Pushin’ the Cushions
John Edelman, CEO of Design Within Reach, saved the once-distressed company and made it profitable.
INTERVIEW BY CHARLES CURKIN
PHOTOS BY CELESTE SLOMAN
May 08, 2017
Do you tell it how it is?
I would say that. If you see blue, you gotta say blue. If you see black you gotta say black. People don’t have to guess what I’m thinking.
Forgive the cliché.
In 2009, four days into your tenure as CEO of Design Within Reach, you told Fast Company that one of the biggest mistakes the brand had made was de-emphasizing the internet. Would say you’ve fixed the glitch?
Yeah, no question. The thing about the internet is you can never be ahead of the curve. As much as you do, the technology is ahead of you.
What did the company’s website look like before you came on the scene?
Bleuurgh! I honestly don’t remember it too well. That seems like 10,000 years ago. I do recall that it was impossible to use and impossible to see close-ups of products. We didn’t have 3D renderings or clickable tools. It was a mess.
You also said that management before you was “mean, dictatorial, and mercurial.” Are you kind, yielding, and predictable?
I don’t know how kind I am, but I think I’m fair. I’m decent and consistent. I heard these horror stories that people were scared to ride in the elevators with other people. I don’t think my employees are scared of me. There’s a difference between being intimidated by someone and being scared of them. I don’t want them to be fearful. I know people’s names and birthdays.
Do you have a motto you live by?
Indecision creates uncertainty.
That’s lovely. A little background on the company: DWR was founded in 1998 to help laics purchase designer furniture, rather than having to hire a person in the trade to do it for them. The company was hugely successful for the first few years, then fell into financial disrepair in 2008. Accurate?
Yes. I called it the Bermuda triangle, we were sinking so fast.
And then there was you. How well has DWR done since 2009?
Me and my business partner, John McPhee, came in. We’ve worked together for 26 years in three industries. I just turned 50, so more than half my life. When we took the business over in Jan 2010, the company was doing $100 million in sales and losing $20 million. In 2014, when we sold the business, we were doing over $200 million and making $20 million profit.
What do you ascribe the success to?
We brought back the catalogues, reinvigorated the website, launched a ton of exclusive products, and listened to the sales force. We also launched a trade program where we give special treatment to new designers.
DWR had a rep for making knock-offs. You said you’d eradicate them. Did you keep your promise?
We did it within 60 days of taking over.
Let’s drop some names. Who are some designers you helped bring in during your tenure?
Møller, BassamFellows, Giorgio Soressi, Jonas Wadell, Matthew Hilton. A lot! Omar de Biaggio designed a chair for us that’s off the charts.
OK, let’s bring it back to the web. Is social media important for sales?
They should teach that question at Harvard Business School. Yes it is, but there’s little data. Social media helps you establish your position of leadership. Every piece of product has a story to be told. The romantic backstory is what consumers love. Those stories are told on social media.
The company has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, but on Twitter less than 50,000. Is Twitter useless to your business?
Obviously, so far. It’s useless because we haven’t exploited it. I don’t want to Tweet every little thing. I just don’t get it. And with today’s political climate I avoid that universe.
Would you say that Twitter has lost its relevance? Has it been Friendster’d?
I don’t think so. Your president has made very relevant. Honestly, though, I can’t comment on it intelligently. Our core clientele is on Instagram and Facebook.
Your president? Are you not American?
I was just kidding.
Now you get to tell me how it is. If you were sent packing and replaced tomorrow, what do you think your successor would point to as the company’s biggest mistakes?
Ideally, if I could answer that question I’d be working on it right now.