This post is part of our series on successful entrepreneurs and business owners and how they meet the many challenges related to financing, building, and exiting their companies successfully.
While working as a freelance designer and marketing consultant in 2003, Lauren Russell “didn’t set out to start a business, let alone a furniture company.” But Russell did just that when, during a meeting in her home office, she showed a client a bathroom vanity that she had designed and her husband Kevin, a woodworker, had built.
The client was impressed enough to ask Kevin to build another one for her, eventually ordering 30 additional pieces at a total price tag of $18,000. This first order helped lay the foundation for Russell & Mackenna, an American-made furniture company that today sells everything from beds and dressers to chairs, sofas, tables, and even cribs.
With sales approaching $5 million this year, Russell & Mackenna has carved out a niche market of customers who own homes in coastal areas. In keeping with its humble origins, 60 percent of the company’s sales still come from made-to-order items sold directly to consumers. Despite quickly outgrowing the Russells’ home garage, Russell & Mackenna has kept its focus on running a “Made in the USA” operation, and it doesn’t plan to move to the mass retail market anytime soon.
Russell shares plenty of wisdom from her experience in a recent story on Russell & Mackenna’s success, but here are three lessons that we wanted to highlight:
- Bootstrapping your business is the best way to get started. We’ve previously profiled entrepreneurs who have successfully launched businesses with minimal funding. The Russells started their company with little more than their design and carpentry skills and the cash from their first order. Their story echoes much of the advice from this American Express OPEN Forum article we shared in a previous post: minimize overhead, leverage your expertise and previous experience, dig in and focus, and differentiate your business from competitors.
- Learn from your customers what they truly value. By continuing to focus on customizable features on its made-to-order products, Russell & Mackenna has seen twenty percent of its shoppers become returning customers. The company is also able to charge more for these custom features, which has helped its bottom line. As Russell elaborates, “Once a customer realizes that we can make a desk smaller to fit into the nook under their steps, they are hooked.”
- Running a family business can be a positive experience. We’ve previously shared stories from two family-owned companies – Penn Brewery and Smucker – and how they overcame the many challenges of running a family business. Having recruited her father from out of retirement to help run the company, Russell continues to enjoy working with him and has found the experience to be positive overall, attributing the success of their relationship to “synergy and chemistry.”
Russell is currently working on her business plan for the next five years, and she said recently that the “ride is just beginning.” Her deliberate approach to building her business has led it to significant early success. We wish the Russell & MacKenna team the best as it takes on its next set of challenges, which likely include expanding the management team, continuing to compete with large retailers, grooming a successor, or possibly considering other options.