When I started Lone Birch last June, I didn't have much of a vision for what I wanted the company to be, I just wanted to create amazing products, make sales, and start making this my living. It happened so fast that I didn't have much time to think about what I wanted Lone Birch to look like, long term, or on a bigger scale. It wasn't until recently, when I started looking to hire a contractor to help make my products, that I really started to think about what I wanted this company to be or the kind of impact I wanted it to have.
Coming from an all-remote software company in tech, I was used to working from home with a completely distributed team without a central office. When I started Lone Birch, I entertained the idea of a similar, all-remote model in my head, but I didn't sit down to really map it out. Instead, I was hypnotized by the models of existing furniture brands - a warehouse with a big garage - and that I would eventually do the same. Don't get me wrong, there's something incredibly nostalgic about making products in a local shop, hiring local craftsman and promoting Made in New Hampshire on all my products. I love a lot of brands who do this and I got sucked into thinking I would do the same because well, that's what everyone does.
As I starting thinking about who I wanted to hire, I also looked at what it would cost to lease a local garage close by, somewhat close to a lumber yard (spoiler, it wasn't easy). It turns out the lease wasn't the worst part, it was the minimum 5 year commitment, the long commute away from my wife and newborn, needing to double the amount of equipment I currently have, limiting my candidate search to within a reasonable commute to this new shop, and on and on.
Right now I'm just a one man show. I work out of my garage (which I recently insulated and installed a heater) and it's been perfect. I don't need to commute. I'm comfortable with my tools. I know where everything is. The lumber yard isn't far. And most importantly, I'm right in the garage if my wife needs anything.
Then, it all just started to come back to me. I reminded myself of what it was like to work from home, for an all-remote company with all the benefits and conveniences that it offered. So after giving it some thought, I finally had a long term vision for what I wanted Lone Birch to become - an all-remote furniture company, where our products are made, packed, and shipped from home garages.
To me, an all-remote model is the most efficient way to scale a company if you do it from the ground up. I saw this first hand at my previous employer and I saw us scale from 300 to 1,600 people with relative ease (compared to companies who had physical offices). The same methods, tools, and infrastructure can be used to scale any all-remote business, as long as the product you're making can be done from home and resources/materials are readily available, to everyone.
In order for this to work, these will make it possible:
To build and scale an all-remote team, especially for a company that makes physical products, software is crucial. Without it, this model simply won't work. I’m working on the early stages of an app that will enable this model. The early version will be able to:
- Add makers to the organization
- Pull orders in from all sales channels (Etsy and Shopify)
- Manually assign orders to makers
- Link specs, Sketchup models, and video instruction on how you can make the products. (I don’t want to prescribe how they should be made, it’s more important that they should be made to spec).
I imagine a more mature version would be able to:
- Route orders to makers based on capacity, availability, expertise, location, and available equipment.
- Purchase any ancillary parts or hardware they need to make the products, with a company account.
- Onboard makers.
- My initial idea is to do short certification courses for each product, where they get “certified” to make certain products, and once "certified", the app would send them real orders to fulfill. It might not turn out to be exactly like this, but there needs to be some kind of onboarding quality control check prior to giving makers real orders to ensure products are consistent and maintain quality, regardless of who makes them.
Beyond that, there are likely things I haven’t thought, or needs I don't know exist. I'll put my UX Designer hat on and let makers suggest features I hadn’t thought of that would make a great addition to the software and iterate as we go. I'll also be a maker in the beginning, so I'll see first hand how this process will work.
I don’t want to get too locked into a vision of what this will look like, as long as we keep the mission of enabling an efficient all-remote furniture company with consistent products that maintain their quality, regardless of who makes them.
Without a doubt, I’ll need great makers, specifically people with the tools, equipment, and the space to make Lone Birch products. There is definitely no shortage of people with woodworking equipment at their home to make this happen. I’ve had several people reach out already, just in my local area with more than enough equipment in their home shop to do the job.
In terms of pay structure, the plan is to pay makers as independent contractors on a per item basis, for now. I’m making sure products can be made (on average) in 1 hour or less, while paying a competitive rate on an hourly basis for those items and still ensuring quality. Obviously, it needs to make sense for the business too, but with our products being in the mid-tier price range, I can manage to pay a competitive rate while having it still make sense for the business.
Since I’m still a small business, I won’t be able to provide full time employment for makers until my sales warrant it. And maybe independent contractors will be the best way to go, who knows. I don’t want to turn my sales up until I have a really good understanding on how all-remote manufacturing model will work, for our products specifically. People love our existing products and the conversions are good, and I think it's important to scale slowly (for now) as we can figure out how this will work. For now, I’m not going to ask makers to pack and ship items just yet either - I can get there once we’ve figured out the production and quality piece.
**Update - 4/14/23 - The packing and shipping part is nominal, we're going to run with the whole process from the get-go.
Once I can send orders to makers consistently, trust they’re made with quality and integrity, packed and shipped properly, and on time, followed up with positive reviews, then I’ll be able to start really scaling sales and onboarding new makers outside of my locale, which will also coincide with solidifying the software we need make this happen.
Obviously, in order for any business to exist, you need sales. Which means we need products that:
- Are high quality
- Can be made, on average, between 1 and 2 hours
- Are consistent, regardless of who makes them
- Are small enough to ship from home
- Are made of easily sourced materials from a variety of locations
- As a side note, our shipping and delivery system in this country is incredibly mature, so I see no issue in being able to ship most materials and resources they need to their shop. The most difficult material to source will be the hardwoods, since those need to be physically picked up by makers (lumber yards require massive minimums for a single location, much higher than a single maker is going to need). This will be an interesting problem to solve once we get there.
Right now, I’m happy to be and stay in the home office space. Most of the products fit the above criteria, which is perfect. This could change over time, but being an all-remote company making home office furniture for people working remotely is a nice place to be. I’d rather focus on creating a number of different styles for each of the products we currently offer before going into new categories.
For example, we currently offer 1 desk shelf. We should offer several styles of desk shelf, so when someone comes to our site, they’ll find one that fits their style and decor. A lot of home office furniture companies have 1 desk shelf or 1 laptop stand and honestly, I don't like this approach, but it's the approach you have to take if you're a centrally located shop and warehouse where it's difficult to scale your product line.
To me, you’re putting people in a very specific style, one that might not fit their style and is a style that everyone else has. That’s not what Lone Birch is about. Lone Birch is about being uniquely you, standing out amongst everyone else that looks the same and I want our product line to reflect that.
Being made to order
Having an all-remote structure with made to order products actually makes this much easier. We can put up a new style and not have to worry about whether it’s going to sell or not. Time to make and time to ship items are decreased dramatically if a maker is nearby, so it doesn't break the business if we only sell a few (Of course there’s the matter of retaining makers, making it worth their while so we need to maintain enough demand for the number of makers we support). They’ll make, pack and ship an item to your place just as fast as someone making furniture across the country and shipping it to you. Customers will also benefit from lower shipping cost, since ideally, the maker will be somewhat close. Low shipping costs could very well allow us to offer free shipping on all our products.
*Update - 4/14/23 - We now offer free shipping on all our products (to the US). Shop now.
Making furniture at a local level reduces an incredible amount of waste, since we’re not stocking inventory that will never sell - we can offer an unlimited number of styles (as long as we’ve provided sufficient instruction, detail and tutorials on how to make said style to makers), it supports local economies and local lumber yards, reduces our carbon footprint by reducing shipping distance, and further reduces our carbon footprint by our team for not having to commute to and from a central shop. It also greatly expands our opportunity to hire talented makers.
I’m incredibly excited to pursue this all-remote model, but of course there are some hurdles and drawbacks. These are just problems to solve, certainly not impossible to overcome, but with a great team, I’m certain we’ll be able to figure them out:
- Quality control + consistency
- Like I mentioned, this could be some kind of onboarding process where makers are "certified" for specific products. But if we have an expanding product line, this will be tricky. TBD.
- Ultimately, it comes down to trust. Once we see makers consistently making products to our standard, we should be able to provide instruction and specs for any product, and trust their reputation that they'll meet the standard regardless.
- Access to materials, wood specifically
- Distributing additional parts/materials
- Shipping (from makers to customers)
- Product defects, returns
- Not utilizing large industrial equipment to lower cost
- This likely can’t be solved. But who knows, if successful, makers could look to increase their output, make a business out of it, etc. Kind of like an Airbnb host expanding their Airbnb offerings. I know, this is way in the future, but who knows. Under this independent contractor model, that is a possibility with enough demand.
Here's what I imagine the experience to be from a user's perspective, with a perfect setup:
A maker wakes up, opens the app, sees the existing orders they need to fulfill. They can look at the orders, order any needed parts/hardware/shipping materials they don't have on hand (from the app), make the product, print the shipping label, then pack and request UPS or USPS to pickup the order from their house. Then, pay them for the order when it's fulfilled.
A customer finds a laptop stand they love and want to purchase. They make a purchase through our online store or Etsy store. They see the local Lone Birch maker who will end up making their laptop stand. They get a purchase confirmation and wait for a notification that their product is being shipped. The product is then made by a local maker, packaged, and shipped to their door. It should feel like any normal transaction, but with free shipping and quick turnaround, all for a handmade item.
I’m incredibly excited for the future at Lone Birch and know all of this won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take hard work, great products, patience, and great makers, but I’ve never felt so clear about where I want this company to go and the impact I want it to have. I’m going to take my prior experience of working at a successful, probably the most successful, all-remote company and use that model to create an all-remote furniture company, where products are made, packed, and shipped from home garages. All of this will help support local makers and businesses, reduce our carbon footprint, reduce shipping turnaround and cost to the customer, and give makers an opportunity to earn supplemental income and beyond. Ultimately, this model is more than possible, but it needs to start on a small scale to lay a solid foundation. There’s still a lot to learn.
If you want to contribute or get involved or just want to chat, you can email me at email@example.com. I’ll try to keep writing each week on our progress, likely in much shorter form, on both the successes and pitfalls. Until then, check out our products and keep an eye out for new releases!