Interviews

The SME that’s bringing the sharing economy to furniture making

7 min read

01 December 2015

As the sharing economy revolution rolls on it’s having a profound effect on more and more products and services. Over the last two years, a London-based company called Opendesk has been bringing this change to the world of furniture – think IKEA crossed with Airbnb.

Essentially the service connects customers who are looking to buy a piece of furniture with designers and makers. Customers choose the furniture that they want to buy via the website, be it a desk, a chair or a bookcase. 

They’re then presented with a number of local manufacturers who are part of the project and who are therefore able to make it for them. Customers enter their email address and they receive quotes and details for production from these manufacturers. They choose one and shortly afterwards that manufacturer delivers their order.

The idea came about when one of the company’s five founders, a furniture designer, had a client based in London who also had a New York office and wanted a piece of furniture that they could share between the two offices. By uploading a digital file to the two offices, the item could be in both locations by simply downloading the digital file which was then sent to local makers in both cities who made the items. Each delivered very easily to those customers as a piece of flatpack furniture and then those customers then assembled them on-site.

Designers gain access to global distribution simply by uploading files of their designs onto the Opendesk digital platform. The platform also manages sales, manufacturing and distribution for the designer around the world. By cutting out the middleman it allows any designer to get involved in sourcing and manufacturing for their products. This means that they can sell more easily and have more control over the distribution of what they make.

Launched in 2012, Opendesk is based in Hackney’s “Maker Mile” and now has 50 designers, 400 makers and a 200,000 strong community of enthusiastic customers. The company describes its new model of manufacturing as “open making”, and argues for a “democratised idea of production”.

One of the designers, for example, is Denis Fuzii. Based in Sao Paolo, he published the details of a chair than can be assembled in just a minute. As a result he has now reached a global worldwide and seen his designs downloaded more than 5,000 times in 95 countries. In most cases designers take ten per cent of the fee charged to the customer with the maker taking 60 per cent and the rest going to Opendesk.

Read more about the furniture market:

CEO and co-founder Tim Carrigan had spent 18 years in digital marketing and had had no experience of furniture making before launching the company. However, he said: “Opendesk was such a great opportunity it wasn’t a hard decision. I teamed up with the other founders in 2013, loved the idea and haven’t looked back since.”

But why would someone use Opendesk rather than simply going to a designer or maker directly or, even more likely, just visiting their local IKEA? “Neither the designer nor the maker can deliver a complete solution for the client,” said Carrigan. “You need both, and therefore someone to manage the process. We see Opendesk as the honest broker between the designer and the manufacturer, who the customer can trust to deliver their desired product and be on hand to sort out any issues, should they arise.”

He has used his digital marketing experience to promote the company but it’s the opportunity to put together designers, manufacturers and customers that provides the strongest drive. He likes the comparison with Airbnb and the company has been inspired by the observation made by the great economist John Maynard Keynes: “It is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits.”

“The thing that’s great about Airbnb is that rather than dealing with Hilton Hotels & Resorts or Travelodge, you’re dealing with real people who have local knowledge,” he said. “We’re trying to replicate that customer experience, so you know the real people who have designed and made your furniture. These makers have real craft skills and are part of your local community.”

Investment so far has come from the government agency Innovate UK, which has provided a grant – while Carrigan and his team have also raised money from crowdfunding through Crowdcube. More recently, a private investor with extensive knowledge of the industry has also come on board. The result is a total investment of £1.25m. Opendesk currently employs 22 staff and is anticipating sales of £1m in sales this year with around £3m in 2016.

Among its more prominent customers are Greenpeace and Kano, a computer and coding kit for children aged six and up, which allows them to make a computer, learn what’s inside and to play with code. “We are really lucky to have great customers who love what we do, so much so that they refer us to other clients,” said Carrigan. “Our ambition is to be a global business. Therefore our biggest challenge is to find solutions that will work globally, wherever in the world businesses are in need of our services.”