Andrew Cussins on responding to customers’ wants

The founder of Sofa Workshop reveals how his company found its feet


As founder of Sofa Workshop, Andrew Cussins has helped furnish more than 750,000 British living rooms. In 1990, Piper invested in the business, which was later sold to MFI for a 6x return.
Here, in the fourth article in an exclusive series published in association with Piper Private Equity, Cussins reveals why his pioneering venture nearly fell flat – until it took a radical change in direction.

Of all the places in the country to open the first Sofa Workshop, I chose Maidstone in Kent. This was a tactical decision, not an emotional one. I wanted to open my first store next door to a Habitat – and Maidstone was the only town that fitted the bill.

We opened on 27th December 1985. Within a year, Habitat promptly closed down leaving us high and dry and reminding me why the old cliché ‘location, location, location’ was so important in retail.

 

But that first store taught me another interesting lesson. I was 27 at the time and very idealistic. I’d gone straight from university to working my way up Maple, Waring & Gillow, my family’s furniture business. At its height, the firm had 120 huge stores on the high street. However, in 1984 I’d written a paper predicting the demise of the giant furniture store model due to the rise in property rents. Soon afterwards, we sold the business. With stores such as Sock Shop, Tie Rack and The Body Shop appearing on the high street, it was now the age of the specialist.

The first Sofa Workshop in Maidstone was a really modern furniture concept, with polished floorboards, unpainted plaster walls and Kee Klamp fittings. It would have been absolutely wonderful in Milan but I’d got the wrong M, and Maidstone in Kent was not quite ready back then for hardcore modern furniture. For the first few months we hardly did any business at all.

I quickly realised I’d be bust in six months unless I changed the products and shop design to what the people of Maidstone wanted. Which was chintz. For 18 months, I sold stuff I absolutely loathed just to survive, but I learned the value of listening to your local market.

As a result, the whole concept of Sofa Workshop shifted. I’d started modern and gone chintzy but the answer was somewhere in the middle. And from there, the classic Sofa Workshop look was formed.

I saw a similar thing with Boden. I knew Johnnie Boden when he started and was one of his best customers in the early days. But those first few Boden catalogues contained the wackier items that Johnnie fancied himself. We both had to adapt to suit our respective markets.

Once I got it right with Sofa Workshop, the customers responded. Piper came onboard in 1990 and really helped the business. We grew the brand to more than 30 stores, eventually selling it to MFI.

Sometimes though, having a good idea isn’t enough. After Sofa Workshop, I opened another new concept called Chair – a British organic restaurant combined with a home store. Mixing bits of retail together was the sort of thing you saw at the time in New York and Japan.

The problem was that I had to learn a completely new game – the restaurant business – very quickly and couldn’t get the execution right. Instead of recruiting a smart, trustworthy partner who knew restaurants inside out, I tried to do it myself and the learning curve was too steep. Customers couldn’t work out if it was a shop or a restaurant – and if you confuse customers, you’re dead in the water.

It was a massive and expensive lesson for me – assuming that, just because I’d run one business successfully, I could jump into another area without calling in the experts, and building a team with all the right skills.

It also reminded me of another old cliché about sticking to the knitting, which is what I’ve done with my current business, Sofas & Stuff. While Sofa Workshop transformed the furniture retail model by moving from giant stores to small ones, Sofas & Stuff takes the experience a stage further. Our sofas are on display in barns in the countryside, where property rents enable us to sell our products at a much cheaper price than the high street.

The difference between success and failure in business is very small. If you’re honest about yourself and don’t pretend you’re good at everything, and if you build a team with all the skills, you’re far less likely to make silly mistakes and confuse your customers – or yourself.

This is an extract from ’25 Years, 25 Insights’, published by Piper Private Equity to mark its 25th anniversary. A specialist in consumer brands, Piper founded Pitcher & Piano and has helped grow businesses such as Boden, Las Iguanas and Maximuscle. To order a free copy of the book go to www.piperprivateequity.com

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