It’s not often you hear a tale of two childhood friends who turned a hobby into a business and actually succeeded! So goes the story of Hellman-Chang founders, Daniel Hellman and Eric Chang. Their namesake luxury furniture house is leading the industry in quality and style. I am thrilled to have Eric Chang as my latest guest on The Finer Points!
Hellman-Chang designs are placed in the world’s finest hotels, found in the homes of countless celebrities, and have graced the pages of the top shelter publications. It’s always a joy to incorporate their magnificent pieces into my own work! Read on for Eric’s topnotch business advice and to learn why his business partnership with Daniel continues to thrive.
Marie Flanigan: Everyone loves the story behind Hellman-Chang: childhood friends turned luxury furniture designers. You and Daniel Hellman have built an incredibly successful business together. When was Hellman-Chang conceived, and what has the journey been like for you?
Eric Chang: Having been best friends since the age of ten, Dan and I taught ourselves woodworking in his parents’ garage during the summers of high school. We never knew then that it would become our careers, but we just loved the process, the materials, and the satisfaction of creating something beautiful from scratch. We carried that passion for years and after college in 2005, we met up in New York and rented space in a co-op wood shop in Brooklyn. After realizing that this was one of the more expensive hobbies to have in New York City (and our respective apartments could only hold so much furniture), we decided to create a small collection to sell and finance our hobby. That immediately lead to an Interior Design magazine Best of Year award, and our first client, the Four Seasons Hotel. Our first trade showroom representation began in late 2007. To say the journey has been fulfilling is an understatement. I think it’s the American Dream to do something you love and make a living from it, especially one born from a purely personal and creative perspective.
MF: Your collection has been described as timeless, sophisticated, and dynamic. What inspires your iconic, handcrafted designs?
EC: We try not to look inward at the industry too much, but find inspiration in other industries that inspire emotional aspiration like fashion and automotive. The way light hits surfaces, the way they beg to be touched, and the simplicity of a classic silhouette are cornerstones of our design. At the same time, it’s imperative that we design pieces that ultimately make an emotional connection with our customers.
MF: Were there any elements that you and Daniel felt the furniture industry was missing when you first started? How has Hellman-Chang stepped in to fill those gaps?
EC: Our timing was everything. We came in right as the big recession hit, and the value proposition for the consumer base was changing. For the .1% it wasn’t necessarily about saving money after the recession, it was about spending it wisely and owning an investment – something that told a story, was handcrafted, made in America, unique, and timeless. And fortunately, our brand was authentic to us and perfectly positioned to ride the changing consumer taste. We were two self-taught, home-grown boys building very fine, solid wood furniture with the care of age-old artisans and the eye of a master tailor. People love that about our brand – and we hope they continue to.
MF: You studied finance and marketing at NYU, co-founding a marketing agency while there. How did you know it was time to switch gears and pursue Hellman-Chang full time?
EC: The day our first trade rep showroom opened up at the Decoration & Design Building in New York was the day that I left the marketing agency and jumped in full time to Hellman-Chang. I did as much as I could for the business as a weekend warrior with Dan, but when the opportunity for consistent sales came around, the demands of Hellman-Chang presented themselves to me.
MF: Describe how finance and marketing play a role in the work you do today.
EC: Our industry is made up of a number of small, passionate, and creative artisans. It’s a beautiful industry to be in, but one that we noticed could benefit from overall stronger business acumen. Our approach to marketing our brand, and telling a unique story within the closed-off design trade industry, created an effective platform to build brand awareness at a time when others were shying away from it. Likewise, a strong finance background is instrumental to growth and profitability for any business.
MF: On that note, Hellman-Chang has experienced record growth since opening its doors in 2011. Which marketing strategies have proven most successful? Has social media played a substantial role?
EC: Undoubtedly, creating a fashion-forward, luxury, and more consumer-facing brand played a major role in our rapid growth, as well as positioned us as a company at the tip of the spear for our industry. Social media played a major role in being able to dynamically show that brand to top designers all over the country. But more instrumental than anything else was recognizing that despite making products, we are in a service industry – and we identified a number of holes where we could step in and provide better customer service and build better partnerships with design firms in order to help specify and customize our products. Ordering a Hellman-Chang piece is a very personal, creative, and fun journey from start to finish for any designer.
MF: Your collection is available through more than a dozen showrooms nationwide. How has the process of growing a business in the modern furniture market been rewarding? How has it been challenging?
EC: Few things are more rewarding than receiving calls from clients who are mesmerized by the designs and the quality of work you’ve personally created. Putting a new piece out is pure ego – you’re letting a piece of your soul out into the world and hoping that your audience finds it beautiful enough not just to purchase it for their home or project, but to also fall in love and cherish it as an heirloom. It’s extremely rewarding to be able to touch people through such creative and passionate endeavors. The biggest challenge is the pace. On top of being an infamously slow industry, striving for perfection is a very time-intensive process. By the time you formalize a design, prototype, bring it to market, and get the first piece into someone’s home, it can take you up to 2 years, and then you hope the product turns into a market success.
MF: A lot of friends talk about going into business together. Do you have any tips for our readers that may be seriously considering it?
EC: Generally speaking, DON’T! Usually friends working together can turn into disaster, sullying the personal relationship, making the experience that much worse. However, the partnership that Dan and I have is extremely rare. It works for us because we are polar opposites, like the left and right brain. He and I have completely different responsibilities for the company, so we never step on each other’s toes, but we share the same vision. I’m in charge of creative design, sales, marketing, and business development; while he’s in charge of technical design, production, and operations management. The fortunate part of the friendship is that we’ve known each other for so long and so well, that we can communicate and trust better than most partners.
MF: Rewind back to the launch of Hellman-Chang in 2007. If you could give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
EC: Patience and purpose. The road ahead is long. Building and selling furniture of this caliber is still an age-old process in the U.S., and the growth and scalability of the business is drastically different from the red-hot tech industry, or the profitability of finance. But you do it because you are passionate and you love the creative journey. At this level of luxury, only the most passionate endure, so remain patient and focused.
MF: What’s on the horizon for Hellman-Chang? Any exciting new developments we can look forward to seeing soon?
EC: We’ve built the brand to become credible in all facets of luxurious products for the home. Right now, we are gearing up for a deeper seating collection to round out our line; and in the near future, we’ll launch a small offering of leathers and fabrics so that orders can be turned around more quickly. We are also expanding our quick-ship line to help service designers with shorter lead times – and eventually there could even be some interior design in the mix as well. Stay tuned!
MF: Thank you so much for joining me, Eric!