5 Questions for Shanna Tellerman BFA ’03

Shanna Tellerman is Founder and CEO of Modsy, an online interior design service that combines 3D virtual room visualization with guidance from expert designers. Since its founding in 2015, Modsy has raised over $80 million in venture capital, employs hundreds of designers and engineers, and has executed hundreds of thousands of projects.

After graduating with a BFA from the School of Art in 2003, Tellerman went on to earn her Master’s from CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center. Her company Sim Ops Studios, a spin-off from CMU, enabled developers to easily create immersive 3D games. The company was acquired by Autodesk, the leader in 3D software, in 2010.

“5 Questions” is an ongoing series by the School of Art that asks alumni who are transforming art, culture, and technology about their current work and time at Carnegie Mellon.

How did your background studying art help prepare you to launch two successful start-ups?
Art is about having a vision, first and foremost. It’s about having something in your mind’s eye that you want to bring to the world and then following your own unique path to make it happen. With new businesses, it’s a very similar feeling and trajectory—this thing is taking shape in my mind, and I’m going to follow the steps to bring that vision to life.

The second piece is then representing yourself in your work, which I feel is the part that most tangibly has translated into startups and entrepreneurship. This idea that when I finish something, or even when I’m in the midst of something, I have to represent to an audience what I see, what the story is behind this piece, and what drove me to create this piece. Then others—your audience, viewers, or class critique—are going to bring their own points of view into your work. That’s very similar to entrepreneurship, especially in early stage business, where so much of it is telling your story and presenting to the world what you believe and what you see.

The third piece is that there’s a bit of a leap of faith you have to constantly take when you’re putting yourself out there. Art was the practice ground for putting myself out there in front of people, sometimes doing well and sometimes failing. In art school, you hear feedback continuously, even with a piece I thought was amazing, somebody else may be critiquing or giving me hard feedback. And I think learning that early in your career really does lend itself to creating companies and businesses, because companies and businesses are extremely hard to build. You get a lot of feedback along the way that people don’t believe in your vision or they don’t like your business or they don’t see what you see in it, and you have to take that and keep going.

Tell us about the process of building Modsy. Was it challenging to bring together people working in traditionally distinct fields, for example people working in 3D technology with people working in interior design? How did you help manage and guide this collaborative process?
This is probably the theme of my whole career, and what I love most in the world. And it definitely came from CMU! When I took the Building Virtual Worlds class with Randy Pausch, the thing I found most stimulating was the intersection of designers, artists, storytellers, engineers—the extremely different talents and ways of thinking, and how you had to pull everybody together, get everybody on the same page, and then use everybody’s unique skills to make something actually happen. I think doing that in Randy’s class was the spark that led me down my entire career path. I think about how Modsy is basically a derivative of that class or is like that class on steroids. So, the lessons I learned are exactly the same lessons that we use at Modsy.

The key is a collective vision, a very clear picture and a very clear goal of what we’re trying to create, and then leveraging each person’s unique talents in a space where everybody comes together and has an equal voice. At Modsy, there’s just a huge amount of respect. For example, the engineers working at our company get to see dazzling, absolutely mind-blowing designs created every day by real designers using the tools that the engineers are building. And at the same time, the interior designers are constantly receiving new tools and new capabilities, and they’re able to see the incredible things that happen when you have brilliant minds solving real problems. So, they get to see the benefits of working at a technology-driven company. It’s that synergy that makes me wake up every day.

How has the pandemic affected Modsy?
There are three things I’ll touch on. First, we were already 60% remote before the pandemic. Our office in San Francisco had room for 50 people, and every day we came in, there were maybe 10 or 15 people at their desks. There’s this weird hybrid between the people sitting in the conference room and the people who are working from home, and we were feeling that tension. Then, in March 2020, overnight we said don’t come into the office tomorrow. We were already set up with all of the remote infrastructure. For the weeks following, it felt like we had leveled the playing field—everybody was now on a video camera. It didn’t matter whether you were calling in from New York or Portland or Canada or Bulgaria. We were just people working together, and we all had the same tools at our disposal to communicate. We weren’t fighting against some people in person and some people remote. And now, the freedom of virtual first means we can meet in person and it’s special and that we can hire people anywhere.

Second, the industry was positively impacted by the pandemic, because not only did everyone work from their homes for a while, they realized they needed to set up their spaces to work or do schooling. Or even just the realization that now I’m staring at this horrifically ugly room all day and have nowhere to go! So, there’s definitely been a renewed attention on home, and I think we have all re-remembered the importance of home and spaces in our lives. We were living such busy lives! Many people were out and about at work, at restaurants, and at activities, and all this came to an end. It forced us to re-center our lives in our homes first. I think for a lot of people, that meant discovering cooking and family and new activities and realizing the impact that space and environments have on your mental health and your wellbeing. I do think that this is going to be a very long-lasting trend.

Finally, the supply chain piece has been hugely disruptive. Everybody was trying to buy a lot more things for their home, meanwhile, every port was shutting down and there was a shortage of shipping containers. The transportation industry has been hit very hard. People were sick. They had a shortage of labor. There were backlogs. And we’re still seeing that today.

For us, that’s meant trying to stay nimble to get customers products, and then really investing in increased communications around timelines, status updates, customer success and support to help customers understand when things are canceled or delayed. That also entails a lot of work on our end to collect data to try to understand where we can make a bet and where we should not be making a bet. And that’s across multiple vendors and multiple retailers who themselves have limited visibility into what next month is going to bring. Like every other sort of other problem, the center point is always communication. If you can get ahead with communication and be as transparent as possible and communicate as frequently as possible, people feel better, even if you’re telling them news they don’t want to hear.

Could you talk a bit about your time as an undergraduate at CMU’s School of Art? Are there any experiences you had as a student that stand out?
I don’t know that there was a very specific moment, but I think Herb Olds was the first teacher who, without communicating the sentiment directly, believed in my work. That confidence and the impact that has on your life when you have a mentor or a teacher that you feel believes in you, that believes that you can do good work, it lasts the rest of your life. And for me, it’s one of the backbones of how I had the confidence to start my company out of graduate school and start this second company and go after this career. You know, it’s those little moments that really add up in your life where you feel like somebody believes in you and you feel like, okay, well, I’m going to take a leap and try to do this thing, and even if I fail, I believe in myself because somebody believed in me.

Do you have any advice to share with current students?
I think my best advice is to explore. I feel like I spent my entire four years searching, and I didn’t know what I was searching for. Really, I liked art and I liked math and science, and that made me a little bit unusual. So, I didn’t feel like I fit in, didn’t feel like I had found my belonging. I went to Carnegie Mellon because I thought, oh, this is the place where those two things come together. But in reality, it didn’t organically and easily come together, so I just kept taking different classes and kept joining different things. My senior year, when I took the virtual reality class, I felt like I actually found it. If you had asked my freshman year, “are you searching for a virtual reality class?” I would have said “No, what are you talking about?” I think that unexpected thing that you do can spark a passion and then become a career journey. That comes from exploration and the willingness to try things and to just search until you find it.