Three years ago, former marketing professional James Smith turned in his cubicle for an office with significantly more sawdust on the floor.
Smith was between jobs in 2011 after spending a few years managing social media and web design for corporate giants like Walmart at a local ad agency. He was unemployed, looking for a new career path when he stumbled upon a pattern on Pinterest that led him down a path he never thought he’d take.
When browsing the site looking for trends, ideas, and inspiration, he noticed that people were unusually excited about simple, handcrafted wood furniture.
“I realized people really like a very straightforward look, something that isn’t overly complicated,” he said.
Smith, who was not trained as a carpenter and hadn’t really built much before, bought a circular saw and built a coffee table.
What he didn’t know at the time, is that he was also building the foundation for what would become a wildly successful furniture business called James + James.
Handcrafting a company
Smith posted his creation for online, but it didn’t sell immediately.
In fact, it sat on Craigslist for a month before it finally found a home. But the simple style in which it was built led to a flurry of interest for other furniture products.
“People started calling and asking if I could build things like dining room tables and headboards,” said Smith. “I had no idea how to do that, but I needed money to eat, so I said, ‘Yeah,’ and then figured it out later.”
Figure it out, he did. Smith’s signature farmhouse tables have become a top seller for James + James, but the company also makes benches, shelving, and bedroom furniture.
James said while it felt strange to be making things up as he was going along, customer feedback was so good that it became obvious he was doing something right.
Happy customers shared photos of their new furniture on social media sites, which led to more inquiries and more orders. It wasn’t long before Smith and his college friend James Eldridge were operating an actual business out of Smith’s garage.
American made (to order)
Smith has since long outgrown the garage, and Eldridge sold his interest in the company about a year ago to some local investors.
But some of the values Smith established in the early days of James + James still permeate the company today.
From the beginning, nearly every piece Smith creates is customized in some way, something that has become a calling card for the company. Building handcrafted furniture out of solid wood, and not mass-producing the pieces at a huge facility somewhere overseas also sets the company apart.
“Being able to customize orders is a huge trend,” Smith said. “Customers want to be able to specify color and size,” he said.
“People also want to know where stuff is coming from. Where is it manufactured? How are the employees being treated? Are they being paid a living wage?” he said, “We’re seeing people that want to support local businesses, and support places that are creating jobs instead of billionaires.”
Taking root and sprouting branches
As just a three-year-old company, James + James’ rise to success has been staggering.
The company has rapidly expanded into a 10,000-square-foot combination shop, office, and showroom space in Springdale. It has grown to employ about 15 craftsman, finishers, delivery drivers, and office/sales staff.
Smith said only about 15 percent of the company’s business is local, and the rest is either delivered or shipped to customers all over the country. The company makes monthly deliveries to places from California to the Northeast with several stops in between. A map in Smith’s office has pinpoints indicating sales to customers in 45 states so far, with only North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Hawaii, and Alaska lacking James + James products.
“We always say that if anyone knows anyone in those states, we’ll give them the deal of a lifetime on some furniture,” he joked.
Last year, the company sold over $1 million in furniture, a number Smith expects to grow by an additional 50 percent in 2014.
A coming website redesign should help Smith achieve that goal. The new site, set to launch in a few weeks, will allow for online orders, something the company has lacked in the past. To date, the website has served mostly as a catalog, displaying products and relying on customers to call in to place orders.
The company is also planning its first ever retail store, set to open later this summer at 4217 S. Thompson Street near the Fayetteville-Springdale border.
The new brick-and-mortar will allow the company to branch out with new products, such as table runners, lighting, and decor.
Smith said if things go well, he could open additional stores in other markets like Dallas. The company has also worked on some commercial projects recently that could lead to a new segment of growth. James + James built all the tables for the new Slim Chickens location on Wedington Drive in Fayetteville. They’re also responsible for a lot of the furniture in the dressing rooms at the new Arkansas Music Pavilion.
As far as the manufacturing and headquarters for the company, though, Smith said Northwest Arkansas is the place to be.
“Regardless of how many stores we open, we want to keep our controls here,” he said. “When you’re franchising that out, it’s really hard to control quality and consistency, and those are obviously really important to us.”
“Plus, we’re centrally located,” he said. “When we ship to California, it costs just as much as to ship to New York. This is a really great place to be.”
Video – James + James’ story