Today, I’m proudly launching my first business! I could not be more excited than to bring Messen furniture to Kelowna: what has been a feverish side-project for the last two years is finally sprouting roots. It was only in July last year that Messen Design Inc. was registered as a business, and here in February of 2021 my company will finally get an opportunity to make its mark on the world instead of just my free time.
In this blog post, I won’t be going too much into details of what Messen is (suffice it to say I think Messen is a unique made-to-order furniture company, both in its designs and in its business model, and I look forward to talking more about it in the future). Instead, I will be kicking it all off with some thoughts about the nature of buying ‘things’ and how to build a scalable and local business, as these thoughts are a big part of what makes Messen so special.
Two similar stores, two very different business models and an unlikely story.
For better or worse, I end up buying something almost every day. For instance, we recently moved to Kelowna (well, Lake Country), and I quickly discovered my new favorite store: the Winfield Bakery that has been around for nearly 50 years. They make some of the freshest tasting, most delicious baked goods I have ever had. The prices are astoundingly reasonable, the customer service is impeccably friendly, and it happens to be owned by a local family. It’s a lot of what I think a great business should be, and it’s not uncommon for an item from the Winfield Bakery to become one of my ‘every day’ purchases.
This Sunday's haul from the bakery.
Funny enough, I have spent most of my life working on and off in a business not totally unlike the Winfield Bakery. My parents are franchisees of a national coffee and donut shop named after a hockey player. I’m not sure what people think “typical” franchisees might look like, but it’s probably not my parents. My father worked to become a manager at a McDonald's in Edmonton after graduating high-school and eventually helped manage the first McDonald's to open in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union. You can actually catch a glimpse of him in the video below at 00:01:49 (it’s worth the watch irrespective of my father’s cameo). That’s where he met my mother before they came back to Canada and eventually opened a Tim-Hortons together – the fourth one ever in British Columbia, back in the mid 1990’s.
The queue for the first McDonalds in Moscow.
The story of my parents and their business sometimes feels like something out of a fiction, and I believe it shaped a lot of who I am to this day. At the very least, it has shaped a lot of what I want Messen to be - the kind of business that people would line up for. Despite our storied affiliation with national and multi-national brands, my parents have been and continue to be big supporters of shopping locally and supporting their community, something that has become engrained in me as well. So when I was starting to think about Messen, I started asking about the relationship between people and the types of places they choose to buy ‘things’.
Homo Economicus: my vision of the self-interested ‘man’.
To help answer this question, I turned to my (admittedly simplistic) view of human nature: people act as rationally as they can to fulfill as best as possible their self-interest. While what is “rational” and what is “self-interested” are difficult to define terms usually puzzled over by economists, I (for whatever reason) spend quite a bit of my own timer thinking about it too.
Please excuse me if this gets a bit academic, but here’s a shower thought I often have, and which I’ve used to inform Messen’s business model. Let’s say I show you two identical products, both for $5. You would not care which one you purchased, as they are identical, right? However, if I tell you that that one was made in a factory with unsafe working conditions, you might suddenly have a preference between the products. But what would you be willing to sacrifice to satisfy your preference? What if the safely-made product costed $.05 more? $.50 more? Or even $5 more? What if the safer one also resulted in larger CO2 emissions too? Traditionally, economists and analysists don’t like this question – their version of "homo economicus" doesn’t really ask these kinds of questions, because these concerns don't really impact (in the strictest sense) our “self-interest”.
For me, however, I find these little hypothetical questions very interesting and this type of analysis has helped me shape my own purchasing habits, as well as to envision the type of business that I want to start. In my view, one of the reasons people have re-trended to shopping locally when possible is because they’ve started to become aware of the more complicated nature of their “self” interest and shopping locally is a great way to connect and engage with our communities and our own purchasing habits. We generally do not like buying products that harm others or our environment more than they need to. By helping stimulate our local economies, and by shopping at businesses that have more of a connection with the things that are important to us, the burden of finding products that accord with our self-interest is somewhat alleviated.
Despite this, supporting our own communities in an increasingly interconnected world is a difficult task. How do we know when and where and what to buy to fulfill our daily needs and desires?
Amazon is a pretty great place to buy things. So are local businesses.
What is the “right way” to buy ‘things’ is a complex question, and there is no clear answer. For instance, Amazon is an incredibly convenient, fast and affordable service that brings great products to your door without having to do anything more than lift a finger. It makes lives better. Similarly, Ikea lets practically anyone furnish their home with beautiful and stylish pieces on a tight budget and Walmart really does have every day low prices. And I still love my Tim-Hortons drive-thru. In the right contexts, these incredible companies empower people by giving them access to incredible products, often at great prices. Sure, there’s downsides (some of them more serious or important than others), but there’s also great plus sides.
Despite the above, the Winfield Bakeries of the world are incredible in their own right, and in many ways even better. Parlour ice-cream in downtown Kelowna is my fiancé’s (and my...) favorite, and they have an incredibly creamy, smooth and outstanding ice-cream made from local ingredients. Ferenc at the Rooster’s Barber Shop in Kelowna provides "old-world service" with a great personal touch. Castanet is a powerhouse local media company with an incredible following and which I will likely use to advertise Messen’s products. I could list dozens more, but these are great local companies whose services I use – and not simply because they are local. I choose to use them because they are the best at what they do, at least for my needs.
So what’s the difference? How do I make my choice? I could buy Messen’s new business cards online, or I could buy them from UBR Services – my local copy & business centre in Lake Country. In the end, this is (at least for me) how I square the balance between shopping local and shopping elsewhere: people are going to shop where they can rationally fulfill their self-interest the best they can. As the world evolves, as two-day shipping normalizes, and as buying online becomes easier and easier, it’s an uphill battle for smaller businesses and start-ups. It may seem unfair but we need to leverage our innovativeness, our locality and our size in our favour.
Fortunately we have a secret weapon: the self interest of buyers, or our customers, is becoming more nuanced than it ever has. With the incredible access to information we have here in the third decade of the 21st century, we’ve learned more and more about where and how our products are made, about the economic impacts of our decisions and the importance of being an educated consumer. As local businesses, we can (and must) make buying easier for our customers than it ever has before.
It just so happens that Ursula at UBR got me a proof of my business card within 12 hours, and when I walked in to see it, the first thing the staff at UBR said was [paraphrased] “wow, your website looks great, and I often have a hard time finding furniture that fits where I need it too – what a great concept”. As a nervous entrepreneur, these little assurances can make your day, and you simply can’t get that online. My new business cards from UBR aren’t here yet, but the proofs look great, and I’m sure the final product will as well. -(update, they are here, and they look as good as I'd hoped!)
First proof of our new business card.
Completely local e-commerce: making our customer’s lives’ better.
We now know three things. First, people act rationally and are self-interested. Second, there’s great things about buying local, but also there’s great things about buying from big stores. Third, for a local business to succeed, it can’t rely just on the good-will of customers to “buy local” – they need to leverage their virtues to make their customer’s lives’ better.
So how does Messen accomplish this? Well first, I think one of the great things about shopping online is that it’s superbly easy, and I can do it whenever I want. So Messen is a 100% e-commerce brand.
Second, it just so happens that custom furniture is antithetical to the economies of scale that the Ikeas of the world leverage. You can’t mass produce custom furniture in a central location and distribute it economically. But I wanted to offer custom furniture as affordably as possible. So Messen took the economies of scale it could – completely parametrically designed furniture pieces that can be customized almost instantly – and then partnered with a local shop (Castello Custom) that could quickly make these pieces. So Messen is a 100% local brand.
Third, we took the cost savings of being an e-commerce brand and the flexibility of working with a local manufacturer to step up to more premium materials. Our materials are sourced from Canada and are made from recycled Canadian wood. Our furniture is a huge step up from your typical mass-manufactured, imported products. So, we like to think that Messen is a 100% better brand.
Lastly, the great run-off from all of the above is that Messen is a sustainable brand of furniture. Recycled wood isn’t just more affordable, it’s better for the environment. Plus, it’s custom, so you won’t be feeling the need to update your look as often. Finally, it is made right here, so we work with a local courier to get your furniture to you – it’s probably less than a 20-minute drive.
We’ve got big plans here at Messen. We’re going to expand our offering in the next weeks – sideboards and desks are next up, followed by everything else you might need.
To keep in touch, feel free to follow this blog (in the footer of the website), we’ll be writing weekly on all sorts of things both about Messen and about furniture, the environment, business and more.
Thanks for reading, and we’ll talk soon!
Nicholas Terry – CEO Messen Design Inc.