Benjamin Young SOM ’16 and Frederick Kukelhaus SOM ’16 combined family traditions of sustainability and carpentry in their new business venture “Hugo and Hoby,” an online retailer of regionally handcrafted furniture.
Named after the founders’ grandfathers, Hugo and Hoby endeavors to provide the quality craftsmanship of high-end furniture without the hefty price tag. Hugo and Hoby, which was conceived in 2014, posts new furniture designs they create with the help of craftspeople onto its website each month for customers to preorder. The website also allows users to track the delivery and even the construction of the pieces.
“We’re inspired by the idea of things that are convenient and easy on customers,” Kukelhaus said. “Right now, that is missing from the furniture-buying experience. There is always a trade-off between style, affordability, sustainability and convenience.”
The pair, who received a Bronze reSET Impact award last year in recognition of their viable early-stage startup, emphasizes sustainability as a defining characteristic of their business model. Their grandfathers were both carpenters and environmentalists. As a result, the founders explained, Hugo and Hoby strives to uphold values of ethical sourcing and quality design.
Hugo and Hoby fulfills its commitment to consumer transparency with the same innovative spirit that characterizes its business model. Each piece of furniture is imprinted with the name of the craftsman who built it and the geographical coordinates of the area from which the lumber was sourced.
Adam Muniz, director of the New Haven chapter of Startup Grind, a global startup community for entrepreneurs, said the business has carved out a niche that distinguishes it from similar furniture companies.
“I don’t believe that there are competitors that come close to what Hugo and Hoby are building across manufacturing, marketing, distribution and supply chain,” he said.
Muniz also pointed out the benefits of low, preordered production quantities that minimize waste and enable greater quality control. Still, he questioned whether Hugo and Hoby will need funding from investors to achieve growth in the future, and whether there is a strong consumer demand for handmade furniture.
Kukelhaus described the current furniture market as “fragmented and increasingly competitive,” but said this motivates him and Young to continue striving toward meaningful, wallet-friendly designs.
Hugo and Hoby’s business model stems from the experiences of its founders when they were furnishing their apartment near East Rock when they first moved to the Elm City.
“There weren’t a lot of good options for our demographic group,” Kukelhaus said. “Either [the furniture] was not particularly inspiring, poor quality or didn’t fit our style.”
Kukelhaus said he wondered why appealing and affordable furniture companies did not already exist in a place full of natural resources and skilled craftsmanship.
Muniz said a limited range of furniture with a quick turnover enables the brand to be innovative, responsive to customer feedback and “less susceptible to copycats.”
Kukelhaus explained that the unusual practice of releasing monthly furniture collections emerged from two rationales. Firstly, the strategy speeds up the rate of sales, capitalizing on the limited time the cofounders have left at the SOM before they graduate this year. Secondly, monthly collections are a dynamic alternative to the typically longer cycle of furniture production.
Kukelhaus said the market’s inability to purposefully react to customer preferences is a drawback of the historically lengthy production cycle.
“I think we’re trying to get away from the traditional furniture-making process, where they make designs a year ahead of time and [the furniture] sits in the store,” Kukelhaus said.
Although Kukelhaus said Yale is not normally viewed as an entrepreneurial hub, the resources Yale funnels into entrepreneurship are increasing.
“[Yale] realizes there are so many smart people here with great ideas who would be useful in a startup setting,” he said. “There’s a lot to be gained by moving quickly.”
Young cited the support the pair received from his SOM classmates and Yale’s alumni network of informal mentors as crucial components of Hugo and Hoby’s success. Kukelhaus emphasized that although entrepreneurship classes at SOM kickstarted the pair’s understanding of running a business, the Yale Entrepreneurial Summer Fellows program provided the greatest source of training.
Moving forward, Kukelhaus and Young hope to wrap their furniture in recyclable packaging. Kukelhaus said he would be proud to see Hugo and Hoby become a leader in customized and sustainable packaging. The pair also hopes to put the reigns of designing the furniture into the hands of design experts. Currently, Kukelhaus and Young design the furniture they sell together with craftspeople.
“We’re not experts, and I think that really helps us because we still see the industry as outsiders,” Kukelhaus said.
Ryan Cocina, a Hugo and Hoby craftsman and instructor of woodworking at Vermont’s Shelburne Craft School, said he is optimistic about the future of the startup.
He said he looks forward to the company expanding and awarding everyone the right to have affordable and well-made furniture.
“Since I came on early with this business, I am also excited to see this business grow from the ground up,” Cocina said.
Kukelhaus said that while his classmates are going to interviews for jobs at major firms, he and Young spend this time at the lumber mill or in the forest.
When the duo is building prototypes in the sawdust-covered basement of their home, they are inspired by the principles ingrained into them since childhood.
“My grandfather was building pieces to last a lifetime,” Young said.