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EPISODE 80

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (Like IKEA)

With John McDonald, founder and CEO of Semihandmade and BOXI

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In 2008, the economy had tanked and John McDonald was left at a crossroads. Rather than withdraw into comfort, he took the opportunity to do something a bit crazy. John was a woodworker who spent time at trade shows, and someone once suggested that he make cabinet doors that fit with IKEA cabinets. With nothing to lose, John launched Semihandmade to do just that. 

Now, a decade later, Semihandmade has seen consistent double-digit growth year over year and has been featured in countless blogs, interior design social posts, on the feeds of influencers worldwide, and in the homes of tens of thousands of people. On this episode of Up Next in Commerce, John tells the story from start to finish, including how he built a successful ecommerce custom cabinet model on the backs of the IKEA brand, and how he’s now launching into the DTC space with the first US-made custom cabinet DTC offering, BOXI. From finding the right partners, to building an omnichannel approach that doesn’t handcuff your resources, to challenging yourself to strive for more, you’ll learn something from John and his story that just might help you level up your ecommerce business, too.

Main Takeaways:

  • Perfect Partners: For ecommerce brands taking on an omnichannel approach, there is no reason to tie up a lot of your resources into retail spaces and showrooms. Instead, exploring partnership opportunities with other brands in a similar category might be a mutually beneficial way to expand your brand, the brand you partner with, and offer an in-store experience to customers who seek one.
  • Meeting the Moment: The world of home furnishings and interior design is changing rapidly, especially as A.I. and VR technology enter the marketplace. With that tech, users are gaining more flexibility to design their own spaces without leaving home, which means there is an opening for DTC companies that are tech-first.
  • Step Up or Step Out: You can’t let competition scare you, let it inspire you to raise your game. By surrounding yourself with the best and forcing yourself to compete against them, you have to level up to simply survive, and succeed expectations to grow your business in a meaningful way.

For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Key Quotes:

“The mistakes that I made were unavoidable in the sense that I was creating this out of thin air. Ivan and I were just making stuff up as we went along.”

“Part of my job now is just looking at the next 12 months and 18 months and say, hopefully, where are we going to be? Where do we think we’re going to be? What are we going to need then?…  we only thrive with people that are smarter, better, or more experienced than me. That’s one of the biggest changes in the last at least six months, where we really just hit the gas and brought in some really amazing complementary pieces.” 

“We work with some really cool people who do make IKEA more accessible. It is people like Karlie Kloss and Coco Rocha and all kinds of celebrities and high-end designers and influencers. They, more so than us, have normalized IKEA. That’s good for everybody. If design is supposed to be democratic and accessible to everybody, there’s nothing more accessible than IKEA.”

“From the start, I always felt no self-consciousness about reaching out to people. Whether it was blogs, I would say, ‘This is what we’re doing. Here are some photos. I’d love for you to write about us.’” 

“I wanted to bring together all these great writers, great content to help promote the brand, of course, but also expand to becoming a lifestyle brand. On the one hand, it would be enough to have a really successful cabinet door company. I just think we have the opportunity to do so much more.”

Mentions:

Bio:

John McDonald is the Founder/CEO of Semihandmade and BOXI. McDonald had dreams of making it big in Hollywood but found himself building a business after getting into woodworking while living in California. McDonald founded Semihandmade in 2011, and it has seen steady growth in the decade since. Semihandmade has been named to Inc. Magazine’s fastest-growing private US companies list each of the last five years.

Up Next in Commerce is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Respond quickly to changing customer needs with flexible Ecommerce connected to marketing, sales, and service. Deliver intelligent commerce experiences your customers can trust, across every channel. Together, we’re ready for what’s next in commerce. Learn more at salesforce.com/commerce

Transcript:

Stephanie:

Hey, everyone. Welcome back to Up Next In Commerce. This is your host, Stephanie Postles, Cofounder at Mission.org. Today, I had the pleasure of chatting with John McDonald, the Founder and CEO at Semihandmade and also Boxi. John, welcome.

John:

Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Stephanie:

I’m really excited to have you on. Before we get started, I was hoping you could give me a little background, and for anyone who doesn’t know what Semihandmade is and also Boxi, how did you start it? What is it? How do I think about it?

John:

Sure. Semihandmade is a company that’s been around, I guess, just over 10 years now. We’re based in Southern California. We make doors that fit IKEA cabinets. What that means is, if you want to buy a kitchen, bathroom, closet media system, IKEA, for the most part, gives you the amazing flexibility of not buying their doors. For a kitchen, you’d buy the cabinets, you’d buy the interior components. Then we have over 40 different options from entry level doors to some really high-end, one-of-a-kind offerings.

Stephanie:

I love that. Do I think of it like white labeling? You take IKEA’s [inaudible] and then you can add like rose gold fixtures on it, yeah?

John:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. The credit, obviously, goes back to IKEA. This is an ever expanding ecosystem that’s been around probably for 15 years now. People that make amazing slipcovers that you can put on their sofas. People that make furniture legs, companies like us that make fantastic cabinet doors. It’s a way to get a really high-end look for a really mid-level price.

Stephanie:

Cool.

John:

I’m even fortunate to grow quite a bit with that.

Stephanie:

That’s great. How did you come to this idea?

John:

I’m always honest and clear that this was … It’s a spectacular idea that somebody gave to me.

Stephanie:

Who gave it to you?

John:

I think his name is David Stewart. I think he’s a photographer. Look, I’m 53. I don’t know if I’m older than a lot of the people you talk to.

Stephanie:

A little.

John:

I came to things a little bit later. I had moved to California from the East Coast when I was 21. Well, wanted to get rich and famous, work in the film business, didn’t really have any kind of plan, bounced around with that, was writing, not making any money like everybody else I knew waiting tables. Then I woke up in my early 30s and said, I got to do something with my life. It was post 9/11, which is a wake-up call for a lot of people. I tried a bunch of different things. Then I somehow landed in woodworking and furniture making at first and cabinetry. I got good at it.

John:

Through the late ’90s and early 2000s, that’s what I was doing, Southern California based custom furniture and cabinetry company called Handmade. I worked hard. I approached it like a business into my late 30s, which was different than a lot of other people I knew, the craftspeople, spectacular artists, but just no head for business, no interest in business. I always looked at it like as a business like any other. That’s what I was doing through, again, the early 2000s. I was networking and blogs just started to happen. I was doing a lot of woodworking shows but also design shows. At one of those design shows in 2008, I think somebody came up to me, this guy randomly and said, “Have you ever thought about making doors for IKEA cabinets?”

Stephanie:

Was that something that others were doing? Why did he have that idea? Then was like, I’m going to tell John to do that.

John:

It’s interesting. Again, I always want to give credit where credit is due. On top of him, there was a company called Scherr’s based in North Dakota that has been making doors for IKEA cabinets just a little bit prior to that. People are always making their own doors as well. It is because IKEA lets you not buy doors when you buy their kitchens. I don’t know why he mentioned it. I think part of it was because when I did those shows, it was a show called Whelan Design, which is a great show in Southern California at the time and back when Dwell magazine was really in its heyday and just an iconic brand.

John:

I was always like the one off independent company. It was me and all the big brands. It would be like Kohler and Caesarstone and Sub-Zero. I was there alongside them with my little custom furniture setup. I don’t know if he took a liking to me, but we just spent that day, the Friday and then the following day just talking about it. I had no idea what he was talking about at first.

Stephanie:

That’s awesome. Then for people listening, I know when I first heard of your brand and was looking through it. I’m like, oh, it’s just like a small thing, a big thing. Then I was looking through some of the stats and you’ve been named like the fastest growing private company every year by Inc. magazine [inaudible].

John:

Well, yeah, one of. Yeah, one of many. Inc. 500 originally, we’ve been on that list, I think, six or seven years now.

Stephanie:

You’ve had double digit growth for almost a decade, year every year.

John:

Yeah. It’s exciting. It’s, again, one of many things. I try to be candid and clear, but I never expected this. I never thought in a million years I’d be doing this. Every year that we were fortunate to grow, even my ambition or dreams, it got bigger. It’s like get to a million, get to two million, get to five million. It’s been exciting. Believe me, I don’t take it for granted. That’s why I enjoy doing things like this, because I always … At 40, I was newly divorced. I didn’t have any kids at the time. I have a son now. He was nine. I lived in my shop for a year, because I got divorced.

John:

I didn’t have anywhere to live. I had options, but I wanted to hide. I lived in my woodworking shop. I lived on my sofa with my dog. I just said, I got to do something else. It was a huge wakeup call. Then that’s when the conversation I had, I think, six to nine months prior. It was like, maybe I should try this. Again, in terms of the second acts in life, whatever, I was 40 and had no clue. 10 years later, more than 10 years later, it’s different.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that’s very inspirational. Cool to hear about and cool to see where you can start and where it can grow to. How did you grow the company? From starting out where you’re woodworking, you’re building stuff, and then you’re like, okay, I’m going to buy IKEA stuff and make it better. How did you get in front of people and be found in general?

John:

Like anything, Stephanie, it’s like you look back on it and as much as it was, a long journey at times were so challenging, whatever. You get through it, and you gloss over it. It’s only when conversations like this that I do get an opportunity to look back. The reality was, again, I had a nice custom furniture cabinetry business. I had some really good clients. I work with some good architects and designers. Then in 2008, the market tanked. Everybody went in the dumpster. I had to do something else. Things had slowed down.

John:

I started saying to a couple designers and architects, “What if we try to do integrate some IKEA cabinetry into the custom project.” Because at the end of the day, a box is a box, and you’re just going to see the outside of the beautiful panels and the doors. There were a few people that took a chance on that. That’s how it … It’s like anything. I was 100% custom in 2009. Then it’s like, okay, you can start mixing it in and starting to organically … I don’t even know what kind of … I wasn’t doing advertising. Blogs had just taken off.

John:

Apartment therapy had seen see me at a design show and written about me, which was amazing. That was a really big deal. L.A. Times did a story on me, which is incredible. Yet it was always organic. Through 2010 and 2011, it became, okay, now we’re doing half custom, half IKEA. Then every year, it’s a little bit more headed towards full IKEA. The truth is, I don’t know when it was, maybe 2013, when it was fully just making doors for IKEA. It was fun. It was always a steady progression, always growing every year.

Stephanie:

Yeah, sustainably growing, which is a lot different than a lot of the brand.

John:

Yeah, profitable every year. Beginning, doubling every year, which, again, was not what I expected. Part of that, what’s funny too is I have a lot of incredibly supportive family, but also friends, guys that I grew up with. When I was in California at 21, or 22, or 29, or whatever, they were amazing. They love me. They were supportive, but they probably had no clue where I was headed. I didn’t either. Now, it’s fun. I gave them a hard time constantly about the fact that they probably gave up on me.

John:

Not in a bad way, but it’s just … I mean, I do think that there is a time to cash in your chips. It’s great to have dreams. There was an interesting like Scott Galloway kind of thing recently about if you should follow your dream. His overly simplistic thing is definitely do not follow your dream. Because unless you’re willing to pay your bills to start because following just exclusively your dream can be incredibly impractical. The people that you admire, suddenly, the people that I admire weren’t these head up in the clouds kind of people. They worked really hard. I geek out on founder stories, things, podcasts like this. I’m fascinated by that. It’s never an overnight thing, or at least it’s rarely. Again, I’m 53 now. This is all house money.

Stephanie:

Wow, that’s awesome. When you started, getting more money, you’re doubling growth, more revenue, obviously. Where did you invest? How did you think about investing that? Because I’m sure you’re like, woo-hoo! I’m going to go have fun now.

John:

No.

Stephanie:

No?

John:

It was never like that, no. It’s interesting. I would say I like nice things like some people do. I’m pretty frugal. In terms of the business, everything lives inside the business. I had a partner at that point. Up until three years ago, we made everything in-house. I was the original guy making the doors and packing them up and then shipping them in New York or different places. Then my partner at the time, Ivan, came on board. He was the guy cutting the doors. Now, we were fortunate to grow.

John:

Eventually, we had close to 35, I think 35 or 40 people that were working in production. Up until three years ago, we topped out at 75 people and half of them were making products. Now I’m proud to say we don’t make anything in-house. Everything, it’s made around the US, some at the top manufacturers in the country. That was a huge shift. To answer your question, everything is in the business. That’s why you see revenue numbers are different than other things.

Stephanie:

Yeah. What were some mistakes maybe that you remember where you’re like, ooh, I would have avoided this if I were to do it again, or especially in the more maybe the past five years or something. Not early on when you’re just …

John:

Right. If we’re going to say 10 years ago, the mistakes that I made were unavoidable in the sense that I was creating this out of thin air. Ivan and I were just making stuff up as we went along. We were two guys. He’s a little bit younger than me. He came out from Boston. I came out from Philadelphia to be writers. In some ways, no business starting this kind of business. In the last five years, it’s probably the mistakes that I’ve made are … I don’t know, maybe waiting too long to really build up the team, which is not to say that we didn’t have good people, we did.

John:

Part of my job now is just looking at the next 12 months and 18 months and say, hopefully, where are we going to be? Where do we think we’re going to be? What are we going to need then? As someone who is … Again, I think pretty honest about their limitations or whatever, we only thrive with people that are smarter, better, or more experienced than me. That’s one of the biggest changes in the last at least six months, where we really just hit the gas and brought in some really amazing complementary pieces.

Stephanie:

Yeah, cool. How do you think about building on top of another company? What if IKEA changes their cabinet line or does something different, did that ever worry you, building a business that’s … I mean, a lot of businesses are built on another businesses, obviously. How did you think about that?

John:

We’ve always been after market. With IKEA, it’s pretty well documented. We’ve gone up and down with them. I think in most ways, they appreciate what we do. Certainly, it’s undeniable that we sell kitchens that people wouldn’t normally buy if we weren’t available. They also, I think, hate a little bit that we’re there. I don’t know this is arrogant or anything to say. They’re not going to change their model because of us. They’re never going to not sell doors. Even if they did, I would say to people like, “Then just buy the doors that literally cost $2.”

John:

Then we’ll pay for them and recycle. Their model is that a la carte wide range of pricing. We’ve always been respectful. Again, I have immense respect for them and what they built. It’s extraordinary. Even when my fiancé and I moved into a new house and it’s like going there, buying the basics for the house, it’s just nobody can beat it [inaudible].

Stephanie:

Yup. I’m doing that now as well. I think, like you said, you’re opening up a market that they probably wouldn’t have access, otherwise. When I’m about finishing this house now, I honestly would not have thought to go to IKEA to get cabinets. I don’t know. Then when I saw you guys, I’m like, oh, well then you can have the finishings and the colors and the things that I actually want. I don’t actually care what a cabinet is like inside or behind the scenes, but I care about how it looks. A lot of the IKEA stuff does look like you know sometimes.

John:

Yeah, it’s understandable. Because at that scale, you can’t get that fancy and creative. This is the part where I drop names, just in the sense that what I do love is we work with some really cool people that do make IKEA more accessible. It is people like Karlie Kloss and Coco Rocha and all kinds of celebrities and high end designers and influencers. They, more so than us, have normalized IKEA. That’s good for everybody. If design is supposed to be democratic and accessible to everybody, there’s nothing more accessible than IKEA. Obviously, Amazon, Wayfair, and things like that.

Stephanie:

Walmart? Walmart is coming back. I have bought rugs now, a little egg wicker chair. It’s from following influencers. I’m like, Walmart is coming back.

John:

You’re right. It’s funny, because the same thing with my fiancé, Stephanie. Yesterday, she was looking at different coffee tables. She said, “This is … ” She showed me a thing. I was like, “That’s awesome.” She said, “Oh, it’s like the Kelly Clarkson line.” I was like, “This is great.” It’s true. Look, certainly, you can make the argument that some of that stuff is more disposable and it’s going to go into a landfill and less sustainable. I understand that. The reality is, not everyone has the same access to disposable. If you can get cool stuff, it’s reasonably priced and it lasts for a few years. I don’t know. It’s hard to turn that down.

Stephanie:

You mentioned that you partner with influencers and celebrities. How does that relationship work?

John:

Yeah. I think that’s always been a huge differentiator for us, one of several things. From the start, I always felt no self-consciousness about reaching out to people. Whether it was blogs, I would say, “This is what we’re doing. Here are some photos. I’d love for you to write about us.” Or even influencers. The biggest one and the one that we worked with the most is Sarah Sherman Samuel. We’ve had a door line with Sarah for three years. That’s a situation where, god, I think 2014 or 2015, she reached out and said, “Hey, I bought a bungalow in Venice. I love IKEA cabinets.

John:

I wonder if we could partner on some doors.” We did a small collaboration, gave her a tiny discount. She painted the doors. She styled everything. She took photography. The kitchen went completely viral. It’s one of those kitchens that is everywhere. I think a really cool Farrow & Ball paints, brass and mixture of this light green and white. That just opened the door to all these other relationships. People saw that and started reaching out to us. It’s been an amazing thing. The truth is, we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve had to pull back on that because it’s just a different way to market the brand. It can be expensive. It’s definitely grown us, there’s no doubt about it.

Stephanie:

Have you thought about Netflix series? I’m just thinking, wow, they should be on a home remodel type of show. How perfect is that? People always trying to do amazing things on a budget on like the HGTV [inaudible].

John:

Yeah. We’ve talked about that stuff in the past. I like that stuff. Again, I don’t know. I do think it’s interesting our growth. That’s how I always look at things, behind the scenes of how businesses grow, especially within that. I do like someone we haven’t worked with in a while, the Studio McGee, the Netflix series, which is great. That’s really interesting, especially after listening to another podcast like our friends at Business of Home, where … I left the podcast with so much more respect.

John:

Because my interaction with them was a long time ago, and then I just see the photos and the beautiful stuff. Just the growth that they’ve had and the behind the scenes, and again, hearing their story is really extraordinary. I enjoy watching that stuff. I don’t know if I want to watch this. I get sick of hearing myself talk. Maybe if it’s everybody else, that might work.

Stephanie:

Yeah. I was just thinking like, wow, that’d be a really good partnership strategy. I always bring up the Container Store partnership that they had on the Netflix series and just how much Container Store sales went up after that series.

John:

[inaudible]

Stephanie:

I can see why, same thing with cabinets and stuff.

John:

Yeah, it’s interesting. Because even that, again, I’m a lot older than you, but in the early ’90s, whenever Trading Spaces came on and that was huge like …

Stephanie:

I watch Trading Spaces, just to be clear.

John:

I mean, even in the ’80s, the godfather of that is like Bob Vila in this old house. That’s definitely before your time. That was restoring amazing New England homes and stuff. It was master carpenter, Norm. I think Norm Abram is absolute craftsman. That was the start. Then you had Trading Spaces. Even now, you would have thought, after 10 years, that goes away, and it hasn’t. That’s the thing. Is it the ladies like Home Edit and stuff like that? I don’t know. It hasn’t evaded, it just only grown. Obviously, Chip and Joanna Gaines and the dynasty that they have built. It doesn’t show any sign of stopping.

Stephanie:

Yeah. It seems like the world is now just moving to a more curated collections like I’m going to look for someone who knows my style, so I don’t have to waste time looking at everything. Whereas before, it’s like, oh, I’m going to go to Target to get this, and then I’m going to go to Dollar Tree to get this. I make it up. I think, 10 years ago is very much about DIY, but all over the place. Now, it’s like, okay, I’m going to follow Chip and Joanna Gaines, their line at Target, whatever that is, and follow the people that I know are my style and be ready to immerge myself in that brand.

John:

Yeah. The interesting, whether it’s the 180 to that is the amount of growth that Restoration Hardware has had, where it’s just almost like meteoric, being a complete luxury brand and selling the whole experience. It is like the Ralph Lauren of today, and now as they move towards hospitality restaurants and sounds like hotels. Part of your brain thinks, man, you can’t sustain that. How do you keep growing? There is a market for that. Even when you watch the Studio McGee, their services are not expensive. Amber Interiors, who we work with, people like that, incredibly talented, at the really high end of the market. They keep growing.

Stephanie:

Yup. Tell me a bit about your omnichannel approach. I saw that you had showrooms around the country. Then you’re, obviously, online as well. Now you’re moving into DTC. How do you think about keeping a cohesive story of your brand but also expanding and reaching a lot of people on different channels?

John:

I guess the biggest challenge, if it is the biggest, it’s just the fact that what we’re selling comes at a higher price point than the average online purchase. We sell certainly, if you’re doing a GODMORGON bathroom vanity, that then may cost $150, $300, $400. We’re selling cabinet doors and panels and complementary trim and things like that that can cost $3,000, $5,000, $20,000. Again, it’s not buying a pair of Warby’s or an Olay bag for a couple hundred bucks. There’s a lot to it, a lot of back and forth. Excuse me.

John:

Showrooms we’re always a part of we’ve got to show people our product, especially when we’re asking them to spend that much. The benefit of IKEA is, even though they’re still a privately held company, there are only, I think, less than 60 around the US. What I could say to people to say to you, Stephanie, or wherever, like you’re in New York, go to one of the five local IKEAs. Then come into our mini … I never want to call it a showroom, because it could be 200 square feet. It’s got some cabinetry in it. It’s got door samples, things like that. There would be a whole experience.

John:

I would always say, if you want to see a kitchen, go to IKEA and you can see 15 kitchens or see 20 kitchens. Want to see the doors? Come see us. We’ve had that in New York, in Brooklyn, in Chicago, obviously, in LA, Minneapolis, a bunch of different places. Again, trying to be reasonable about that. I don’t want the overhead of signing leases if I don’t have to. What we’ve typically done and we will continue to do even more so is partner with other great brands. It is like a multi-brand approach.

John:

With our lighting friends, with hardware companies like Rejuvenation, Fireclay Tile, upcoming collaboration with Caesarstone, it’s partnering with Cambria in the past. It’s just saying, let’s do this collectively. Because the kitchen is, as someone said to me, “The base purchase, if you’re fortunate to have him as a house, there’s a car, and then maybe there’s your kitchen.” We’re trying to grow the company that way. We started what I think is an amazing … I got to [inaudible] blog anymore. It’s that. [inaudible] stories that launched last summer.

John:

That was the idea that I wanted to bring together all these great writers, great content to help promote the brand, of course, but also expand us, again, to make that cliché to becoming a lifestyle brand. On the one hand, it would be enough to have a really successful cabinet door company. I just think we have the opportunity to do so much more. That’s what something else we can talk about, is this brand Boxi, which is going to launch at the beginning of March. That really is direct to consumer. That’s our own product, no IKEA. That’s a whole different thing for us.

Stephanie:

Alright. Let’s move there next after my one thought. I’ve many ideas when talking to you now.

John:

Awesome.

Stephanie:

What about having like partnering with IKEA on their AR app or developing your own AR app, instead of having to have a showroom, being going to IKEA, pull up your phone, and then you can swipe through the designs of ours, and you can see exactly what that trim would look like, what that doorknob or whatever, so then you eliminate showroom.

John:

It is interesting. Look, the thing with IKEA, they have partnered with people in the past. Obviously, places like Target have done an amazing job of that completely. As you said, Walmart too.. It always seem like the natural fit with us. If you were going to do it with anybody, it would be us. In terms of AI, yeah. IKEA has been slow and is put a huge push in the last couple years of their online presence and their economy. They have an app they launched last month. What we are doing with the new brand is working with a 3D AI company called Skip. It’s going to launch in the next few months. That lets you basically not go in showrooms.

John:

There are ways to order this new line of cabinets, and one of them is to make an appointment and someone comes to your house and 3D scans your room. Then you design remotely. With 80 hours of AI and machine learning and everything else, it’s compressing that and then presenting you with design options.

Stephanie:

That’s cool.

John:

That’s where we’re headed. All has changed dramatically in the last year. COVID or not, it was headed towards that. The new iPhones have the camera technology where you can almost do that. Maybe in 12 to 15 months, you don’t even need a guy to come to your house. You can do it with your iPhone. They’re already pretty close.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I think it’s fair. I have a little tape measure app on my phone and it says, okay, scan the whole room. You do that and then you can measure everything. The placeholders all around the room for you and [inaudible].

John:

Yeah, it’s fascinating. Even brands like Primer that launched last year, which do the work with other brand partners, and you want to click on like the Hygge and West Wallpaper, you can hold it up to your wall. They’ll show you different swatches and things like that. It’s interesting. For us, yeah, that is part of what we think is a differentiator. IKEA is always going to have massive brick and mortar. Even though they move in some cities towards smaller footprints, it’s still footprints that are 20,000 to 150,000, as opposed to 300,000. There’s another cabinet line that’s launching.

John:

It just launched, it’s got a 30,000 square foot showroom on the East Coast and 100 kitchens. You go in and wear the AR or the VR goggles. That’s completely different because you’re looking at some space that has nothing to do with yours. It’s kind of what you’re saying. The point is, things are changing so fast. With Boxi, it is saying, can you make this as DTC as possible? The caveat being, it could cost $10,000 to $15,000, to $20,000. It’s not like …

Stephanie:

Okay. Tell me what is Boxi then since we [crosstalk].

John:

Boxi is the first American direct to consumer cabinet brand. It’s a cabinet system for the entire home. It’s basically taking the last 10, 11 years of everything we’ve learned from IKEA and saying, let’s try and offer something. I don’t know, if it’s … I don’t want to say better than IKEA. Because again, I’ve huge respect for them. It’s a more complete package. Certainly, the quality is there. The accessibility is there. One of many things that we’re going to improve on is the fact that Semihandmade customers have to go to IKEA first.

John:

It’s a two-part process where you’ve got to go to IKEA. You’ve got to order the cabinets and hardware. Then you’ve got to order the doors from us. Thank God that they do, but especially in the last year, IKEA, like a lot of people, has suffered horribly with supply chain issues. We have customers now, unfortunately, it’s January, they’re hearing, cabinet boxes might not be available for three, four, or five months because …

Stephanie:

I ordered a couch from Pottery Barn and four months out. [crosstalk] order, I just didn’t look, I guess.

John:

As a business, on a personal level, that annoys me because I want … That’s a whole thing. We have such ridiculous expectations because they’re easily met or they have been up until now. Not to blame Amazon because that’s too easy. I’m a hypocrite about Amazon too. With Boxi, we’re saying, no big box stores. Somebody can come to you, things ship, leave the factory in a week. Part of what we’re doing, you’re from Palo Alto, I don’t know if you’re born there, but it’s almost like an In-N-Out Burger West Coast approach. Meaning we’re going to do a limited number of items, and we’re going to do it great. If you want …

John:

What they do is they’re great. What’s interesting about that is they … I think just little background on burgers. I think the founder was best friends with Carl Karcher who started Carl’s Jr., another big West Coast place. In the ’50s, they open hamburger stands right next to each other. The In-N-Out guy’s thing was always, I’m not worried about competition. You’re welcome to open across the street from me, next door, or whatever, because I’m just going to bury you. I’ll just be that much better. Not like in an obnoxious, overly competitive way. Just like, this is going to raise our game. With us, with Boxi, yeah, limited selection, fast turnaround ships in a week, never need to go to a big box store. It’s built in the US at a really competitive price point. That’s the idea.

Stephanie:

I love that it’s built in the US. I think that a lot of companies right now are bringing things back into the US and some are struggling seeing how expensive things can be and what was happening overseas and maybe how it’s just different here. What did you guys learn from IKEA that you’re taking with you? Then what are you discarding where you’re like, we’re going to do this different though?

John:

Again, in some ways, I learned everything from IKEA. Look, I learned a couple things. One of them is you can’t compete with them in terms of pricing. That’s the most basic thing. I always say like, with Amazon, the same thing, you can’t … I mean, then the turnaround lead time. Up until recently, with COVID, you could buy a kitchen today and bring it home today. Nobody else could do that at a crazy price. Best of all, really high quality. IKEA, to their credit, pretty much every year, as long as I can remember, the last 10 years, is right at the top of like J.D. Power customer satisfaction in terms of quality, customer service, things like that.

John:

You could complain about certain products from IKEA and their quality, but their kitchens, I think, are inarguable. As much as I’m not affiliated with them directly, I always get defensive when people would slag them. Because it’s also understanding that the product that they offer, and this blows some Americans minds, but it’s a particleboard core with a melamine skin, a three-quarter melamine box. That standard in the entire world for kitchen cabinets. The most expensive cabinet brands in the world are constructed the same way.

John:

In the US, that’s less the case because 70% of the market wants a frame around their cabinet. It’s literally a face frame cabinet. The European style that IKEA is called frameless 32 millimeter. Again, I’ve learned everything. We’re deeply indebted to them.

Stephanie:

Well, is there anything that you’re changing though now that you are exploring DTC that’s [crosstalk]?

John:

Yeah. We’ll always have the ability. With Semihandmade, one of the differentiators were … You’ll always have this when you’re smaller, we’re microscopic compared to them. It’s just being able to be nimble, to be able to get more custom, to be able to offer certain versatility that they could never do. Limited run doors, ability to do appliance panels for really anything. The Semihandmade, we could always do that. We can do upgrades with matching … We used to do open cabinets that match your doors and things like that. We do less of that now.

John:

With Boxi, what will be interesting is because the hope is anybody to scale and to have short lead times, quick turnaround, we’re not going to offer as much customization. We’ve learned like what … In terms of people’s taste. We have eight doors, which are basically the biggest sellers for Semihandmade. It’s basic white, gray, black, and some wood tones. It’s not saying like we have at Semihandmade of 45 choices. That’s fun to me. Because if anything, you can have too many options and that is paralyzing.

Stephanie:

Yup. Just going to say that I appreciate when things are curated or you showed me something cute and I’m just like, “I’ll have that.” Whatever that is, the white, the gold, and the brown, perfect. That’s what I want. Not choose every single piece of it. Which I think is for a lot of ecommerce, that’s what I’ve heard throughout many interviews, is don’t give so many choices, show people what you think or know that they’re going to want based off of preferences or how they’re interacting with your site or whatever it may be.

John:

That’s part of if there’d been multiple challenges with getting Boxi off the ground understandably. I think the biggest one is like you said, with even a call today, there was seven of us on the screen and I said, “If the seven of us were the typical technology guys or girls that knew nothing about socks, but we’re launching a socks brand, we wouldn’t bring all this baggage to it about what we thought we knew.” With Semihandmade, we have all this great knowledge, but some of it can get in the way with the new brand.

John:

Because the new brand, for it to really work, you can’t do all the customization. There are certain things that Semihandmade where we’ll make exceptions and we’ll do things. Of course, you always want to service the customer, first and foremost. It’s just recognizing that if the goal is for this really to take off and grow, which I think it will, we have to be a little stricter, a little more brand fidelity, like say, this is who we are, this is how we get to where we want to go, and then stick to that.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that seems tricky. Having two different hats where you and your team are like, we know what works, this is what works, we build a company that does this. Then having a slow creep where you turn the other brand into the same thing. Like you said, you have to really be strict about creating a whole new company with a new vision and making sure everyone’s on board and not just let the old company creep in and [crosstalk].

John:

I think in some ways too, whether in a good way or a bad way, the fact that we’ve been fortunate to have growth and success for Semihandmade, it’s either made it easier or harder to get the new venture off. Because it buys you certain time. If we were a startup, we raised funding. We’ve got 18 months to runway all these different things that will be different. Probably, things have taken longer. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. When this launches, what we leverage is, yeah, it’s 10 years of Semihandmade. It’s 25,000 projects. It’s incredible.

John:

We have 2,000 semipro designers around the country that are champing at the bit to offer this. It’s relationships we’ve got with Rejuvination and Kaff appliances and Caesarstone that are going to be partners. I continue to remind people and even myself like if we were a startup, we’d never have this stuff. We wouldn’t have five, six amazing influencer projects that you’re going to roll out in the next six weeks with the new launch. You’d be launching and then keeping your fingers crossed.

Stephanie:

Yeah, yeah. Okay, cool. Alright, so let’s move over to the lightning round. The lightning round is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. This is where I’m going to ask you a question and you have one minute or less, prepare, get your water, [inaudible], shake it out, do what you got to do. Alright, are you ready, John?

John:

Yup.

Stephanie:

Alright. What one thing will have the biggest impact on ecommerce in the next year?

John:

That’s great question. Do I have a minute for this?

Stephanie:

Yeah, a minute.

John:

I think it depends. I’m cynical about the fact that in some ways, yeah, a lot of companies have taken off, Instacart and things like that, but even like Wayfair. I was reading Bed Bath & Beyond today. I think the question is whether or not that’ll be sustained. When life comes back to normal, which hopefully, inevitably will, certainly, people will be more inclined to shop online. There’s no doubt about that. The world is changing. It’s not going to go back. There are companies that have gotten a little frothier or whatever that I think that artificial is going to wear off. It’s normalized.

John:

It’s great. There’s stuff I would have never done. Even with not ecomm, but with Zoom, we hired a new president, Beth and Molly, who runs marketing and stuff. I hired three of our highest people remotely. They’re based in New York. I would have never done that. I would never trusted people or trusted myself. Now, it’s normal.

Stephanie:

Yeah. I was slow with grocery delivery and curbside pickup. It forced me to do that because I was the one who always want to go to the grocery store, look around with my friends, whatever it maybe. Now, I’m like, oh, I don’t really want to go there anymore. There’s no point. I’ll save my time and do other things.

John:

It is amazing. To me, it’s more interesting to see how those people make money. That’s the part where it’s one thing to do great revenue. Obviously, profitability is a thing, unless it’s not your money, unless you have a thing too. When it is your money, it’s much more of a focus.

Stephanie:

Yeah. We just had someone from Intel on who was saying that they work with a hardware store and they’re struggling because contractors were coming in and placing 40, 50 item orders for curbside pickup.

John:

All of it?

Stephanie:

Because they’re like, why would I send in my contractor and paid him to be there for two to three hours when I could just have you all do it. They’re struggling with trying to figure out the program because they weren’t really expecting them.

John:

Yeah, that’s interesting.

Stephanie:

I’m like, that’s scary. What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for you?

John:

Business wise or otherwise?

Stephanie:

Anything, whatever comes to mind.

John:

I guess the biggest cliché was my son’s mom having my son. That’s probably …

Stephanie:

That’s a good one. Having three kids, I appreciate that answer.

John:

I mean that from heart.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that’s a good one. What’s up next on your reading list?

John:

I constantly have five or six books I’m reading. That’s interesting too, whether it’s because I pursued writing for a long time. I haven’t made the jump to eBooks. There are few writers that I correspond with on Twitter. Twitter is another thing that I didn’t use that much before this. I’ve asked them like, “Well, what’s the feeling on eBooks? Is it like cheating or whatever?” Of course, these guys and girls want to sell books. They’re not considered cheating if you buy their eBook. The response I got from a bunch of them was, it’s best in some ways for nonfiction.

John:

I read tons of nonfiction. I’m reading Say Nothing, which is a story about the troubles in Ireland. I’m finishing a great book on ecommerce called the Billion Dollar Brands book, something like that. That’s spectacular. I’ve got so many. I’m reading a book on Chinatown, the making of the movie. I love a lot of different things. It is mainly. It’s less fiction now. It is more nonfiction.

Stephanie:

Very cool. What is your favorite cabinet design? What’s in your house?

John:

My house, it’s interesting. Because in my house that I share with my son who I split custody with, we have a more contemporary kitchen. It’s walnut. It’s unique. We sell a fair amount of walnut and it is one of a kind. Every kitchen is different. That’s a little more contemporary, even though it’s wood. It’s contemporary. In the house with my fiancé, where she lives, that’s a more traditional. It’s a shaker kitchen. It’s got some really pretty hardware. I guess I’m very particular about what I like. In general, even when we she and I have arguments about furniture, I just say like, “Buy something quality and it’ll fit with everything else.” I know it’s a copout, but that’s where I’m landed. I love eclectic as long as it’s nice quality.

Stephanie:

Yeah, cool. Alright and then the last one, if you were to have a podcast, what would it be about? Who would your first guest be?

John:

That’s a great question. I like a lot of probably IKEA. I like a lot of different things. Even podcasts, same thing. I didn’t listen to before, frankly, a year ago. I listened to one the other day. Marc Maron was really talented, funny guy who’ve been doing podcast for about 10 years. He had this guy, Daniel Lanois, who’s a big time record producer, did U2 and all kinds of amazing people. I was amazed at the depth of Maron’s knowledge of music. I don’t have that. I don’t know. I like diverse things. I don’t know if I could do it.

John:

Because I like to think I’m a good listener, but I’m probably not because I’m always ready to say something. Obviously, like in your spot or whatever, to do it well, you should be listening to people. Again, I love screenwriting podcasts. I like anything. I like news, podcasts.

Stephanie:

Okay, so it’d be a little bit of everything. I like that. That’s cool.

John:

I could do this kind of thing. If we’re talking about remodeling, if anything, would always have an edge to it. If I were going to do a show, that’s the thing. I gravitate less, maybe not towards Gordon Ramsay, but like Anthony Bourdain. There would be an edge to it. It wouldn’t be … Even when I was inside people’s houses, I don’t know if I was combative. I had very strong opinions about with architects and designers and homeowners and what I thought they should want. The one thing I don’t like is when it’s all sweet and sacristy and artificial. Totally with an edge.

Stephanie:

I like that. That sounds good. Alright, John, well, this has been a pleasure having you on. Where can people find out more about you and your work?

John:

Sure. Semihandmade, we can do semihandmade.com. Then Boxi, which launches March 1st, is at boxiliving, B-O-X-I-L-I-V-I-N-G.com.

Stephanie:

Okay, thanks.

John:

I appreciate the time. This has been great.

Stephanie:

Yeah. Thanks so much for coming on. It was fun.

John:

Thanks for having me, Stephanie.

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