After a reasonable period of trial and error in his life, Erran Fichman has landed on a winning solution that encompasses creating a customer-centered company with a positive culture that combines two of his lifelong interests. And has a future, to boot.
Fichman’s multiple interests—in “making useful things,” and in technology and computers—inform the product side of his company, Fichman Furniture, which specializes in making custom-fit radiator covers.
From a childhood of playing with Legos, when he discovered he enjoyed building and conceiving objects in 3D (“I had a creative mind,” he said), to his college years, when he began building more utilitarian things, like TV stands and other furniture by hand in his garage, Fichman’s journey has brought him full circle.
After earning an undergraduate business degree at Brock University in Ontario, Fichman, a native of Toronto, secured a job in the technology industry in the early 2000s, the fledgling years of the internet.
“I loved tech, and the internet’s novelty; there was a lot of hype at the time,” said Fichman. “But the job wasn’t a good fit, and it didn’t work out.”
He moved back to Toronto. “I started making furniture for people again. A lot of customers approached me with very specific problems, like fitting a cabinet in a particular space,” he said.
He had lightbulb moment thinking about addressing those types of issues in a larger way. “I’d always wanted to use automation to solve a problem for people,” said Fichman. “I realized that radiator covers were a niche—every radiator is different, so it’s not worth it, for example, for Ikea to stock hundreds of styles and parts. I would not have competition from those types of places.”
And like that, Fichman Furniture was born. “I designed a spreadsheet based on a sample radiator cover, with instructions for every part,” said Fichman. “I built a website based on the spreadsheet, where customers could specify their order, and launched it.”
He was unprepared for the response. “We made our first sale three days after the launch, and within a few months, the orders were overwhelming—I had no way to fulfill them,” he said. “I had to expand. So I researched automated woodworking equipment; how it works and how to program it. I concluded that I needed a CNC (computer numeric control) machine—you program the geometric coordinates to cut and drill holes, etc.”
Within a few months, sales again outpaced capacity, and he moved from 1,000 to 2,500 square feet. Then, in less than three years, he needed even more space. He also looked longer term: Where were most of his customers? (Hint: the U.S.) What were some of the complications he faced with cross-border shipping? (Answer: a lot.) He decided to expand his business into New York, specifically to the Buffalo area.
"I reached out to Invest Buffalo Niagara,” he said. The regional, nonprofit, privately funded economic development organization helped with two invaluable elements: they located the 10,000 square-foot building he ended up purchasing in Holland, N.Y., and they introduced him to M&T Bank.
“The people at M&T were great, and the bank loaned me the money to buy the building and purchase more machinery. At my Toronto bank, I was a ‘nobody,’” reflected Fichman. “M&T is truly a partner in growing my business.” Overall in Buffalo, said Fichman, things work very smoothly.
There were still challenges. “When I opened the new location in 2012, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to run the business in a new country,” he said. His concerns ranged from sourcing supplies, to learning U.S. shipping requirements and meeting delivery dates, all with an eye toward continuing to provide great customer service.
Under that pressure, there was a staffing hiccup as well. “I made some hires that I shouldn’t have, which turned into a culture problem,” he said. “It was a valuable learning experience and has been long since resolved.” His advice as a result? Don’t rush with hires. Make sure they’ll be a good fit for the business culture you want.
One thing that helped was his business’s additional transition “from a conceptual startup to an advanced IT company,” as Fichman had added manufacturing capacity and continually refined his software. “The software ‘runs the business’ now—versus the earlier emphasis on human skills to make the product, the quality aspects now rely on the equipment.”
With other “small mistakes” along the way, Fichman is proud to say that in the seven years since opening in the U.S., the business has grown every year.
He points out that when he was considered earlier by several accelerators, the model didn’t work for either him or the investors. Rather than the “sexier” meteoric acquisition of, say, a million users to his app that would appeal to those focused on quick and profitable exits, Fichman Furniture, says its owner, is focused on running a good, sustainable business—and running it well.
Now, he’s built the culture he wanted, and the business is staffed with a talented and dynamic team, who know what they are doing. He’s still hands on with the software, both building and monitoring it, while also to looking to move beyond the current specialized niche, to products with a broader market.