Seth Rotherham detailed the birth of his cane furniture business (malawicane.com) in a book entitled ‘Work is a sideline, live the holiday.’ That was three years ago – let’s see where things are now.
So it’s been three years since I started Malawicane.com, a sideline which sells handmade cane furniture online. We sell our furniture both nationally and internationally. The most popular chair by far is the ‘Malawi Chair‘ – the iconic chair seen around the world.
From restaurants in Thailand, to occasional chairs in the Hamptons, there is no denying the allure of this particular piece.
It’s interesting to watch these chairs and the ways in which they trend. They’re almost always spotted in home decor magazines like Architectural Digest, and their use seems to be developing. Once reserved as an ‘occasional’ chair, more and more of our clients are using them at the dining table. Here’s a great example of that:
2016 was our third year in business, and sales seem to be doubling each year. Towards the end of last year we acquired another local company, Malawichairs.co.za. The purchase price included the website, Facebook page and social media accounts.
The most important thing I felt I was paying for was the fact that it ranks at number one in Google for the search phrase ‘Malawi Chair.’
2016 was also the first year we started affixing small brass badges to the back of the chairs, with the words ‘MALAWI CANE’ on the badge. There were two reasons for this.
Firstly, people didn’t know what to Google when they saw the chairs. So we’ve got thousands of these chairs sitting all over the world, and no-one knows how to get one for themselves. How do you Google a design like that, anyway? Would you Google ‘Safari chair?’ Go see what that gets you in Google…
The second reason why we did the badge thing is that it seems to add an official tick of confidence to the product. I didn’t want to show the web address on the badge, as it doesn’t seem authentic and it wouldn’t come across as a stamp of approval. The generic phrase MALAWI CANE – which happens to be the name of the company – almost seems like it’s confirming it as being the genuine article. And anyway, if you Google Malawi Cane, our website comes first.
But it hasn’t been roses the whole way through. We’ve had some bad moments..
The biggest challenge we’ve faced is dealing with the international clients. Cane is a natural product and, as a result, there are numerous issues that arise, compared to synthetic products. These include damages, mold and beetles.
DAMAGES – When cargo is sent overseas, it’s hard to actually grasp that the stuff is on a ship – at sea – sometimes in massive storms. That stuff gets tossed around and, no matter how good your wrapping is, damages do occur. This can either be physical, i.e. the stuff actually breaks, or superficial, like mold. We’ve even had a whole container get dropped into the harbour – so all the chairs drowned. Think about that for a second. Now while that might sound like a nightmare to you, it actually turned into a bit of a bonus. Berry & Donaldson do all my shipping and luckily my shipments are all insured (I didn’t even realise that – they just did it for me). That means I got to send the same order to the same client again. Double the business!
MOLD – Mold is not a biggie, as you can actually get it off – but it doesn’t look great. After that happened once, the guys at B&D worked out a new way to wrap the furniture so it doesn’t happen again. You live and learn, right?
BEETLE – As for beetles – those horrible little living things that get inside wood and eat it apart – the only way to deal with that is fumigation. Again, leave all that stuff to our shipping company. There are different laws and requirements for every country, and you’d lose your mind trying to decipher all the jargon and make sure you comply. Australia require a blood sample before you send anything made of cane or wood. Kidding – but they’re pretty damn strict – just ask Johnny Depp!
We seem to be outgrowing our little workshop in Mowbray, and are trying to find a warehouse in Paarden Eiland. Somewhere we can repair and paint the chairs without being affected by weather. More importantly, somewhere to store masses of chairs, as there’s never enough stock. It’s also nice and close to the harbour.
After that, we could do with a new local delivery vehicle and then a 15-ton truck to go back and forth between Malawi and Cape Town.
I’ll keep you posted.
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