'Fast' Furniture? This Founder Spent Years Forming Her Business Idea -- and Launched When the Timing Was Right To create her on-demand furniture company, The Inside, Christiane Lemieux fused cutting-edge technology with the famously slow-moving interiors industry.
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.
Christiane Lemieux spent 14 years building a successful, beloved interiors brand called DwellStudio -- but she knew that times were changing. Following the 2008 recession, Lemieux, who had bootstrapped the company since 2000, started to feel the weight of holding on to retail inventory. "It became a real liability," she said. "I loved that business, but I didn't want to be one of those entrepreneurs that was so fixated on what they built, they couldn't see the forest through the trees."
In 2014, she sold the brand to Wayfair, which gave DwellStudio the ecommerce support and attention she felt would help it thrive. She stayed on board with the company until 2016, but by that point, she could no longer ignore a big idea: well-made, on-demand furniture that gives customers the same kind of trend-driven instant gratification they've come to expect from the world of fashion.
The idea, Lemieux knew, would require her to reinvent the furniture production cycle and supply chain, but she was up for the task. In 2017, she launched The Inside, a digitally native furniture brand that offers custom-made furniture, delivered to shoppers in just four weeks. Here's how she accomplished her goal:
1. Know when the time is right.
This serial entrepreneur had long circled the idea of customized, affordable furniture on demand. But her timing was always off. "I was sitting with it for years," she said. "I just had to stay on top of everything happening with technology. I started seeing digital printing machine prices drop. I saw tech advances that allowed you to print on natural fibers. I saw 3-D modeling and rendering improve. Design and technology are at an interesting time, and if you can connect the dots, you can really disrupt things. That's my skill: connecting the dots."
2. Find your partners.
Lemieux's vision for made-to-order furniture was a bigger logistical challenge than she'd expected. "I initially went to some of my favorite vendors" -- ones she'd used with DwellStudio -- "and they couldn't execute for us," Lemieux said.
A wood vendor's product, for example, was too dense for The Inside's requirements. "We couldn't get the dimensional weight low enough, which meant UPS couldn't carry our packages. It's really nitty gritty stuff. Most of my job now is broadening the supply chain."
3. Watch the clock.
For the modern consumer, timing is everything, and Lemieux knew she had to deliver on her quick-turnaround promise to build any kind of brand loyalty. "Our entire process takes under four weeks," she said. Working with three manufacturing facilities, the company has created a ballet of production: When an order is placed, the fabric or wallpaper is printed on demand, the furniture piece is constructed or the pillow is stuffed; and everything is drop-shipped.
"This generation of consumer values time. They don't want to have a 24-hour window where their sofa might be delivered. 'We value your time': Everything is done through that filter."
4. Think big -- and broad.
"We're called 'The Inside' because we're inclusive," Lemieux said. "We serve every aesthetic." To do that, she built partnerships with designers and brands including Clare V., Peter Som and Christene Barberich.
"At DwellStudio, we had one look," she said. "But personal style is what's interesting. Our favorite thing is when we get an order for 'a banana palm chair and a zebra ottoman,' and we know this person is creating the interior of their dreams. We're like, "Who is Susan from Maryland, because she has amazing taste!'"
5. Staff up.
After raising a pre-seed round of funding from Kirsten Green at Forerunner Ventures, Lemieux got to work building her team. "Day one, Kirsten introduced me to Britt Bunn, who's now my co-founder and great at operations," Lemieux said. "Then we started to fill: marketing, merchandising, all those things."
Fast forward to the present: Lemieux now has a strong, lean team, supported by a freelance development team that keeps her employees nimble. "Cloud computing has changed the world," she said. "We can go to where the talent is."
6. Focus your message.
Lemieux said she knew that the hardest part of building her company would be the supply chain, and she wanted to focus on that in early marketing. "But the customer doesn't care about 'supply chain,'" she said, realistically. "They just don't. As an entrepreneur, you get caught up and start speaking to your customer in industry vernacular, and that's not fair."
To get customers to understand the product and the value that The Inside was delivering, Lemieux tweaked her messaging. "We tried "Made on demand' and that didn't work. We tried "Personalized' and that sort of worked. But when we said "Made from scratch in the USA,' they got it! And from there, I could tell them our zero-waste story -- but first, [customers] had to understand, 'I'm making these products for you.' "