Where we left off in Part 1 of the Hellman-Chang story, Dan and Eric were freshly-minted college grads with rather unlikely degrees between them: Classical Guitar Performance and Music Business Management for Dan, Finance and Marketing for Eric. But independent of their jobs in those fields, they were itching to build furniture.
Here in Part 2 they find the closest thing to a shop they can afford, then quickly discover that furniture design is too expensive a hobby to sustain. Decisions have to be made. We get to see Eric expressing some of the thinking that went into formulating the Hellman-Chang brand, and Dan figuring out how to pick up the technical skills that will advance them to the next level. There is also the writing of a fateful $175 check that ends up changing both their lives and, ultimately, a series of interiors around the world.
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Core77: Okay, so it's 2004 and the two of you are fresh out of college, back together in the same city, and eager to start making sawdust.
Dan: At this point we weren't thinking "We've got to quit our jobs and start a furniture company." It was more like, "We've got to find a space where we can build furniture, to get this creative energy out." So we started doing some research and we found a co-op.
Eric: Fortunately we were in New York, where Brooklyn is such a huge creative hub that it had a lot these co-op spaces for artists and craftsmen. So we found one in Bushwick and rented 50 square feet.
Dan: Just a 5x10 spot.
Eric: Just bench space, basically. And the co-op had a shared machine room with all of the industrial versions of the rudimentary tools we'd bought way back when at Home Depot. So now we had access to much better equipment and could do all of our major cuts in the machine room, then bring the pieces back to our little 5x10 space and work on them by hand.
And this was your first time working with that level of equipment?
What was that like?
Eric: Totally different from the garage, right off the bat. With these better machines and tools we were able to achieve a much higher quality. At one point we considered finding a space of our own and buying this level of machinery.
Dan: But we crunched the numbers and it was astronomical, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Eric: So the co-op was a perfect solution. It was also great because we were surrounded by these other artists and craftsmen who did it for their nine to five jobs. There was a lot that we got from watching them work and talking with them. It was a big open loft and we were a bunch of dudes hanging out and making stuff. It was a very creative Brooklyn vibe, a very communal feel. We could ask them "Hey, how would you approach this piece," and they'd give us tips. "Oh, cut it this way" or "Shape it that way." It was a good learning experience.
And at this point, Dan, you're working at a music company and Eric, you're working at your marketing firm start-up.
Eric: Yeah, we'd be at our normal day jobs, but thinking "Can't wait to get off work, head out to Brooklyn and start building stuff." And we'd meet up on nights and weekends.
Dan: We'd get together three or four nights during the week, getting to the studio at 6:30 or 7:00 and we'd stay 'til 11:00 or midnight.
Eric: And then all day Saturday and Sunday.
What were some of the things you guys were turning out at this point?
Eric: Coffee tables, side tables, benches. For our apartments in New York or for friends and family.
Dan: And after about six months, we realized how expensive it was. Let's say you want to make a coffee table: It's $300 in wood and you're spending $450 on rent, and it takes you a month to build, so right off the bat that thing costs you almost $800 to make. We were spending a lot of money to be able to make stuff. So that's really when it was like, "Hey, we've got to start selling this stuff."
Eric: Yeah. In order to make our passion sustainable, it made sense to start selling it. Dan: To support this as a hobby it would be easy to just get some basic kitchen cabinet installation jobs, but there's no creativity there, no passion there.
Eric: We were surrounded in this co-op by custom cabinet and furniture makers, and we recognized right away that we didn't want to just be custom builders. We wanted to actually have a line of furniture of our own designs. And once we realized that, we started to think about what kind of product and what kind of a brand we were going to make, design-wise. We wanted to make sure we were creating a brand and a line of designs from the get go.
Okay. So after you guys start having this conversation, what was one of the first steps that you took towards making it a reality?
Dan: The first one was quality. We said if we're going to sell high-end, we need to be able to stand behind our product, and that we're not going to start selling furniture that we're not absolutely sure is of the highest quality. So I quit my office job and started working for a very high-end custom furniture maker who didn't do design work, but had good connections with a lot of high-end interior designers in New York.
By building these 15-foot dining tables for Park Avenue apartments that are probably $60-$70,000 each, I got to learn just how exactly to make a high-end piece of furniture, then take those skills and apply them to what Eric and I were coming up with. To make sure that our pieces were going to be of that same quality. So my nine to five became honing the skill and the craft of how to build. And we'd still meet nights and weekends at the studio to work on our own stuff.
Eric: Everything that you see here [in our facility today] is based on the high-end fabrication techniques that Dan had learned under this guy.
Dan: We applied these techniques to the modern designs that you see in our line now, really giving it its own sense of character. I think that's something you can recognize when you see our products, the level of quality.
How long did you work there for?
Dan: Just under a year, about nine months.
And once you had gained this new knowledge, what was the actual process of bringing it into play with you and Eric's work?
Dan: We'd go over, say, a sketch of a new piece and figure out, is this going to physically work as a piece of furniture or does it only exist on paper? How can we take it from paper to an actual prototype?
Eric: We could sketch something up and then Dan could look at it to figure out what was and wasn't possible. With what Dan had learned, it really broadened our capabilities in terms of what we could make.
Dan: And with any given sketch, a year earlier it might've been "Oh, that's impossible." But now it was like, "Hey, we could actually give this a shot. Let's try it this way."
Eric: Or we could even recreate pieces we had done in the past, but make them 100 times better just by the way it was produced.
And when did this new level of capability really start to sink in?
Dan: Around 2005, while I was still working for that custom furniture maker. And as time went on, [the work Eric and I were doing] got better and better to the point where it was a better use of my time to not work for the custom furniture maker anymore, and start producing Hellman-Chang furniture from nine to five.
That's a big step. What pushed you to take it?
Dan: I would have to say the entrepreneurial bug, just not wanting to work for somebody else. And at that point our nights and weekends weren't so much in the shop anymore. They were more in our apartments, designing the website, thinking about the brand and designing the look of how we're going to present this furniture.
Eric: Once we committed to really making a company out of this thing, we knew we really needed to sit down, figure out what the brand was all about, and who the client was.
Dan: [That line of thinking] is something that Eric was very in tune with. (To Eric:) I'm sure it helped you with the first company, too.
Eric: Definitely. I mean, with my marketing background, both educational and professional—from setting up a company previously—I could approach it by thinking about our market position and our competitive strategy. So we did a ton of research to decide everything from our name and our logo to our price points and all that kind of stuff.
This is very interesting, because in a lot of interviews I've done, you don't often hear about this part of forming a design brand. You hear a lot about being in the studio, shop, or at the drawing board, working on the objects. But here you guys are mapping things out on the business side first.
Eric: Definitely. A lot of the meetings on nights and weekends gradually transitioned to cultivating a recognizable brand and the positioning within the market. We were working on the website and creating marketing collateral. And once we made a new piece we would do a photo shoot and put it in Photoshop to make everything look a little more professional.
And what types of pieces were you guys producing at this time?
Eric: It was still side tables and coffee tables, occasional furniture pieces. And with respect to the brand, what we started to do was really create a line that was very recognizable on its own. We carry a lot of design themes through various product lines. Whenever we make something we want to make sure that it looks like a Hellman-Chang. When someone sees it they can say "Oh, that's got to be a Hellman-Chang piece."
And that's important as a young company because when you're stepping out in the field as an unknown, into a very mature market with a lot of competitors that have been there for a long time, you need to make yourself as differentiated and recognizable as possible, both in the brand and the design. So, approaching it from that kind of top-level down was important in establishing ourselves at a very early stage. So, that was a lot of the planning and discussions that we having on nights and weekends as time went on.
And all the while we were still designing and creating pieces and selling them to friends and family. We even had an interior designer friend who who would work on projects and ask us for a couple pieces here and there. So every time we had a new piece, it gave us another opportunity to round out our brand even more. By the end of 2006 we had a very small line going.
Dan: Maybe five or six Hellman-Chang pieces. Side table, pedestal, coffee table, and maybe a couple of others.
Eric: Yeah, it was very limited. But you could see the beginnings of a brand there. With the website and the Internet everything is scale-able. So despite just being two guys that met on nights and weekends, going to the website made it look like we were [a professional New-York-based outfit].
We were also reading up on the industry as part of the market research, and we saw that Interior Design magazine was presenting their Best of Year Design Awards at the end of that year. So on a whim we submitted ourselves for the awards with our Z-Pedestal.
What was the procedure for that?
There was a form we filled out, we wrote a brief description, and I took a few 'professional looking' photos with my DSLR, made more professional with an old-school Photoshop program. Got a handful of photos printed out at Adorama on 18th Street, wrote a check for the submission fee—I think it was like, $175—then dropped it in the mail and held our breath.
Dan: A couple of months later, around November, all the votes were in.
Eric: They contacted us and told us we were finalists and that they would have the award ceremony in December at the Guggenheim Museum, this really kind of grand event. I think the tickets were like, $300.
Dan: We were like, "We can't afford this."
Eric: But we knew we ought to go. I mean, what are the chances, we're these 23-year-old kids who would be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with designs icons who were also nominated.
So we went to the awards ceremony and it was kind of like the Oscars. They would show all the nominations for each category and then announce the winners.
And had you guys been to any kind of event like this before?
Dan: No. We had no idea what to expect. We almost felt like we were in over our heads.
Eric: It was a gala event, pretty glitzy. They had photographers everywhere and everyone knew each other. And we're sitting there in the audience and then our piece goes up on the screen. It's really cool. And then Cindy Allen says "...And the winner is, Hellman-Chang."
It took a second to register—"Whoa"—that we just won. I remember going up to the stage and all the camera flashes were going off and then Cindy Allen hands me the award and she whispers, "Who the hell are you?"
I said "Don't worry, you'll see more of us."
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Next: What would you do after winning a major design award? Not content to coast and with the stakes rising higher, Dan and Eric take a gamble so expensive that it makes a $175 check look like a drop in the bucket. Read Part 3 here.