Whether you’re entertaining guests, settling in for a relaxing night at home, or simply looking to perfect your living room’s design, there are arguably few pieces of furniture more important than your sofa. But finding that perfect piece is often a challenging and frustrating task.
It was this experience that compelled Rob Royer to take action and bring customized sofas to eager customers with Interior Define. Customers can select their sofa style, shape, fabric, and even customize the legs and pillows. Each piece is designed in Chicago, built by hand in their factories in China, and shipped directly to your door.
We caught up with Rob to get some insight on one of the most exciting companies in the sofa business.
The Bonobos of Furniture
You could say that design is in Rob’s blood. Growing up in the southwest with an interior designer mother and an architect/real estate developer father, Rob spend a lot of time around their projects gathering inspiration and knowledge.
After finishing his undergrad degree at the University of Kansas, he headed to New York City to work for the famed online men’s retailer Bonobos, an experience he credits with giving him the tools to eventually start his own online business.
“I was very inspired by the experience at Bonobos for a number of reasons, ones that I’ve applied to the brand we created," Rob says. "I thought they were building a really amazing, compelling, and innovative brand online, and I was able to witness that from the early days and see how they built a passionate consumer community around their product. And it was really about their focus in those early days on making one category a really great and elevated experience for the right consumer.”
But his brainchild came later, after Rob had moved to Chicago, bought his first condo, and was looking to furnish it. An experience that should have been fun proved surprisingly stressful.
“I was more particular about the experience looking for a very well-designed sofa that was unique and personalized for my space. And when I got out on the market, I found the experience to be really poor, whether I was shopping in one of the well-known brands in physical locations or online," Rob says.
Rob says that despite being such an important investment, none of the furniture shopping experiences were special or elevated in the same way that Bonobos had delivered for men's apparel.
He talked to friends and family and did some research, only to discover that his experience was far from unique, with no retailer offering a high-quality and affordable, customizable sofa.
After finishing his graduate degree at Northwestern, he decided to take a leap and build such a business himself, one anchored in a customer-centric ecommerce experience.
“Part of the differentiation of the brand and where I saw the pain points were that there was a big opportunity in my mind to build a made-to-order furniture business. Because, in my mind, when you were shopping for furniture for your space, it should be personalized to your style and taste," Rob says.
From a business model standpoint, Rob says he's able to pass on a more compelling price point since he's not holding onto inventory and inhibiting brands from delivering better customer experiences.
Setting up the supply chain wasn’t easy, as it proved difficult to find a factory that would agree to produce one piece at a time, all while offering a customized cushion feel, configuration, design, color, and style.
After talking to “hundreds” of factory partners, Rob finally found the right fit who was able to commit to the volume and offer the quality he was expecting.
Rob’s dreams for the business quickly expanded beyond ecommerce.
“We wanted to have a physical presence as well as an online store,” he recalls. “Through the inspiration of my experience at Bonobos, we knew that we wanted to have a similar approach. So shortly after launching the website in early 2014, we opened up our first location in Chicago.”
Their key location is now in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, above which they have their headquarters, but they also have “Guideshops” in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin. Interior Define now offers customized beds and chairs, but the sofa is still the star of the show.
Replicating the Online Experience for Guideshops
One of Rob’s goals when deciding to open a physical location was to try to make the experience of entering the store as comparable as possible to that of entering the website. Nevertheless, it took Interior Define awhile to get it right.
They started out merchandising sofas with other home goods not offered by their brand, which confused customers when they entered the store after discovering the brand online, and vice versa.
“It made it more difficult for people to understand what we stood for as a brand and how we were different,” he tells us.
The team took action, stripping away all the products that were not relevant to their offering. Now, the sofa, the “hero of their brand” is featured front and center in their store, as well as their customizable bed frames and chairs. You won’t however, see coffee tables, rugs, or lamps.
They’ve also spent time looking at their product pages online and thinking about how that could translate into the store experience.
In many ways, he says, the journey you take in our Guideshops is very similar to the one you go through on the website. When you walk into the store, you’re essentially seeing the web page menu on their website. Technology in the store also helps, offering 3D renderings of the fabrics to help customers envision their dream sofa if they don’t see it on the showroom floor.
Another way the online and in-person experience is streamlined is through Interior Define’s impeccable customer service, says Rob.
“Regardless of where you’re shopping with us, human interaction is a really important part of what we do because it’s such a consultative approach and because our products are so personalized. We want our design associates to interact with you to help you make a decision. So, the same people who work in our shops are the same people you would talk if you chatted with us online or talked to us on the phone. We think that’s really important because it really creates that seamless experience between online and physical retail.”
Rob has been surprised as an ecommerce entrepreneur just how important the human element of the business has been. It proves, he says, just how much customers are searching for a human connection, both online and off.
Catering to the Customer
For a company that specializes in customization, platforms always prove a challenge, considering that there are seemingly endless varieties on any given piece. Interior Define is currently on Magenta, but hope to find a more permanent solution in the future.
“It’s something we think about a lot as a team,” says Rob. “Because we want to continue to innovate on the use experience on and offline, but it’s hard to do that within a framework that isn’t designed for our offering.”
Concerning metrics, engagement are their key performance indicators, Rob tells us.
“As we stand for customization as a brand, a lot of that is understanding how customers are engaging with that story and then ultimately how they’re engaging with customization.”
It’s also important for Interior Define to track engagement with their team through phone, email, and chat. And then there’s the website, which they are constantly improving to provide as seamless of an experience as possible. Thus, a lot of attention is paid to things page load time, general navigation, and customer’s journey to find what they’re looking for.
“Anyone building a business will face bumps in the road,” Rob says when asked what advice he would offer to those looking to advance their own brand, be it on main street or online.
“So if you have a strong vision that you’re passionate about, it’s important that you expect that it’s going to take time.”
Even the most seasoned entrepreneurs struggle at times, Rob stipulates, whether it’s with fundraising, marketing, or growth, so it’s important to stay dedicated and be resilient. “If you really want to build a long standing and enduring consumer brand, that’s going to take a lot of time.”
Whatsmore, when you’re starting your ecommerce brand, consider choosing a specialty and running with it. This, Rob suggests, is the best way to have success/
“The new consumer doesn’t want to go to an ‘everything eyewear’ or ‘everything apparel’, they really want to go to specialty retailers who do something differentiated in these categories and we think that’s really important to think about as you’re building your brand; really solving real customer pain points in your space and not being distracted by all the categories you could go into. Just do what you do really well.”
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