How to start... a furniture business

One of the things we love most about Virgin StartUp is seeing so many businesses that reconnect with traditional crafts and skills, providing an alternative to mass-produced items and creating businesses that are really part of the community. Michael Joseph is the founder of OLLU, a furniture business that creates simple and stylish items with a reclaimed style. Here's how he started a furniture business.

Finding the right location

I’ve lived for several years in Brighton and London; however Southend is actually my hometown, and is currently in the middle of a resurgence of its creative community. It seemed an ideal place to begin the OLLU journey for many reasons, but particularly as so many artisans are relocating to the area, business rents are affordable, there are great transports links to London and Europe, and a variety of incentives for SMEs on offer. There is also something very positive about working in a familiar area, where you know about local resources, materials and other trades, and where it's easy to become part of a buoyant local business community.

I have a workshop and office not far from our home in Southend, although as with any other small business there are times when my partner works from home as well as in transit – we make the most of modern technology!

The inspiration

I’ve enjoyed making things since I was a child; I started to learn about woodwork at school and was so totally inspired by the craft that the desire to create something special out of wood has never left me. There’s something very honest and true about working with wood and being able to manifest an idea, so it was a natural progression to take my passion and creative ability and bring them both together in OLLU.


Qualifications, experience, and equipment

There are many roads that lead to expertise in the craft. I’m sure you can study everything I have learnt, and at times I’ve thought that may actually be the quicker and easier route! Aside from a small amount of time studying carpentry when I lived in Brighton, I’m self-taught and have developed and progressed through years of trial and error and a tremendous amount of determination.

It’s much easier when you have the correct tools and equipment, and I’ve learnt this the hard way in the past by having to make do a lot of the time. My Virgin StartUp loan has enabled me to buy tools which have become a huge asset to product production. I needed to streamline my manufacturing processes to become more efficient and required specialist equipment in order to do this, which is why I applied to Virgin for financial support. A key piece of equipment I have recently purchased is a drum sander - it cost £3500 and has quickly become intrinsic to the OLLU manufacturing process.

Natural skills

You need to really enjoy working with wood and have an understanding of construction methods and how pieces will work and fit together. As I’m trying to build a furniture brand, I need to have a much bigger vision and be able to see the pieces in terms of bringing together a range or collection, as well as how this can be developed for the future – resilience and sense of purpose is key. Design and construction is just one aspect of the business; at the moment we’re on a steep learning curve cultivating our sales and marketing skills, which require a very different set of skills to making furniture!

What market research did you do?

I’d already been making pieces for family and friends before deciding to launch OLLU. The incredibly positive feedback I received, as well as the popularity of what I was producing, prompted me to take the idea of a business seriously and to investigate what had to be done before I could turn a hobby into a livelihood. I researched other furniture brands online, what was the most popular styles, price ranges etc. Our designs seemed to fit well with what was in vogue and so I felt confident that the OLLU brand and products were suited to the marketplace we would be aiming for.

Budget stuff

I had the opportunity to launch last year and managed to set everything up on a budget of around £2000. This figure included a minor workshop re-fit, purchasing materials for making the pieces, and packaging. It was then a case of ploughing any money received from sales back into the business to be able to move forward bit-by-bit. After nearly a year I felt I had a much clearer idea of what I needed to do and what financial support I required to progress, and so I decided to apply to Virgin StartUp.

Marketing pre-launch

We launched the business mostly using Facebook and Twitter. We originally focussed on our local area only, and opened the workshop over weekends to enable customers to visit and see the pieces produced in a showroom environment in an area we had created on the ground floor of the building. Our local paper also wrote an article about us, which was a real compliment.


The launch itself


We had a ‘soft’ launch with the opening of the showroom and workshop with all our products on display. We decorated the showroom area to make it a contemporary and inviting space where people would feel comfortable shopping and browsing through our furniture range, and arranged in such a way to appeal to a variety of interior styles. We invited family and friends to visit us and distributed leaflets in the local area to promote the opening, The opening day was an incredibly special event for my partner and I. We were mentally and physically exhausted by the end of it, but we also knew that making OLLU a success was exactly what we wanted to do.

The first few weeks

Our first few weeks were exciting, worrying, full of wonderment, stressful, tiring - and once we’d made some sales, very exhilarating! Nobody can prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster you will experience when you’ve put your heart and soul and everything you have into something, and then you just have to wait for the response - so nerve-wracking is an understatement! We learnt very quickly from the first few sales the styles and colours that customers were drawn to, which guided us on how we could work to maximise our profits based on this information.

Any tips to someone else that wants to start a similar business?

- Finances can be really stressful, so plan as much as you can beforehand. But there are unfortunately some things you just cannot predict, and everything costs more and takes longer than you could ever expect. Plan your marketing, plan your social networking, and find mentors - they can be invaluable as they have been there before.

- If you totally believe in what you are doing, don’t quit just keep going. Successful entrepreneurs often suffer the same setbacks as unsuccessful ones; however the difference between them is they don’t give up. If you have total belief in your idea and it’s your passion, then go for it. I know that sounds like a real cliché but if you are driven to create a business and your interest borders on obsession, you won’t be satisfied until you do it. Turn your vision into a reality sooner rather than later but make sure you get all the information and support you possibly can before you begin. And who knows, if you are determined enough and have a great product, it may be a huge success!


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