This year, my husband and I decided to finally shed the beat-up Ikea furniture we had acquired in our twenties. We’d just bought a house and it seemed like the right time to start investing in a proper, well-made sofa, dining set, and bed that would (hopefully) last until our toddler is off to college.
But as soon as we started browsing online and visiting stores, we quickly realized we didn’t have the expertise to know if we were making smart purchases. Unlike picking out high-quality food or clothes, it’s hard to tell what you’re really getting when in comes to furniture. On the West Elm, Crate & Barrel, or Wayfair websites, for instance, most of the furniture is described as “imported,” but we don’t know where it is from or how, exactly, it was made. Did it come off a massive factory line? Was it made by a skilled craftsman in a small studio? Would it fall apart in a year or last a decade?
We have no way to tell.
Nidhi Kapur gets it. The 30-year-old, who launched a furniture startup called Maiden Home in March, had experienced the exact same paralysis when she was setting up her first home in New York. “My husband and I decided to adult for the first time,” she says. “But I expect to know what I am getting for my money now. I don’t know if my parents feel this way, but I feel more empowered as a consumer to ask questions when it came to buying furniture.”
To tackle this problem, Maiden Home offers a more transparent approach to buying furniture. For instance, when a customer buys an armchair or a sofa, they receive regular updates and photos of the artisans–all based in North Carolina–who make the pieces from scratch. Pieces are delivered to the customer’s home within six weeks of placing the order.
Kapur also wants to educate her customers about the pricing of products, explaining how she is cutting out middlemen markups by selling directly to the consumer, resulting in better-quality pieces at prices akin to places like Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn. Sofas start at just under $1,900 and armchairs at under $1,000.
Millennial Buyers Want Transparency
Many high-end furniture brands like Restoration Hardware and Anthropologie simply don’t offer many details about where their furniture is made. (Neither brand responded to our request for comment about their sourcing.) But as Kapur began digging into consumer data, she discovered that many millennials have hesitations when it comes to buying furniture, just like she did. They’re used to brands like Patagonia, Everlane, and Chobani giving them glimpses into the factories where products are made. And yet, when it comes to big, expensive purchases like couches and dining tables, they’re in the dark.
Kapur began tinkering with the idea of launching her own company at her last job, where she led business development at Birchbox. Reporting directly to founder Katia Beauchamp, Kapur realized if she were to start her own company, she needed to believe strongly in the problem she was trying to solve. “Birchbox’s founders were disrupting the beauty industry with so much passion,” she recalls. “To start your own company you have to feel the pain point acutely and want to solve it fervently. That’s the only way to weather all the challenges that come with entrepreneurship.”
For Kapur, sofas definitely spurred that passion. “This is a category that has benefited from the fact that consumers come mostly uneducated,” she says. “You’ve been buying clothing and footwear your whole life, so you come into that process a little more savvy, but on average people change their sofas every five or seven years. The quality-to-price ratio of many furniture products is totally skewed.”
Kapur spent two years researching the furniture industry before launching Maiden Home. What she found is that much of the innovation in the market relates to how products are marketed, rather than how they are made. Ten years ago, customers could go to a chain store, like Ikea or Pottery Barn, or a small local boutique selling a mishmash of different brands. These days, thanks to retailers like Wayfair and One King’s Lane, customers have a broader set of inventory to choose from. Brands have also leveraged the internet to merchandize their products, filling our Instagram and Pinterest feeds with a perpetual stream of art-directed photoshoots that were once only available in catalogs and glossy home magazines.
“I get that selling furniture is about selling dreams and inspiration,” Kapur says. “Their presentation is beautiful, but that is extremely expensive to do and this sometimes means selling cheaper, lower-quality products so that you can charge the same price for them.”
Some of Kapur’s competitors charge between $2,000 and $6,000 for a sofa made in factories in Vietnam and China that don’t have the same history of furniture craftsmanship. On the surface, many of these pieces look beautiful and are upholstered with gorgeous fabrics. But to understand what was going on inside, she bought a sofa from what she describes as a “major consumer brand manufacturing in China” and ripped it apart. She discovered that the cushions were made of low-density foam that would flatten over time. The frame was made of plywood rather than kiln-dried hardwood, and the corners were not reinforced. Furniture is still largely made by hand, and much is lost when you prioritize speed and volume over quality.
“If you put pieces from China and America side by side, you start to see the differences,” she says. “A lot of that is stripped out when you do it abroad and mass produce.”
Gone to Carolina
Kapur wanted to find a way to use technology to bring better-quality craftsmanship to the customer at lower prices, much like Everlane and M.Gemi have done with clothes and shoes. Fortunately, she didn’t have to look far to find expert furniture makers. In the 20th century, North Carolina was a global hub of furniture manufacturing. Much of this business was shipped to China in the 1990s because labor was cheaper there, but there are still many skilled craftsmen in the state who make sofas and armchairs for small high-end boutiques around the country.
“There’s a lot of pride in what they do,” Kapur says. “Furniture is in everyone’s blood: Everyone’s mom, uncle, and brother builds furniture. Being the head of upholstery at one of the local factories is seen as something to be celebrated.”
With her new business plan in mind, Kapur visited dozens of North Carolina furniture studios and eventually settled on three that she wanted to work with. Her pitch was as follows: For decades, these artisans had been selling products to a selection of high-end boutiques. By working with her, they would make their products available to a much wider range of consumers and scale their businesses. Since products are made to order, Maiden Home would ask customers to customize the size, color, and fabric to their own taste without paying a premium for it.
But just as important: She would tell the artisans’ story and give the customer a glimpse into their workshops. “I made the case to them that this was a strategic opportunity and that I wasn’t just another customer looking to buy their product,” she says.
These three workshops quickly signed on. Kapur was able to raise some capital from her friends and family, to create the website, the imagery, and the marketing for Maiden Home. But she’s found that her approach is not particularly capital heavy since she doesn’t need to hold any inventory. The sofas and armchairs are made on demand, so she places orders with the factories as soon as a customer pays for the piece.
As Kapur spent weeks with these craftspeople, developing the products that she would sell on the site, she began to see how they felt about their work being outsourced to China. For instance, North Carolina artisans specialize in a technique called the “eight-way hand tie” that is meant to achieve the most comfortable and long-lasting sofa. They discovered that some companies advertise this construction method, but these artisans don’t see any evidence of it in the product.
“In some cases, you encounter bitterness that they feel their story is being lost,” Kapur says. “If you get them started talking about Restoration Hardware, they go nuts because they feel it is so unfair that consumers are paying so much for what they feel is a low-quality product. The way they talk about it, they are angry.”
Kapur’s goal is to provide a new channel for these craftsmen to sell their product. She’s already succeeded, selling nearly 500 pieces since the brand launched, significantly increasing the output in these factories. She’s simultaneously offering customers a better product for the price they would expect to pay at one of the big, pricey furniture brands. But just as importantly, she wants to use technology to connect these two communities.
“My generation demands transparency,” she says. “We would love to buy products from a skilled artisan and know how our products are made. Our craftsmen are all over our website: I know them all by name.”