How to start a furniture repair business from scratch

  • Furniture upholstery is an estimated $ 1 billion market in the United States and employs approximately 30,000 people.
  • Matthew Nafranowicz, a master, started upholstery work more than two decades ago.
  • He told Insider about the steps he was taking to grow his business from an incubator to a shop workshop.
  • You can find more stories in Insider’s business section.

As a biology student in the 1990s, Matthew Nafranowicz needed a way to make some money when the bird populations he was studying migrated south for the winter.

Nafranowicz worked as an upholsterer to meet these demands, and he combined research and craftsmanship as he followed herds from Wisconsin to Wyoming.

After graduation, he continued to develop his skills, first with a designer in New York City, followed by training in Paris, before returning to Madison, Wisconsin, in 2002 to start The Straight Thread.

What began as a one-man business in a local business incubator is now a shop workshop that employs a team of five in one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city.

Furniture upholstery represents an estimated $ 1 billion market in the US. Government data shows that it employs around 30,000 people. (Nafranowicz declined to share sales numbers.)

Insider spoke to Nafranowicz about how he was building his business and what steps he would recommend to someone interested in starting a similar business of their own.

Learn the craft

First and foremost, says Nafranowicz, budding entrepreneurs need to invest time and energy in learning the trade. Art school or community college courses are a start, but there is no substitute for real-world experience.

“If the person running the business has no knowledge of the craft, they are completely lost,” he said.

An education plus three to five years of work in an established business is ideal, but that can be more difficult to put together in the United States than in other countries where training programs have evolved.

With the support of the Biden administration for the expansion of apprenticeship training in industry, more opportunities could arise along the way.

Save enough money for six months

In addition to learning the tools of trading, prospective business owners should learn some business principles such as: These include developing a business plan, pricing products and services, and managing cash flows.

According to Nafranowicz, new business owners should prepare financially for six months with no income while they get things up and running. Having a workshop with the lowest possible rent and only the most essential equipment can keep your overhead costs down.

Depending on local conditions and individual frugality, $ 20,000 could cover the first few months of rent, living expenses, a set of hand tools, a sewing machine, and an air compressor.

The target group are household and commercial customers

To get his first customers, Nafranowicz went on trips to use the local library’s phone book to compile a list of names and addresses of potential customers in Madison’s more affluent areas. (Today’s entrepreneurs may need a little internet know-how to put together a similar list.)

In addition to his direct mail campaign, Nafranowicz placed small ads in local publications and networked with interior designers who had to do larger jobs to a high standard of craftsmanship.

“You never want to sacrifice the quality of the work you’ve done, even if you lose money for a while,” he said. “All you have is your reputation.”

More recently, the studio has started designing and selling original pieces that will allow Nafranowicz to take full advantage of old world techniques learned in Europe. Online sales allow him to reach outside of the Madison area and generate approximately 10% of sales.

Get advice and feedback on your performance

The local incubator where Nafranowicz started offered more than a below-market rent. He also had experts and advisors to help out with early challenges.

To be accepted, and each year thereafter, he had to come up with a detailed business plan and financial summary that experts from various industries would review and make recommendations.

“The plan was very rudimentary, but it showed me the importance of cutting the numbers to make sure everything is financially sound,” he said. “It is surprisingly easy to ask too little money, at least for someone of my personality.”

Hire help as soon as you can afford it

One of the mysteries of craft businesses is that there are a lot of things to get done, but only one thing – selling your finished product – generates income.

As a sole proprietorship, the time spent promoting the business, managing supplies, and paying taxes inevitably comes at the expense of completing work orders that support cash flow.

As the business grows, finding ways to keep projects going without your direct involvement by hiring part-time workers or outsourcing certain tasks to other companies is important.

Choose your location carefully

The Straight Thread moved from the incubator studio to a high street store in 2006, and last year Nafranowicz moved down the street to his current location in the heart of Madison’s bustling Atwood neighborhood.

Similar companies operate successfully in more distant industrial areas, but according to Nafranowicz, the higher foot and car traffic brings higher sales that more than offset the higher rents.

In addition to finding the right place and price, Nafranowicz recommends small businesses rented from independent landlords who can work with them if there is any problem, as a little flexibility can make a world of difference.

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