What prompted you to strike out on your own to start Unruh Furniture?
Dissatisfaction. I was working a job I didn’t care a great deal about. My wife and I were in our second year of marriage with our first child on the way, so I thought it was crazy to go out on my own, but my wife believed in me and encouraged me to do it. Looking back it seems silly to even give it a name like “Unruh Furniture”; it was just “Sam who makes furniture and sells it on Craigslist.” I didn’t have a business plan or funding or a marketing budget. I just knew I had to make three pieces of furniture a week in order to pay our mortgage and groceries. Somehow it worked. I started in April 2012 and that fall became ambitious about growing into something that resembled a real company.
You skillfully weave the art of story into your company and the pieces you produce. Has it always been at the forefront or have you grown into it organically?
I wish I started off that smart, but I definitely grew into it. “Sam who makes furniture and sells it on Craigslist” is certainly a story and one worth telling, but back then I thought I had to use all my breath talking about my product. The irony is the furniture I built back then was much worse than what we make now, and the story I had back then was in some ways better than our current story. About a year ago my brother turned me onto a book by Seth Godin called All Marketers Are Liars, which is about the necessity of selling through storytelling. I soaked it up. Since then I’ve put a great deal of focus and time and money into telling our story. I work hard to tell our story partly because I am a believer in selling through storytelling, but mostly because I believe we have a great story: “Local guys in their twenties who make furniture, like making furniture, like each other, and give tables to single-moms” is easy to tell.
Have you had any big breaks or surprising help in growing your company so far?
My big breaks, and they are huge, have come in the form of the people who work for me. I did it alone for the first nine months or so and then hired Robb. Awesome hire. Robb tolerated being around just-me for a whole six-months, which is saying a lot, while doing everything from staining and finishing to deliveries and sanding to cleaning and purchasing. He helped me grow enough to hire Jacob whose leadership skills helped me hire and manage the next eight fantastic guys. I would be in a much smaller and poorer place without the guys I get to work with every day.
What attracts customers to your particular style and aesthetic?
We make a whimsical-farmhouse kind of furniture, which happens to be fairly popular right now. But you can get the same thing from Nebraska Furniture Mart. What attracts people is our story. The difference between Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn is their product. The difference between us and whoever else our customers are considering is our story. I can think of a lot of sales over the last year where a customer walked into our showroom because of who we are, asked for a style we don’t offer, but ended up buying our style anyway because of who we are.
What is your latest epiphany?
Maybe its already a cliché but I am realizing more and more that it’s too risky to play it safe. As I write this, I am in the middle of trying to sell my current warehouse in Grandview and buy an abandoned stone church in Old Hyde Park. It is the most impractical building you can imagine for furniture manufacturing—no place for our delivery truck, no garage doors, no place for a dumpster, a sloped sanctuary floor. The financing is risky, the renovations are risky, the neighborhood is risky. Already I have sunk well over a hundred hours into making it work and I probably have only a 50% chance of getting the deal done. But as I see it, the safe route of staying where I’m at in Grandview and believing what has worked will continue to work is an even greater risk. Change is risky, but not as risky as stagnation.
*You can reach Sam at 816-808-5259 or firstname.lastname@example.org