How I Went From Customer Service Rep to CEO

An inside look at the creative force behind the Land of Nod

Photo by Christopher Sturman

A 17-year veteran of the retail world, Michelle Kohanzo started at the Land of Nod as a customer-service representative. She now heads the children’s-decor company, overseeing operations, product development, and partnerships with other retailers and more than 200 independent artists.

Q. Where did your artsiness come from?
A. My grandmother, who worked in textile manufacturing and was a quilter and a crafter. My brother and sister and I spent summers in Wisconsin with our grandparents, so she taught me how to sew at a very young age, and we were always creating something together. I’m still compulsively crafting in my free time.

Q. How do you use that craftiness in your job?
A. I love working with my team and our artists to figure out how to turn their work into products. Their artistry gives our items a lot more soul. I’m always aware that if we were only designing products internally, the brand would feel much flatter.

Q. How do you find the artists you work with?
A. It changes, but lately I’ve been working closely with Etsy’s wholesale marketplace, a service that helps retailers discover designers. Along with Instagram, it’s a big source of artists. A lot of connections happen through my personal purchasing. One of our most prolific artists, Ashley Goldberg, started working with us because I bought a print from her for my home six years ago, and in the receipt e-mail she wrote she was a fan of the Land of Nod.

Q. How do product ideas come about?
A. Partly from listening to what the customers are wanting. We get input through our call center and in our stores, and we publish my e-mail address pretty regularly on out-going packages, so people are sending me comments all the time. Fashion is a big influence for us, too, so we’re very focused on what’s coming with each runway season. On top of that, our internal team is hugely creative. There’s just a constant churn of ideas and inspiring objects all around us. I’ll walk by someone’s desk and see a weird sculpture on it and think, What if we changed that to make it a ceiling light? Which artist could do that best?

Q. Whose style do you most admire?
A. Actually, I would say my 17-year-old daughter Emily’s. She has this really bold, fearless look—I’d call it boho punk. She does her own styling and makeup and is my icon.

Q. You and your husband have three boys as well. How do you balance work and family time?
A. I get home by 6:30, so I can have dinner with everyone and we get a chance to sit down and talk about our day. We also spend a lot of time on my bed watching TV or chatting. It’s kind of the meeting place. But I also make sleep a priority. I like to go to bed at 9 so I get a minimum of eight hours. I’m, like, the laziest CEO in the world. I don’t work out, but I do drink six cups of coffee a day. I’m pretty intense when I’m awake, and then I’m asleep. No in-between.

Q. When you’re at work, how do you foster a creative atmosphere?
A. Four years ago, when I first became managing director, it was important to me that creativity was at the center of our culture and that everyone would participate in that. We relaxed some rules. We started holding more family-friendly and philanthropic events. We gave a mandate to take your birthday off. It’s hard and fast: You cannot be here. You have to get out and take care of yourself, so people do spa days or travel. We also have something called "Surprise and Delight," where any team can throw a party for the office, from a happy hour to an Olympics tournament. Sometimes I’ll make pancakes for the whole office. We’ll get out the griddle and it’s like, "Breakfast!" Our job is to make kids happy, so in order to do that, we have to be happy, too.