Crafting furniture is a creative, rewarding pursuit, but turning your hobby or modest income source into a profitable business is undoubtedly a fiendish challenge.
Combined with relevant training, hands-on experience and advice from fellow entrepreneurs and business support organizations, the following tips can help you tackle this challenge.
Improving the business
Progressing your startup or new acquisition could, for instance, involve enhancing production techniques, finding operational efficiencies or striking distribution deals with retailers.
Unless you enjoy similar economies of scale, competing with purveyors of mass-produced furniture is going to be a very difficult challenge. You could, alternatively, make a virtue of your craftsmanship, artisanal ethos and excellence in a particular niche.
Designing furniture that is bespoke to customers’ specifications is another powerful way to distinguish your business.
Other specialisms include installing fitted furniture and fixtures, providing repair, restoration and re-upholstering services, or offering specialist services to other furniture manufacturers.
As for distribution, you can reach end users directly by selling online, whether through platforms like eBay and Amazon or through your own site.
While that cuts out the middleman, however, this involves shouldering additional administrative and logistical burdens – not least the size and weight of furniture making delivery comparatively tricky and expensive. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the market for furniture manufacturing sales is growing rapidly.
You might also consider, if not setting up a similarly challenging, permanent physical storefront, selling furniture via market stalls or popup stores in your startup phase.
Conducting ongoing market research
Consider trends in your target market – and potential target market – as well as competitors before ploughing time and money into fresh designs and manufacture.
However, beware of specializing in niches whose popularity is all too fleeting.
It would, for instance, be reasonable to bet on the popularity of standing desks, flexible workspace furniture and bariatric office chairs being fairly durable, given the likely persistence of the health, cultural and economic issues underpinning them. By contrast, ‘curves with tubular furniture’ – as anticipated by Homes & Gardens in 2021 – may well fall out of favor by 2022.
It’s also worth consulting existing and prospective suppliers and customers about what they want in terms of product, pricing, delivery and customer service, whether through phone calls with prospective retailers, in-person visits to retail customers, or online surveys of end users.
Consider the respective pros and cons of distribution avenues, whether it’s local independent retailers or major national chains, via architects, interior designers and home staging companies, specialist wholesalers, or selling directly via your own physical or digital storefront.
Covid-19 has disrupted both supply chains and assumptions about how to source materials and distribute goods, furniture included.
For instance, relying too heavily on overseas suppliers – however cheap their materials – now looks a riskier proposition. And having a greater volume of materials in reserve in case supplies are suddenly scarce seems more advisable than pre-2020.
Also keep costly-to-process returns to a minimum by relaying transparent, detailed product descriptions to suppliers and customers and ensuring the delivery process reduces the risk of damage in transit.
Your proximity to retailers, distributors or consumers is another vital consideration given the distribution challenges posed by furniture.
Some interesting industry facts
- The US furniture market was projected to be worth $67.7bn by 2025, growing 2.7% annually from 2020.
- An overall drop in demand as people stayed at home during the Covid-19 pandemic was partially offset by a rise in demand for home, home office and garden furniture
- Furniture and furnishings are expected to be the fastest-growing ecommerce segment through 2022, predicts MarketResearch.com, while Grand View Research expects strong growth in the eco-friendly segment
Setting revenue and development goals
The transition from furniture-making hobbyist to serious craftsman and, finally, entrepreneur is a challenging one. Setting goals is helpful in charting a course through this evolution.
Your milestones could center around revenue, unit sales, market share or business development goals, for instance.
Be realistic about time frames. For instance, it may take at least 12 months to build sufficient sales revenue from selling locally before an ecommerce or bricks-and-mortar store, or exporting overseas, become viable goals.
Innovative ideas to market your business
Micro businesses might be best served by focusing their sales and marketing strategy on their local area, hunting for potential suppliers and partners at local business and community events, in the local press and Facebook groups. Furniture-related trade shows are also worth visiting.
A highly visual purchase, furniture should be marketed online with top quality images through sites like Instagram and Pinterest.
It’s also worth cold-calling target prospects and showing them prototype models and samples of finishes or textiles.
Emphasize your key pitch too, such as using traditional techniques, selling vintage pieces, upcycling or using only timber from sustainable sources.
Consider offering bulk, introductory, early-payment and other discounts.
A clear return policy and a multi-year guarantee will also alleviate prospects’ concerns about the risk of using your services.
Financing your business for expansion and growth
Whether your cash flow is running low or you need to kick-start growth with additional manufacturing capacity, there are myriad sources of finance.
For example, in the business’s precarious early days, a furniture maker can leverage trade finance to access cash otherwise delayed when retailers are slow at settling invoices.
Business credit cards can provide an alternative, interest-free way to bridge a cash flow gap for small operators, if used judiciously.
You can also use premises or inventory as collateral to secure lines of credit on more favorable terms than would otherwise be the case.
If your order volume grows rapidly in its early stages, meanwhile, you could get a serious cash injection from venture capital.
Incentivizing employees and hiring new ones
Being an entrepreneur, salesperson, customer service assistant and distribution expert, as well as a carpenter, welder and furniture designer, might prove too much soon enough.
Thankfully, even when cash flow is tight, there are services, such as Fiverr or Upwork, through which you can get inexpensive, flexible help with various jobs.
Using website building platforms like WordPress and Squarespace, you can, with limited technical skills, also set up at least a web page that prospective clients can visit to find out more about your services.
Some furniture will require more specialist, scarce skills than others when you grow beyond a one-man artisanal operation, so retaining quality people with not just a competitive salary, but additional perks and an enjoyable, creative, working environment, is vital.
Salaries for a furniture designer, incidentally, range between $37-100k, according to Glassdoor.
Exit strategy - considerations and preparation
Take a long-term view in terms of what you want the business to achieve, over what time frame, and when you want to sell a business.
An exit strategy, which can help you map these timelines out, can include things like:
- Valuing the business and identifying weaknesses – for instance in logistics, manufacturing capacity, production bottlenecks, your reputation, cash flow, and product development – to improve the valuation
- Considering who might realistically buy your business and plan accordingly, whether that’s for succession planning, a management buyout or a strategic purchase by a competitor
- Consider how to negotiate a business sale successfully, such as by adapting your culture, organizational structure and business model to fit with that of a strategic buyer, or making the business more appealing on the open market by offering earn-outs
- Address any financial or organizational complications such as by compensating investors and creditors or extricating yourself from the business gradually