Skip to content

You’ve heard of “The Internet of Things”, well how about “Things of the Internet”?

There’s a well known quote from Alan Kay, the notable computer scientist, made even more famous because it was repeated by Steve Jobs, the notable(!) entrepreneur: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware”. Well, I believe the opposite is also true: People who are really serious about hardware – in my case, custom furniture – should make their own software.

My interpretation of Kay’s statement is that software is limited by what the hardware it’s running on will support. If you want to push the boundaries of your software, you need to achieve a high level of integration between the capabilities of the software and the hardware, so that they run optimally together. But what about the inverse case? It stands to reason that a high level of integration between your software systems and the way you are trying to design and build things will increase your ability to innovate in the creation of those things. Virtually all advances being made in manufacturing are derived from computer control of machinery and processes, and yet the vast majority of companies are using the same commercially-available software. Competitive advantage in the manufacturing of “things” lies in the development of unique software, and integration with net-based capabilities.

Every significant advancement in art (that I can think of) has been derived from an advancement in technology. I recently read that Impressionism was made possible by the invention of tubes of coloured paint, which could be carried out into the world – painting was no longer restricted to the studio. The classic simplicity of Bauhaus furniture that was revolutionary in the 1920’s was enabled by great advances in the precision and versatility of manufacturing machinery. Same can be said for the Eames’ work after World War II. Today, advancements in technology, are transforming our world as we watch. CNC (computer numerically controlled) manufacturing is behind 3D printing, the growing use of robots and all other forms of automation.

So, let’s say you want to do something that’s a little different from what everyone else is doing. Do you think that’s more achievable if you’re using the same tools as everyone else, or if you create your own? And what is the easiest and most powerful way to create unique tools? Write some software. Create some Things, that would not be possible without the Internet.

Postscript: Started telling the world about yesterday, and got a really gratifying response. Many words of encouragement, many people signing up to the email list, and most importantly, many people saying, “I could really use this to get that piece of furniture I’ve never been able to find.” Thanks to everyone who has offered support and is helping to spread the word.

The Furniture Industry Sucks.

Let me say it again, for emphasis. The furniture industry sucks. It sucks for furniture manufacturers. It sucks for furniture retailers, and it especially sucks for furniture customers. The source of all this suck? Enormous and ever changing product variety.

Over the past hundred years or so, the American furniture industry has migrated from its roots in New England, to Michigan, to the southern states, to Asia. Why has this happened? Because furniture still has a high labor component, so management is forever chasing lower labor costs. Why does it still have a high labor component? Because there’s never enough volume of any particular item to build a factory with the kind of efficient automation you find in, say, auto manufacturing. Why is there so much product variety? Because every customer’s needs are a bit different, in terms of size, styling, and functionality.  This high and ever changing product variety has inhibited the kind of industry consolidation* that occurs naturally in free markets, and the accompanying economies of scale that bring prices down and profits up. Instead, we see a highly fractured industry, with competitors ranging from a single guy in his barn to billion dollar firms (which sounds big but really isn’t, given the size of the industry), competing for customers by copying each other’s hot styles and shaving their margins. In other words, no one ever really attains a sustainable competitive advantage, so they’re mostly competing on style in the short term, and price in the long term.

(*Past attempts at industry consolidation are wonderfully described in Furniture Wars, byMichael Dugan.)

Furniture retailing is an even worse business. Walk into any furniture store in your town or city on a Tuesday afternoon and, with the notable exception of that Swedish place, it’s likely the only person you’ll see is the one who works there. Now, think about the costs associated with keeping that store open. The two biggest costs in any retail operation are overhead, which directly correlates with the amount of floor space, and inventory.  (The third major cost is labor, but this is largely driven by your floor space and your inventory – the more of those you have, the more labor you need.) For a furniture store to have any hope of providing the item a particular customer might want, they have to have a large floor space and a large inventory.  Why? Well, it’s because of the high product variety again, isn’t it? And yet, even the largest store can only hope to offer a small fraction of the overall product spectrum in the marketplace, because the spectrum of styles, sizes, and configurations is enormous and constantly changing.

A few years ago, I did a little market study, in which 86% of respondents said they found it difficult to find and buy the furniture they wanted. This rings true to my own experience, hunting countless furniture stores and websites, looking for the item that fits my particular needs. In many cases, it is possible to get something relatively close to what you want, but isn’t quite the right size, or the right style, or the price isn’t acceptable. Why is it so hard? Sorry to keep repeating myself, but it’s because of the enormous product variety that attempts to match each individual customer’s needs.

So – why is product variety such a problem? I believe it is because any industry that requires production of highly variable designs is fundamentally ill suited to the mass production, build-to-inventory business model that has been the engine of developed countries since the Industrial Revolution. And yet the economics are still compelling. Back in my market survey, the majority of respondents said they ruled out hiring a custom cabinetmaker because it was too much cost and effort. So, what to do?

By now, you probably see where I’m headed with this. The furniture industry is ripe for an Extreme Makeover. It is now possible to move from a build-to-inventory supply model to a build-to-order system, using technology to enable collaboration between customers and fabricators, and also to achieve efficiency in production that brings prices close to what you would expect from a mass manufacturer. This is the world of Mass Customization.

It can be hard to find the furniture you want. It doesn’t have to be.

Unless you’re like my brother-in-law, and you’re perfectly satisfied furnishing your home with whatever is on sale at the nearest Big Box store, buying furniture can be difficult. There are too many factors that have to align in a single object: size, functionality, style, availability, and of course, price. It’s not too hard to hit the mark on two of these factors, or even three, but all of them? To get “that perfect piece” used to take many weekends hunting through retail stores. Now it takes hours browsing through innumerable websites – and while the speed and convenience of shopping online should make the process easier, often it only seems to show you more choices you either can’t afford or that don’t fit your requirements.

The alternative, of course, is to hire someone to build a custom piece. But you have to be pretty determined and committed to go down this road. Finding the right craftsperson, getting that person to follow up in a timely manner, going back and forth on the design, rationalizing the price, and then – wait. The process requires a lot of time and money.

I believe there’s a better way, made possible by technology, ingenuity, and persistence. My small team has spent years codifying “the DNA of furniture”. We dissected furniture of all shapes and sizes and identified the core elements of furniture construction. Then, we developed a universal platform that would enable us to build a broad spectrum of products on a single, highly flexible production line. Then, we developed an interface that made it possible for anyone to create their own furniture – Get an updated picture and price whenever you make a change, and once you settle on a design, press the Order button. You can get almost any piece of furniture imaginable, you just need to imagine it.

I’m going to use this blog to talk about furniture, design, mass customization, startups, and how humans build things (hint: we’re not very good at it). If you haven’t already, please check out the short video on our homepage for an introduction to our system.

Custom furniture, in seconds. Welcome to Massuni.