Vanessa Antonelli, a mom of two, started out as an independent buyer before transitioning into creating custom children's spaces. She shares some financial principles that helped her succeed, as well as a few budget-friendly design tips.

By Maressa Brown
December 03, 2020
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Before Vanessa Antonelli had her son Nixon, 9, and daughter Everlee, 5, and was running a successful interior design business, she was learning what it means to be self-employed from her father Nick. He led by example, showing his daughter that by being self-employed, he was "in control of his own destiny."

"Seeing that and hearing his advice along the way really helped shape who I felt I wanted to be when I entered the workforce," explains the entrepreneur. "I also wanted to have that for myself and for my family in the future."

She says her dad offered "amazing little tidbits of advice," which the family referred to as "Nick-isms." One of the main "Nick-isms" that Antonelli held onto over the years was "it takes money to make money."

Bearing that in mind, Antonelli started saving from the time she was 15 years old, working as a babysitter and in other part-time jobs. Then, on a college graduation trip to California in 2003, she spotted her first major investment: Uggs.

"I said to my boyfriend at the time, 'Those are going to be the next hot thing,'" remembers Antonelli. She headed back to her New Jersey hometown, noticed Mischa Barton and Jessica Simpson wearing the boots on TV, and decided to put her savings toward so many pairs of Uggs that her parents' living room was filled with boots.

By Christmas, she was reselling pairs she had bought for $90 for upwards of $900. The experience helped the aspiring business owner realize she was a natural at trend forecasting and e-commerce. Soon, she was running a successful fashion company that was focused on items seen on celebrities.

But in 2010, as people were being more cautious about discretionary spending because of the recession, Antonelli decided to make a move toward the baby and children's lifestyle space. She launched an online business and opened New Jersey-based brick and mortar boutiques called NessaLee Baby that sold gear, furniture, clothing, and accessories. "The world was baby crazy in a very positive way," says Antonelli. "I knew that a business could be built from that. People were really holding onto their purse strings a little tighter during the recession, but that doesn't apply to your children."

She soon found herself organically chatting with customers about nursery design, and they began flocking to the store to pick her brain on the subject. Then, in 2014, Antonelli was tapped by Jonas Brothers bandmate Kevin Jonas and wife Danielle Jonas to help design their baby's playroom. The project garnered media attention, and Antonelli says her business "snowballed from there." "I closed the stores and focused only on designing children's spaces," she explains.

Today, the designer has branched out to doing living rooms, outdoor spaces, and more. "I did not choose this career," says Antonelli. "It found me—100 percent."

The mom of two also credits her success to her ability to understand the wants and needs of her customers, as well as "being able to foresee" the next big trend and apply that to her business. At the same time, Antonelli says that welcoming her son Nixon in 2011 and daughter Everlee in 2015 helped her become even better at her job. "It's a lot easier to talk about your own journey with people and your own items you're using or the way you did things," she explains.

Here, Antonelli shares the financial lessons that catapulted her success, plus a few budget-friendly design tips.

Never Throw Good Money After Bad Money

Antonelli has learned firsthand what another one of her dad's "Nick-ism"—"never throw good money after bad money"—means. "Sometimes you get so emotionally invested in your business that you're not logically thinking about it," she shares.

For instance, Antonelli had invested in a marketing strategy that wasn't working. But instead of throwing more funds at the same exact tactic, she learned to take a step back and rethink the plan. "Figure out what you're going to change, otherwise you're literally flushing money down the toilet," she says.

Be Prepared for Rainy Days

One of the realities of being a business owner is accepting that your income is never going to be 100 percent predictable. "I could have a good year where I'm making tons of money," she notes. "I can have a bad year and make less money. So, you always have to be prepared as an entrepreneur and a business owner for those rainy days. It's not the same as somebody who's getting that paycheck no matter what."

That said, she encourages anyone pursuing self-employment to ensure they have a safety net. "You never know what the next year is going to bring," she points out.

Make Sure You Have a Budget

At the beginning of any design project, Antonelli encourages her clients to get clear on their budget—a lesson that's applicable to any type of spending, be that on nursery decor or a new business. "You need to be able to say, 'This is what we want to spend—the absolute maximum—on this project.' And that goes for any income," says Antonelli.

From there, you can divide your budget into what's most important. In the context of a nursery, she encourages clients to focus on certain crucial big ticket items, such as a mattress and a dresser, which your child will be using extensively and potentially for years to come. And from there, you can focus on the items you crave, like an area rug and other decor. "They can take a back seat," she says. "You don't have to spend big money on them."

Saving Can Lead to Success

Antonelli believes that her dedication to saving money from a very young age led to her ability to build multiple businesses. "Knowing early on that the more I saved, the more options I would have was huge to me," she says. "Because I had savings, I was able to build the business the way that I wanted to, as opposed to cutting corners."

Don't Be Afraid to Evolve

Willingness to adapt and change equates with potential for success, says Antonelli. The designer, whose career has morphed through various iterations over the years, urges other entrepreneurs to embrace the unknown when taking their business to the next level.

"I love the fact that I've shown that I can go through so many different careers," she notes. "Maybe today I'm doing this, and tomorrow I'll be doing something similar. Maybe I'll just be doing hotels next. I don't know, but I can evolve and change, and that's totally OK. And I'm excited about that."