Simbly is modern flat-pack furniture that assembles and dis-assembles faster than you can change a LED light bulb (now that’s a bright idea). The brand is ethical, FSC-certified and environmentally sustainable created with good old American manufacturing. Well-designed with Swiss mechanisms, and (finally!) accessible prices.
We interview Josh Dorfman, founder of Simbly. He’s passionate about beautiful, sustainably designed products that enhance our lives and bring us into greater balance with nature. Back in 2003 he already founded Vivavi, which quickly built a strong reputation for modern sustainable design. He learned a big lesson that has led him to challenge the giant furniture industry today. Without further ado, we hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did!
Hi Josh, I would love to know your background and what led you to start the sustainable furniture brand Simbly?
Back when I started Vivavi, my first e-commerce furniture company, I lived in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, and when my roommate moved out of our large two-bedroom apartment, I hatched an idea to transform it into the world’s first showroom for modern eco-friendly furniture.
I contacted sustainable designers across the U.S. with “the great news’ that we were opening a New York City showroom. To participate, they would need to consign me a bed, dining table, living room set, etc.
The big challenge, though, was that our furniture was expensive, which meant we had a lot of fans but not a lot of customers. Part of this had to do with a lack of manufacturing scale to drive down costs. It was also related to the artisan craftsmanship and fine materials that distinguished our furniture.
In 2008, when the great recession hit, our business dried up, and I ultimately decided to shut Vivavi. At the time, I was also producing and hosting a reality TV show for Sundance Channel called “The Lazy Environmentalist,” which focused on making green living easy and accessible for everyone.
The irony of an environmental media brand I had created that was all about accessibility and affordability juxtaposed with the luxury price points of Vivavi got me thinking that if I ever built another eco-friendly furniture brand, we would find a way to make prices accessible.
Three years ago, I noticed trends that reignited my interest in sustainable furniture. Kickstarter was creating a path for makers to bring one product or just a few products to market and build a following. Consumers were comfortable purchasing these products online. And the rise of the direct-to-consumer (DTC) business model enabled brands to build direct relationships with their customers and eliminate markups typically included in the retail price of a product.
The idea for Simbly began to take root. My first call was to my now business partner, Christopher Douglas, an exceptional designer, whose original furniture collection anchored the Vivavi showroom. He and I got to work.
What is the mission of the brand, what’s the type of positive change you are seeking to create?
Simbly is on a mission to expand modern, well-designed, sustainable products for all. We want consumers to have easy access to beautifully designed products that are attainably priced and aligned with their values about people and the planet.
Simbly also aims to become the first climate-positive furniture company in the world, restoring more to nature than we take. That sounds great, but it’s really hard, and it’s absolutely a journey.
No brand can get there overnight, but it compels us to continuously improve how we source materials, localize our supply chain, optimize our shipping, and restore the forests. This led us to develop a program with the nonprofit One Tree Planted through which we plant a tree for every product sold.
For us to understand what to look for, what makes a furniture brand eco-friendly?
When designed with longevity in mind, and made of sustainable materials and quality-built components, we believe flat-pack furniture offers a unique opportunity to build an eco-friendly furniture brand.
The most crucial choice for any furniture brand is materials. Using sustainable materials embeds the environmental benefits directly into the furniture itself (without having to count on consumers to keep their furniture for a long time or recycle it after it’s useful life). For Simbly, that means using sustainably harvested, FSC certified wood.
We design for longevity to ensure that furniture can withstand everyday living conditions for a long time and not have to be routinely replaced. The goal is not to sell as much furniture as possible to a single customer, but to have a customer love our furniture so much that she tells all her friends, who become our customers too.
We see flat-pack furniture as an opportunity because it enables furniture to easily go wherever life takes you, further extending its useful life. Flat-pack’s other eco-advantages are that it ships in a space-saving box, which reduces packaging and enables more packages to fit on a delivery truck, thereby reducing carbon emissions per customer delivery.
The furniture pieces look minimalist and multifunctional! What are all the features of these well-designed dining tables?
Our designs offer the lifestyle benefits of flat-pack furniture, but without the headaches typically associated with the furniture you put together yourself. To make assembly and disassembly fast and delightful, we integrate Swiss-manufactured, precision locking mechanisms directly into our products. There are no nails or screws or complex instructions. Combined with Simbly’s unique slot-together designs, a few twists of an Allen wrench (always included) are all you need.
Once assembled, our furniture looks finished, by which I mean, you can’t see the fastening mechanisms – this maintains the integrity of our furniture’s clean lines and sleek designs. Writing that sentence sounds kind of pretentious, but the feedback we get from customers is that one reason they love our flat-pack furniture is that it doesn’t look like it’s flat-pack furniture.
Within Simbly’s eco furniture range there is a capsule collection. What makes it so sustainably unique?
Our capsule collection of tables and benches is our first opportunity to introduce Simbly’s furniture-making approach to customers. It embodies our values about design, environmental sustainability, American manufacturing, and accessible prices.
It’s also a nod to the original furniture collection by our designer Christopher Douglas. The Simbly Dining Table is modeled on the Knock-Down Drag-Out Table that Christopher designed fifteen years ago, which was included in the Cooper Hewitt’s 2006 Design Triennial and landed Christopher on Time Magazine’s Style & Design 100 in 2007, showcasing the world’s most innovative designers.
What kind of people should be considering Sumbly’s sustainable furniture?
We’re hopeful that Simbly fits the budgets of people who appreciate modern design but aren’t willing to break the bank just to include it in their lives. Similarly, we’re excited to reach socially and environmentally driven consumers who want to shop their values but often feel priced out. We’re not the answer for everyone, but we believe we’re on the right track of making consciously made furniture more accessible and affordable.
How do you source the wood to ensure it is FSC certified, and why is it important?
Our wood is called Appleply, a premium hardwood plywood, that’s made exclusively in Eugene, Oregon where it was invented in the 1980s by States Industries. We choose Appleply for its exceptional strength-to-weight ratio, durability, and beauty.
Our Appleply comes with a chain-of-custody certificate, meaning that FSC traces the path of the material from the forest through the supply chain. FSC is gold the standard for wood products, both protecting forests and ensuring the livelihoods of communities around the globe who depend on them.
The brand Simbly is also part of the Sustainable Furnishings Council. Can you share how being part of such an organization contributes to sustainability?
As a young, growing company, we know we can make a positive impact. Being part of the Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC) is an opportunity to amplify that impact by supporting efforts to rapidly evolve the entire furniture industry. The SFC offers membership to furniture and home goods companies at nearly every stage of their sustainability journey. It’s an opportunity to learn from one another and propel hundreds, if not thousands, of companies forward.
Aside from the sustainable element, another important area is that Simbly is ethically and locally made eco-furniture. What involves creating a fair trade brand in your industry, and what are the direct benefits to the community of Asheville, North Carolina?
Our company headquarters is in Asheville. This is our home. Not long ago, North Carolina was a furniture-making global powerhouse. Globalization changed that as many companies moved production overseas in search of cheap labor.
We’ve partnered with a factory just down the road from Asheville in the mountain town of Hendersonville to manufacture our furniture. There’s a pride of ownership in making things locally, and there’s a skilled workforce here that values a job well-done and wants the chance to compete. We’re excited to be part of a growing movement that’s tapping into this dynamic labor pool and contributing to the economic vitality of our region.
What have been your challenges as an eco-entrepreneur?
The biggest challenge is that it takes a little longer to get things done. By this I mean, when raising capital to fund a company, it takes a little longer to find investors who resonate with the company’s mission. When establishing a supply chain, it takes a little longer to find suppliers who adhere to the same values and operating procedures. The upside is that once you find them, the partnerships that are forged can be long-lasting and unshakeable – even through the inevitable rocky patches – as a direct result of these shared values.
One of the key distinctions most of the eco and social entrepreneurs have in common is that they tend to collaborate. How do you perceive collaboration and how has it helped your business?
Eco and ethical entrepreneurs are idealists. Yes, we want to build massively successful businesses. At the same time, we want to see our values gain widespread adoption in the marketplace. We want to change the world. Collaboration enables us to leverage each other’s resources and networks to accelerate progress and grow our businesses.
For Simbly, at present, we’re talking to other design-focused, environmental and ethical home furnishings companies in our region about opening a design center and retail space. This vision becomes more obtainable the more we’re willing to collaborate.
A few months ago I also launched and now host The Last Environmentalist podcast, which explores actions we can take in our everyday lives to counter climate change. It’s an opportunity to expand awareness about other eco-friendly brands and share the stories of the entrepreneurs behind them. Again, it comes back to building greater market awareness for those working to positively impact the world. And, naturally, Simbly is the podcast’s primary sponsor.
And what has been the greatest success of the brand so far?
This past fall, Simbly was selected into West Elm’s Local Makers program. Our products are now available for sale online at West Elm’s website, which vastly increases our brand awareness and consumer reach.
Simbly was chosen because our values resonate with West Elms’s team. It’s incredibly affirming of our approach and signifies how mainstream consumers today are looking to make purchases that reflect their values about society and the environment.
Is there any advice you’d like to give to other small businesses trying to make a difference?
My advice is to recognize that building a responsible business is a journey. Consumers don’t expect companies that are trying to do good to be perfect. A great way to turn consumers into loyal followers is to transparently share where you are in your journey – what you’re doing well and what still needs improvement.
This level of transparency and authenticity is much too rare in the business world. When companies communicate in this way, it distinguishes them from their competitors and enables them to stake a thought leadership position. While it may seem counterintuitive, the greatest upside is that consumers respect and appreciate it when values-based companies reveal their warts. It leads to trust, and trust is central to building brand loyalty.
If you could write a message on a big wall that the entire world could read, what would it say?
Don’t Forget To Be Awesome