Alumna builds popular home décor line from the basement up
While many small businesses have suffered in 2020, barely hanging on through the pandemic, others—like Sweet Water Décor (SWD) owned by Melissa (Weibel) Horvath ’10—have thrived.
“More people were staying at home and shopping online, so we had a boost in sales, similar to what we would have seen during Christmas shopping season,” said Horvath, who graduated from Penn State Behrend with a degree in Finance and minor in Marketing. “It was crazy. We have hired twenty-three people since COVID-19 hit the country in March.”
That growth attracted the attention of the Today Show, which featured Horvath and SWD in a fall segment about businesses that are doing well during the pandemic. (You can find a link on the college’s Facebook page at facebook.com/pennstatebehrend.) It’s not the first time Horvath and her work have been showcased by a major outlet. The shows and publications SWD has been featured in include Good Morning America, Marie Claire magazine, Glamour magazine, and Business Insider.
Hobby turns into serious business
years ago, Horvath had a successful career working full-time as a financial analyst for FedEx Ground in Pittsburgh. In the evenings, she escaped into her creative outlet, making custom mugs that she sold in an Etsy shop.
What started as a fun side-gig in her basement quickly turned into serious business, with customers drawn to her simple, yet modern designs and inspirational messages hand-lettered on her tablet.
Horvath had her first wholesale order on the line when her mug supplier stopped doing custom work. She turned to other Etsy shop owners for help. With the guidance of one gracious shop owner, she bought a sublimation machine and started producing her own mugs.
Within nine months of starting her Etsy shop, she quit her job at FedEx to go all-in on SWD. She soon had items in the first major retail outlet to carry her products—Francesca’s. Horvath expanded her line from mugs to candles, makeup bags, refill dispensers, jewelry dishes, pens, planners, and more.
“It was so surreal to see my products in a store, I loved going in there,” she said.
From Etsy to Homegoods
Today, you can find her designs in more than 3,500 shops and boutiques around the world, including HomeGoods, T.J. Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, and more. And, of course, you can shop online at sweetwaterdecor.com.
“We’re growing quickly and have been running two and three shifts in the warehouse to meet demand and ship on time,” she said.
Among SWD’s 2020 bestsellers? A soy candle labeled, “Let’s stay home.”
We caught up with Horvath to learn more about SWD and its extraordinary business trajectory.
Why did you choose penn state behrend?
Horvath: I’m a third-generation Penn Stater, so I wanted to keep that tradition going. When I toured Behrend, I fell in love with the campus and I liked that it was close to my home in Butler.
Is there a story behind your company name?
My husband, Chris, and I live in Sewickley, which is named for a Native American word that means “sweetwater.” Many places around us are named sweetwater something-or-other. We decided to use it as two words, though.
Do you have investors?
No and we have no business debt.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Right now, it’s managing the growth. Sales have increased quickly, and we have had to do a lot of hiring to get our products out the door on time.
It all started with mugs?
Yes, custom-made mugs. When I started, I did a lot of handwritten digital products on Etsy, too, things like wedding invitations, baby shower invitations, etc.
And, now, you have a warehouse and employees?
Yes, this year marks our sixth year in business and we now have more than thirty employees who work for SWD.
Are you the only designer?
Yes. I design every product in our shop, and most have my hand-lettering on them.
You’ve licensed some of your designs. How does that work?
Licensing allows others to take your designs and put them on their products. You can sell your design outright or you can choose to receive a royalty, a percentage of each product sold, which is what I do.
Do you have experience in retail sales?
When I was in college, I was a sales associate and then a sales leader at Bath and Body Works. I loved working retail and took in as much information as I could, learning everything from floor sets to how they analyze sales by the hour, and more. After college, I worked in Dick’s Sporting Goods’ corporate office as an assistant buyer before I moved to FedEx Ground.
Your husband is your business partner?
Yes, Chris is an accountant and was working on his CPA when I began SWD on Etsy. Today, he not only handles the accounting for SWD, but runs the production side of things, making sure the warehouse runs smoothly each day, which allows me to concentrate on design.
What advice do you have for students or recent alumni?
If you find that you don’t love what you are doing, turn in the direction of something that does interest you. I knew I loved retail and analyzing things, but I just wasn’t sure how to make that a career. I think all of the experiences I had along the way were important learning opportunities. Get as much background as you can in whatever it is that excites you. And, don’t be afraid to start small. It’s easier to manage that way, and you have room to make mistakes and figure things out.