How to start a furniture repair business from scratch, according to a craftsman with more than 20 years in the industry

  • Furniture upholstery is an estimated $1 billion market in the U.S., employing roughly 30,000 people.
  • Matthew Nafranowicz, a master craftsman, started doing upholstery work more than two decades ago.
  • He told Insider the steps he took to grow his business from an incubator to a storefront workshop.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

As a biology student back in the 1990s, Matthew Nafranowicz needed a way to earn some money when the bird populations he studied migrated south for the winter.

Working as a furniture upholsterer fit that need, and Nafranowicz paired research and craftsmanship as he followed flocks from Wisconsin to Wyoming.

He continued developing his skills after graduation, first with a designer New York City, followed by an apprenticeship in Paris, before returning to Madison, Wisconsin to open The Straight Thread in 2002.

What began as a one-man operation in a local entrepreneurship incubator space is now a storefront workshop employing a team of five in one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods.

Furniture upholstery represents an estimated $1 billion market in the US, and government data shows it employs roughly 30,000 people. (Nafranowicz declined to share revenue figures.)

Insider spoke with Nafranowicz about how he built his business and the steps he would recommend to someone who was interested in starting a similar business of their own.

Learn the craft

First and foremost, Nafranowicz says, aspiring entrepreneurs need to invest the time and energy in learning the craft. Art school or courses at a community college is a start, but there is no substitute for real-world experience.

“If the person running the business has no knowledge of the craft, they’d be completely lost,” he said.

An apprenticeship plus three to five years working for an established shop is ideal, but that can be more difficult to piece together in the US than in other countries that have more developed training programs.

There may be more opportunity on the way with the Biden administration’s support for expanding industry apprenticeships.

Save enough money for six months

In addition to learning the tools of the trade, future business owners should take care to learn some business principles, like developing a business plan, pricing products and services, and managing cash flows.

Nafranowicz says new business owners should financially prepare for six months of no revenue while getting things up and running. A workshop with the lowest rent possible and only the most essential equipment can keep your overhead costs low.

Depending on local conditions and individual frugality, $20,000 could cover the first few months of rent, living expenses, a set of hand tools, a sewing machine, and an air compressor.

Target household and commercial clients

To get his first customers, Nafranowicz made trips to use the local library’s phone book to build a list of names and addresses of potential customers in Madison’s more affluent neighborhoods. (Today’s entrepreneurs may need a bit of internet savvy to assemble a similar list.)

In addition to his direct-mail campaign, Nafranowicz took out small ads in local publications and networked with interior designers who needed larger jobs done to an exacting artisan’s standard.

“You never want to sacrifice the quality of the work you put out, even if you’re losing money for a time,” he said. “All you have is your reputation.”

More recently the studio has begun designing and selling original pieces that allow Nafranowicz to fully tap into the old-world techniques he learned in Europe. Online sales allow him to reach outside the Madison area, and bring in roughly 10% of revenues.

Seek out advice and feedback about your performance

The local business incubator where Nafranowicz started out offered more than just below-market rent โ€” it also had experts and advisors on hand to help navigate early challenges.

In order to be accepted, and each year after, he had to provide a detailed business plan and financial summary that experts from various industries would review and make recommendations.

“The plan was super rudimentary but it instilled in me the importance of getting numbers down to make sure everything is financially sound,” he said. “It’s surprisingly easy to undercharge, at least for someone with my personality.” 

Hire help as soon as you can afford it

One conundrum of craft businesses is that there are a lot of things that need to get done, but only one thing โ€” selling your finished product โ€” that brings in revenue.

As a solo operator, time spent on promoting the business, managing supplies, and paying taxes necessarily comes at the expense of finishing work-orders that help cash flow.

As the business grows, it’s important to find ways of keeping projects flowing without your direct involvement, from hiring part-time workers or outsourcing certain tasks to other businesses.

Choose your location carefully

From the incubator studio, The Straight Thread moved into a storefront workshop on main thoroughfare in 2006, and last year Nafranowicz moved down the road to his current location in the heart of Madison’s buzzy Atwood neighborhood.

Similar businesses operate successfully in more removed industrial areas, but Nafranowicz says the higher foot and auto traffic brings increased sales that more than make up for the higher rent.

Beyond finding the right place and the right price, Nafranowicz recommends small businesses rent from independent landlords who are able to work with them as problems arise, as a little flexibility can make a big difference.

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