Nidhi Kapur will be the first to admit that she doesn't fit the stereotype.
"I look like an outsider and I was an outsider — in every way," Kapur begins, unpacking the last seven years and six months of her life via Zoom from her New York home.
"I think I probably spent more time than I needed to doubting myself. Turns out, now that I look back at my journey and at how I was able to break in and really convince these folks that working with us was the right thing to do and of all of the economic benefits that it could potentially create, I think the reason that I was actually able to command their attention and compel them to work with me was because I was coming at it with an outsider's perspective."
In 2015, a well-heeled Kapur walked into a warehouse full of well-calloused men in North Carolina, many of whom were multi-generational furniture-makers, with lofty ambitions and a solid idea. With a direct-to-consumer background (Kapur came from the beauty disrupter Birchbox) the founder put herself into her pitch and it was quick to resonate. Kapur was, after all, the target demo: a newly married millennial struggling to outfit her first home with thoughtful and well-made pieces that fit the budget and weren't destined for the landfill. Five years later, Maiden Home is one of the furniture category's favorite origin stories.
"This is an industry that has been slow to change and the people in that industry all kind of know that," begins Kapur. "I think they were craving a fresh perspective, so they weren’t closed off, at all. They were looking for a breath of fresh air, someone that was going to help them think forward — and be the solution to their problems."
Kapur and her team are plugging a gaping hole in a notoriously antiquated space. Unlike fashion, food, beauty, and many other lifestyle sectors, home has remained largely unchanged for the last five decades. With local resources available and the craftsmanship virtually unmatched in rural North Carolina, designing and building furniture end-to-end right here in the United States made perfect sense, both economically and otherwise. It was a symbiotic relationship that benefited everyone — so why was nobody major already doing it?
"I found North Carolina an interesting part of that chapter, finding these artisans that had been there for generations and were seeking a way to tap into this modern customer, like me — the customer shopping online, in New York City, from my laptop," explains the CEO. "I saw an opportunity to connect the two. On the backend there’s this incredible custom craft that is, in many ways, an untapped resource in North Carolina. On the frontend, you have all of these consumers across the country that are really savvy and craving a connection with brands."
"So that’s kind of become the mission of the company — we call it the win, win, win," says Kapur. "Because yes, the consumer wins, because they get access to this incredible customisation at a price point and speed that’s never been done before, and of course, we win, because we get to build a beautiful company. The third win, which is our partners in North Carolina, and giving them a bridge to the modern consumer, giving them a bridge to e-commerce — really ensures the future of their business. It’s created so much economic value to this production which is very ethical and very sustainable. These companies run themselves with a lot of integrity and we are very proud to not only align ourselves with them but to further them in the future and tell their stories to our consumers. A lot of these stories have never been told before."
Up until recently, the Maiden Home experience was conveyed exclusively online. The brand relied on digital storytelling and fabric swatches to give the customer a sense for the tangible. In August of 2022, Maiden Home opened its doors to the very first showroom in Tribeca, New York City, a pop-up offering new and existing customers the opportunity to experience the Maiden Home vision — and quality control — IRL.
"One of our biggest challenges, something (our customers) have experienced in the digital world, which is the future — whether they buy from Maiden Home or from somebody else, is how they’re going to be experience products and brands online," explains the founder. "Every brand is up for this challenge but we have the luxury of being able to focus exclusively on this challenge. How does the customer experience line up to the real quality of the product as you’ll receive it in your home? I remember some of our earliest product reviews were almost a moment of surprise for customers, they took a chance on a brand that wasn’t very well-known. When they received the product, it was really like 'oh wow, this is even better than we expected.'"
"Obviously we love the compliment, but that motivates us to then say 'ok, so how do we make this even clearer to the customer, before they buy?' Ours is a customer who is taking their time with the process, who wants to feel good about their purchase, so we meet them where they are and we give them all of that information. There’s a lot of beautiful content, very honest and authentic storytelling, every detail of the product and how it’s made. I think that really sets us apart from the big box brands that don’t have the ability to really refine every detail of the product, so we tell those stories. About how we bring a product to life, about what customers can expect and experience when they live with the product. And then there's the materials. Of course, the one thing we can have our customers experience is the materials — the fabric swatches, the wood swatches — this is part of the Maiden Home experience that a lot of our customers do take advantage of. We set a very high bar for any of the materials that are in our assortment. That was the moment that really made it clear to customers that this was a different level of quality."
Among Kapur's carefully curated — and undeniably circular — swatch selection are clippings of New Zealand shearling, buttery soft bouclé, and pebbled leather. Every scrap that finds itself on the cutting room floor is repurposed as something else, a pouf perhaps, an ottoman. Redistributed as a swatch and ready to be reimagined into something totally new. When quizzed about waste — and how exactly a brand at the forefront of direct-to-consumer custom is tackling a challenge it can hardly begin to wrap its arms around — Kapur's voice changes. To her, sustainability is more than just a buzzword thrown around the boardroom.
"The way our model was set up is sustainable by design," Kapur asserts. "We don’t build any products until customers order them. We don’t have warehouses full of inventory that may or may not get sold — that could get marked down or end up in the landfill. We really don’t build it until we have a sold order against it."
"The way we set things up with our partners, and credit to them, they don’t buy an excess of materials. Being able to source materials locally to North Carolina helps — the cushions, the frames, the fabrics — it allows them to be a lot more agile where they don’t have to stock up on a ton of inventory coming in from overseas, when they may or may not use it. So they really can just buy and order what they need and it’s a really just-in-time type of product process, to deliver this custom piece."
This business model, Kapur admits, proved extremely valuable when in March of 2020, the entire world came to a screeching halt. With supply chain issues plaguing many of Maiden Home's direct competitors, even now, Kapur remains both grateful and reassured.
"One of the reasons our lead times are so low today — and have been throughout COVID — that was the big story in the furniture space, right? Lead times were blowing out. Folks were waiting for months and months for their furniture. It didn’t happen to Maiden Home customers because we have more control and it’s domestically sourced. Shipping containers weren’t backed up in ports, I think that we were really lucky that our strategy really did benefit us, and benefitted our customers. We hold a 90 percent on-time rate. It would have been really challenging, to have to explain to our customers that their furniture was coming six months later than expected — but many brands did have to do exactly that."
While the COVID disruption might have been easier to navigate than most, it hasn't been all smooth sailing for the maker. Such is the case when you sit squarely in the middle and attempt to do things differently. This is a brand made for the middle using time-honored techniques and skilled artisans. It's an unlikely combination. Kapur's is a process that takes time and requires patience. They're not trying to compete with fast furniture or big box retailers, off-shore counterparts, and yet they're still well-aware that for now, that's the competition. If anything, Kapur hopes that disrupting an industry like furniture will further incentivise the major players to step up their game — both in quality control, customer experience, and environmental pledging.
"I think a lot of this is driven by the consumer, who has a stronger voice than ever before," Kapur muses.
"I think about how my parents shopped with brands, or engaged with brands, and they just didn’t have the platforms — whether it be social media or consumer reviews to really make their voices or their opinions heard. As we have seen in so many other industries, consumer reviews can really influence business practices when it happens at scale. I think if Maiden Home can further that movement and provide a place for those consumers, the ones that are demanding a place to shop and feel good about their purchases. If Maiden Home can be the tide that lifts all boats, opening the eyes of the consumer, like yes: you should expect more."
"The same way you do from your footwear. I invested in brands in every other category that were honest in nature, that spoke to my values. Brands that were very forward-thinking in that way — that’s what didn’t exist in furniture. The reality is, it’s very slow to move, this industry. It’s hard to build a business in this category. Operationally, it’s very intense. It might be beautiful, at face value, which is why it’s really hard to enter the category and disrupt things. We’ve being really committed to doing that and if one of the results is that we can raise the bar of what consumers can demand and expect from big box retailers — then that’s something we can be really proud of. We won’t know when it’s happening, but it will happen, in small ways."