Hi! Tell me about you and your business.
My name is Michael Hillel. I am 27 years old and was born and raised in Encino, CA where I still live and run my business.
I am the founder and CEO of SunHaven; a home goods manufacturing and wholesale company, currently focused primarily on outdoor furniture. At SunHaven, we:
- Design all of our own products.
- Oversee production with our suppliers abroad.
- Create all marketing content that our retail partners use to sell our products (i.e., product photos, descriptions, instruction manuals, etc).
- Make sure that each order placed arrives to its customer’s home safe and sound.
We do it all!
While we operate primarily in the e-commerce space, we also work with a few brick and mortar stores. Some of our most notable retail partners include Wayfair, Overstock, TJ Maxx, HomeGoods and Hayneedle.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My road to starting SunHaven was interesting, to say the least. I’ve always loved sales and have worked in a variety of sales positions throughout my career. When I was 16, I sold heating pads at a mall kiosk. And, I can assure you, that if you can learn to sell a heating pad to a complete stranger in the middle of a mall, you can sell just about anything to anyone.
In my last year of law school, my best friend suddenly passed away. That loss forced me to take a step back to think hard about the direction I wanted my life to take.
Throughout college and briefly after, I worked as an agent at a commercial real estate firm where I negotiated office leases on behalf of office tenants throughout Los Angeles. I also attended and graduated from Loyola Law School.
In my last year of law school, my best friend suddenly passed away. That loss forced me to take a step back to think hard about the direction I wanted my life to take. For me, after three years of law school and different experiences and internships in the legal field, I knew that being a lawyer was not in the cards for me. Instead, since I always wanted to get involved in designing some sort of consumer product and always dreamed of building my own business, I decided to just go for it.
Initially, I had no clue what products I wanted to focus on, nor did I have any knowledge about consumer goods production or importing. To get ideas and a feel for the business, I started going to discount stores, buying random trinkets and selling them for a profit on Amazon -- something I would highly recommend for anyone wanting to test the waters with e-commerce.
During this time, I bumped into an old family friend who was already involved in furniture importing and together we decided to start our own business. Although our partnership amicably parted ways earlier this year, the lessons I learned from him and our time together was a wonderful experience. In June of 2017, I created SunHaven as a solo venture.
Describe the process of building the initial product.
When I first ventured into the furniture industry with my previous business partner, the two of us did about two months of research before we merchandised our first several collections of furniture.
We read thousands of customer reviews just to figure out what our competitors were doing right, and what they were doing wrong, and how we could design our products accordingly.
The furniture industry is highly competitive, so we knew that our only chance at success was to bring to market products that were truly superior to what the competition was already offering. Since our plan was to target e-commerce first, we needed to find the best way to stand out in that space. We did so by reading customer reviews, thousands of them, to figure out what our competitors were doing right, what they were doing wrong, and how we could design our products accordingly.
To our surprise, we found a ton of (what we thought were completely obvious) consumer complaints about what was already being offered online. Some of these corrections to the traditional outdoor styles were extremely easy to fix in production and some ended up being much more difficult than we thought.
For example, one of the most common customer complaints was about the sofa cushions being either too stiff, uncomfortable, or flimsy to the point they blew away in the wind. So, we became determined to fix this flaw and create the best quality and most comfortable outdoor cushions on the market. We ended up going through about 15 prototypes with our supplier before we figured out the perfect fill ratio. This process was completely worth it – our reviews have been through the roof.
Our first few months in business were a whirlwind of highs and lows. We ended up selling about $50,000 worth of furniture in our first month in business and were completely elated. I felt like I had just discovered fire.
That feeling quickly faded the following month when I found out that our supplier in China had sold us an entire lot of defective product. Customers complained and over half our sales were returned back to our warehouse. It was a complete disaster and I thought we were done for. We had to find new suppliers in China and essentially start all over. Luckily, we made it out of that alive and can chalk the whole thing up to a learning experience. We now have our own quality control team abroad that is required to provide detailed reports during each stage of production. Since implementing that team, we have not had any quality control issues.
What have been your tactics for growing business?
About 90% of SunHaven’s business generation has come from cold-calling or cold-emailing furniture stores and e-commerce sites. I used to make about 150 phone calls per day as a real estate agent, so I have become really comfortable on the phone over the years. I still don’t think there’s a more effective way to drum up new business; especially if your product or service is “business to business.”
I often use Linkedin to figure out who to contact in order pitch to a prospective client. The key is to be relentless with your follow up and not to fear rejection. Rejection is inevitable in sales and you consistently have to go through a lot of “no’s” to get to just a few “yes’s.”
We also have a team of industry veteran salespeople who travel the country and pitch our catalog to different stores. This is crucial on the brick and mortar side of the furniture industry where the predominant players have been in the business for many years and place a high value on relationships.
In any consumer goods business, it is extremely important to remember that all of the salesmanship and witty marketing in the world will not help you grow your business if you’re selling a sub-par product. This is especially true in e-commerce where customer reviews are central in driving sales and word of mouth is magnified tenfold. In this regard, our products themselves serve as one of our best marketing tools.
What are you working on these days and what are your plans for the future?
Our main focus, as of late, has been increasing our current product offering and creating new interactive content to help drive sales and distribution channels. Recently, we designed eight new outdoor collections that will hit the market in the spring of next year. This will more than double the number of products we currently sell.
One thing that I am really excited about is that we are working with some of our retail partners on creating 3D models of our products. These models will really help the end customer imagine what the furniture will look like in their home and overcome many of the reservations that they may have about buying furniture online.
We are also planning on moving into the indoor category next year and have already started the design process for several new lines of indoor furniture. 2018 is going to be a busy year!
Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs?
One of the worst reasons to ever do (or not do) something is that people tell you it’s the way things “should be done” or have traditionally been done. I experience this a lot in my industry where most of the big players have been around for many decades and everyone has become used to a specific way of doing business. Even people that work within my company are constantly telling that I need to do something or I should avoid doing something because it’s the “industry standard.”
Rulebooks are for board games, not for business. The only way to set yourself apart from everyone else and find a niche that will help grow your business is to do the things that make sense to you. Always trust your gut and don’t ever undervalue your individual perspective. It’s probably the only naturally unique thing you bring to the table.
The other thing I would say, if you’re still in your 20’s, and you want to start a business, just go for it. You really can’t mess up too badly. If you have to move back in with your parents to make it work, then do it. It’s worth it. If you fail and fall flat on your face, you still have a ton of life ahead of you to get it right. And, should you decide that running a business is not for you, that desk job isn’t going anywhere. The way I see it, it’s an extremely low risk/high reward proposition.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Catalog: sun-haven.com
- Purchase SunHaven products on overstock.com or hayneedle.com.
- Instagram: @sunhavenfurniture. We are currently looking for someone to help us run our Instagram. Please email me at [email protected] if you are experienced and interested.
- Michael Hillel, Founder of SunHaven
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Shoot me an email!
- Pat Walls, Founder of Starter Story