This Company Is Betting You'll Subscribe to Their Sofa
Michael Barlow and his co-founder Lucas Dickey believe the next big trend in the subscription economy is furniture.
In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you, and what’s your business?
I am Michael Barlow, co-founder and CEO of Fernish, a lifestyle subscription service for the home. We let people choose the home furnishings they want for however long they want them, for one monthly subscription price. With trends around mobility, ownership and the changing way that people value time, Fernish makes a ton of sense for the 25 million young professionals currently both renting their homes and planning to move within the next 12 months. We started our business in Los Angeles and will be launching in greater Seattle area later this month.
You just went on our show Entrepreneur Elevator Pitch. How did it go?
My co-founder and I were very excited to participate. Being on-camera is a rush, and pitching your business on camera is even better. I think our episode of the show airs later this month, and you'll have to stay tuned for the ultimate outcome!
What inspired you to create this company?
I’ve moved five times since finishing college and had multiple sets of roommates in both New York and Los Angeles. And I threw away a lot of self-built furniture in the process. The true “aha moment” for Fernish was in early 2017 when my now-fiancée was moving from Chicago to join me in Los Angeles. We started brainstorming a business model to make the whole moving and furnishing process not just easy, but actually inspiring and exciting.
How is it different from others like it?
There are a few startup furniture rental companies out there now. We’ve never wanted to play in that category but rather created a new one based on exactly what our target customers are asking for, which we’ve branded as a "lifestyle subscription service."
We place an incredible value on customer development and customer experience. We built all of Fernish’s services through interviews and surveys before we even had a website -- and we continually sharpen our service through real-time feedback loops across all stages of our acquisition funnel. Not to mention a fantastic relationship we have with Crate & Barrel and about a dozen other players in the furniture space!
What does the word “entrepreneur” mean to you?
To me, “entrepreneur” means a combination of problem solvers and storytellers. We solve a problem we’ve experienced ourselves, then we tell a story to consumers so they let us solve that same problem for them.
What was your toughest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
Two challenges come to mind in starting a company: hiring the right team and building the right culture. Hiring is something that entrepreneurs have to be incredibly intentional about. It would have been so easy for us to hire someone “good enough” to fill a position. But the discipline for maintaining a high bar (a “bar-raiser” in Amazon-speak) is what I think differentiates companies in the long term.
We’ve built an environment where people are excited to come to work, ideas are valued and heard, and intellectual curiosity is highly encouraged. I mean, we have everything from aerospace inventory planning experts to missile systems engineers to a former Amazon product lead -- how could you not respect the perspectives and be excited to work with a group like that? But we also maintain a healthy amount of lightheartedness and like to have fun, which, given the intensity of a startup, is needed to keep us all balanced.
How has your leadership style evolved?
I had the opportunity to be a four-year NCAA athlete, which shaped a lot of my leadership style. In sports, it’s all about teamwork, trust and improvement. In a professional setting, that has come through as a combination of democratic and transformational leadership. I don’t like to make decisions in a vacuum. I like to build consensus around a path forward wherever possible. I also like to set measurable goals as a motivational tool, which can drive professional growth and pride in your work.
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