haute Hijab, also shared a similar story on Instagram about using Homepolish to renovate her company’s office. “We had a TERRIBLE experience with @homepolish (DO NOT USE THEM UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES) and had to find a completely new designer (not to mention all the time and money wasted 😭),” she wrote in a caption.) Part of the reason Wiles and her husband went with Homepolish was the company’s “Peace of Mind Guarantee.” Except, when the couple was unhappy with “shoddy” work in their apartment, they said, Homepolish did not make good on its promises.

“Homepolish is the ultimate exercise in Instagram vs. reality,” Wiles said. “Everyone who sees my photos is horrified by the work. You can see it plainly.” A former employee told Intelligencer they thought the work done to Wiles’s apartment was “just awful.”

“When we couldn’t get our issues addressed with the people we were in direct contact with, my husband went to the Homepolish office to talk to Noa directly,” Wiles said. “He was told that Noa did not want to be bothered with this.” She said Santos only agreed to sit down after she started posting on Instagram, later sending over a team to assess the apartment. She emailed him repeatedly over the course of several months, a correspondence that ended with an email from Santos in May saying he was “not de-prioritizing” her problem. That was the last she heard from him. “All I see is a business that skims from the top so that both the designers and the customers get less,” she said. Wiles says she is now paying a new designer to fix some of Homepolish’s mistakes, and said they are just learning to live with the ones too expensive to pay for again. The couple ultimately decided not to sue because they felt the business would soon shutter. (Another Homepolish client went to the office after attempts to contact the company went unanswered, Wiles told Intelligencer. They discovered the office was gone.)

“I believe that she has a right to be upset,” Santos told Business of Home in August when asked about Wiles. “What I don’t think she has a right to do is use her social following to spread misinformation and lambast designers that have nothing to do with this project.” (Wiles said she never publicly named her designer after the project fell apart.)

On Instagram, Homepolish “is weirdly still acting like it’s business as usual,” a former employee said. It continues to moderate comments and deletes anything that might tarnish the brand or indicate internal trouble. Wiles was recently blocked by the account, though she has never commented on its posts. (Her fans, however, frequently voice their opinions on her behalf, undirected.) Santos also blocked her from his personal account. “This summer, when they were ghosting paying clients, not answering their phone and not paying some of their employees, they did a paid partnership with Goop and had the back cover of two issues of Hamptons magazine,” Wiles said. “Just last night, at least three comments were deleted from the Homepolish Instagram account that mentioned them going out of business. I know. I’ve got the screenshots.” Designers on the call also asked why Santos’s husband felt it appropriate to post about the couple closing on a what appears to be a multimillion-dollar house in the Hamptons amid the company’s collapse. His husband’s account is now private.

“There’s a lot of designers out there who are not in the same, established position [I am in] who put a lot of hopes into Homepolish,” a former designer said, noting the one good thing to come out of Homepolish was a strong sense of community. “Somebody sent an email saying they were literally laying on the ground and could not move [after Santos’s announcement.]” At the end of the video call with his former staff, Santos got teary talking about feeling “tremendously disappointed” and waxing nostalgic about what the experience had taught him. “I’ll remember the employees that I can call friends and the designers who allowed me to play a small part in building your careers,” he said. A chat bubble popped up on the call screen. “There’s no money, y’all,” someone wrote.

Instagram Vs. Reality at Failed Design Start-up Homepolish