Nov. 22, 2022

How Edgar Blazona Disrupted The Furniture Industry with Benchmade Modern Ep. 96

How Edgar Blazona Disrupted The Furniture Industry with Benchmade Modern Ep. 96

Edgar Blazona is a modernist American furniture designer and founder of wildly popular DTC sofa brand BenchMade Modern. A high school dropout, turned graffiti artist, turned serial entrepreneur, Edgar got his start in the furniture industry because of need: he was young and broke, and his first apartment didn’t have any furniture. Thus, he taught himself how to build some.

Along with starting several (!) of his own companies, including Modular Dwellings – a prefab backyard shelter company, Edgar also sharpened his skills in the corporate world at Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. As he saw customers accustomed to waiting three months (and more!) for sofas and sectionals that realistically take only a few weeks to make, he realized there must be a better way and founded BenchMade Modern in 2015 to disrupt this norm.

BenchMade Modern offers sofas and sectionals in 5” increments and custom configurations, depths, fabrics and more. Custom furniture arrives at your doorstep within weeks, not months.

Where to find Edgar Blazona

Website: benchmademodern.com


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Transcript
Edgar Blazona:

The people that want to buy you are the people that you're trying to disrupt. I heard one time the CEO of that company said, I know we bought the disruptor, but you sure are disruptive.

Natasha Miller:

Welcome to FASCINATING ENTREPRENEURS. How do people end up becoming an entrepreneur? How do they scale and grow their businesses? How do they plan for profit? Are they in it for life or are they building to exit? These in a myriad of other topics will be discussed to pull back the veil on the wizardry of successful and FASCINATING ENTREPRENEURS. My book, RELENTLESS is now available everywhere books can be bought online, including Amazon and BarnesAndNoble.com. Try your local indie bookstore too, and if they don't have it, they can order it. Just ask them. The reviews are streaming in and I'm so thankful for the positive feedback as well as hearing from people that my memoir has impacted them positively. It is not enough to be resilient. You have to be relentless. You can go to the relentless book.com for more information. Thank you so much. Edgar Blazon is a modernist American furniture designer and founder of the Direct to Consumer SOFA brand. BenchMade Modern Ed was a high school dropout, turned graffiti, artist turned serial entrepreneur, my kind of guy. We talk about how he created this brand, what they're focusing on now to grow the brand, and what is day to day involvement is as president. Now, let's get right into it.

Edgar Blazona:

When we started the company, there was like hardly anyone doing custom right by the inch, by the five inch, whatever. And so our whole goal was to make sofas that were custom for the customer to the inch. We later ended up moving to five inch. And then make it in a hurry, right? Like no more waiting around that whole thing. Like, I've been to a thousand dinner parties. "Oh, I got a sofa." "Oh my God, it took so long to get." Blah, blah, blah so that's kinda what I was trying to solve.

Natasha Miller:

And how long between ordering and delivery. Is it typically, what's the average

Edgar Blazona:

Typically is about two weeks for manufacturing. Right? Pretty quick. And then another two weeks or so for shipping, depending on where it's going.

Natasha Miller:

Is it coming out of North Carolina where everything is made in the furniture industry? What's coming outta LA and Dallas?

Edgar Blazona:

Interesting. Be different facilities. Yeah. Yeah. And did you source and build those companies, or are they already operating for other furniture design? Well, originally I had to build my own factory. I did it in LA. It was kind of close to the Bay Area, and it's kind of the upholstery hub Mecca of the West coast and then later on we were acquired by a big giant company. One of the companies I was trying to disrupt when I started in the first place and their facility is in Dallas.

Natasha Miller:

Okay, interesting. I just haven't heard of furniture coming out of Dallas. I have for LA also furniture, even though I love it, is not my core business. So-

Edgar Blazona:

Yeah, you must think, I mean, North Carolina is pretty much the hub of sofas, but people have kind of moved their factories all over really to find labor and all that. So it's really about getting labor and finding people who can actually help make the product.

Natasha Miller:

The next question I have for you is just throwing it way back to when you were quite a bit younger, I would imagine. And what kept you from graduating from high school?

Edgar Blazona:

Oh my gosh, that's such a loaded question. I made some furniture. I gave it to a store on Friday. Monday I had $400. It was so much money. It felt like it was like the biggest payday I'd ever had. I mean, it took me forever to make this furniture. I had to like learn how to weld and all that. It was a long process and I totally did it wrong. I had the wrong machines, the wrong equipment, but I made some great things and. It felt like so much money and I just had, like, I was living on my own, I was going to high school, living on my own, trying to like survive, and I just thought that, well, this is what I'm gonna do, and I've literally been doing it ever since I left high school.

Natasha Miller:

I'm assuming based on where you went after highschool. And where you are now that at some point you got a GED and maybe went to a college, is that correct?

Edgar Blazona:

I did get a GED mainly just to, I got the California proficiency, which was a little bit harder than ged, and I really just did that to prove to my parents that I was fine. I could get outta school, but no, I didn't go to. I had so many friends that went to college, they got some degree in something, and then they're totally doing something totally different, stuck with a lot of debt and all that. And I basically just started a business and I started growing this business and I pivoted along the way multiple times, but really I continued just, just making furniture. And then one day I decided, It was gonna be a long road. Like I was never gonna get that lake house that I dreamt of, like pushing wood through a saw. And so I closed it down. And I made the portfolio, I hinted it off to Pottery Barn and that really was my college in all honesty. Like they basically like taught me mass and big and all that. And so I-

Natasha Miller:

Yeah. I did wonder how you got a position and went up the ranks at Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. I assume that industry to work in manufacturing or on the floor, a college degree is not at all on the required list, but in executive ranks, it probably is. So talk to me about how you moved up through Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware without that background.

Edgar Blazona:

Yeah. I started as a technical designer. It was like the only way to get my foot in the door. Okay. I'm a technical designer and I would like draw furniture and all the CADs basically. But then I started thinking like, how could I get to the factories? So I started pointing things out that were bad or wrong and I can solve it and I might have been like kind of pointing things out a little bit too much so that I could then go to the factories and solve it. Cause in reality, all I wanted to do was get to these factories and do what I could do. And so I kind of became this designer slash the guy that could translate the design on paper into the actual product, and I kind of became the hero. And so I weaved my way through and had a lot of respect and everyone was like, "Oh my God, why does he always get to do it?" But I did, and I was pretty smart for being so young and naive. And then later on Restoration Hardware and yeah, I had a big time job there. But you gotta remember, I've been in the furniture industry for 30 plus years. So in reality, while I'm not the oldest guy in the room, I'm the most. And so that's really helped me kind of maneuver that knowledge of actually knowing furniture. Not that many people do. There's a lot of designers, but not that many people actually know it.

Natasha Miller:

And did you think in the back of your mind, at both of those organizations that you are, of course making a living and contributing to them, but really doing research. For-

Edgar Blazona:

Yes.

Natasha Miller:

What would become, Yes. Okay. So-

Edgar Blazona:

100%. It was always my goal, not for-

Natasha Miller:

You were like a mole, but for yourself

Edgar Blazona:

to the back. Yeah. I mean, I was helping them, but I definitely was like, "Oh, if I wanted to learn about this, I would point something out there." And "Oh, I can go fix it and that sort of thing."

Natasha Miller:

So they paid you to go learn what you needed to know to create your own company?

Edgar Blazona:

My own business.

Natasha Miller:

Love it. Absolutely. Yes. Okay. So going back a little bit, but not as far as high school, tell me about Modular Dwellings and what made you decide to sell that company?

Edgar Blazona:

I didn't actually sell. I wish I sold that company. I had a non-compete with Pottery Barn. I was spending a lot of time on the planes, like a ton back and forth to China and I started drawing these buildings and I wanted to bring modern architecture to people. And I've always been a build it first, draw later kind of person. I couldn't afford to make a modular home so I could afford to make these basically sheds. And I started setting these sheds up in various locations and I would like, a let people walk in kind of this like gorilla architecture. Like modern place on the corner. Come stop by, have a cocktail, and feel what modernism feels like. As you walk through the door, not just my modern kitchen in my Victorian. So I started like really playing with that and suddenly I became the shed guy. I was the modern shed guy, and there'd be these articles, New York Times, this architect is building this house and that architect and that house, and then Edgar Blazona the shed guy at the bottom. So it was a fun.

Natasha Miller:

How long ago was that?

Edgar Blazona:

Gosh, that would've been in the 90 96, 97, somewhere around there 98. Yeah, it was fun. The-

Natasha Miller:

That reminds me, I would've loved to have, and maybe I could still do this, but on an airplane, my desire would be, I have two brothers, a 27 year old daughter and my dad, and I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna buy a piece of land and like benicia and then I'm gonna have like, yeah, a modular small, like dwelling for each person so we don't have to actually live together." Then like, a patio that we could do yoga and present concerts at, and then one dwelling for a recording studio." That's my dream at some point. So those drawings exist somewhere, someone licensed them, correct?

Edgar Blazona:

Yeah. I did this at the very end. I basically licensed the drawings to Readymade magazine and I was like, Okay, I'm gonna build the simplest building. You can build it yourself. I'm out, but you can go. And it was kind of like my give back. We sold 'em for $35. They're actually on the internet now. You can get 'em for free. Readymade went out of business and these drawings have shown up again. It's interesting because these buildings are showing up all over the country. Every now and then I'll get an email, Hey, I made this building just wanted to show you. It's so cool. I wonder if that will really be my legacy at some point.

Natasha Miller:

Right?

Edgar Blazona:

I, gosh, I hope not. I am the-

Natasha Miller:

With the ADUs. Yeah, With the ADUs being available in the Bay Area especially. Right. They're popping up everywhere in tiny Homes is like the, you were way ahead of your time, basically.

Edgar Blazona:

I was way ahead of that.

Natasha Miller:

Yeah.

Edgar Blazona:

Yeah.

Natasha Miller:

You were way.

Edgar Blazona:

I was. It's really, really difficult. It's a difficult business model. Like for instance, your land. You and everybody else wants that exact thing, and then you realize that to have each of those buildings separate, it's like 15 to 20 grand per building. But if you built two of those together on the same thing, you'd probably spend 20 grand for two. Right. So you're getting this economy a scale when you build a house, right? And people don't realize this small little, tight little thing is like really expensive to do. You're not getting any free square footage kinda thing.

Natasha Miller:

Have you ever thought that you should write a book that you should write the story of your life to help other people learn from your experience? Please go to MemoirSherpa.com and learn how I can help you write, figure out your publishing path and market your story, your memoir, to a best seller status. Okay. So what is your day to day involvement today in BenchMade Modern?

Edgar Blazona:

Well, my day to day involvement today-

Natasha Miller:

I mean, you're the president, but what does that mean?

Edgar Blazona:

What does that mean? It means that, that's a very loaded question. It means that I spend a lot of time in meetings. I do a little bit of designing. I fix problems, a lot of marketing calls. It's funny because as a, I always tell young and coming up furniture designers. We don't actually design furniture. We design furniture for like one second. And then we spend the rest of our time trying to sell that furniture, trying to make it happen. And so there's a lot of marketing and a lot of things that go into following you around the internet and making sure you wanna buy a very expensive, beautiful sofa.

Natasha Miller:

Is it very expensive? What is the price point and where does it fall into your competitors?

Edgar Blazona:

I'm at the top. I crown myself the sofa king. I actually make the best sofa online. And I'm not just saying that like I really stand by that I, in fact, if you go to my Twitter and-

Natasha Miller:

You would know, right?

Edgar Blazona:

Yeah. Because I take them apart, right? I look inside, I call it what's under the hood, and so on my Twitter feeded, the very top, it says, "Okay, sofa guys, let's battle old school style. You send your best stuff and I'll send my best stuff to a writer and whoever wins gets crowned the sofa king." And I know those guys follow me, but no one has replied. No one will take the place. Yeah.

Natasha Miller:

Wow.

Edgar Blazona:

I make a really good product and I like the materials. I like what's inside. Most people don't know what's inside their sofa and that's where it fails. And so my motto has always been, why not just spend a little bit more on materials and not get a sofa back in return? Cuz it failed.

Natasha Miller:

Right? I mean, sofas, it is something that we buy. I mean, you can say with such a positive frame of mind, this is completely polyester filled, or this is down filled, or whatever, and I'm gonna believe it. I'm gonna sit on it. I'm gonna think yes or no. But really, we don't understand what any of the stuff means and what the quality is and how long it will last. So when you say you have the best sofa, does that mean they're the most comfortable, they're going to last the longest? They are a design that will last forever? What are your pointers.

Edgar Blazona:

I don't, I mean, look, there's $20,000 sofas. My sofas are about $4,000, $3,000 to $4,000 to $5,000, somewhere in there, right? So they're not cheap. There are beautiful. I'm talking about made with any sort of scale, that sort of thing. Right. So I'm kinda at the top of the online guy. I- Going back to your question, like I said, we put the best stuff inside and that's so important because that's what makes it last. So your question is how long will it last? Basically, the sofa will last forever. Foam on the other hand. Does over time, break down, right. Even the best foam. But if I put the best foam in it, it takes the longest time to basically break down and crumble into sand kinda thing. So normally the fabric will fail or you'll just get so sick of it that we won't even get to that point. Seven to 10 years is pretty good for us sofa these days.

Natasha Miller:

Okay, so back to what you do today. Today, it looks like you have a team of about nine 10 employees. Is that correct? Yeah. Yeah. So I'm going to make the assumption that at where you're at with your business, you're really working in the business day to day and not really. Stepping back as a visionary and the strategist quite yet, and maybe that's something you don't want to do.

Edgar Blazona:

Oh, I don't know about that. I mean, that's part of my bright part of my job is to be the visionary. I have a great team that can handle most everything. They don't really get me involved unless I need to be involved. I sometimes sit on meetings, sit in on meetings, just like I feel like I'm obligated to. I feel like that's part of the job, but that vision that like scouting around trying to figure out what the next trend is, trying to understand things. That is really good part of my day for sure.

Natasha Miller:

How are, how is the skinny fat sofa going? That made me laugh out loud.

Edgar Blazona:

That sofa was voted best online sofa, two years in a row by wire cutter, and that's a big deal for us. That's the New York Times wire. That's kind of like the thing, and then they ended up changing the levels, the qualification, right, Because basically we would win every time. So the skinny fat sofa is our best sofa. It's our best selling sofa. I would say. It's a comfortable sofa. It's cozy, yet it still has design. It's kind of the in between of being not your big heavy couch, but still cozy and comfortable, but still like a-

Natasha Miller:

It's not gonna bite you when you sit in and tried to lean back.

Edgar Blazona:

Exactly.

Natasha Miller:

I'm always looking for that. I do want that in between of incredible comfort and support, but a sleek line. But when you sit back that you're not like jammed by the frame.

Edgar Blazona:

Yeah. That's hard to find. I always tell people if it looks cozy, it's cozy. If it doesn't look cozy, it's not gonna be cozy. Those like real clean line, tight back sofas, they're not cozy.

Natasha Miller:

Yeah. I mean, you can sit. If you sit up straight and maybe have a bolster pillow behind you, but don't think about it.

Edgar Blazona:

Calls it a conversational sofa. Yeah, right.

Natasha Miller:

Okay. So what are you focusing on at BenchMade Modern for growth in the next year? If you had to think of the one or two things you're doubling down on to grow?

Edgar Blazona:

We are trying to spread our wings in the marketing area. Right. We're trying move into different methods of marketing, a little more video, a little bit more, maybe some teeny commercial kind of thing. I think that's probably our growth, although we're adding more collections, the growth of the brand, right, versus the growth of the company. We have to continue innovating, continue adding more designs and things. Kind of testing the waters with things and find the things that are working and still are on point, on trend without being overly trendy.

Natasha Miller:

What do you think about the commercial spots that a lot of brands are doing that are just, they're scripted, they're long, they're funny. They have a long tail follow. It's really prevalent right now, and I don't know how long it'll last. When you think about your advertising and marketing, do you go there in your mind?

Edgar Blazona:

Yeah, that all seems so cheesy to me. I'm like, I'm so,

Natasha Miller:

They're cheesy, clever. It's kinda like your skinny fat sofa. They're cheesy, clever, and you may be too late for that wave.

Edgar Blazona:

Probably. And our customer is, we're on the higher end, right? So when we kind of dumb it down into that arena, then it kind of cheapens the brand. We're all about rebellious luxury. So our whole thing is a little bit more. Not cheesy, right? Not gimmicky. And a little bit more like what up modernism? Our voice, our tone is a little bit different. We walk a real fine line because we're still selling these sofas to 70 year old families and then also 25 year olds. And so we really have to straddle that. And a lot of times for these older people, they're buying a big ticket item for the first time in their life. They're trying out this internet thing, that kind of thing. And so we walk a really fine line and I try at all costs not to be cheesy.

Natasha Miller:

And do you have a showroom?

Edgar Blazona:

I don't.

Natasha Miller:

So it's by the sofa. Try it out. If you hate it, then what?

Edgar Blazona:

We'll take it back. You stand by in it two weeks, I think the, gosh, I don't know the exact terms. I think it's two weeks right now. You're good to go. We'll give you all your money back and then it kind of falls off. I think it's like 10% after that or so like that. You have a hundred days to love it or not, and we'll take it back. We very rarely get a return for that.

Natasha Miller:

That's great. The last thing I wanna ask you about, and I asked so many founders, this, especially founders that have had businesses before. Are you building this company with an exit in mind of any sort?

Edgar Blazona:

Well, yes. I mean the, going back, I already sold the company, right? So we built this from the very beginning. Venture money, kind of, you're on that track, right? And so that was the goal. And it's an interesting goal because the people that want to buy you are the people that you're trying to disrupt. So that's a weird thing. I heard one time the, the CEO of that company said, "God, you're, I know we bought the disruptor, but you sure are disruptive."

Natasha Miller:

Are you gonna get removed here soon? Is that's.

Edgar Blazona:

I might just get, probably Yeah, I mean that.

Natasha Miller:

That's the goal.

Edgar Blazona:

That's the goal. That's the goal for them. That's the goal for me. And then I'll head off and build another one.

Natasha Miller:

Another furniture design company. Another prefab, a clothing line,

Edgar Blazona:

Furniture, probably furniture. I'm in deep and this is my life. I'm a furniture guy.

Natasha Miller:

For more information, go to the show notes where you're listening to this podcast. Wanna know more about me, go to my website OfficialNatashaMiller.com. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you loved the show. If you did, please subscribe. Also, if you haven't done so yet, please leave a review where you're listening to this podcast now. I'm Natasha Miller and you've been listening to FASCINATING ENTREPRENEURS.