19 Sep 2017

The Business Times

By SYARAFANA SHAFEEQ

AFTER various attempts at start-ups, Castlery Pte Ltd co-founder Declan Ee finally found success in the form of e-commerce designer furniture.

The idea of starting a designer furniture business came about some years back when Mr Ee and a partner were furnishing their own homes.

"We had the frustration of wanting to buy designer furniture but not being able to afford it as companies which imported the items to Singapore were selling them at a high price," said Mr Ee.

Seeing a gap in the market for well-designed furniture at attractive pricing, Mr Ee and his partners decided to try sourcing furniture direct from factories for an e-commerce.

"We saw that it was possible to get a great quality at a great price point, but what we needed to do was to basically reinvent furniture retail by doing it in a more efficient manner with the use of technology," said Mr Ee.

The e-commerce furniture site was then launched in 2013, from a small basement in Ubi.

Looking at brands such as Warby Parker and Dollar Shave Club, both e-commerce businesses, Castlery wanted to build a similar strategy of reaching out to consumers.

"The whole concept that these companies have is bringing furniture direct to consumers from the makers in the factories, cutting out the middle man, eliminating unnecessary costs, as well as having a digital engagement to reach out to customers, and that is what we are trying to do."

"We control our supply chain, and in turn pass the savings that come from eliminating the middle man right on to consumers," the 34-year-old added.

Business was always something that was on Mr Ee's mind, even though his career path showed many diverse pursuits.

From being an investment banker for a decade to spinning electronic dance music at the the Ministry of Sound club in London, Mr Ee's experiences helped build the perseverence needed to run a business.

Speaking on challenges, Mr Ee shared that it was difficult as a company with limited knowledge on the furniture market.

"We had to quickly learn about the industry and market, and build customer trust. Of course, we had to deal with small but challenging issues like not having a huge product range, supply chain issues and things like that," said the former law student.

Mr Ee and his partners even had to personally deliver goods to customers. But their struggles proved fruitful, with the business hitting more than S$1 million in sales in the first year of launching.

It was then that Mr Ee and his partners saw the potential for growth in the business.

Castlery targets young millennial professionals as well as first-home owners.

"Our idea was, with $10,000, you should be able to furnish the main items in your home, like your sofa, dining table and things like that. It's something that is within the reach of a working professional family starting a family or getting their first home," said Mr Ee.

Though starting off just as an e-commerce business, the company now has a 12,000 sq ft showroom in Alexandra Road, which showcases their extensive range of furniture.

"Customer experience is what our big focus is on and a physical store is essential to a customer's journey for buying furniture. After all, it is furniture. They may do their research online, but they would still want to have a touch and feel of the product as it is above a certain price point and it is a big item in your home," said Mr Ee.

 

Learning from failure

Right before Castlery was started, Mr Ee and a partner faced failure in a start-up in 2012 due to mishandling issues.

"We trusted the wrong people, and relationships were soured. So it was a bad space to be in but, funnily enough, that was when my partner and I started to think about this idea of pursuing furniture, so I believe that in your worst times, good things will come out of it," said Mr Ee.

Past challenges were never something that hindered Mr Ee.

"Its like a bad relationship, you may need to take some time to get over it and move on, but sooner or later +you will want to start on something new again."

Speaking about Castlery's team, Mr Ee said that he considers himself lucky to have a good team now.

"Of course, in every team there is bound to be disagreements, but every time we are faced with a challenge, our team pulls together to deal with it, we don't have time to think about giving up," added Mr Ee.

The business has scaled 10 times over the past three years and now has operations in two other cities - Shenzhen and Sydney - other than Singapore.

The business launched Castlery Feat, an international collaboration with six international award-winning designers in May 2017.

"We shared our vision of bringing designer furniture to the masses, and signed them on to design for us, so it's exciting to be able to provide our customers with more designs," said Mr Ee.

When asked about his motivation for running the business, Mr Ee said: "With any business, after a while it gets hard to be excited about it everyday because there is so much stuff that goes on, but it's the people and the experiences you gain that spur you to go on."

"What keeps me going isn't the big achievements, it's more the journey that excites me."

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission