Aamir Baig + Maureen Welton, Co-Founder + Creative Director of Article
Aamir Baig + Maureen Welton, Co-Founder + Creative Director of Article
Article is the e-commerce platform that is disrupting the centuries-old furniture business. Aamir, Maureen, and their team are working to ensure that your days of perusing showrooms and spending thousands for beautiful, mid century modern furniture are over.
Interview: Get to Know Aamir + Maureen
WORDS BY: ARIELA KOZIN
What shoppers see on Article is a well-configured, sleek website with expertly shot photographs of furniture, rugs and decor inspired by a destination, the past, and the future. What they don’t see are the engineers and creatives brainstorming separately and then together, looking at the numbers, hypothesizing, and plotting the steps no one in their industry has taken before. We talked to the company’s leaders about what it takes to be an innovator and to earn the trust of customers on the other side of a screen.
What did you before Article?
Aamir: I have a background in software engineering and a love for entrepreneurship. I have always been passionate about developing solutions to real-life problems, typically applying technology to address inefficiencies.
Before founding Article, I co-founded Etilize Inc., where we developed technology for standardizing product data exchange between brands, distributors and retailers. After selling Etilize in 2009, myself and my Article co-founders identified a unique opportunity to re-engineer the way people shop for furniture to provide them with not only a better experience, but also remarkably better value. It was an opportunity for us to take our prior learnings and challenge ourselves and solve a problem in an industry that was relatively new to us.
Maureen: Almost my entire career has been in the furniture and home decor industry. Before Article I had started a company called 18KARAT, and it was a brand that I developed specializing in modern home decor. I did that for a number of years, then ended that company and took some time off. Aamir approached me about Article and I was really interested in the concept. I obviously love furniture and home decor and I really loved the new idea and new way of selling furniture online. thought that there was a really large potential in the idea that Aamir and his partners had. I just felt I wanted to be a part of the growth of it and I just love the exciting energy around it. So that’s how I got to Article.
How did the concept for Article arise?
Aamir: The idea for the company came when one of my co-founders, Andy Prochazka, spent six months in Beijing learning Mandarin. While he was there he spent time visiting trade shows and manufacturers, and was astounded by the difference between the manufacturer’s pricing and the retail price on goods in North America. Nowhere was this price difference more pronounced than in high-end, designer furniture.
After we launched the site in 2013 and saw strong initial feedback, we went on our annual retreat—that year it was a trip to the Arctic Circle where we challenged ourselves to build, and spend a night in, an igloo. While we were there, we solidified our long-term vision for Article and set out to truly re-think and reengineer the whole retail furniture shopping experience and make original modern furniture more affordable and accessible.
How has the brand evolved since the company’s launch?
Aamir: Early on we recognized that our product design needed to match our technology expertise because the business so heavily relied on style and design to succeed. We brought on Maureen and a talented product team to develop and expand our collection of original modern designs. The team has taken us from a few key living and dining pieces to a collection of more than 700 products, including bedroom and outdoor furniture, and accessories.
Maureen: When I first joined the company two and a half years ago, there was a very streamlined selection of products, mostly focused on living and dining room furniture. So my first job was to increase the breadth of the collection; adding more assortments and expanding the categories. I really felt like there was an opportunity to adopt more original, modern designs that our customers would appreciate. That was my goal and where I put my energy when I started.
The other part that I was assigned to was creating our brand identity. That has evolved from the photography that we do, the location, the styling, and creating a more sophisticated look that has developed the personality of Article.
We always love seeing a woman’s name on an executive list. What would your advice be to a woman who is battling the corporate world, and wants to be successful and reach the top of the ladder?
Maureen: If there’s one piece of advice I would say, “Just do what you do.” Do it well and love what you’re doing. I know it sounds kind of pat, but I think it’s also true. Don’t focus on the fact that you’re a woman, just go out and do what you need to do. I think if it comes from your heart and you give it the energy it’s going to be successful. Don’t focus on the fact that you’re a woman, you’re a person out there doing it, go after it. I think that in some industries, sure, there are glass ceilings, but I don’t think that is nearly like it used to be, and it shouldn’t become an excuse. Love what you do and make it happen.
If there's one piece of advice I would say, 'Just do what you do.' Do it well and love what you’re doing. I know it sounds kind of pat, but I think it’s also true.
You have a very specific aesthetic. Where do you get the inspiration for the designs?
Maureen: Well, there’s three different areas that we look at. We do a mid-century modern look inspired by mid-century modern, so you’ll see that some of our pieces have a throwback to the 50s, 60s, 70s, sort of feeling of furniture. And what we try to do there, we don’t do direct copies of things that were popular then, but we take inspiration from it. And we look at what has been advanced in materials and technology to make the furniture more comfortable, and better for today.
That’s one area, another area is Scandanavian design. We work with manufacturers who have a background in or come from Scandinavian countries, we meet them personally as well as other people on our creative team. We love the simplicity, the lightness, the handcraft nature of Scandinavian design, and the simple elegance of it. So we take a lot of inspiration from that.
Thirdly, our head office is based in Vancouver. We are influenced by West Coast modern, and you can particularly see that in our location photography, where we go off to a beach and the aesthetic is of nature, being in nature, being out in nature, doing things, being adventurous. There is an aesthetic of West Coast modern that is infused in us, and that is definitely a part of our inspiration as well.
How do Article’s creative and business concepts meet? Do you come up with the business first, then brainstorm the creative? Or Vice versa? Or is everything completely collaborative?
Maureen: When the company started, the founders, who are all engineers, really saw an opportunity to re-engineer how furniture is sold by adding technology, by removing layers within the sales channel, and by providing quality furniture at much better retail prices. The company really started from the business and more formal engineered side. When I came in, of course being from the creative side as well as having had business experience, there’s a place where I feel a company can be most successful. That is when you have the engineering and the design working simultaneously, and having that place where the two meet really creating a strength between both sides of the equation. That’s something that I think is very important happening at Article, and is a real strength and has created a lot of the success.
And of course, as a creative, getting the value of the product is very important. So for us it’s not just about designing something beautiful, that’s a piece of it, but it’s also really important about are we providing the value to our customers that’s going to make this great design really appealing also from the value side.
Aamir: Creative and business is completely intertwined at Article. Product development is lead by creative, but informed by a constant stream of information. Maureen and her team have built an incredible collection which is evolving in real-time based on data signals and customer feedback. What’s great about being online-only and working directly with manufacturers is that we can be nimble and implement product feedback much faster than the incumbents, ensuring that our product line is constantly improving.
When the company started, the founders, who are all engineers, really saw an opportunity to re-engineer how furniture is sold by adding technology, by removing layers within the sales channel, and by providing quality furniture at much better retail prices.
Many have put you in the same category as Uber or Warby Parker, calling you disruptors. Would you agree you’re disruptors in the furniture business? How so?
Aamir: Disruption in any industry is driven by a step change in the delivery of value to the customer. In general this means doing things not only better, but also at significantly better value than the incumbents. Your examples, Uber and Warby Parker approached established industries in a completely new way. They weren’t just new brands in the space, they behaved in a completely new way and in turn set new benchmarks for customer expectations in those industries.
That’s why we talk about re-engineering the furniture shopping experience. We aren’t just aiming to make nicer furniture, we are completely rethinking the way that a furniture business is run. It isn’t enough for us to be better, our goal is to be remarkably better. So yes, we do consider ourselves disruptors.
We aren’t just aiming to make nicer furniture, we are completely rethinking the way that a furniture business is run. It isn’t enough for us to be better, our goal is to be remarkably better. So yes, we do consider ourselves disruptors.
What are the pros and cons of having an ecommerce-only company?
Aamir: Being an ecomm-only company makes us extremely nimble and adaptable. Unlike the incumbents, we’re able to implement changes quickly and can constantly work to refine our overall experience to make it remarkably better.
However, we have fewer points of interaction with the customer. While it makes the process of buying furniture simpler, it also challenges us to make each interaction as meaningful as possible so that the overall experience more delightful. Whether it’s on our website, social media, or via customer service, we’re constantly looking for ways to make the customer experience better. As we continue to develop ways to make the furniture shopping experience better, we see being an e-comm only company a huge advantage
When we discuss Article with others, they love style and the price point, but some insist they need to try out their furniture in person before they buy. How do you fight that hesitation from prospective first-time customers?
Aamir: That is a pretty natural first reaction when you ask someone to buy a sofa online. What we tend to find is that there are actually a number of anxieties that people want to address by “trying it out”, which makes perfect sense for a large purchase. Will this be comfortable? Is this good quality? Do I like the feel of the material?
We think we are able to overcome most of those anxieties through a variety of methods: customer reviews to give confidence in quality and experience, complimentary swatches so you can test the color and texture of the fabrics in your space, and of course, our 30-day satisfaction guarantee which lowers the risk of trying our product in your own home.
While we are good at this today, we have a number of key initiatives that will continue to drive innovation in this area and make our experience consistently and remarkably better than the traditional retail furniture shopping experience.
Maureen: We spend a lot of time on photography and creating social media content because we feel that the things that people say about our products, that are not from our company, are just as important as what we say about our products; sometimes more important. So even if we had a place where someone could come and sit on the furniture, there would still be a question of, is this the right thing for me? How is it going to last? What’s it going to look like three months from now, those kinds of things.
The way that people are shopping now, and the way we see our customers interact is that they’re actually going to the website and they’re looking for reviews, they’re looking for social media and influencer commentary on our products. And that’s influencing how someone makes a large buying decision like furniture in a big way now. It’s really quite different now, whether you sit on the furniture or not. We’re finding that it’s working, it’s a shift for sure. Once someone has tried it and they see it working, and they’re really happy with what they get they don’t hesitate to do it again. So it’s really that first step, the first time, and if you look at our feed, there’s a lot of commentary, on many different levels, about people’s’ experience with it. That goes a long way to answer that question of what does it feel like.
You’ve spoken about the importance of your social media campaigns. Why do you think a major social media presence has been instrumental for Article?
Aamir: The genesis of our company is digital, and most of our marketing activities are digital oriented which makes social media extremely important for us. Firstly, we invest heavily in creating beautiful content that showcases our product. Social media then allows us to not only distribute that content directly, but also create real, two-way conversations with customers, brand advocates, and influencers.
In turn, this has sparked peer-to-peer conversations and recommendations which have helped fuel our phenomenal growth. When we talk about creating a remarkable experience we mean that quite literally: an experience which is worthy of remark. Social media platforms simply help spread that message at a scale and speed which was previously unheard of.
Bloomberg projects you’re set to make 50 million a quarter in 2018. Is it about sustaining your revenue at the point or do you have plans to expand the company further?
Aamir: We have big aspirations, and plan to continue to grow the company beyond 2018. But for us the key measure of success is building a lasting, loved brand. We plan to continue to expand our product categories and introduce designs that meet the demands of our customers, while remaining focused on reengineering the shopping experience in a way that delivers even more value.