How This Founder Bootstrapped an Office Furniture Company That Targeted What Other Furniture Companies Are Missing
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Karen John knew she wanted to start a business and knew she loved design, a discipline she’d worked in throughout her career. But she had her a-ha moment at a Dutch design conference, where a discussion of “What Design Can Do” in various markets helped her target her passion: to create modern, functional furniture and storage for the modern workspace. “One of the researchers at the conference had looked into how much time we’re spending at workspaces, and it just connected the dots between time I’d spend in tech cultures and in creative cultures,” John says. “Companies need to find the balance between design and utility.” Her company, Heartwork, launched in 2012, is out to do just that: improve spaces to support today’s thoughtful office culture. Here’s how she got there.
1: Crunch the numbers.
John’s career history was varied but synergistic: she’d studied industrial design, as well as manufacturing and engineering, and worked across those disciplines at big brands, such as Design Within Reach as well as at a small tech startup in Austin. But it was the combination of those experiences that helped her identify a gap in the market: well-designed office furniture for brands that cared about culture and the people who worked for them. “I always knew I wanted to start my own business -- if I had to stack rank my own values, freedom would be at the top,” she says. When she found herself at a career crossroads in 2012, she knew it was now or never. “Starting a business is the fastest path to personal development, because you’re always in a bottleneck.” But as she put together a business model, she realized that it would cost her more to continue living in her home base of New York City than it would to actually start the company. So she moved across the country and spent the first year of entrepreneurship in Portland, Oregon. “It was great in terms of creative community and from a cost of living standpoint,” John says. Still, it came with its own set of costs. “I did this based on the rational I saw on paper and forgot that I was going to be alone,” she says. “You leave [behind] your friends and emotional network.”
2: Pick a name you believe in (and stick with it).
As John was considering what to call her company, she focused on the problem it was trying to solve for inspiration. “I was seeing the gap between these tech companies that had strong cultures but disconnected spaces,' she says. She toyed with “Desk and Chair,” but ultimately decided it sounded like a retail company. “I needed a name that would give me the runway and the room to connect with a broader audience.” She thought up Heartwork and immediately fell in love -- though she was the only one. “I told my family the name and got this long voicemail from them while I was at the gym,” she says. “They were like, ‘Karen, we have some concerns,’ and left me 10 ideas they thought were better. They were worried that Heartwork sounded like a cardiologist.” In the end, they came around. “You have to hold a vision and talk about something people can’t see,” John says. “The hardest time is that beginning part.”
3: Develop your debut product -- and get creative about creating revenue streams.
John knew that storage was the first problem she’d tackle. “It was the one category people treated like a commodity and not a design product,” she says. But the development process was longer than she expected, and she needed to find a way to keep the nascent business afloat. “On the side, I started working with some facilities managers at tech companies and offered to help them find product that was already on the market,” she says. “If they needed soundproof booths, I’d help them source it. I’d get my trade discount, pass that along, and keep 5 percent or something silly. It was a way to learn and understand what people are looking for.” It’s a move she recommends other entrepreneurs make. “I think a lot of entrepreneurs put a wall up when they’re starting companies and want to finish everything before they really launch, but you have to start selling something as soon as possible,” she says. “And it gave me cash flow.”
4: Take the time to get it right.
Finding the right manufacturing partners is a universal challenge for any entrepreneur in the product space, and John was no exception. As she was developing early designs and prototypes, “a lot of people were either manufacturing in China or didn’t have the flexibility to do the colors we wanted,” she says. But rather than accept what was available to her, she pushed. “I developed the paint colors myself,” she says. She worked with designer Laura Guido-Clark -- a contact from her Design Within Reach days -- and found a small paint manufacturer that could produce the color and get swatches to John much faster than the six-week wait time the big players offered. “People who manufacture well are some of the best people out there,” John says, appreciative of the partners she now can rely on. “There’s a lot of care and integrity.”
5: Find the best path to growth.
Following Heartwork’s launch, the company was still bootstrapped, so spending big bucks on marketing wasn’t an option. But John had another plan. “I went out to architects and designers, because they were the ones working on projects with clients who care about design,” she says. “I needed to align with people who were already interested.” In addition to being a smart way of capitalizing on existing relationships and generating business leads, it also proved to be valuable, if not accidental, R&D. “It’s been one of the most satisfying things, how much time I get to spend working with and listening to our clients,” John says. “Architects and designers tell me exactly what they’re looking for, so we’ve built a very responsive product development and supply chain.”