Now, get a virtual carpenter to make furniture for you

By Pranbihanga Borpuzari

Wolf Zech says he is going to break his old lime green Premier Padmini into two and reform it into a couch. Quirky? Fun? Bizarre? Or just plain creative? Definitely all this and much more. An expatriate in India from Germany, Zech’s idiosyncrasies led him to launch a company that lets you order customized furniture made from any object, of every possible shape and size.

After working at the European Commission in Brussels, Zech came to India in 2008 to set up the European Chamber of Commerce (ECC) as Head of Business Development for the organization. Disenchanted after spending three and half years at ECC, he decided to quit. Zech wanted to be an entrepreneur. He visited startup events in the country to get a feel of what was in demand. “E-commerce was the in-thing and I brainstormed on areas that still had problems and were looking for solutions,” says Zech, 33. One area he personally faced a problem with in India was getting good quality, unique, yet affordable furniture.

“There are many big furniture brands in Delhi and several markets specialize in furniture, too. However, most of these products are expensive, have quality issues and are designed for the mass market. I wanted something unique. I got a bar made, but after six months the entire structure came apart as it was made of cheap material,” laments Zech.

Building blocks

Dismayed by a lack of choice and frustrated by poor quality products, Zech conceptualized the idea of hiring a virtual carpenter. “By going to furniture markets in the city you may be able to customize furniture, but it can be troublesome. There are carpenters too who can customize but for me it was about structuring something in a different way and not innovation as such,” says Zech, Founder of Home Hero.

For starters, Zech went lean when he launched Home Hero in July 2012. He set up a Facebook page and a basic website to test the concept. “The initial response from people was good and many liked the idea of what we were about to do,” he recalls.

Zech went west to Jodhpur to meet furniture makers but almost everyone turned him down, except one who saw it as an opportunity for himself.

The person in question was Ankur Lila, a furniture manufacturer in Jodhpur, who decided to come on board. The prime motivation for him was e-commerce, a sector he had been looking to enter for many years. “The demand within India is good and I always wanted to sell furniture via the Internet. When Zech approached me I decided it would be a good opportunity,” says Lila. Zech admits that building one piece of furniture at a time is difficult and costly. To overcome this, Lila has put in place a team of carpenters, as regular salaried staff. “The first few months were tough as business was slow but now it is exciting. I am also amazed at the designs and customization requests of customers. Some are very creative,” he says.

Exclusive creations

Zech used some of his initial investment to advertise on Facebook. Not knowing what to expect, he targeted his own kind-expatriates in the country. However, initial clients turned out to be Indians and most foreigners stayed away. “We sold two or three pieces in our first month of operations and business took off slowly. It gained traction only by Christmas,” recalls Zech.

The process to order from Home Hero is simple. Clients can send either drawings or even objects that they would like to be creatively transformed into furniture. Their involvement extends to the last detail, which includes color, finish, design and size. Those who do not want to get into the nitty-gritty of customization can buy furniture directly from the site that displays 96 designs across categories like storage and cabinets, chairs and tables. “We do not keep any stock. Even existing designs from the website take about four weeks to be delivered since it is made from scratch,” says Zech. About half of the designs on the website have been developed by Lila while the rest are Zech’s exclusive creations.

Customer delight

Ashish Thapar stumbled upon Home Hero on his Facebook newsfeed and decided to check it out of sheer curiosity. “I liked the originality of the concept and ordered a wooden bar which is designed like an old whiskey oak barrel on the website. I wanted the height of the bar to be decreased, which they did,” says Thapar.

Thapar adds he had not come across a bar like this before, and this prompted his purchase. “I would recommend it to those looking either for edgy designs or custom-made pieces. If you are not too keen about design and are looking for mass market furniture, then it is probably not the right place to go as you have to wait for four weeks,” Thapar explains.

Behind the scenes

Once an order is placed, customer specifications are passed on to Lila who designs the piece. When the product is made, he sends a photo to the customer and once it is approved, it is shipped within 24 hours. A product can be returned anytime within a year if there is a manufacturing defect. It will then either be repaired free of charge or replaced depending on the severity of the damage. Home Hero is about 25-30 percent more expensive than mass market furniture stores. The startup currently gets four deals a day with an average ticket size of Rs. 10,000-Rs. 15,000. Home Hero works on a revenue sharing model of 70:30, one that is in Lila’s favor. “We have only recently crossed the Rs. 10 lakh monthly turnover mark.  I  believe with an angel investor, business can be taken to the next level,” Zech says, as he is in advanced talks with potential angel investors. “Home Hero should spend more on marketing,” says Thapar. “Perhaps they should have a showroom so that customers can see the furniture beforehand. One is skeptical at first when ordering furniture online as to how it may actually look.  On the bar that I purchased, I can say it turned out exactly how we wanted it. My wife is also happy,” says Thapar. If there are more customers like Thapar,  Zech would have certainly managed to have given his idea a good shape.
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