Tell us about Arthur Zaaro Design LLP and what is unique about it?
Until the last decade or so, outdoor furniture was overlooked by designers and consumers. Many of the great designs that began to appear several years ago were on trend, but lacked durability. Retail consumers as well as restaurant/hotel buyers have all had one or two rounds of outdoor furniture rust and unravel after a year or two of use. What did last was usually very modern, all-poly-wicker that felt unnatural.
At Arthur Zaaro, we’ve developed unique products that have new designs as well as some pretty high tech R&D with regard to furniture.
We’ve developed a way to treat and install hand-made cement tiles (still made the same way for the past 150 years) in very high-tech powder-coated aluminium frames – basically combining a very authentic 19th century product with a high performance 21st century product. Our tiled tables have been tested and certified by the top laboratory as sea-water resistant, UV resistant, water-proof and stain proof. The latest benchmark for outdoor furniture is that it is “unconditionally outdoors” meaning a sales-person doesn’t have to clarify that it is “outdoors, but covered” or “don’t leave in direct sun everyday” etc. Our tables and chairs can sit outdoors at a beach exposed to constant sun and sea-water and will continue to look great and perform.
We have approached sustainability from the bottom up, and made most of our effort to use sustainable design, rather than focus on purchasing. For example, we have products that make use of each successive cut-off piece of wood from making our larger wooden furniture pieces. For local deliveries we use reusable packaging and protection rather than disposable boxes and foam.
We also recognize that it is natural to acquire pieces over a lifetime, rather than having a designer purchase all of your home furnishings at one time, so our pieces can grow and adapt as your living situation changes. A classic example is a young couple moving up through successive larger homes, and the high quality piece in today’s living room, might move to the bedroom or study in the next place. As a result, we have set out to be both an aspirational brand as well as an accessible brand.
I am happy to see that some younger people and families come to us for their one or two most important pieces because they value the design and construction, though they may not have the budget that allows them to furnish their entire home with our products. We construct our products to last for a lifetime and don’t expect anything to be discarded after several years of use, rather passed or re-sold.
What has been your biggest “A-Ha!” moment to date and how did it change your business?
I think that it’s hard as an entrepreneur to have a really clear picture where you stand with regard to invention, innovation, and execution in a new business. And part of the A-Ha! Moment is figuring out what percentage of each (invention, innovation, execution) makes your business unique, and offers the most compelling advantage. We invent or break-through innovate a very small percentage – but focus quite a bit of marketing and brand-awareness on these innovations. We innovate in terms of product mix and quite a bit on our service, but the reality is that we do sell furniture and design services, so a large amount of our success will come from the on-time execution of high-quality product sales and delivery, and brand differentiation/marketing.
Also, in terms of E-commerce, I really like what NYTimes columnist Paul Downs, himself a furniture manufacturer who has a column in the Small-Business section, said: He realized they were not an e-commerce company but a furniture company with a really nice website. We’re the same, and the A-Ha! Moment came after about three-thousand product shots for web photos, and a 20 page customized manual for creating the product codes and links on our state-of-the art e-commerce site. E-commerce is a business unto itself and it doesn’t translate at all to most of the expertise you’ve developed running your offline business.
As one of the top designers representing Singapore, we were very fortunate to have received generous government assistant through the Design Council of Singapore to create our e-commerce site as part of a national effort to boost design businesses here. As a result, we have the e-infrastructure to have a large international presence and efficient cross-border sales, which is very exciting, but the attempt to fully realize the capabilities of e-commerce was going to take so much time away from the actual business I wasn’t sure we could survive the transition – so making a 24 to 36 month plan (rather than just-do-it-in-real-time) for logistics and e-commerce was a big A-Ha! for our daily operations.
How did the Columbia Business School shape your business/management approach?
Clearly, the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program and the Launching New Ventures class were big Influences for me, as well as professors Murray Low, Clifford Schorer and adjunct professor Joe Flicek. Also, Real Estate Program director Lynne Sagalyn, executive-in-residence Leanne Lachman, David Sherman ’82 and finance professor Matthew Rhodes Kropf were all helpful in shaping my management approach.
Also entrepreneurs that came to class to share their experience like Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour, and Dean Kamen, founder of Segway. Hearing the progress of entrepreneurs like Shazi Visram ’04, founder of Happy Family, and Ron Gonen ’04, founder Recycle Bank is always inspirational.