When high-end custom-made furniture company Uhuru Design saw an opportunity to enter the B2B market, it took it seriously.
The company had found success in the residential market in the early 2000s building bespoke pieces of furniture from repurposed materials they found on the streets of New York City and selling them to high-end customers. Some of their pieces built from reclaimed materials from famous New York City sites, such as Coney Island and Domino Sugar Park, landed in the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum.
With that level of credibility in the architecture and design world, Uhuru was becoming a sought-after brand. Several well-known companies, including Shake Shack and Vice Media, approached Uhuru to design furniture for their spaces—one of them asking to purchase pieces in large quantities but at a significantly reduced rate. “Instead of buying one piece for $5,000, for example, the brand might want to buy 1,000 pieces for $500 each,” says Leo Lucisano, Uhuru’s CEO. “It made sense to do this at scale, and we realized there’s a huge opportunity on the B2B side.”
Building a B2B business online
In 2017, Uhuru launched an office furniture collection—solidifying its place in B2B. The company entered the hospitality industry, designing furniture for companies like Aloft Hotels and Starwood properties, as well as the flexible and co-working environment industry. Next, it wanted to begin selling those pieces direct-to-consumer.
So in 2019, it conceived of Proper Office, which would be high design home office furniture sold directly to consumers at a more affordable price point. It planned to launch the brand in 2020—but it knew it needed a strong technology focus if it were going to be successful. “We knew to succeed, we needed to sell these direct-to-consumer products online,” Lucisano says. “Ecommerce was the only way forward.”
In early 2019, Uhuru crafted a three-year strategy to scale from a custom B2B project business to an omnichannel, product-oriented B2B2C business. “The plan was ambitious, and then COVID-19 really accelerated that push,” Lucisano says.
Ecommerce in the time of COVID
By the start of 2021, Uhuru consisted of three brands with a fourth on the way. Its core Uhuru brand, which sells bespoke furniture to large companies like Shake Shack, was a B2B brand—as was its Renegade Customs brand, which sells ground-up, custom furniture to companies. Proper Office is Uhuru’s direct-to-consumer, home office furniture brand. And later this year, it will launch Uhuru Home, which is also direct-to-consumer and will offer residential home furniture at more competitive prices.
Like most companies, Uhuru felt the impact when the pandemic hit. It shut down and then immediately reopened one of its factories to manufacture hospital beds to support the pandemic effort. And then, as Lucisano put it, Uhuru hyperfocused on the business.
“The pandemic gave us a four- or five-month window to consider what we needed to do right now that we wouldn’t do if we had a normal growth trajectory,” Lucisano explains. Uhuru decided it needed to ramp up its technology investments to remove sales friction from the shopping experience.
Growing into the future
In fall 2020, Uhuru received $6.9 million in capital—providing the company with the funds it needed to support its ecommerce business growth across all of its brands. In addition to product development and supply extension, Lucisano says the company is directing those funds to support technology and ecommerce initiatives throughout the business.
“We’re focusing on the things that support ecommerce, like inventory and technology buildout,” he says. “We’re also using it on the B2B side to flesh out sales channels, to focus on the Proper Office brand, and to go deep on ecommerce offering and tech stack across all brands.”
Uhuru currently uses the base Shopify platform for ecommerce for all of its brands
For large real estate companies and customers who demand kit of parts and SKU catalogs, Uhuru also works closely with dealers to create bespoke furniture. “We tweak standard products to make it custom to that dealer and then mass produce it through the supply chain,” Lucisano says. Those transactions are conducted offline.
They also work with dealers through marketplaces such as 1stDibs and Huckberry—partnering with them on those platforms to deliver curated offerings.
“The real goal here is to leverage our museum quality pedigree and power a brand platform to deliver design-as-a-service to the masses,” Lucisano says. “That’s tough—you need a strong supply chain and design credibility to do that. So we’re moving forward through ecommerce-driven platforms—looking at all of this through the lens of how we can deliver design in the most frictionless way.”
Cate Flahardy is a Chicago-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.
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