My Story Starting A $400K/Year Handcrafted Furniture Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is John Humphreys and I started Texas Rover Company which has recently been rebranded as Humphreys. Humphreys is a lifestyle industrial design brand, which creates classically inspired leather, wood, and metal products. Another arm of the brand is Humphreys Build, which focuses on architecture and design projects.
Our flagship product is the Humphrey Chair, a twist on a fold-up camping chair made with full-grain Argentine leather. This was my first design and the product the brand was built around.
Initially, the company grew rather quickly, we sold 50 chairs at $16,000 within the first year. We gained a large following, opened new doors, and brought in new customers very early. All of which was accomplished at a high price point.
Company sales grew and the brand has been realized. Now, in addition to these products. the company is focusing on design, build and custom furniture.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Since I was a kid I have always had a sense of wonder about the world and the mechanisms behind it. Whether it be a jet engine or a windshield wiper-I have thought about the creative process behind these things since I was 10 years old.
I drew houses as a kid. My dad grew up in a home designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, it was a solar home and it had an odd features. One example is, the entire back wall that was about 100 feet long and 15 feet high comprised of windows that all opened. In front, there were functioning levers that had fans which would draw airflow in and out.
Growing up I thought I wanted to be a pilot. I was described in high school by a classmate as “poetic” which I found offensive. I tried a hand in many things; managing a farm and pre-school, which were two businesses I inherited. This type of work wasn’t for me.
My feelings of unsettlement led me to a meditation community in Iowa, which introduced me to artists and builders that would change my life forever. These experiences allowed me to start building and I drew inspiration from artists and creators. As a result, leading a search to go to South American to pursue a business venture, which was where the development of the brand began in my head and on paper.
The development was inspired to create products for the nomadic, transitional explorer. To begin, I sketched 8-10 objects that would be taken from that character. A chair, blanket, a bag, shoes, canned butter, and even had 4x4 car. So that was the start, all before I actually knew what to build.
Learning to build the chair brought me to a new level of understanding style and functionality as a designer.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first product we designed was the chair. It was slow to get started because there was a huge intimidation factor. I did the classic, “I’ll do it tomorrow” thing. I didn’t feel confident and certainly didn’t think I was capable. Although I wanted to do it, I delayed it out of fear.
A business is a linear progression that requires constant effort.
A friend approached me and told me to do it now. She invited me to stay with her and her family who had a billiard manufacturer in Ontario in a town called Goderich. This is where we set out on a novice adventure to build this chair. We had paper sketches and cheap Walmart mock-ups of the seat and that began a year and a half process that I thought would take 3 months.
During that process, we were faced with parts that didn’t fit, seats that broke, holes a millimeter off, and fasteners that didn’t suit the idea or design. What seemed like a simple process proved to be very challenging. We ended up manufacturing our own screws with a company out of Chicago to get it where we wanted it to be. A major challenge was the seat itself.
We found it to be terribly uncomfortable. Fixing that at a later stage of the process was very frustrating. The solution required us to change the shape to something not wishful but was practical and comfortable. Initially, I despised the need but with some tweaks, it became one of my favorite features of the chair. So to close, you could say it was a long task that forced me to face fears, incompetence, and ignorance.
The process forced me to continue to problem solve and to never waiver from the obsessive desire to see something come to life that is not only beautiful but functional and comfortable. I firmly believed it needed all of these features or it didn't belong in the world. And that delayed the process but in the end, we did it.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Starting the business was a bit of a shock. I never thought about how to sell the chair or how it would be a viable business.
I have a memory with Yuri, a good friend who helped me kickstart my design career. We were looking at four chairs. One was a pecan with an oil finish and the others were pecan with a finish done shou sugi ban style, which is a traditional Japanese burning technique. They came out beautiful but looking at them after the process was somewhat depressing. I realized the next step was something I didn’t know how to do. I looked at Yuri and said; “That is it?”. I found the process and the fact that we went through so much to create a simple, good looking chair was so strange. I realized then that I had to make a business out of it and it was then that my experiment began.
The next day I flew to San Diego to display the chairs at a tradeshow. A friend at Bradley Mountain, a company that makes wax canvas accessories, helped me get in. I thought this was going to be huge, the start of everything.
I lugged 6 of these beautiful, though cumbersome wood and leather chairs onto the plane knowing that this was where my business would take off. However, that didn’t happen. Instead, reality kicked in. I spoke to over 100 people at that event and quickly realized I had no idea how to actually go about selling the chair. I think I was blunt, nervous, and kinda faking/floundering my way through it. As a result, I sold nothing. I went back to Texas disappointed and had to process this letdown, but I didn’t give up. I knew I had a good product.
I spent the next year developing a business strategy. At times, it did work and I saw progress. I sold the chair in a friends’ store in Houston, boot-strapped a website, and while at a party I was introduced to some players in men’s fashion such as Ouigi Theodore, founder of The Brooklyn Circus.
The following year, I attended the Liberty Fairs show in Las Vegas. There I found myself again, showing the chair awkwardly to editors, buyers, and publicists. I was blown away by it all but I sat there and did it anyway. We didn't sell that many, I walked away with a lot of contacts and parties with significant interest, although, at the time I didn't know they were. To me, the show was another unexpected and draining disappointment.
Though I felt discouraged, I kept moving forward and stayed focused on building up inventory and furthering production.
Later, to my surprise, this trade show proved to be a success and a catalyst in moving the company forward. I was written up in many publications such as GQ and landed several stores across the USA and internationally.
Sales came in online and over the phone, we began to really start selling. As people became more interested, I became confident in my product and in my place as a designer.
Overnight the Humphreys chair became a success and that period of my life was overwhelming. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to scale with my success.
All of my work was a linear progression, and it was hard to see at the moment that I was becoming more confident in business and as a creative professional.
These sales were a result of several things, a culmination of trade shows, partnering with Manready Mercantile in Houston and being featured because in press.
I landed a deal with Neiman Marcus as a direct result of my own effort and new confidence simply by cold calling them. I called and said, hey my name is john and I make a great chair and I would love to tell you about it. They called back and the rest went on from there.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We have recently been posting new content and hosting parties to engage with customers.
Most customers find us by following HumphreysBrand and HumphreysBuild on Instagram. We’ve also gotten quite a bit of press in GQ, Clutch Magazine, Modelista, Inc, Austin Monthly, and Tribeza that is leading to sales.
Many of the customers that I build custom projects for continuing to work with me. I helped with the build of Austin’s first Intelligentsia Coffee shop. Now I’m remodeling a house for the founder, Doug Zell.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today I am taking from the lessons learned from previous years and processing them into a mechanized strategy to allow Humphreys to be more accessible to more people.
I am doing this by implementation of scaled manufacturing, more approachable pricing, favorable production costs, paid to advertise, and thoughtful content.
All of this is brand new for us and I will have to get back to you in the growth realized from these tactics.
As for the success of my companies today, we have sold several hundred leather bags and worked on quite a few build projects to make over $550K in revenue for 2019.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
What I will do is start with my biggest lesson learned, that a business is a linear progression that requires constant effort. In the beginning, I earned significant opportunities such as deals with Neiman Marcus and various press features. What I failed to do was have a strategy to build off that momentum. Sales from this ebbed and flowed.
Push yourself and learn where the edge is and not to go over. Be hungry and scared because it makes you better.
After a big break, they would go up and then drop off because I didn't develop a strategy to keep sales consistent. Because this whole thing has been a giant experiment for me to learn and create, I am thankful that I am here and have been given this opportunity. At the times when I feel unsure and like I want to quit, I find new doors opening with opportunities to move forward.
Something I did do right was to be careful about the energy and intention. I take care of the people I work with. I approached this creative pursuit with grit which helped me get through the dark moments of self-doubt all entrepreneurs feel. Those times were a part of the process that allowed me to come out with a stronger and more thoughtful business owner.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify, pop-ups, and we have select retail accounts. I use google calendar and yellow note pads to keep me in order.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
A book I very much enjoy and think of often is called Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You. I love this book because it talks about the creation of a business that exists on its own, independent of an individual. It’s an operating institution on its own.
In addition, I am a fan of Naval Ravikant and his work.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My advice to aspiring founders is to seek mentors in the business. Also, I do believe you need to learn the hard way.
You need to push yourself and learn where the edge is and not to go over. You need to be hungry and scared because it makes you better. It will make you more serious about what you're doing.
If you have it easy, you will not have a business in the long-term. Sometimes you will find success comes easily and other times you will need to fight for it. I was naive and determined, and one might have been more strategic than I was.
My drive was more emotional than most might be. I wanted to do it and succeed, so I had to take every opportunity and refine it. That was how I did it, and now I am changing my strategy through the lessons I learned from my first business.
Where can we go to learn more?
Thanks for having me, Startup Story!!
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