Interview: Maiden Home On Engaging Modern Furniture Buyers With A Narrative Of Tradition And Quality
Maiden Home's CEO and founder shares insights on enabling heritage-quality craft that meets the demands of modern consumers for speed and personalization, marshaling an online-only, DTC strategy that takes consumers directly into its North Carolina factories
While there seems to be no shortage of millennial-focused furniture brands cropping up online and in popup shops around the globe, these startups tend to be focused on convenience and price accessibility—sometimes at the expense of quality and transparency. As for mid-priced brands offering lifetime pieces for customers willing to invest but not break the bank, Nidhi Kapur, founder of direct-to-consumer furniture brand Maiden Home, perceived a white space.
The online-only, consumer-focused company aims to reconceptualize custom furniture for modern living, featuring high-quality, handcrafted pieces from America's most skilled makers in North Carolina, and delivering bespoke pieces in unprecedented times due to its DTC strategy. PSFK spoke to Kapur to learn more about Maiden Home's mission to make heritage-quality home furnishings accessible for modern consumers, as well as how it drives engagement through a narrative focused on tradition and craft that invites customers directly into the creation process.
PSFK: What are some of the broader trends you see impacting retail today?
Nidhi: Something that was part of the inspiration for Maiden Home and that has only magnified over time is the trend towards the more educated and empowered consumer. Consumers are increasingly demanding the ability to shop with transparency.
I was the furniture consumer. I went shopping for my own home without the help of a designer, and didn't know anything about the industry. I was asking questions that I felt were very normal—where is this furniture made, how is it made, what kind of chemicals is it made with, what kind of guarantees can you put on it? I would ask all those questions of brands that I was planning to spend thousands of dollars with and not get very satisfactory answers.
We at Maiden Home took that consumer perspective and built our entire brand around it. Customers are not even just asking the basic questions anymore about where and how are the products made, but they will come to us, for example, with a list of 15 chemicals that they don't want found in their furniture. They're very informed.
We love seeing that because we have the answers. That's really how we set ourselves apart.
Could you talk a little more about what led you to found Maiden Home and the gaps that you saw in the existing furniture marketplace?
We took a very organic path to founding this business. It was about five years ago now that I got married. We bought our first home together. We started to buy intentionally for the very first time, trying to trade up from all of the entry-level brands that had serviced us very well in the past. Honestly, the market is very well served if you're focused on price or convenience. The void that I felt was, when you're ready to trade up, your hierarchy of needs shifts, and you focus more on design, quality and value. When you're trying to buy investment pieces, you're underserved as a consumer.
I felt that there was there was real gap in the market between those entry-level brands and those brands that I aspired to. The middle market is very underserved. It's surprising. It's such a huge market. Really, there's only a handful of brands who are talking to the modern consumer. They're all big‑box retailers.
For the customer wanting a higher level of design, wanting the top quality, and wanting a value story that they can believe in, there's nothing on the market really serving them today. The design was generic. Then, when I dug in more from a business mindset, I realized that the price‑to‑value ratio was totally off.
Is that why you decided to go the direct‑to‑consumer route?
Exactly. We thought, what if we stripped out most of what you see below the line, in that not only is it direct‑to‑consumer, so there's no middle man, but it's all custom, so there's no inventory? It's an online digitally native model, so there's less lift on the brick-and-mortar side.
This enabled us to put every dollar into the quality of the products, but offered at the reasonable price. That's the disruption in our model, versus any traditional furniture store.
You work directly with furniture craftsman in North Carolina. Could you talk about how you formed your relationships with these factories, and why making the furniture in the U.S. was important to your brand?
We looked at it with a very critical eye. We wanted to establish where we could feel confident in the quality of the products.
To me, it was very clear when I saw what was happening in North Carolina, that that was the level of quality that I had in mind. That was also a story that I wanted to build my brand around. I don't think it's part of the modern conversation for the furniture buyer, in terms of the heritage of furniture making in North Carolina, the history there and the craftsmanship.
The industry has been through so much. It was the global heartland for high‑end furniture making, and then faced low‑cost competition abroad. It is truly the best quality furniture you can find.
We felt strongly that the skill of the individual making the piece would directly inform its quality. That's really the reputation of North Carolina and the people who are making furniture there. They are trained in the generational art. It has been passed on through decades.
In addition, the businesses whom we partnered with are family‑owned in one way or another, whether it's third generation or fourth generation. That directly informs the quality of the work, because they have so much integrity in their craft.
Could you talk about how you communicate this sense of history and craftsmanship behind the furniture to your consumers?
That's one of our most exciting opportunities from a communications and marketing perspective because it is such a rich story. I knew that all of my peers back in New York City or San Francisco, living in our modern lives, would be so excited to tap into.
We live as an open book with our customer. We tell them our side of the story by capturing content with the people who make the furniture. We love, for example, interviewing our craftsmen, using their faces, their quotes, their stories on our website within our communications.
We also invite our customers to see the furniture-making process. Our custom pieces take about four weeks to make. Each week, during the different phases in the factory, we actually send customers updates as their piece is moving through the process. They can follow along with images and content.
How do you personalize the consumer experience of choosing and buying furniture? How do you guide customers?
There are two parts to it. One is in our branded content strategy. The second is our design advisor service, which is one‑to‑one.
The first, in terms of branded content, starting at the top of the funnel, we focus on photographing projects that our customers have been using. We focus on providing images of beautiful designer homes, which are really inspiring to our customers. They can see our pieces to scale in a real home with fabric, what finish the designer chose, how they put it all together. There's inspiration and there's education.
Our content is also educational. We actually will tell customers how the frame is made, of what the five hallmarks of furniture making are. There's so much that can be done through digital content that could never be done in a showroom or a store, in terms of the breadth of homes that we can take the consumer inside of and the amount of imagery that we can share.
Step two is our design adviser services. We have a team of design advisers. All they do is work with customers. They meet the customer exactly where they are—they communicate over text, phone or email. Those are three channels that customers prefer.
They share images back and forth of the customer's space. They work with fabric swatches. They work through layouts. This is an interesting retail trend. We asked in our customer surveys, “How would you prefer to engage with the design advisor?”
The answer “at a store” is always way at the bottom of the list for our customers. Text is first, then email, then phone for our customer. We are particularly poised to enable that method of connection because we don't have a brick‑and‑mortar footprint.
Could you explain how you're leveraging some of the data and qualitative feedback that you've received from consumers?
Last year, in 2018, we actually turned over our entire fabric and leather assortment—the custom options that customers could put on their sofa. We changed 80% of it because of qualitative feedback.
One of the questions that we kept receiving was, “Is this fabric stain resistant, or, “How do I clean this fabric?” We realized we have a great answer for that. Most of our fabric were traditional upholstery fabric when we first launched, and they need a professional cleaner to clean them.
At the same time, we were spending time in North Carolina. We have relationships with fabric mills on there. We were seeing that they were coming out with these amazing performance fabrics, which are also beautiful. They look and they feel like natural cottons or linens with gorgeous colors. They are stain resistant. Liquids bead up on the surface. Consumers could wipe them away. You could machine wash a lot of them. It's amazing.
We made an extreme move to basically overhaul our entire assortment, and make all of it performance. That was incredibly successful for us. It's part of our message to the customer, that we have consumer-informed, incredibly thought-out products.
It was a little bit of a risky move in the sense that we changed things up so dramatically, but we felt confident because we had enough user data to support it.
Maiden Home is growing really quickly without any VC funding. Was this a deliberate choice not to pursue outside investors? If so, what was the thinking behind the strategy?
It was a choice that we had the privilege of making thanks to two aspects of our business model that are unique. One is that we don't take inventory upfront. That's the reason most retail brands will raise money: It's a chicken and the egg situation, where in order to sell, we need to buy inventory, and we need cash for that, but we haven't sold anything yet, so we need to raise. We didn't have that.
The second dynamic is the business is negative working capital, which means that the customer pays us and we don't start building the product until then and we don't pay our suppliers until 60 days later on average. That means that our customers essentially can fund our growth. The money coming in the door today, we can use to drive the growth for future customers. It was backwards in that way.
That was a happy accident, a nice byproduct of being in customization. This way, our capital needs are nothing like what I would have assumed for a retail business. It also enables us the freedom to pivot and make changes without an investor breathing down our neck, focused on month-to-month growth. We are able to truly put the customer first.
What does Maiden Home envision for the next few years to come? How do you envision being able to scale while continuing to maintain these high standards of craftsmanship and offering custom pieces?
It's really about working hand in hand with our partners and suppliers, and helping them innovate on their processes and their technology.
It's also broadening our network. We've started partnering with these three factories and then over the course of two years became a meaningful part of their business in the sense that for a couple of our factories, we're certainly their largest customer. In a couple cases we're over half the business.
We have driven tremendous incremental growth, and hope to continue to do so.
Lead image: courtesy Maiden Home