Innovation – and coffee shop conversation – spur growth of Bellingham-bred furniture business
Simon Graves’ embryonic business was born in Bellingham and is flourishing in this city’s unique economic microclimate. He designs and manufactures (more on that later) made-to-order quality wood furniture — especially dining banquettes for home kitchens — that ships in kits to be assembled by the customer.
His business, Northerly Customs, six months ago was chugging along at six to eight units per year. Then, one morning in a Bellingham coffee shop, he struck up a conversation with the person at the next table. Like Graves, she was holding down a salaried day job while running a side business — in her case, freelance marketing. Graves offered a business proposal: Work 48 hours over the next two months marketing my furniture, any way you want, and we’ll see what happens.
Within a month, Graves was getting four to five inquiries per week, two or three of which turned into sales. He’s now on track to produce 100 kits per year.
His new marketing partner, Madi Burke, took over Northerly Customs’ Instagram account, created content and more.
“She opened an Etsy store for me, and that was key,” Graves said.
B.B. (before Burke), Graves focused on selling in the Pacific Northwest. His customers could drive to Bellingham and pick up their kits, saving on shipping. Now, with Etsy and Google working for him, Northerly Customs is selling in cities around the country and beyond: Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Boulder, Sioux Falls, Missoula, Portland, Toronto. (The laundromat in Australia that wanted a kit was disappointed when no local shop could be found to cut the pieces.)
His little coffee shop reach-out to Burke — “very Bellingham,” Graves said — has exceeded his goal tenfold or more, supercharging sales within a couple of weeks.
He figures if he streamlined all processes, he could raise output from his new pace of 100 kits annually to 200. Beyond that, who knows?
“I’m 47, I already have an interesting career, so I’m not taking the risks I might have 20 years ago,” Graves said. “This has been a nontraditional way to start a business: slow growth, self-funded, growing at a rate I can handle personally.”
How it started
Graves is a mechanical engineer who’s built a career working for energy companies. He currently works remotely for a clean energy business. His engineering skills were foundational to starting the custom furniture kit hobby that became Northerly Customs.
It began, as so many businesses do, with a desire for an item he couldn’t find. He and his wife wanted a built-in banquette to serve as a dining nook for the kitchen in their vintage 1910 Bellingham home. He wanted quality furniture that would last, but he didn’t want, or need, to pay a carpenter to do it for him.
From the beginning, he knew he wanted to make the banquette in a way that’d be easy to replicate in the future.
“Using a skill I’ve used countless times in my engineering career, I set up a 3D CAD model,” he said. “I set up the programming such that when I change one parameter, such as the length of one side, all the parts in the assembly follow those changes. Ultimately, it’s a way to create a custom kit with minimal design labor. What I have is a standard design that is easily customizable. I make kits that people can assemble themselves. It fills a niche; people have access to custom, built-in furniture that otherwise would be too expensive.”
That initial banquette became the foundation and primary product, Northerly Nook, of his business. Nooks retail for about $1,800 to $3,000.
How it works
Graves, on a computer in his attic, creates the design for a nook, bench or other product. He sends the files to Ben Rogers of Olympic CNC, a Bellingham CNC-router-based shop that does precision woodworking and more for businesses, homes and manufacturers. Graves arranges for material to be shipped to Olympic CNC on Iowa Street. Rogers creates the parts and builds and packs the crate. Graves arranges shipping to the customer, or the customer drives to Bellingham to pick it up. The kit includes a mallet the customer uses to assemble the precision-cut pieces, which knock together without fasteners.
Graves’ master vision is to have relationships with similar shops around the country. That way, parts would be manufactured near the customer. “It’s important to me to reduce my impact on the Earth. If we had the parts cut (near the customer), it reduces freight, plus cost for the client.”
He’s already had a shop in Los Angeles do this. “If I keep doing this over time, that network will grow,” he said.
“Something I despise in the industry is disposable furniture, such as a beautiful veneer over cheap particleboard,” Graves said. “I want and need my furniture to emulate solid, built-in furniture that should last as long as the home. I use dense, solid plywood. We need our cut edges to look good right when they come off the machine, even the internal parts you can’t see. The quality is the materials and the joinery. This is user-assembled furniture that’s robust when put together, without fasteners and without glue.
“I feel so lucky to run a business without profit being the main goal. I want profit, but I don’t have investors pressuring me for maximum return. I don’t have ambitions to be at the top of a multimillion-dollar industry, and that frees me from profit-driven compromises in quality.”
Graves partners with local marine upholsterers to offer custom cushions, with the option of all-weather fabric that could stand up to an outdoor marine environment. “It’s not just to reduce the waste stream,” he said. “I want the customer to have sturdy, reliable objects. We don’t want this to be replaced.
“I have such excellent partners, even though we all have our own businesses.”
Right now, Graves is focused on design and customer interaction, not hiring employees. “At some point, to keep up, I’m going to have to legitimately hire employees. Up to now, working with contractors, I’ve been happy to avoid employee paperwork.”
Well … he’s no longer completely without employees. He’d previously arranged for a guy to dig blackberry tangles out of his yard, and on the spur of the moment asked him to take on the search for CNC-router shops in other cities that could cut parts for Northerly Customs.
“I said, ‘Hey, can you help me with this?’”
Who knows? This being Bellingham, it might work as superbly as hiring your marketing consultant because she’s sitting next to you in a coffee shop.