Distilling great furniture with Moebe
Starting a startup and turning it into a successful business is a dream for many, but the reality is that, of those who even dare to attempt it, most fail. It is much more difficult to build and grow a business than one might hope, and it can be even harder to succeed, when your business involves physical products that require upfront capital as well as a lot of production and logistics know-how.
The furniture industry, in particular, often seems completely impenetrable for newcomers, as young architects and designers either get eaten up by the established players, or they never really had a chance to begin with, going up against the margins of the bigger manufacturers, who can always stick it to you by beating you on the price label.
So, how does our partner, Moebe, a young Danish furniture company slip through the all-too-known obstacles that kill the dreams of many carpenters and furniture designers? We went to visit the three founders to extract some answers.
Visiting the showroom:
Moebe’s office and showroom is located in a hip and up-and-coming neighborhood on Amager, a little outside of central Copenhagen. The office is not easy to spot from the street, as it is tucked away and almost hidden atop some raw and narrow cement stairs. But you know you have arrived, when the large metal door opens up into a light and bright space with cool epoxy floors and stylish furniture, all done in-house of course .
The three founders, Anders Tham, Martin Christensen, and Nicholas Oldroyd greet me in a warm and friendly, completely down-to-earth, manner, and within a few minutes, the humor sieves through, and you somehow forget that you haven’t actually known them for ages.
Nicholas is the only non-Danish (he is English) co-founder, who speaks Danish surprisingly well. As he makes us coffee, we laugh about the fact that despite Denmark being such a tiny country, it persists at being very insistent on foreign nationals adapting convincingly to its culture and language.
So how did it all start?
When we sit down, they catch me up on how they got started with the company.
Anders had earned a degree in political science and was working in the Ministry of Finance, but he missed working with his hands, so he decided to quit his job and go to a cabinetmaker school, where he met Martin.
Martin: “Anders’ political science background has helped us a lot in terms of strategy and administration, but he is also super creative and a great builder. He will often take an idea all the way from ideation to a finished product all by himself.”
Martin was doing his MA in Architecture, but decided to incorporate some extra time at a cabinetmaker school, so he could work more with his hands and get a better feel for materials and for production.
Nicholas: “Martin is crazy sharp! He has an incredible eye for always bringing things to the next level!”
Nicholas had finished his MA in Architecture and had been involved in various architecture projects. One year, before Christmas, he decided to create something for the local Christmas market and made 60 brass candleholders to sell, not really expecting it would be a big deal. When they ended up selling like warm bread, he decided to put them into actual production and made another 1000 that disappeared just as fast at the next local markets.
Anders: “Nick is really creative and comes up with an insane amount of ideas! They just jump out of him constantly and at all times of the day.”
The three finally ran into each other at several of the local markets, where they were selling their individual products, and they noticed each other, because they kept seeing how well each other was doing. They started to talk and realized how well they complimented each other. Anders and Martin worked a lot with wood, while Nicholas worked with metals, and they could see great potential in merging their efforts.
In 2016, they officially joined forces and started working together. In the beginning, they were working out of Martin’s apartment, while stacking their inventory in Nicholas’ apartment. They soon became very succesful with a frame they built, one that is held together by an integrated rubber band, allowing you to frame many different things, like dried flowers, drawings, or even socks. And because it was so easy to use, you could exchange the items in your frame very often.
By making a frame that people can put whatever they want into, made them feel creative without being artists, so they would share their different creations on social media. This frame became so popular that it made it possible for the three founders to stay completely self-funded, and it has allowed them to expand their team to 10 people as well as a product line that now includes beautiful modular shelving units, mirror systems, and soon they are coming out with lamps, sofas, chairs, and more.
The trio is very ambitious and confident with their work, and they make it a point to not kill their creativity with too much market analyses or doing what everyone else seem to be doing or having success with. They want to focus on their own craft and keep getting better at what they do best, simplifying and distilling furniture.
Their mantra is that things have to be smart in the details, so no cheating with a ton of screws, glue, or chemicals. It has to be completely honest. Their guiding principle is to keep simplifying and distilling things down to the utmost simple. The trick is to keep asking “can this be simpler?” The Moebe shelving unit is another great example of this principle.
They all agree that their common denominator is that it’s never good enough. Whether it’s something for their visual identity or their products, they always pay extreme attention to the details, so they can continue improving.
Biggest learnings and challenges:
Nicholas: “It has really just been five years of pure learning — everything from how to do invoices, contracts, and taxes to how to lead a team. The real challenge is to make a business actually float — to be a creative and run an office and to have enough time to still design.”
The three agree that they still need to find ways to become better at handing over responsibilities, but as a team, they also feel they make up for each other’s weaknesses. For example, when Anders, who is responsible for Sales, wants to give a bunch of stuff away, Martin is good at coming up with better guidelines and parameters for doing so. They compliment each other, and they don’t really care about titles and responsibility areas. They pick up what needs to be done, small or big, and they just do it.
Martin: ”I think the most important lesson is that you just gotta throw yourself out there and actually do it. Nothing beats the power of doing and trying things.”
Anders: ”We used to do guerilla warfare and just show up places with our products in hand. People would say, “this is not how we usually do things”, and we would just kinda shrug and be like, “Well, now we are here, so…”
They used to drive their products around and ship everything out themselves. Nick even got banned from the local grocery store mailroom, because he was overflowing them with packages. Then they started to drive products around town in taxis.
Nicholas: ”One of the biggest differences we felt, when we grew, was definitely outsourcing the packaging and shipping to an external partner. That was a major luxury.”
Moebe gets 95% of all their products produced in Europe, and 50% are actually made in Denmark. They like to keep production in Europe, as there is a high standard and a lot of trust. They have been developing their agreements with their production partners over the last many years, and these relations are crucial to the success of their business.
Even though inventory is something that scares most companies, Moebe actually keeps an inventory of all their products, which many of the large companies won’t even do. Moebe wants to get your products to you within four days, and even when something is completely out of stock, they want to get it to you within two weeks.
Martin: ”Inventory is all about risk management. We have been seeing the patterns in demand over the years, and we definitely use those as guidelines, but otherwise we also just have to go by gut feeling.”
By starting off with smaller products and accessories and getting really good at those first, has been key to their success. Moebe spent their first 3.5 years building smaller products before diving into furniture. This ensured that they learned many fundamentals and optimized processes before tackling bigger products.They have only been building furniture for 1.5 years, but it is a part of the business that is growing the most now.
The creative process?
The three co-founders work closely together and plant ideas with each other, and then they give it time to grow. They don’t always agree on everything, but eventually they come around one way or the other.
They are not afraid to keep doing and trying new things, and the fact that they are all cabinetmakers, makes it easier to speak the same language and try things out in smarter ways.
Martin: “It also gives us lot of agility to not have external designers. We don’t have to ask for permission to do or change things.”
Given their backgrounds, they know what questions to ask when it comes to all the details. For example, if furniture has to be shipped to Japan, it needs to be able to withstand the moisture in the shipping container, as it travels for months, so the details around the materials become crucial, so they need to keep those in mind in the development process.
Anders: “Our proverbial ‘hat’ has seven hats in one, so we always think about everything at once when we develop products and projects. For example, while we are deciding materials, size, etc., we are already considering other aspects and calculating the related prices, and so on. That way, we can optimize, as we ideate in terms of what is doable and what processes make best sense.”
Favorite thing about the company:
Martin: “That we can do whatever we want… well, theoretically… well, at least we have a feeling of freedom.”
Photography by Karstensen Fotografi/Ourcreativeplace