A Furniture Startup Pivots to Work-From-Home Setups
Verity Sylvester ’19 started her career in retail leasing and came to Columbia Business School to further develop her real estate career. While in school, she was inspired by the diverse backgrounds and experiences of her peers and decided to pursue an internship at a startup.
Through her roommate, Sylvester landed an internship at a furniture startup, Bureau, and within weeks, she was working around the clock. She had become passionate about the company.
In 2018, the company evolved into Branch and shifted to selling office furniture. Sylvester joined as a co-founder, along with Greg Hayes and Sib Mahapatra. The company saw early success and had just signed its first seven-figure deal when the pandemic struck and offices emptied. With demand for office furniture plummeting, Branch had to pivot, and quickly, in order to survive. The company’s inventive solutions landed Sylvester a spot on the most recent Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Read on for how the company has reimagined its products to cater to the work-from-home era and thoughts about what the future of work might look like.
What inspired you to create Branch?
The way the office furniture industry works right now is like the car industry. If you want to buy a Toyota, you don’t go directly to Toyota, you go through a car dealership. That’s the same with office furniture: all high-end furniture is sold through a complex network of dealerships. Those dealers have huge overheard, have large wining and dining budgets, and all of those costs are passed onto the end users. The reason we are able to offer furniture at such low prices is because we’re essentially going directly to end users. We’re cutting out the middleman and passing on the savings. When we started the company, we had two customers in mind. The first was traditional office-space users – we did offices for companies such as Tumblr and TouchBistro. The other customer was landlords working to pre-furnish offices so that they could provide tenants with flexible solutions—in competition with coworking spaces.
How did you pivot from outfitting office spaces to selling work-from-home setups when the pandemic hit?
When the pandemic hit, we had just closed our first seven-figure deal. We had a pipeline that was bigger than we could have dreamed of when we started the company, and overnight we had nothing. March and April were some of the most stressful months of my life. We had to make some really tough decisions around our team; we had to let people go.
All of a sudden, we started seeing a lot of sales through our ecommerce platform that we built when we started Branch, and which previously hadn’t had a lot of sales coming through. We saw an uptick in office chair sales, and quickly realized that all of the people who were previously working from an office were suddenly going to need a home-office setup. Our sales team jumped into action and started partnering with different companies to offer their employees incentives to shop with us. Companies like Google and Shopify worked with us to give their employees stipends to cover their office furniture expenses and we were able to generate a ton of sales that way. Before the pandemic, all of our sales were delivered through white glove delivery service where everything was preassembled. We never had to worry about packaging or freight and UPS, which for something as large and heavy as office furniture can be very complicated. We had to quickly figure out packaging, hire a customer experience team to answer all of the chats we were getting, and build new assembly manuals for buyers, since ours had been catered to warehouse employees. We had to make ourselves a customer-facing company for our direct-to-consumer business, which would never have happened without the pandemic. But within four months we were operating at the same level we were pre-pandemic in terms of revenue, and now we’ve far surpassed that.
How has the way you design furniture changed in order to adapt to the new work-from-home culture?
Pre-pandemic, our goal was to create a flexible furniture line. We wanted all of our furniture to be clean, simple, and modular, so that companies could move with their furniture. Since the pandemic, we’ve added a ton of new products. Previously, 99 percent of the office chairs we sold were black. But all of a sudden, we sold out of the 50 gray chairs we had in stock in about a week. So we added a new chair to the lineup that was offered in a whole new variety of colors. People working from home care way more about the aesthetics of their furniture. They want it to feel younger and more fun. That’s what differentiated our brand throughout all of this – you can go to Staples or Office Depot and get that traditional black office chair, but we have chairs that are more aesthetically appealing and offered in more design-friendly colors without breaking the bank. We’ve also shifted our focus to accessories – we haven’t launched anything yet but are working on it. There are little accessories that can transform a kitchen or a living room into a home office for people who are more stressed for space. For example, standing desk converters can be placed on a table and changed to a standing desk with a pneumatic riser so you can move it up and down. That’s something we will add to our lineup in 2021. We are also thinking about lighting and power. We’ve also worked on creating furniture that’s more accessible for different budgets, like having two options on our desk. We will be adding new options that are smaller and less expensive. We are also working on a Branch app that will gamify our furniture to enable employees to be as productive as possible when working from home. We’re starting with our standing desk which will remind you to stand up, tell you when it’s time to sit down, and track how you’re doing over the course of a day.
What do you think is the future of offices? Is work-from-home here to stay?
I think flexibility is going to be key. Working from home is polarizing – some people love it and some hate it. At Branch, we’ve maintained an office in New York for employees throughout the pandemic. Because we’re a small company, we’re able to block off times for everyone to work from the office safely, and our employees have taken full advantage of that. People loved having the option to go to a different space and feel productive or just get out of the house and have a change of scenery. I think that’s what will translate coming out of this. I think there will be more communal, collaborative spaces where you can go to have a meeting when needed, since it’s hard to sit on Zoom all day. I think there will be more flexibility with people all around the country, but there will be a return to the office.
How can we optimize our productivity when working from home?
The biggest thing is setting up a dedicated work area for those who haven’t done it yet. If you can get an office chair or a desk riser, you can turn something residential into more of an office. Then you know when you’re in that space or sitting in that chair, that’s office time. For me, the hardest thing in the beginning of the pandemic was separating work life from home life; having that dedicated office space helped a lot. Other than that, trying to move, walk around, go outside for a phone call and get a fresh breath of air.