How This Entrepreneur Went From Corporate Litigator to the Ultimate Host
You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out and you’re now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we’re debuting a new series called Second Life. Each month, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
It was close to eight years ago when Liz Curtis had her “light-bulb moment.” The young San Francisco native was studying for her California bar exam when she decided to make some mac and cheese from scratch. “I asked a fellow lawyer friend to help by ‘putting the pasta in,’ and she promptly dumped the macaroni into the small pan of simmering milk for the roux,” she said. It might seem like a simple mistake, yet it wasn’t. Curtis’s friend really didn’t know that the pasta went in the water. In order to help those of us with limited to no cooking skills, Curtis launched the Table + Teaspoon blog in 2009 with simplified recipes that would make anyone feel comfortable in the kitchen.
She completed her study and went on to become a successful corporate litigator, all the while writing for T+T and hosting dozens of dinner parties on the side. As T+T continued to grow, she knew it was time to swap the courtroom for the kitchen. So she quit and turned her side hustle into a full-time gig. But today it’s so much more than just a blog. In 2016, she transformed Table + Teaspoon into a “rent-the-table,” removing the daunting aspect of hosting a dinner party entirely. To find out how she made the leap, we asked Curtis to share her story, namely how she overcame the fear of change to pursue her passion and become the hostess with the mostest, effectively disrupting the event industry at the same time.
“Starting a business isn’t sexy. It’s effectively the professional equivalent of bipolar disorder.”
MYDOMAINE: Tell us about your first career path.
LIZ CURTIS: After working in national politics post-university, I decided that an advanced degree would be useful to me, especially as a woman. Law had the most practical application to many different career options, so that’s what I went with. I loved law school and my time clerking for a federal judge, but I didn’t love being a lawyer. Growing up, I watched my father build satellites for NASA that went to Mars and my mother risk everything to pursue her professional dreams. I craved these qualities in my own life—innovation, passion, and fearlessness—and I knew corporate law couldn’t foster these for me.
MD: How did you make the transition from law to on-demand tablescapes?
LC: I’ve always been interested in creating beautiful things—luxe tablescapes, interior design, plush floral arrangements—but never had the creation of anything remotely culinary tempted me. Ten years ago, a dinner party at my house meant an impromptu potluck, where my erstwhile contribution was delivery pizza—literally Domino’s.
Everything changed the summer I spent studying at home for the California bar exam in 2009. Going stir-crazy and craving comfort food, I turned on the Food Network and decided that it couldn’t possibly be that hard to roast a chicken (particularly given that the entire process looked like it took five minutes on TV). Though it took a bit more than five minutes to roast the chicken, the results were more than worth the effort. After this experience, the call of the kitchen sounded, fiercely. I realised that my passion for aesthetic wonderment extended to the edible after all.
I started posting my creations on Facebook via my Blackberry (eek!), and similarly culinarily challenged friends asked me to start a blog that made seemingly difficult recipes easy, which is how Table + Teaspoon was born. With a little encouragement from mentors and my loyal blog following, I decided to leave the security of my corporate litigation job in 2013 and turn Table + Teaspoon into a catering, events, and interior design firm. The idea was to get my hands dirty learning the industry and then figure out how to scale it into something national.
I spent several years hosting meticulously decorated multiple-course dinner parties for 12 friends every 10 days until I was confident that my skillset was on a professional level. Lacking that option for interior design and event planning, I offered my services at cost or insanely reduced rates (think $1/hour) while I was learning the business. Though I didn’t rely solely on trial-and-error, I also leaned on my friends for guidance. Their tips were invaluable, and I undoubtedly wouldn’t be where I am today without their support.
The idea for the next phase of Table + Teaspoon hit me last summer while picking up my zillionth order from an enormous party rental warehouse in South San Francisco. In a city where you can order literally anything on demand (flowers, dresses, tuxes, meals, chefs, groceries, cocktails, servers, sommeliers), why can’t you similarly order your tablescape? With this new idea in mind, I used my entire savings and a loan from my family to bootstrap the vision for a “rent the table” business model.
MD: Tell us about your current career path/business.
LC: The on-demand economy is enormous and growing exponentially every day. People want to entertain in their homes but don’t know how or don’t have the bandwidth. Hiring an event planner every time you have people over is expensive and time-consuming, as is curating and buying your own dishware.
When I created Table + Teaspoon, I knew that this was a space that needed disrupting. What I didn’t realize is that I could disrupt two industries at the same time. Table + Teaspoon brings the dishware necessary to complete the on-demand food industry and harnesses the tech innovation the event rentals industry is currently missing. The market was clearly ripe for innovation and no one was doing it.
MD: What have been the biggest challenges in your many careers, and why?
LC: I have zero formal training in anything other than law. Though my experience as a litigator provided valuable insight into the corporate structure, avoiding potential product liability, and contract review, little else translates to my new career. If someone who wants to change careers has the time and resources to go to culinary school, medical school, fashion school, astronaut school—whatever drives you, great.
But the truth is, by the time you realize what you actually want to do with your life, it’s often too late to subscribe to the traditional method of training in that particular field. This meant that I had to adapt quickly. Beyond reading everything I could get my hands on—books, magazines, Wikipedia—I jumped right in and got my hands dirty.
MD: What triggered your need to change this time around?
LC: One of my favourite stories to tell is about my final decision to leave law. I was making mac and cheese from scratch, and I asked a fellow lawyer friend to help by “putting the pasta in” for me. She promptly dumped the macaroni into the small pan of simmering milk (for the cheese sauce) rather than the big pot of boiling water.
This was the moment I realised there was a niche for a company that could make the daunting aspects of cooking, entertaining, and decorating more straightforward so that everyone who wants to has the ability to live a more beautiful lifestyle. I knew that I had the drive, leadership, and dedication necessary to make it happen. And as they say, the rest is history.
MD: Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
LC: I can’t imagine another job that would allow so much creative freedom coupled with the ability to constantly learn new things. Two parts of the law that I enjoyed were the analytical components of trial strategy and gaining knowledge about different industries via research for briefs and depositions. I was worried that I would lose these qualities by abandoning my legal career, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Since forming Table + Teaspoon as a corporation, I’ve learned something new almost every day from putting together an investor pitch deck to the myriad of ways to remove graffiti from my showroom windows. I’ve also been able to create gorgeous things and spaces daily, which feeds my soul in a way that the law never could.
MD: How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
LC: Here’s the thing about pursuing your passion: One moment you are successful, confident, and impenetrable, the next you’re struggling, confused, and afraid. Starting a business isn’t sexy. It’s effectively the professional equivalent of bipolar disorder. It’s a stay-in-bed-all-day-depressed or work-48-hours-straight-to-meet-a-deadline, anxiety-inducing, I’m-the-most-amazing-person-in-the-world—wait-what-am-I-thinking, maybe-I-should-just-buy-a-one-way-ticket-to-Paris-and-disappear-into-a-haze-of–Parliament Light–cigarette-smoke-and-martinis-because-I-ruined-my-life kind of madness.
Do I wish that I was still sitting in my FiDi office with a secretary and glittering bay view? Sure. Do I miss shopping at lunchtime for the perfect little black Tom Ford dress to go with my edgy but still pretentious YSL leather motorcycle jacket in order to validate my 14-hour workdays? Sometimes (but not as often as you’d think). Do I still want to use my legal training? Yep, but that’s why I volunteer for people who can’t afford representation.
Do I regret my decision to recklessly abandon all of this security? Emphatically, no. Despite the struggles I’ve encountered, I get to wake up every morning knowing that I’m making the very most of my life. And that’s worth every single panic attack along the way.
MD: What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success?
LC: My first official Table + Teaspoon job happened to occur on a stormy December evening. I did both the catering and design for the large dinner party, so it was a very long day. Just as I finished loading the last crate of dishes into my SUV, the client’s front door slammed shut from the wind. Luckily, I had dead bolted the door to prevent it from locking me out. Unluckily, the force of the wind bent the deadbolt so that I couldn’t close or lock the door. With the clients already asleep upstairs, I completely panicked.
Determined not to fail, I took a few deep breaths and decided I would find a way out of the situation without waking up my clients or calling a locksmith at 1 a.m. I searched the house for tools, managed to take the entire door frame apart, and repositioned the deadbolt. Problem fixed and nightmare averted. Phew! From this early experience, I learned that I won’t always be able to anticipate disasters, but with determination and focus, most of the problems I face in my new career will have solutions.
MD: What do you love most about your current role and why?
LC: I love that the road ahead and my goals are always evolving, and as CEO, this means that I’m never bored. My goal beyond the immediate desire to build out the “rent the table” concept is to continue making entertaining accessible for everyone in more genres. I’m working on a cookbook, which will bring my cooking blog into print form. I’m hoping the final product will look just as gorgeous on a coffee table as it is useful in the kitchen. The recipes are simplified so that anyone can make them, while still being luxurious and delicious
I’m also at the very initial phases for both a cooking product line and T&T objet d’art for the dining table and home (think Kelly Wearstler meets Barefoot Contessa). Down the road, I’d love to find a better way to do “interior design in a box” for people who want a gorgeous living space but don’t have time to correspond with designers or select pieces on their own. The future is bright, and I’m very excited.
MD: When you look back and reflect on your previous career do you have any regrets? Or are you still really happy with your decision?
LC: A major concern that initially held me back from going guns-blazing toward Table + Teaspoon was the fact that I wasn’t helping people with my legal education. I spent a significant portion of my life earning my law degree and license to practice, and I had reservations about abandoning my strong desire to represent those who couldn’t represent themselves in the legal system. After many long conversations with anyone who would listen (primarily my amazing mum), I came to the realisation that I could do both by swapping my hobby with my profession.
I found an outlet for my legal skills by becoming a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected foster youth. This takes up between 20 and 40 hours per month but has allowed me to focus on building Table + Teaspoon without hesitation. Since then there have been no regrets, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to pursue both passions.
Are you thinking of changing your careers? What is your biggest fear about swapping roles?