North Carolina business owner Chris Carter is used to doing some juggling in his day-to-day life. He manages small factories for high-end leather manufacturers in Eastern Europe and manages a furniture business and factories in a rural corner of his hometown near Asheville.
But on Tuesday, he had the stage to himself as he announced that the demand for unique products and custom interior designs is just too high, and he’s closing his string of so-called “formal” workshops, instead shifting all custom orders to online sales. In other words, he’s gone all internet, all the time.
In October, Carter lost his entire workforce – 14 employees. Production had fallen off the radar of certain customers, and some of the orders he was trying to fill ended up going elsewhere. Some by well-known brands; one former employee told CNN that he had a friend in another plant “whose job was taken by a hat-wearer.” At least one of Carter’s former employees filed a federal discrimination lawsuit, claiming the company hired him only because of his race, then fired him and forced him to leave without any severance.
The lawsuit was dismissed, but Carter says that experience and the business outlook around him have convinced him he can’t keep working at these ailing plants.
“Selling as an online direct-to-consumer model is not about status or celebrity,” he says. “It’s about having an authentic story. People want to be held to these kind of standards of quality. So we’re building online and acting like we’re more than just the hippest furniture brand on the block.”
Carter says he started his business in 2001 to expand his family’s handcrafted vintage furniture business. Some of his older business partners have retired, and he had strong relationships with some suppliers. But in the era of the internet, they have struggled to keep up with increased demand.
“At one point, we were building one of the top 35 or 40 formal furniture lines,” Carter says.
In 2010, the company shifted to a more traditional business model where, for example, he works directly with big manufacturers, like a French leather company in Sweden. They also own a factory in East County, North Carolina, that makes upholstery for furniture. But getting quality leather and upholstery materials to his factories meant shipping parts that were really only good in one piece, making it impossible to ship the same complete piece of furniture to multiple customers.
With the internet, Carter can make smaller runs of one or two pieces. He can custom-design and build furniture that customers could only find in the stores. He can ship completed furniture to customers worldwide. One customer is from Russia, but from Bristol in the UK.
In turn, Carter says he makes more money. He’s posted on Pinterest and Instagram, and earned customers with satisfied customer reviews on popular places like Amazon. He’s building his business based on his own business model.
“I’m working from my garage and my back porch,” he says. “People’s rooms are great. They’re amazing. They look so stylish. We have a state-of-the-art website.”
Carter says he feels bad for the workers he’s letting go. But he’s old-school, and what makes him rich is selling as much as he can online. The internet, he says, has leveled the playing field for everyone. Customers know they can count on quality and access to others who know the same thing about their personal tastes.
“It’s growing at the expense of what I used to do that was so important to me,” he says. “It’s not perfect; we’re still going to have to do things differently. But this can only make us better.”