For those on the hunt for that perfect—and perfectly affordable—chair, “it feels like you have three choices, and that everyone is shopping from the same store,” says Nidhi Kapur, the founder of Maiden Home Inc., a furniture startup that launched in March.
A 30-year-old entrepreneur who runs her business out of an understated but charming showroom in Manhattan’s Tribeca, Kapur began her career at Google before becoming head of business development at beauty subscription service Birchbox Inc. Then she got married and discovered a gap in the home décor category.
“When I got my first place with my husband, we wanted to invest in a nice set of furniture,” she says. They could afford to spend “$2,000-ish” on a sofa, “not $6,000. We weren’t hiring a designer.” But that price point lacked options. “I knew people above me were fine, because designers are taking care of them,” she says. “And below, I had been there too and felt it was very well-served. There are not that many brands serving this particular market. You feel it when you’re shopping.”
What came next is familiar to anyone who’s followed the e-commerce disruptions of the past decade: Find an out-of-touch industry—whether glasses (Warby Parker Retail Inc.), mattresses (Casper), or clothing (Everlane)—then bypass the middlemen, go straight to the source, build a website, and save people money at the same time. Kapur says shoppers are more ready than ever to buy furniture online—and not only smaller housewares but big-ticket purchases such as armchairs and sofas. And by skipping the catalogs, marketing, and production that other stores rely on, she can deliver a custom piece of furniture made by skilled North Carolina craftsmen in six weeks.
The first challenge was getting manufacturers to sign up. In 2015, Kapur went to High Point Market, a biannual trade show that draws more than 2,000 exhibitors and has an estimated $5.39 billion impact on the state’s economy. Ashley, Stanley, and other local giants show their collections, but so do local craftsmen. “They are highly skilled but stuck in this outdated business model,” Kapur says. “They show it at High Point and sell it to three middlemen who eventually sell it to some consumer at a high-end boutique.”
On her first trip to North Carolina, she cold-called about 25 manufacturers. “Some people got it immediately,” she says. “They know that their business model is changing and that the modern consumer is looking for things that have an online presence. A store like Restoration Hardware is eating their lunch, by offering well-merchandised product and a modern buying experience.”
Kapur ended up working with three artisans in the area, establishing zero-inventory, no-minimum arrangements, but the one thing she wouldn’t compromise on was lead times. “That is what we do: deliver custom furniture in six weeks anywhere in the country. That’s unheard of right now.”
In the startup spirit of making fewer things of better quality, the collection is limited to four styles per offering: chairs, sofas, and larger sectionals. The price of the chairs, which run about $1,000—sofas are roughly $2,000—is comparable to those of big-box chains West Elm Inc. and CB2 Inc. Each Maiden Home piece is available in 37 fabrics, including putty-colored chevrons, charcoal tweeds, a navy leopard print, and, for $675 extra, an aniline leather produced by a fifth-generation Italian tannery. So far, the company has shipped almost 500 pieces.
The service is hands-on. Every week a “build update” email alert is sent to customers. In one, a seamstress might be adding “details like welts or tufted buttons.” In another, an upholsterer is doing “the most nuanced and artistic work of the process.”
Despite that extra attention, the online custom furniture market faces significant barriers. “Big items like a sofa are different from a $75 pair of glasses that have a return policy,” says Seth Basham, a hardline equity research analyst at Wedbush Securities. “These are tactile goods, and people want to try them out first.” Even so, Kapur says the core goals of her startup and other online darlings are more alike than not. “Everlane is known for simple, timeless design and is for someone who wants to avoid trends and have something high-quality,” she says. “When we talk about design, we’re talking about an aesthetic that will last for years, not something you’ll get sick of.”