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From corporate to contractor, Katie Herbert discusses taking a leap into entrepreneurship & renos

Katie Herbert says that she doesn’t have a job title.

“I’m still kind of figuring out,” says the renovation expert, residential design guru, and TV host. “Some days, I’m a real estate investor. Sometimes I’m a builder. I’m a designer. And sometimes I feel like I’m CFO or an accountant.”

“They’re all in service of my business, which is about real estate and that business is constantly evolving.”

Katie says that things change depending on the market but that’s her business. If she has to define herself, she says that she’s a flipper, someone who buys and renovates a house and then sells it (or flips it) for a profit. That term hasn’t always used favourably in the past.

“I am kind of doing my damnedest to change that perception and to show that flippers can be people with integrity. We’re not cutting corners. We are providing a great service and providing beautiful homes for people to live in. And that’s ultimately what I try and do.”

One of the things that Katie loves about her job is that there really isn’t a typical day. “Yesterday I started my day doing framing which is pretty much carpentry work, making sure that we were ready for the drywall going in on my current project. Then I jumped over to another project that I just recently finished where I was doing little touch-ups, making sure that it’s really right and ready for the new owners to move in. And then last night, I was out shopping; I was looking for another project, which we’re going to be offering on this afternoon. This morning I was down and dirty pulling nails up off the floor. Then this afternoon will be paperwork and contracts and it’s payday tomorrow.”

“I think I count myself really lucky that I do not have a steady, regular, know-what-to-expect job. I think that that matches my personality…gives me energy through the day.”

Katie carries her tools with her and is always troubleshooting and doing on-the-spot fixes. “No matter how much I plan, I just have to be ready for anything. And I think being an entrepreneur, being able to pivot — being able to be flexible — is such a crucial component to being successful in that arena.”

Katie has been flipping homes for 8 years but her background was not renovations. From a young age, Katie knew that she wanted to work in media. She was working at the BBC in England and stayed in a corporate role when she moved to Canada but there was a shift happening. “I had had a really interesting meeting with Richard Branson, who runs the Virgin Group and he had made a comment In that meeting, about if you can find something in life that you love, and you can turn that thing into a career, you will never work a day in your life.”

Branson’s message resonated with Katie. When she was on maternity leave she stopped to reflect on those words.

“I think as I’ve gotten older, one of the things I’ve realized is that in terms of career, we can’t all follow our passion. It’s just, it’s just not feasible. It’s not possible we have to pay bills, you know, but if you can find something you’re good at, then often the passion follows. I think if you look at any successful entrepreneur, they found something that they really love, and then they become good at it.”

Katie quit her job. She bought a house. On day 1, she stood in front of that house with her hard hat and hammer. “I really had no clue what I was doing. And I demoed the house and put it back together again and sold it.” That was 17 renovations ago. Now Katie is adding consulting and condo renos to the list while watching her skills evolve.

“There is so much to learn. And I think that’s another reason why I love this industry so much.”

What advice does Katie have for young women? She said that from an early age we are encouraged to follow a set path and gain expertise in one area but in adulthood, that can make you scared of ‘changing lanes’. Therefore, we should encourage youth to be bold and brave and try new things. “I think when you’re 20 years old, you don’t really know sort of deeply what your greatest skill set is, or what your love is or what your passion is, or even what you’re good at. And so I think, I love to try and I love getting my story out there because I think it’s a story of changing lanes.”

“Take that leap of faith. Failure is okay, as long as you’re always learning, as long as you’re always gaining knowledge and working hard.”

So where did Katie get the confidence to make the leap from corporate to contractor? “I wanted more control of my life. I wanted to be able to choose the hours I worked. I wanted to be able to reap the reward of my hard work.”

“I think one of the reasons I sort of fell into the construction world is because it’s so rewarding. I think I’m an I’m a sort of a change addict. I love new challenges.”

Then the learning began! First Katie had to understand the process of renovation. To gain the trust and the respect from her work crews she got her hands dirty and learned from every trade. “I had phenomenal tradespeople along the way, letting me listen, letting me watch, letting me ask stupid questions, so that I could develop those skills. But that was really, really important to me is I wanted to be authentic. I wanted to be somebody who knew what I was talking about.”

Katie dedicated herself to hands-on work and research, creating her own apprenticeship within the business. Within the male-dominated industry, she did have to work harder to gain the trust and respect from the workers. “It was a real struggle for me at first, because also at the same time I wasn’t that knowledgeable. So I was kind of balancing I am the boss but I don’t know anything”

“As more and more women are entering the construction world, I think it’s so important to just remember to keep that confidence, to keep that strength, to know that you belong there.”

“And I also think in terms of design, or as a builder/designer, I’m always able to kind of place myself in that home as a finished product.” Katie says that women tend to think about different aspects of the projects; for example, she considers if the family has children and where the stroller would go if you come through the door, where do you put the boots and coats.

“That’s what sort of sets my homes apart from the rest is the thought process of what it’s going to look like at the end and what it’s going to be like to live in it.”

Building codes can be a challenge so Katie took a course at George Brown College to learn the fundamentals, but learned a lot from spending time with tradespeople and building inspectors. “The building city inspectors can be your best friend or your worst enemy. If you let them on-site, and you’re open and you’re asking questions, they teach you a lot.”

Katie credits part of her success to having mentors. She said that virtual mentors might not know they are helping you but they inspire you and help you learn, or they provide a tip or tool to keep you going. These can be different from a literal mentor who takes you on, teaches you directly, and instills strong values. Her advice? “Investigate both sides. It doesn’t always have to be that kind of formal, meetup every week, sit down. These virtual mentors are equally as important and actually easier to find.”

“Think about your colleagues, think about your employers, people that resonate with you, people that inspire you, and that’s where you go to find those mentors. And go to them with a very clear idea of what you need from them and how they can help you.”

Katie’s final advice for youth:

  • Think about building some lifestyle basics
  • Build your work ethic
  • Have a positive attitude
  • Listen and be open, be receptive to new ideas

“Those are really good skills that you can learn so that you are trying to decide on a career or on a path to go on, you have this great foundation that will take you anywhere.”

And finally, help others: “Whether it’s a building community, whether it’s a female community, we can all learn from each other.”

To see Katie Herbert’s full interview, and to find more interviews with women in industry, visit Build a Dream’s YouTube channel.

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