The dorm furnishings world is a $6 billion + dollar a year industry. Which sounds like there wouldn't be a lot of white space for a new competitor. But leave it to an incoming college freshman to find the missing part.
In 2009, when Amanda Zuckerman went shopping with her mom, Karen Zuckerman, to find items for her first dorm room, the soon-to-be college freshman grew increasingly frustrated. "We were going to all these big retailers but we couldn't find the required twin extra long bedding that also came in styles or good quality and fabrics," the entrepreneur explains. Amanda says nothing felt representative of her personality, nor did she want a "bed-in-a-bag solution that didn't allow for any creative expression."
That was the lightbulb moment. If Amanda wanted this, so did hundreds of thousands of other incoming freshman and dorm dwellers. The mother-daughter pair started slow and small in 2010 with a Wordpress blog designed to talk about college life and decor. And then, Amanda says something really set in the second half of her freshman year. "I said, 'let's do it,' and we started with a simple site and small collection that really fit our mission to give the college student the product and content they needed to design a space they would love to live in." She had the test market at her fingertips. So the duo tested their product, bootstrapped their biz, and were able to scale. It didn't hurt that Karen was President and Chief Creative Officer of HZDG, a creative agency, and had clocked plenty of time launching brands for her clients.
In 2012 they went full-teen-steam ahead, launching Dormify, a website offering style-minded college students a better and more stylish way to decorate their first abode.
Five years later the company has disrupted that 6 billion dollar biz. They've also expanded offerings with an apartment line, APT by Dormify, launched when Amanda was moving into her second apartment in New York. As a brand it makes total sense: she's grown up with the company and the company is growing up with her.
Read more to find out about the beginning years, scaling a business successfully, and what it's really like to work with your mom.
How long from the time you had the initial conversation did you decide, 'Let's really do this?'
Amanda: It was 2009 and we were standing in big box store and we said to ourselves, "We can’t believe this doesn’t exist already. We need to create our own line.'" I put together a look I really loved a lot of my friends in my dorm were asking me for help and they couldn’t believe how we transformed it. So we knew we could do this in an affordable and feasible way for other students like me. When we started we actually wanted to get a proof of concept first. So we started a Wordpress blog to get people starting to talk about dorm decor in college life-- this was pre-Instagram and Pinterest and blogging was very new at this point. And in 2010, the second half of my freshmen year something really set and I said let’s do it. We had a simple site and small collection, both which really fit our mission to give the college student the product and content they needed to design a space they would love to live in. From there, we gradually started adding more and more categories and growing it. We did a lot of testing over the course of two seasons to see what worked and didn’t before we were able to scale. So it was kind of a slow start, but in 2012 is when we really started.
Did you have any idea about market testing or any of the business acumen you have today? Or was it all new?
A: My mom founded a creative agency 30 years ago right when I was born actually. So she has tons of experience, from launching a business of her own to to launching brands and creating new brands. That was a huge part of it. We knew that when the time came to launch our business that combined, I had an understanding of what college students and she had creative and advertising skills. That was all we needed.
Right, you were the market. So what are some lessons she taught you as a kid that made you know she would be a good business partner?
A: My entire life I've seen her drive and passion. Those values have really stuck with me since the beginning. But she’s really taught me to go for it when I have an idea. Her advice to me and to others is always to execute your ideas because a lot of people have ideas but it takes a lot of guts to go out and actually do it. So she’ll say you can’t do it alone, but build a strong and passionate team and try your hardest. And she’s definitely assured me that I will make mistakes but not to let them slow me down.
So the dorm furnishings world is a 6 billion+ industry. So when you're looking at that number but still thinking, "I can do this better," what is that thought process like? Is there doubt?
A: It’s a huge market, we definitely realized that. But the students that we reach find us and they really, really love us. So our biggest focus is getting our name out there and growing as organically as possible. And because this is a brand that started from my college dorm room and is competing with big box competitors, that doesn’t really bring up doubt-- it empowers us.
The idea was before Insta and Pinterest were huge, so at what point did you say we need to step up our social game?
A: It really started organically. We knew that getting involved with some of these early platforms was really important. And we were kind of pioneers there. We wanted to communicate with our customers the way they communicate with their friends. So we knew that traditional forms of advertising weren’t going to work for us and it was really seamless in that sense.
Your demo is online all the time. They are digital natives. Do you use user-generated content?
A: Yes, definitely. So we learned so much over the years and we really changed our strategy because of user-generated content. What resonates close with me is showing product in a real environment and showing real rooms. That's the best way we can show our product off. It also really helps drive our clients for the next year because we want to hear from our audience and what they’re looking for and what they can't find. We are always listening to them and are really upfront with them. And they love that we're really involved.
So what are inbound college freshmen asking for?
A: As a very simple example, people were asking for headboards which wasn’t something we necessarily thought of first or for a dorm room, but we added it this year and it is one of our top sellers. They really want sophisticated designs, so over the years we’ve kind of changed our design perspective in some ways to account for that. And they have shown us they really want to design the rooms themselves and they want a little bit of help. So we give inspiration and they can customize the looks based on the recommendations we provide.
And there is always a market because there are always college freshmen.
A: Right, which is a really exciting part of our business. We get to cater to a whole new audience every single year and our customer gets to grow up with us. We start with them in their freshmen dorm room and then they move into an on-campus apartment and then maybe an off-campus apartment so the size of their bed changes and they need new bedding. They know they can come to us to do so. And we also launched an apartment line called APT by Dormify so once they’ve graduated we are also there to design their space as well.
You bootstrapped the business, but at what point did you and your mom get together and decide you needed funding?
A: So my mom really was the one who handled the funding side. We quickly saw that in order to service our customer across all the categories we needed to invest more into our product development and inventory. And similarly when we started to see early traction through word of mouth and organic marketing, we really needed more people and additional funding to execute our ideas to the fullest extent. To really scale. This was in 2011, so it was pretty quick-- really right after we tested the proof of concept. We had to prove to investors that we had something going and a lot of our early investors were friends and families that had kids in college and some are actually my closest friends, so they saw first hand the need for a solution like Dormify. And they wanted to help us out and invest but, anyone who wants to do that needs to see a proof of concept.
On the company’s site, the "behind the scenes," it’s all women running the show. Was that an intentional choice?
A: It happened naturally, it really wasn’t intentional. When we were growing our team we connected with passionate individuals who experienced the same problem I did. They really wanted to get behind Dormify’s mission. But every year guys are getting more and more into the design of the dorm process so maybe we’ll have our first male Dormify employee soon.
You've learned a lot from your mom, but what are some things you've taught her?
A: I definitely taught her what college kids really want. Even though she thinks she knows-- she’s had three kids go through college. But being really close to the audience. Even since I’ve graduated we have such stronghold with the audience and we know exactly what they’re looking for.
Now that you're in business together, how's your relationship with your mom?
A: We don’t live in the same city but we see each other all the time. We work really well together, we have all the same sort of thought-processes and same style so we learn from each other and we really use each other’s strengths.
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