Stephen Kuhl and Kabeer Chopra didn’t arrive at business school planning to start a sofa company. Kuhl was a former Accenture consultant; Chopra, a former analytics manager at Michael Kors. They first met years ago at a New Year’s Eve party, through a mutual friend, and later became project partners in a Wharton entrepreneurship class. (The same class Warby Parker’s founders attended, as it happens.)
“We were complaining about buying furniture over drinks one night,” Kuhl says–the standard gripes about Ikea assembly times and West Elm delivery fees. Fast-forward two years, and they are running a sofa startup called Burrow that solves the problems they faced at those established retailers. Burrow’s signature offering is a long-lasting, modular sofa that ships in boxes and can be assembled in minutes. Like Warby Parker and Casper, Burrow sells its products online and direct-to-consumer, which reduces costs.
Jennifer Schock, similarly, had no intention of one day running a furniture factory in New Houlka, Mississippi. A South Dakota native living in Minnesota, she built her career at Target, where she rose through the ranks to become a senior buyer. Later, she spent more than seven years running a furniture company based in China. But in January of this year, she and her husband found themselves standing on the factory floor at the upholstery company Chapter 3 as its proud new owners.
“When we told our family we were moving to Mississippi and buying a factory, they couldn’t put their head around it,” Schock says. “But we’re all in.”
In a sign of the times, Schock’s story is now converging with Burrow’s. For years, U.S. manufacturing was migrating overseas. Over the last decade, the U.S. lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the furniture industry alone. But now there is a domestic resurgence underway, as brands discover that producing their wares closer to home better aligns with the rhythm and demands of direct-to-consumer e-commerce. Burrow is among the converts: The Y Combinator alum, which manufactured its first sofas in Mexico, decided in May to move production to Schock’s facility in Mississippi. Earlier this month, the first Burrow sofas emerged from the Chapter 3 floor.
“I met all these factory CEOs, and they were interested but skeptical,” Kuhl says. “[Jennifer] immediately got what we were doing.”
The same is true of Schock’s employees, Chopra says. “These guys are very motivated and they keep up with us. They really believe in the idea of Burrow.”
That was not the case with their original partner in Mexico. There, they soon discovered that the factory suffered from high turnover. Kuhl and Chopra churned out sketch after sketch, determined to create durable, foolproof joinery, but there were few long-standing staff with the experience and skill required to innovate. The language barrier didn’t help, either. When the factory fell behind schedule on Burrow’s pre-orders, the cofounders started to think about finding a new partner. But they didn’t commit to exploring state-side options until a grueling episode involving a cardboard box contractor exposed broader supply chain issues.
That’s when they found Schock, who at the time was still commuting between Minneapolis and Mississippi as she prepared to move her family down south. “We have a common bond between us,” she says. “We’re both young companies that are less worried about the traditional barriers and more about doing what’s right.”
In the U.S., what’s right for the customer is starting to align with what’s right for factory employees. Domestic manufacturing enables companies like Burrow and Chapter 3 to continually refine their designs and ramp production up and down in response to customer feedback. They can also ship directly to consumers, reducing delivery times. Skilled workers are essential to the equation.
“[Burrow] can send over an idea to me or my husband, and sometimes in the same day we can mock up a modification of something,” Schock says. “We can get the email, walk downstairs to the plant, and pull it together.”
She adds: “The consumer, if they want more choices, you’re going to need to have shorter lead times and smaller quantities. Importing doesn’t adhere to those things.”
Burrow’s sofa cleverly offers consumers a semblance of choice without straying from a standard set of component parts. Each sofa is built with the same two end pieces; in between, consumers can add as many seats as they wish. The seats fold open out of the box and then snap into place, one after another, using a custom latches. Instead of complicating the design with two types of cushions, Burrow designed a reversible style, which is tufted on one side and flat on the other. “We wanted to make a truly modular piece of furniture,” Chopra says. When Fast Company visited Burrow’s offices in New York, Chopra and Kuhl set up a gray two-seater in a matter of seconds. (It was surprisingly comfortable, too.)
Chapter 3 produces its own wares alongside its partnership with Burrow. But the two are complementary, with Chapter 3 focused on fashionable accent furniture in colors like blush pink. “We’re trying to capitalize on the trends that are of the moment,” Schock says. “Burrow is a piece of furniture that you’re going to accessorize around,” and keep as an investment piece. She sees potential in both types of products, and has already hired a dozen new employees. “Once we get into full production mode, we’re looking to hire more.”
If Burrow’s partnership with Chapter 3 succeeds, it would buck the narrative around Silicon Valley and job creation. As the Bay Area booms, formerly industrial regions of middle America continue to struggle. By manufacturing on U.S. soil, Burrow spreads the wealth that startups generate to towns like New Houlka that have been left behind.
Silicon Valley leaders like Justin.tv founder Justin Kan, a Burrow investor, are starting to pay more attention to how their work fits into the broader economy. “We should figure out how to give people jobs in America,” Kan says. “That’s not something that’s going to be solved by one company, but it’s good to be a part of that narrative.”
Plus, he and others are discovering that domestic manufacturing is a natural fit for their agile development philosophies. “I’ve made stuff in China, it’s a huge pain in the ass. You can’t be very reactive in your iteration process, and there are high minimum order quantities,” Kan says. “The cool thing about the internet is that you can make changes very quickly. Taking some of that to the physical goods world is really good.”