We had the good fortune of connecting with Helene Cornell and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Helene, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
I started a vacation rental business about 15 years ago because I was struggling to make my mortgage payments. I knew a regular 9-5 job was not going to make me happy, and I had to adapt to find ways to bring in multiple streams of income. At the time, I was a photographer and had a lot of seasonal work, with a very high mortgage and not a lot of job security. I rented out one room in my house and it helped supplement a bit of income, and I knew there was room to add on. Without the capital to expand, I found a way to do a trade with a local architect who needed photographs of all of his projects. In exchange, they renovated my garage into a freestanding unit with its own entrance. Once I had that unit, I decided to purchase a vintage camper trailer to park in my driveway- as the price point was affordable with a high return on investment. I remember receiving a call from a friend in Tijuana who saw a camper trailer I liked, offered the guy 500$ at a gas station, and brought it over the border for me to renovate. Mind you, this was well before the tiny home trend, and even before airbnb was known. Once word got out about my passion for renovating tiny spaces, I applied for a small business loan to expand into a hotel which was a lofty goal at the time. I was only approved for 1/10th of what I needed to start my business, so my realtor suggested I partnered with someone who had some cash, and I did exactly that. I started looking for multi units with a lot of land to park my tiny trailers and rooms to rent out to travelers looking for a unique experience. It was risky- as I had never worked with a business partner, but it was a stepping stone to expanding my business. My business partner and I hit it off as we continued to add rooms and charm to our beachside rental, each managing the things we were good at. About 6 years in to our vacation rental business, after too many 5am phone calls from broken water heaters and lost keys, we decided to sell. At no point did I map out where my life was going, I simply followed what drove me to be happy- and that was taking dumpy houses and making them experiences for people to enjoy from all over the world. 2 years into renovating my vacation compound I was discovered by a TV network and put on camera to test for renovation shows, which I travelled and enjoyed doing, but took me away from what I loved best- meeting my guests and being with my family. The next step for me was to pull out equity and start doing larger single family flips. I got my real estate license, started pursing stand up comedy, and flipping dumps on a very small scale. I know a lot of investors have several teams and projects going at once, which I respect, but I know my happy spot is having control of my work life balance, and being involved with small decisions along the way. When I was a little girl, I remember my mom bringing out a sledge hammer to break open a wall so she could create a window to her bathroom, because she wanted a view. She knew where the plumbing was, she knew where the electrical was, and she knew what she wanted. This was long before youtube- if you didnt have the money to hire a professional, you figured it out yourself. She wanted a view in her bathroom, and this tiny woman would knock down a wall to create something where others didnt. My brother is a contractor. My nephew is a electrician. If renovation is in your blood, you just keep flipping forward. My mom has this great expression- where there is a roof, there is a rental! I am proud to have her as a role model, as she showed me some windows you cant see until you bust them open yourself. My process to starting a my own business wasnt driven by thought, but by feelings. Success is relative. What matters is how you see through your window, and its been a wild ride. I wouldnt have it any other way.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Success is never easy. I have failed- A LOT. I have taken big risks and lost a lot of money. As an entrepreneur, you have to adapt to a market quickly. For example, if vacation rentals are becoming hot, buy it up, if the rules change, if a pandemic hits, sell it all before everyone else does. I try not to attach expectation to your business. If I have made a lot, or lost it all, I am still the same person at my core. A lot of people may not “get” me, but as long as you do, keep on keeping on!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Living in Los Angeles is an adult playground. I love a fancy meal as much as a 2am taco truck, a picnic in the park as much as a strip mall dive. LA really has it all. I love the outdoor entertainment like movies in the park, reggae at the bowl, jazz at the museum, and typing this now is making me a bit sad how quickly things can be taken away from us. Im lucky to have experienced it all. It looks a lot different now, and it will continue to change as we move forward, but angelenos are strong and powerful people.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would not be where I am without the support of my family who all works in some area of home renovation. I went to art school, and a lot of people judged that you couldnt be successful as an artist. My family never doubted that I would find a way to create success. I dont have set hours, I spend time with my friends, and I create colorful spaces for people to enjoy- all on my own schedule. I have also found the stand up comedy scene in Los Angeles to be so supportive and incredible and much deserving of a shoutout. I have built a stage in my living room and designed every corner in my home to host space for laughter and experience. It is my greatest gift in life to provide you with a safe space to laugh comfortably and connect deeply. I hope you can come to one of our home comedy shows sometime!
Danny Clinch shot me for the American Express passion project campaign. The blonde headshot of me was shot by my friend Daniel Curtis.