Our relationship with the workplace is changing. As work-life and home-life collide, residentially inspired environments are reshaping our vision of the modern office. The more we bring our work home – the more we bring our personal lives into the corporate sphere. In response, our workplaces have begun to feel more like living rooms and cafes than they do workstations and corner offices. Furnishings and accessories are now valued as-much for the stories they tell, and the emotional responses they create, as they are the function they provide.
Interestingly, this revolution has fractured the commercial furniture market – creating in-roads for upstarts and causing industry giants to rethink products and strategies. One company believes the need for authentic customer experiences is driving this revolution and is betting on their ability to quickly bring unique, custom, and purposeful solutions to their clients.
Christopher Good sat down with Brian Wilson, co-founder of the furniture companies Two and Pair to discuss the benefits of “Intrepreneurship” within established organizations, and to learn more about the disruption of mass customization.
What launched your interest into Furniture Design?
As a student, I studied industrial design and product design. At that time a couple of my professors had done some work for Knoll, which was a dominant brand that had all of these famous architects designing products for them. Through that referral, I had the opportunity to work at Knoll, which eventually led me to work in Tokyo and Korea. That experience launched my passion for furniture and after that, I never really went anywhere else. I was locked into the furniture world from that point on. In 2001 I returned to the U.S. to work for the furniture manufacturer Steelcase where I had just about every front line position available. But it wasn’t until I joined One Workplace that my work became more entrepreneurial. There it was completely different. There was this sense like, “Oh – if you want to do that (launch a new business or venture), then you can.”
On a personal level, this has kind of been my dream – creating this highly customizable furniture portfolio at Pair. I studied industrial design but never practiced industrial design. I took a circuitous route to having an imprint on something – and now have partnered with people who can help realize that dream.
Through your relationship with One Workplace you had the opportunity to launch several new ventures including the companies Two and Pair. Where did the idea for those companies come from?
Launching our first venture, Two, grew out of this desire to respond to the market with a new approach. It was also shaped by our desire to explore questions about culture and organizational design. That being our own culture and developing an environment around the idea of teams. Everyone working collaboratively to build the business.
The business plan was a response to shifts we were seeing in the market. We saw an emerging trend where large manufacturers were no longer able to fully respond to the needs of businesses and design firms. Clients were desiring a residential aesthetic that combined elements from many different vendors, manufacturers, and suppliers. They did not wish to create spaces that looked as though everything came out of the same box. They didn’t want it to feel “cookie cutter” and the architects and interior designers they were working with were leading the way. We needed a market approach that could better align with that sensibility. Two is a service that helps our clients find and procure the kinds of products necessary to create custom and unique experiences. We wanted our service to take clients on a journey that feels unique and authentic. The difference for us was this new way of engaging clients and helping them navigate the options. Now, we are leading our clients and partners on the journey, not just reacting to it.
How much of this was shaped by the types of clients you were working with, or their location within the Bay Area?
The Bay Area used to be this little slice of the market, but in many ways what has been happening here is now the norm across the country. Our clients are mostly technology companies. But we also see consulting firms and professional service firms that are looking for a “techy” feel. Ultimately, we work with just about anyone. The underlying theme is that all of these companies want a unique mix of products. They are all coming at it from the same place of wanting to express themselves, their brand, look less corporate and serve their employees. They come at it from a place of being authentic, even if the underlying components of how we achieve it–beneath the color, texture, and materiality– are mostly the same. Functionality may not be much different from many of the more corporate furniture brands, but the look is distinctly different, borrowing hints from the residential world.
Is this where is idea of Mass Customization comes into play, and your launch of Pair?
Pair is the byproduct of Two’s efforts to become more vertically integrated and offer unique product solutions. We wanted to have more control over the creative aspect of the process–more involvement in product development. We wanted to think about our product portfolio as a starting point for our clients. It is about asking this question: what could the solution be? Allowing interior designers to have control and more influence over the end product, allowing their imagination to wander.
At Two we had been relying on manufacturers to shape that experience. But for us to own this idea of mass customization and make it a true discipline, we needed to bring those skills in-house. Doing so required a lot of talent to come on board. So we had to build relationships and collaborations with incredibly talented people. We also needed to find out who was willing to take on a little bit of risk to join in the effort and invest their time in a start-up.
Those collaborations have been a lot of fun because they helped us get from the inception of “what do we want Pair to be” through answering this question about mass customization. Initially, we had to decide if we wanted to be a full custom house and do and be all things for all people? Did we want to put out a lot of effort with very unpredictable payback? Or did we want to have a platform that you could build on top of – where a lot of it is pre-engineered that can be tailored to each client.
Can you share more of your thoughts on taking risks?
This approach has allowed us to make calculated risks in a way. We are intrepreneurs first, meaning we are building something new from within an existing business framework at One Workplace. There is an element of entrepreneurialism that was the spark for what happened here–our desire to start up something outside of One Workplace. But doing this within the support structure of a larger organization means we didn’t have to build some of the aspects of business; finance, HR, and operations. As intrepreneurs, we can really focus on the product, or the service, and the way we go to market. If we would have gone out and raised capital and started a new business, that would have been the riskier approach. There would have been a lot more to figure out and to build. With that aspect removed, the real risk was for the new division and service to succeed or fail on its own merits as an idea and approach in the marketplace. With Two we are selling a service, but with Pair, it is a product that has a design service attached to it. Pair’s risks are the same and different, what happens if the product falls apart, if they don’t function, or worse yet, hurt someone? There are a myriad of things that could go wrong. A truck may drive off the road and if you have a hundred workstations on it, what then? At Two we have always been stuck in-between those problems. Between a customer and a manufacturer. Counting on a manufacturer to pull through. Now, those challenges are our challenges – in a far more impactful way.
When you talk about Intrapreneurship, why do you think it is important that a large organization foster that mindset and that spirit?
I think as successful companies grow up and mature – they spend a lot more time looking inward instead of looking outward. They struggle with silo’d thinking. Intrepreneurship creates an opportunity to pull away a bit and spend more time looking out, seeing what is happening in the marketplace, into emerging trends and beyond and responding to it. I think it is a benefit to the organization as a whole if you have people bucking the system in order to become more market centric, taking risks and spending time figuring out what is happening next. At the same time, successful intrepreneurial businesses are not just a think tank for market research. We are here to sell products, sell services, and to be profitable. I think that is the heart of it. If the organization can take on that forward-thinking attitude, and allow its employees to focus on the market, develop relevant services and products, it will be even more successful.
Why has Pair made such a conscious decision to manufacture locally and here within the U.S.?
So, this is not a political response. It is a practical response. I want to see where the product is being made. It’s a general sense of being comfortable with a source. Knowing it came out of your own back yard – the closer to home the better. It just so happens that there is a feel good aspect to it, but there is also a practical business side of it. Manufacturing in North America enables us to order more custom solutions. If what we are doing is offering signature solutions with mass customizations– that becomes really hard to pull off if you are having to bring it over from overseas with a three-four week manufacturing time, plus another four to six weeks on the water. It also allows us to trust the quality control. I don’t have to fly ten hours to see something being made or brainstorm on a modification. I can fly one hour or have a conversation with someone in this time zone. It is this combination of quality control, efficient mass customization, and that “feel good” aspect, that drove us to stay local.
Talk a little more about your design vision?
When you look at Pair, I think you will see that the forms are a little surprising. We’ve gotten accustomed to seeing height adjustable desking with a certain approach. There are many different iterations on the same theme in the market. What we see with Pair can be a game changer. It’s doing the same identical thing functionally as many of the traditional manufacturers but in an aesthetically unique way. It’s a height adjustable desk – but the form is surprising and the residential materials are surprising.
The power and data beam product we make has a door made from PET material (recycled pop bottles) and looks like felt. So there is a little bit of an “ah-ha” there with the materials. If it were clad in wood, which is another option, really sets it apart from the commercial looking products out there. The intent is there is a little bit of delight in seeing and using the products.
So what is the next big opportunity?
The business of furniture needs to be simpler. There is a lot of complexity. It has always been complicated but it has become more complicated in a way because we are dealing with so many manufacturers and products. I want to know: how do we create a platform that simplifies the business from a client standpoint, and also for our employees? We can’t throw a ton of money at creating a new platform to manage our business, but we can partner with companies that may be able to streamline aspects of it. What can we learn from, or gain from, working with those people who have already figured it out? All you need to do is look at Amazon or similar businesses that are making the business of discovery, shopping and logistics, seem friendly and easy. I think technology and processes need to catch up with the industry and may create an opportunity for someone that simplifies it.
Learn more about Pair in Issue 1 of ONELOOK Magazine
Interview by Christopher Good.