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Founder Spotlight: Stephen Kuhl of Burrow
Stephen Kuhl is the co-founder and CEO of Burrow, home of the US-made modular couch that ships in a week. The direct-to-consumer furniture brand has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and People magazine. They were also recently named one of TIME’s 50 best inventions.
What’s remarkable is that Stephen had no prior experience in the furniture industry. And yet, he managed to create something relevant for the market. Today, Burrow is solving problems with real, rewarding solutions. They are designing simple, intuitive shopping experiences that customers love.
Tell us a little bit about Burrow and its mission.
Our mission at Burrow is to design innovative furniture that solves needs for modern consumers. We break down the furniture experience into shopping, shipping, living and moving. We've curated the best products in every category starting with the sofa and we'll expand from there. Everything is optimized to ship. We deliver it within days of you ordering it.
All of our furniture is thoughtfully designed. For the sofa, for instance, we know that people do more than just sit on a sofa. They will have drinks, watch TV, do work, nap. They have pets. They're all over it. So, we use high quality, durable materials that are easy to clean. Then the final piece, moving, is something that most furniture companies never think about.
Just as easily as you can assemble all of our furniture, you can disassemble it and take it with you when you move again. It’s really important for how modern consumers live their lives. Fifteen percent of furniture is sold online, which it's low, but in the north of a $100 billion market. It's still a lot of furniture that's being bought online. All of our furniture is designed to improve the way people live their lives.
Burrow furniture is proudly made in North Carolina, which was once an epicenter of furniture manufacture in America. What was the inspiration for keeping Burrow furniture US-made?
Burrow furniture was not always US-made. We always wanted to be. When we approached furniture companies in the United States back when we were in business school, everyone laughed at us and said, "You want to use high-quality materials and make it ship in boxes? That doesn't make any sense. Nobody will buy that. You should use particle board, make it overseas and then you can compete with Ikea."
We actually started producing in Mexico City in a very small factory that we got connected with through a friend in business school. Then once we outgrew them, we were able to move to Mississippi at a medium-sized factory. Then, a year later, we migrated over to North Carolina. Now, we're super-happy to be there.
I think furniture being made in the USA is synonymous with quality in many respects. A lot of our customers are looking for that.
Burrow was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal article about buying furniture the millennial way. What's the best way to reduce buyer risk and increase customer trust?
First, prominently featuring reviews. If you see enough people have also tried this out and they liked it, that makes a difference. Building up our brand over time creates trust and loyalty as well. Starting out, obviously, we didn't have any of that.
Second, having a return policy is key. People value convenience over other aspects, like other qualities of the products they buy. If you can get it quickly, and you can return it if you don't like it, then why not try it?
Judging from the reviews on your site, it looks like customers are really enjoying this product.
Yes, they are. It's a testament to how much work we put into it. We're very excited about how many reviews we have.
How were the holidays for Burrow this year? Are there seasonal upticks in the furniture industry?
The holidays were pretty strong. For furniture, especially sofas, the summer months are kind of slower. It picks up around the holidays. Then it gets dead in December, January, February. Then it starts to pick up again as people start going through that spring cleaning phase.
Talk to me about customer acquisition. How are you introducing customers to this new brand?
You hear a lot of companies talk about, "This was our secret sauce growing." For us, there has been no secret silver bullet. It's just a mix of constantly testing and learning across every single channel.
There's a variety of tactics. The traditional ones that a lot of direct to consumer brands are using—Facebook, Google, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. Podcasts work really well. It depends on the host. If the hosts are personally fans of Burrow, it does amazing.
We did subway ads in New York last summer. Those worked pretty well. We're just getting into direct mail, which is a pretty tried and true acquisition tactic in the furniture space.
Tell me about your favorite customer success story.
My favorite one is actually the first customer that we had. He preordered a sofa. We told him it was going to be ready in August.
Then, he emailed us and said, "I actually need it for this event that I'm doing. I'm having people over to my apartment. Can you deliver it before the end of July?"
We said, "Well, no. We can't. The thing's not even made yet. We don't even know how to ship them. We're not going to ship one sofa at a time from Mexico City to New York City."
He was like, "Guys, there's got to be something you can do."
I checked the sofa on a plane from Mexico City to New York City and then delivered it in an UberXL the next day after I landed--to his apartment. It was indicative of what we're willing to do for people early on.
Is that your advice to entrepreneurs? Do unscalable things early on as you're looking at your product/market fit? You'll build processes and test and learn and scale over time.
Exactly! The phrase, “Fake it till you make it,” completely applies.