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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Branch: $400k/mo selling furniture for startups

Sib Mahapatra
Sib Mahapatra
February 19, 2020
Category of startup
Country of startup
United States
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Branch: $400k/mo selling furniture for startups

Sib Mahapatra
Sib Mahapatra
February 19, 2020
Category of startup
Country of startup
United States
Cause of failure of the startup

Branch is an NYC startup that provides other startups with office furniture and the possibility for these to trade-in it as they grow. They launched one year ago, and since then, they’ve grown to +$400k/month under cold outreach and content marketing strategies.



Hi Sib! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

My name is Sib, and I’m co-founder and head of product/growth at Branch Office Furniture (Branch), an NYC-based startup with the mission of making it easy for growing companies to create an office their teams will love. 

We sell our own line of office essentials: desks, chairs, conference tables, lounge furniture, and accessories. Then we handle everything from office design to delivery and installation. As you grow, move or needs change, we help you update your space plan or trade your furniture in for credit toward your next purchase. 

For those who haven’t furnished an office before, reviewing the status quo might help illuminate why we’re different: growing companies typically face two bad options when it comes time to buy office furniture. 

On the one hand, you can go with “fast furniture” from Ikea or Office Depot, solutions that are cheap and fast but lack quality and service that scales to the needs of an enterprise (try asking Ikea to negotiate with your landlord about freight elevator access or union labor). On the other hand are “contract furniture” solutions like Herman Miller, which make wonderful physical products but sell through middlemen dealers that require you to navigate an opaque sales process, wait 6-12 weeks for delivery, and pay markups of up to 50%. With either solution, when you outgrow your space, you’re stuck with the furniture: most people just throw it out, which means 17 billion pounds of office furniture in the trash each year.

Used furniture in trash bin
A photo I took in NYC a few months ago - part of the problem we’re trying to solve!

With Branch, outfitting your team with a standing desk, ergonomic chair, and filing cabinet costs as much as a single chair might cost from a high-end furniture dealer, with transparency, flexibility and full service included.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I’ve always been interested in starting a business. Beyond the financial upside, the variety of work, the (relative) agency of being your own boss and the satisfaction in bringing something new into the world appeal to me. I’m also fascinated by systems and organizational design. If the first act of a strong executive team is building a product or service that customers love, the second act is building the culture, processes, and team that enable sustained excellence in executing on that mission. Building a great culture is the only durable competitive advantage, and it seemed like a fascinating challenge. 

But it took me a while to develop the conviction to do something on my own. I spent the first few years of my career at a real estate tech startup called Redfin, working on special projects and incubating new businesses within the company. 

I had an incredibly cool job as a generalist at a fast-growing startup and learned a ton about products and startups from my mentors at Redfin. I wouldn’t change my first chapter for anything, but three years into the job, I was convinced it was time to strike out on my own. I had saved up some money, with few liabilities, and wanted to take a swing with my risk tolerance at its peak.

So I quit my job without knowing quite what I wanted to build...and began a two-year journey to figure it out. I spent part of that time traveling the world and consulting on growth with a variety of startups to make money and learn about different organizational styles and markets (also to have fun). 

Then I moved to NYC (where I’m from) and co-founded a pre-idea incubator for interesting people in tech working on their next thing. In hindsight, I’d recommend spending more time validating a thesis before quitting your job, but there’s value in open-ended exploration as well if you can swing it.

I ended up as an EIR at a small venture fund in NYC and decided to spend one last summer working on ideas. That’s when I got introduced to my now co-founder Greg. He also came from the real estate tech world, and a mutual friend introduced us; I knew nothing about office furniture when we had our first meeting. Greg had spent the past two years running real estate operations for a flexible office space company, where he encountered the issues with buying office furniture firsthand. When he spelled out the problems with incumbents, and the opportunity to create a 21st-century experience in a huge market, I was ready to hear more. Two months later, in September 2018, we incorporated the company.

How did you build Branch?

The first order of business was figuring out our actual product: our initial line of workstation furniture. Right after starting the business, we raised a little money from friends, family and a few angels. At this point, we had little more than a deck and a few dozen customer interviews. We needed the funding to head over to develop our first furniture products; if you’re building a software business, you might not have to raise right away.

Though we wanted to manufacture in the US where we are based, we realized that small-batch manufacturing domestically would be prohibitively expensive for the time being. After researching a half dozen countries, we settled on China due to its exceptional value and quality for price in manufacturing durable goods, even with tariffs; many of our high-end competitors manufacture in China as well. 

In October 2018 my co-founder Greg flew to China, hired a translator, and began visiting factories. We ultimately found two manufacturing partners who agreed to take a risk--many high-quality vendors are as selective with their partnerships as their retail partners are--and produce a test run of furniture for us. We ended up kicking off with an adjustable height desk, standard desk, open office benching, and an ergonomic chair, striking the balance between a lean line and a complete solution.

Branch's furtniture
In the process of building our sample run of furniture.

While Greg was finalizing our initial line, I was working on building our digital presence. We decided to launch on Shopify because of its robust infrastructure and selection of apps, found an off-the-shelf theme and customized it to our needs. Once we received our samples, we hired a photographer and took our first photos; great photography is paramount for a visual product like ours. In February 2019, we officially launched.

Branch's old site
Our first website (under our old brand, Bureau)

This was one of the more stressful phases of building the business: the two of us and our third co-founder Verity were paying ourselves little to nothing, and encountering new questions every day on everything from international freight forwarding to furniture design. 

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

We serve businesses between 25 and 300 people, and divided that target market into a few core segments: for example, the “WeWork Graduate” is a 25 person company that has relied on co-working but is ready to invest in their first space. Within each segment, we identified a key decision-maker (who might be a CEO at a smaller company, or a facilities manager at a larger company). Our clients can spend tens of thousands of dollars with us, so segmenting and understanding their needs is key to driving successful outreach and conversion. 

We also spent a fair amount of time mapping user journeys for each segment. Because office furniture is a large, complex and important purchase to most clients, lead generation for our sales team is the primary focus of our acquisition funnel, although we expect ecommerce transactions to grow in volume as we add social proof and case studies. 

We generate those leads and transactions in three ways. Online acquisition is important for us, and until recently we’ve focused on driving organic traffic through content marketing and PR, which generate direct traffic and improve our search rankings by driving backlinks to our site. I can’t overstate the importance of PR as a new startup. It can be tough to land coverage, but every article you land has a triple impact on your funnel: driving direct traffic, generating a powerful SEO backlink, and providing credibility that can improve conversion. Now that we have a new brand and website, we’re beginning to experiment with paid search ads.

Branch's PR
Our first press mention from a cold pitch to a furniture magazine (under our old brand, Bureau)

Beyond online channels, we acquire customers through direct sales and channel partners in the real estate and design communities. In general, we prioritize growth channels by scale potential, cost and purchase intent: office furniture is mostly purchased at certain points in a company’s lifecycle, so channels like search that directly capture intent in the query are especially valuable to us relative to social channels, which target the right people but not necessarily at the right time. 

What are your goals for the future?

We want to grow Branch into the one-stop-shop for office furniture through a company’s entire lifecycle. This implies launching in more markets (we currently serve 30 metros in the United States and Ontario in Canada), adding more furniture to our curated line, hiring for our team (we’re at 10 people right now) and launching software and tools to help our customers manage their furniture during and after their transaction with us.

Branch's long desks
We’ve come a long way since furnishing our first office (Squarefoot, NYC)

In the world we want to create, your physical environment at work will configure itself seamlessly to your needs so you and your team can be productive, healthy and happy. Imagine the “API for office furniture,” where your furniture, floor plan and accessories shift according to hiring, expansion and the changing needs of your business.

What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?

Building an ops-intensive e-commerce startup is scary: when ordering our first run of inventory, we found ourselves wiring a good chunk of our pre-seed funding to our factories in China. If you haven’t raised much money or are bootstrapping, managing working capital is key. Once you demonstrate traction, you’ll be able to secure an asset-backed line of credit to finance your inventory. Until then, it pays to negotiate supplier and payer terms to minimize your working capital needs.

In general, operations is the toughest part of our business. We’ve learned that writing clear service level agreements (SLAs) to govern our relationship with fulfillment partners avoids issues later on. What happens if goods are damaged in route? What are the penalties if your supplier ships the wrong color of a product? If you don’t know what a good SLA looks like, ask someone running logistics at a similar business to help. Be prepared to do things yourself to learn what to expect from your partners; my co-founders and I have delivered and built probably hundreds of pieces of furniture ourselves. 

PR is tougher for a B2B product, but we’ve learned that every business has angles relevant to a general audience. If you’re solving a big enough problem that customers care and like you, there is a reporter and audience out there who will care too. Figure out what you know that will change their thinking about the area you’re building in. Provide evidence if you can; there’s nothing like compelling data for a successful pitch.

Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?

We made too many mistakes to count! It sounds simple, but here’s a general concept we’ve gotten much better at applying over the past year: identify critical assumptions early on and dig as deep as you can to verify them. What are the key things you have to believe for your business to succeed? If they’re that important, stress test your assumptions! 

For example, we made assumptions about the availability of a certain acquisition channel early on based on anecdotal evidence, but didn’t verify until it was too late. In a weird way, for smart people in particular, it can be tempting to cover your eyes and avoid digging in because you’re worried about a key assumption being proven wrong. 

Resist the urge to protect the sunk costs of your thesis; better to go back to the drawing board early than plunge into months of work under false pretenses.

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

There are tons of things we could have improved on a tactical level, but here are a few of our biggest learnings:

  • Map out every step of your operations and mark where issues occur; visualizing where your incidents occur helps you prioritize when negotiating SLAs with partners.
  • Budget carefully and assume that surprises will arise. We included a contingency in our model for legal fees, freelancers, salaries, damage and more, and it’s a good thing we did because those mistakes add up fast.
  • Great photography is critical to conversion. We should have invested in high quality photography earlier than we did, but we’ve done better in recent months (see below!)
Branch's office desk
Our office desk.

What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

I’ve benefited from too many resources to count; the startup community is incredibly generous in open sourcing their advice and expertise. Paul Graham’s essays are where I (and I’m sure many of you) began to understand what building a startup is about. I’m a big fan of First Round Review for tactical advice from proven operators. AVC, The Generalist, Elad Gil, Andrew Chen are some of my favorite VC blogs covering everything from tactical tips on growth to commentary on the state of startups today. 

Productivity is important to me; I’m still trying to figure out the right system, but Superorganizers is a blog that shares productivity tips and advice from great entrepreneurs and I’ve really enjoyed it! 

I read a ton of fiction and it feels critical to my startup diet: one of the coolest parts of being an entrepreneur is building a compelling vision of how the world should be different and getting other people to believe it. Ted Chiang’s short stories paint beautiful visions of how technology can change our lives in interesting ways.

Where can we go to learn more?

Check out our products and story on the Branch website. Our company blog, Turn Key, is here (subscribe for office design and ergonomics tips), and a great place to start is our fundraise announcement here

On the personal side, you can learn more about me at my website here or on Twitter here. If you ever want to talk real estate tech, startups or office furniture, please reach out! 


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