Part of the ARTIFOX ethos is to create beautiful artifacts for real people. We are humbled to see students, artists and entrepreneurs enjoying our products every day, yet we rarely get to share where they came from. These artifacts were not just created for real people, they were created by real people. We knew we had to sit down with founders Dan and Sarah to learn more about the experiences they’ve had in creating ARTIFOX. So if you’ve ever been curious about how the brand was started, we asked them to start from the beginning. Here’s how the conversation unfolded.
PART I: THE BEGINNING
Q: WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE PRODUCT DESIGNERS?
SARAH: If you really want to go back, Dan’s family owned a furniture store, so he grew up putting furniture together as a kid.
DAN: Yep, I would assemble furniture with a variety of materials delivered from overseas. So, I had experience with how things were made and it’s just what I was into doing as a kid. From the beginning, all my family members would tell me I should be an engineer when I grew up.
SARAH: I love products but was always even more interested in spatial relationships which is why I eventually pursued architecture.
Q: HOW DID THE PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN THE TWO OF YOU BEGIN?
SARAH: We dated in school and would talk on the phone all the time. This was in a time of land-line phones that were handheld and attached to the wall. We would talk so much that Dan actually built his own phone headset, out of a bunch of walkman parts so we could talk while he played video games.
DAN: The best designs come from problems that need to be solved.
SARAH: And so we stayed together while I went to school to become an architect and Dan went to school for engineering and later, graphic design and videography.
I went on to work at a corporate architecture office, while Dan started his design agency. He was always trying to build out his space for all of his monitors and cords, all the gear he had at his desk for his projects. We really couldn’t find anything that suited his type of workspace - that’s where the idea for the original desk came from, to develop something for how we worked and how we needed to stay organized.
DAN: I decided to build a desk out of materials that I had around. The early ones were more complicated and not elegant at all, and had these giant speakers built into them. At this point, I just wanted to make cool products for myself, more as a hobby.
Q: HOW DID A SINGLE DESIGN BEGIN TO EVOLVE INTO THE BRAND ARTIFOX?
DAN: It got to the point where other people would come over and say “oh cool, where’d you buy this?” and when I told them I made it, they’d suggest I start selling them, which I would just shrug off.
SARAH: Meanwhile, I was listening to a ton of business audio books every day at the architecture firm thinking about what kind of business I would want to start. Dan was already beginning to iterate and build different versions of his workspace, and then this desk idea sort of blossomed.
Q: HOW DID YOU SHARE YOUR ORIGINAL DESIGN?
SARAH: I found an Apartment Therapy product design competition and told him “If you’re really serious about this, maybe we should submit your next one to this competition”. The deadline was a week away to build the product, website, take photos and video, and find a name….like build it all, in one week. All this while I was working 80 hours a week and Dan had a ton of client projects.
So, we would turn on the floodlights at Putter Lane and build in the backyard until like three in the morning with mosquitos biting us. I think we submitted at 11:59 PM, one minute before the deadline.
Q: WHAT’S PUTTER LANE?
SARAH: Oh, ha! Putter Lane is what we call the house Dan lived in right after college. Basically an old house with 3 other guys filled with prototypes, custom built furniture and a backyard treehouse with several free range chickens.
Q: HOW WAS THE DESK RECEIVED?
SARAH: Two weeks later, we were on the homepage of the competition website as a viewer’s choice, which was crazy, because we built this desk in the backyard, and we were competing against real companies. Suddenly we had people emailing us from all over the world!
Q: WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO QUIT YOUR FULL TIME JOBS TO PURSUE THIS FOR REAL?
SARAH: For a little while I tried to contact suppliers and do all this work over my lunch break sitting in my car and I just never really got anywhere. So after three months or so we kind of looked at each other and said if we were going to do it like this, it’s never going to happen.
At one point, Dan said “We could start an Etsy store. I’m sure I could build one hundred of these a year.”
And I said “Or, we could get serious about this and this could be my full time job and we could really hit the ground running.” And Dan said, “Oh, yeah, you could do that!”
Then, I thought “Whoa. I threw that out there but I don’t know if I’m fully ready or committed to that.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was what I really wanted to do. I just had to make the very difficult decision to leave my architecture career in exchange for something more exciting.
So, I did.
Q: WAS IT SCARY FOR YOU TO TAKE THE LEAP INTO A NEW BUSINESS WITH SO MANY UNKNOWNS?
SARAH: We hadn’t sold a single product. We didn’t even have a website, and I quit my full time architecture job that I went to school for for six years! So yes.
Q: HOW DID YOU START YOUR SUPPLY CHAIN HERE IN THE USA?
SARAH: I had no connections, no contacts, and no suppliers. Most of them don’t even have websites and they’re difficult to find. I just started knocking on doors and asking for help. If somebody told me they couldn’t help me I’d say “Ok, well who do you know that can?”
Q: WHAT IS ONE OF THE BEST THINGS YOU LEARNED FROM A US MANUFACTURER?
SARAH: I think it’s all about understanding the materials deeply. For example, if this piece of wood is a certain shape, and you know how it will be cut and joined, then you design your component contrary to that you’d be setting yourself up for failure. Learn how things are made and design with that in mind, you will always have a higher quality product.
DAN: There are several variations of a quote like “limitation is the father of innovation”, where those limitations are what push creativity forward.
With the first [desk] variation that everyone liked, we were like, “ok, what would it take to make several of these?” Then we’d find out it’s way too difficult because certain pieces and compartments were superfluous and expensive, we'd need to remove them. So, through reducing different things to make manufacturing possible or affordable, you realize pretty quickly this was a bad design. Sure people like it, but in the grand scheme of things it's a bad design compared to what we’re able to produce now.
Q: WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE YOU HAD TO OVERCOME IN STARTING THIS COMPANY?
SARAH: Money. And that’s where Arch Grants comes in [An organization that awards $50k equity-free grants]
We launched the website a few weeks before submitting to Arch Grants because we wanted to show that we could sell a couple of products.
DAN: Or just to show that it was even running.
SARAH: So, we turned on the website and the next morning I woke up and 20 blogs had posted about us. The following day I woke up and there were 100 more, it was spiraling out of control.
Q: WERE YOU PREPARED FOR THAT MUCH ATTENTION OR THAT MANY SALES?
SARAH: Not exactly, the attention must have come from the Apartment Therapy competition because we didn’t send it to the press or do anything like that. We put a 4 week lead time and we already oversold what our current manufacturer could make in 2 weeks. Suddenly the business grant we were trying to win became much more important to the success of fulfilling all of these new orders.
DAN: We were sort of crowdfunding because we told everybody that these were presales and we were on a certain timeline. But it wasn’t a kickstarter where people put fake money in until the product comes to fruition and they recieve it. It was like, people were paying with their credit cards and technically there wasn’t anything built yet…
SARAH: These people trusted us with $1200 online, on a Squarespace website! We had no track record.
DAN: Thankfully, we won the Arch Grant shortly after the pitch and got our first check from them, right before we had to pay our suppliers. Everything just clicked at the last second.
Q: HOW DID THIS LAUNCH PROCESS MAKE YOU FEEL?
SARAH: Panicked. I mean, what were we going to do! We already just spent months and months setting all of this up and we had oversold it which is exciting but then we can’t make it which is terrifying.
So, we packed up felt coasters in a drawstring bag and wrote every person a card. And basically said, “There are delays. We promise this is going to ship to you but not on time.” And every single person said it was fine which was relieving.
Q: WAS THAT THE FIRST MAJOR CONVERSATION YOU HAD WITH YOUR CUSTOMERS?
SARAH : Yeah, they were the first customers we ever had. Our first interaction and we had to be transparent and let them know they could count on us following through with our promise. I remember looking through the orders of our first customers and one was a woman competing in the Olympics. And, we realized, wow, the people that are buying our desk are amazing people. Those first orders showed us we were building something important.
Q: HOW IS IT WORKING WITH YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER?
DAN: It always goes back and forth. Even though Sarah understands our manufacturing relationships better, I understand the materials, physics and mechanics of building these things. So we find balance in working together to find solutions with our manufacturers.
SARAH: And when I push back on him and he pushes back on me, it starts to tell us this might be unique and worth fighting for, let’s see if we can make it happen.
Dan is so good at conceptual design, I could never be the lead of that, and so we’ve kind of built this yin and yang for our roles. He can come up with all these new ideas and I can help edit them, by working together it puts us in our pretty natural roles and allows us to do what we’re uniquely good at and made for.
Q: WERE YOU EVER WARNED NOT TO MIX BUSINESS WITH YOUR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP?
DAN: Everyone told us not to work together. They said it was a very bad idea.
SARAH: Yeah. But, we now know that it wouldn’t be what it is without both of us. I think it’s cool to realize that this could have never been made by one of us. It’s both of us that made this happen.
Q: WITH ALL THE RISK AND DIFFICULTY, WHAT KEPT YOU GOING?
DAN: I would say, it didn’t matter what came our way. I still would have gone for it. I felt pretty confident. But, at the same time, I was sharing the experience with Sarah and it mattered if both of us could get through it together.
SARAH: I think what drew me to architecture was the idea of sketching something on a piece of paper and making it real. And that’s what we did with ARTIFOX. It wasn’t even about writing out a big business plan, it was writing out what our dream was and what we wanted to do to make it happen. So having that in mind, we just couldn’t give up on it.
The conversation doesn't end here. We're releasing Part II: Our Design Ethos next, where we take a deep dive into what Sarah and Dan value and envision when designing every artifact.