How A CDFI Loan Grew An Interior Design Business

General Judd and Cristina Casañas-Judd,Surfboard speaker designed and patented by Me and General Me and

After college, Cristina Casañas-Judd, a fine artist and illustrator, used her creative skills to design TV, film, and theater sets. She met her husband, a lead actor in Blue Man Group, working on its set. Early in his career, he was a set dresser.

The two life partners also became business partners, launching an interior design studio in 2012, Me and General Design. In the early days of the company, they bootstrapped the business and experienced steady growth. In year five, to quicken growth, they decided to move from working in the business to working on the business. They needed to hire additional people that would require outside financing. They choose a loan from a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).

As a set decorator, Casañas-Judd became a fast-paced problem-solver. She fell in love with complementing the storylines of TV shows, movies, and plays through their environments as depicted in the set. Her work includes set decorations for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Adventureland, The Messenger, Winning Season, and Then She Found Me. His film set dresser work includes The Abyss.

The duo realized that storytelling was an essential element of any space, whether home or commercial. They may take their inspiration from the neighborhood, the architecture of the building, and the character and lifestyle of the client to tell a complete story. “We are known for our consciously designed interiors that elevate the human spirit,” said Casañas-Judd.

The pair started doing side projects. “On weekends and when we were on hiatus, we designed the interiors of model apartments for real estate developers,” said Casañas-Judd. “It was fun and a different kind of creative outlet.”

When Casañas-Judd and Judd were about to have their second child, she realized that the grueling long hours of set design weren’t compatible with the type of mother she wanted to be. In 2012, the two leaped into full-time entrepreneurship and opened Me and General.

They had developed strong relationships with developers who liked their design sensibilities and the way they did business. Clients returned over and over again and referred others. Their work expanded from designing interiors for model apartments to lobbies and amenities spaces, such as lounges and gyms for luxury apartment buildings.

Designing for heavily trafficked areas established their capability and credibility to plan commercial spaces, such as boutiques. They’re currently designing the interior for the public library in Port Washington, NY.

In 2017, with a track record of solid growth, the couple decided to accelerate growth by growing the team beyond the one employee that they had. To do that, they needed outside financing.

They were referred to the SBA through networking, which connected them to Carol O’Connell, assistant vice president of development and advisory services at Pursuit (formerly Excelsior Growth Fund), a CDFI. CDFIs are one of the best-kept secrets in the entrepreneurial financing world.

CDFIs were created to lend money, at reasonable rates, to underestimated small business owners that commercial banks deem risky. Borrowers receive free guidance to help them succeed. Technical assistance may include helping entrepreneurs do a budget with projections, produce financial statements, business planning, and improving or establishing a credit score.

The Treasury Department and banks primarily fund CDFIs. Bank of America recently announced that its CDFI loan portfolio surpassed $2 billion. This cements them as the largest private investor in CDFIs in the U.S. They have produced Access to Capital Directory, which includes 200 CDFIs. The directory tells you which local communities the CDFI serves.

“The General and I needed to work on strategy and business development,” Casañas-Judd. Pursuit had their back. “When we needed help [preparing financial statements],” Pursuit provided it. Pursuit paid for a certain amount of time with a bookkeeper to put their financial statements in order. O’Connell discussed financing options with them. The couple chose a $50,000 SmartLoan. It provides financing within two days of submitting your application and has flexible terms.

“Having the financial support was life-changing,” said Casañas-Judd. “It provided the financial education I needed.” The Judds continue to work with the bookkeeper who helped them prepare for the Pursuit loan. “O’Connell has become a trusted advisor,” said Casañas-Judd.

The company staffed up. Before Covid-19, they had six employees. Having employees gave her time to work on the business, not in it.

“As an artist, I’m always pushing boundaries,” said Casañas-Judd. Even with the gazillion wallpaper designs on the market, sometimes she couldn’t find the right one for a client. A love of architectural elements in a Harlem building led her to design a wallpaper that used geometric patterns from the building on the wallpaper.

Casañas-Judd turned to Wolf-Gordon, a wall covering manufacturer and distributor, to manufacture the paper. Over time the company noticed how often Casañas-Judd designs were being reordered. Wolf-Gordon approached her about selling her designs to a broader market than just her clients. “This was like a dream come true for me,” she said. “We were always interested in licensing our designs.”

The team is also designing and patenting products such as a surfboard with speakers called SWICK Board 2.0, which can be incorporated into other designs.

Casañas-Judd is a first-generation Chilean-American, known for her keen sense of color and use of textures. Judd is Black and grew up in North Carolina. He is known for his southern charm and timeless design-style sensibilities. They pride themselves on their multicultural background and that of the team. Their small team of five includes designers from China and Turkey. It’s well-suited to a Brooklyn, NY-based business serving the tri-state area.

Diversity is also reflected in the materials they source for interiors and the resources they use.

Covid-19 dramatically reduced revenues in 2020. As people started moving around, things picked up and the company’s revenue rallied back. The couple moved out of their studio office and the team has been working from their homes ever since. “The team became more efficient and productive,” said Casañas-Judd. They hold meetings on Zoom, phone, and now in-person at the Judd’s home. 

Even with a down year in 2020, since receiving the loan, annualized revenue growth is 59{df277fece0e332513078d4db57f50d7f29a9f255adc120b3235ad73f23ad2e97}.  

The next stop on their growth journey is buying investment properties, fixing them up, and flipping them.

How will you finance the growth of your business?