"Many fights, and many kisses"
Möbelwerkstätten Buschsieweke is a family-owned furniture company located in German's furniture heartland, Ostwestfalen. Zwo is and old-fashioned word for “two”, implying the second iteration of the company. In truth, the owners of MBzwo are the third generation, and Grandfather is still in the workshop.
“If you start something like this you can't stop, it's your life.”
“I think my dad was very smart. He never put any pressure on me and my brother to join the business." Her brother now is in charge of the finish on the tables, working with her father and uncle. After studying economics and innovation management, Karina Buschsieweke was brainstorming projects with her boyfriend Johann Ehlhardt, They were already using the scraps from the workshop as heating fuel, but they decided to try designing a product – ipad holders. That was September 2013. Then they designed a table. “We had one table in our flat, with people coming looking.”
Today we are sitting in a gorgeous gallery in Berlin Kreuzberg, surrounded with elegant modern wood tables designed by Johann, without any design training.
“We are promoting traditional craftsmanship transported to modern times, making it accessible through the internet, trying to have good products as opposed to products that break, making beautiful things.”
He wants to make things that are “timeless”: “If you build something that will last 50 years or longer, it should also be looking nice for a very long time, so we build tables which we think will be looking good in many years as well as they do today. That might be very hard to do, but we try. For me it would be a success if the grandchildren still like the table.”
What's your method for designing something timeless?
“It has to come from your heart.”
And why tables? “Many things are happening at the table. You have a problem or an issue, and then you say “Wir müssen uns mal zusammen an den Tisch setzen.” (“Let's meet at the table.”) If you make a movie of 40 years of a table it would be very interesting. Many fights, and many kisses.”
But Karina and Johann don't have one of their tables in their own flat anymore. “We have a small flat.” And they make very large tables.
Anyway, Johann points out, “I want to make something nice for people. I don't see the tables as art. These are objects that I want to be used.
And it should be used hard. That's what they're made for. That's why we don't put lacquer, just oil. If there's a scratch you can sandpaper and it's fine. After 10 years of hard use, the workshop can sand and oil it again. That's what it's made for, to be used.”
“It's a really nice product. It's nice to sell. You can stand behind every single step of the value chain. You know it's a good product, there's nothing harmful and bad. And you know you can make your customers happy. It makes everybody happy. The guys in the workshop are happy to have good work.”
When they started the project, Karina's father sent them on a tour of the sawmill, for education. It's 3km from the workshop. Most of the trees are oak from Germany. Other wood is from Europe, beech maple, European walnut, elm, ash. “We don't use any wood from tropics, only wood that is grown to be cut. We are not certified for sustainability, but the sawmill is and we have photos of there on our website. I don't know if my dad would think of this in a moral way, he just doesn't do it. What we today call sustainability, the last 30 years they did it without talking about it. Using wood from the region and what's available. Also he knows how to work with oak, because it's a regional wood.“
When they want to do a table with steel legs, we work with a company that's also a few hundred meters from the workshop. We have an idea, we make a prototype in wood and then we go to this steel manufacturer and he tries to make it. He works it out with us, because sometimes it's quite complicated. So we're not working with cheap steel from China. Everything is made in single pieces, fabricated here in this workshop in Germany. This is about the region. Because there are many companies, many short ways. So we have very good connections there for producing high-class, high-quality furniture.”
These “short ways” determine the scale of the business. “The goal is not to grow as big as possible. It's important to be able to overlook everything. Like my dad says in a big business you have a lot of people doing administrative things and they're not creating value. So the family business was always kept small. There's no computer at the workshop. There's no secretary. My mom does the bookkeeping and my uncle's wife does the tax accounting.” Johann picks up the story from Karina “If I want to send an email to the workshop I send it to her mom, and she prints it and puts it on the breakfast table, and then her dad takes it to the workshop. There is work for secretaries, but they don't have it. Now that we are coming in, we can take work off from them.”
“If you have a big factory and many employees you cannot get back from your running costs. It's important to always be able to take a step back, to stay flexible.
We can change everything tomorrow. We can build something else.”
In Berlin, Karina and Johann have learned to run every aspect of the business themselves, from web design for the online shop to google adwords. Johann explains that “I want to take a look inside every detail and to have a small business where you have control from a to z than spendng money for things that you don't know what's happening. Being independent is a very basic thing for us. It's fundamental.”
They mean two things by this, first is independence from retailers. “Brands like us are trying to promote themselves directly to customers. Maybe retailers will have less power and brands will get stronger because they have better ways of promoting themselves.”
The second independence is from subcontractors. “Because for us it's more interesting to do more things ourselves than spending money for experts. So we do all the stuff ourselves from taking pictures, online marketing, everything. It's not that I think it's better, not a decision of my brain, but I like to have control, it's a good feeling. Instead of putting money in a black box.”
And this logic of directness extends to how they think about transactions. “We try to keep the distance between the customer and the workshop as short as possible.” For this reason they initate a direct contact with every customer, even the ones who buy on the internet. We always get them on the phone and speak to them. The couple are a little amazed that people do buy the tables on the internet. “Although of course it's very important for people who see and feel. We do have customers who did not see the tables before but ordered them through the online shop. It's important to find new ways to find new ways to make these pieces available for people. The first people who bought a table from the online shop was a miracle, because the website was bad. They ordered, paid, we thought it wasn't real. We were just learning to use google adswords.”
I asked if they have received purchases and press through their social networks. “That's something you have to learn, how to get connections. We are not connected, we do everything for ourselves.”
Impressively, almost all of their tables have been sold to strangers. The couple's own social networks have not been the source of the sales. “Of course we have friends working in marketing who give advice. Or people with programming skills so they help us with issues on the website. And for getting feedback. Our friends like what we are doing and they like to help us.” But most of the people buying tables are over 40 years. It's a heavy piece of furniture and makes you settled.”
“Most of our customers are buying the last table for their life. They don’t want to buy another one afterwards. In fact, we sell lots of tables in the neighborhood. We’ve been open 6 months, and in 200-300 meters, we have sold many tables. They come by several times. It’s a well-made decision. It’s important to them.”
“Buying a table takes a long time. It takes months.” They work with every customer to customize the product. Some customers have very specfiic ideas about what they would like to have and we are able to realize this because we have direct contact and we develop the tables with the customer together. We are not just salesmen. If someone tells me he wants to have the wood shaped like this, I know the machine where it's done, I know the guy who does it. This table you can have more light pieces or less. More knots or not. We are able to tune every detail to make it perfect for the customer. Because we can offer different possibilities, that makes them happy to have all these opportunities, and realizing their imaginations about what they would like to have. To be able to offer anything they can imagine. Almost. Is this possible. Yes. Is this possible? Yes.”
“We don't get any tables back. The returns are almost not countable, much less than 1%."
No returns, and no repeat business. “I don't want to see anyone coming back for another table!” Says Johann. After studying education pedagogy, he had found himself working in a Winter market selling cheap stuff from China for high prices to tourists. The people making it are not happy and the people buying it will not be happy, even in one week. I did not like that experience. I want to do the oppositie. Making everyone connected to the product happy.”