Industry: Lifestyle & Consumer
From an early age, Schlaefer knew he would run his own company someday -- he just didn't know exactly what that company would produce. "I came from a family of entrepreneurs," he says, "and it quickly became apparent to me that I needed to be doing something creative, but I didn't quite know what until I accumulated a variety of skills and found an opportunity to apply my talents while doing my own thing."
After studying graphic arts at the Art Institute of Colorado and working in both the custom homebuilding and exotic lumber industries, he finally discovered his 'thing': furniture design.
"I started the company on a shoestring," he recalls. "It didn't take much, just a little bit of money to get the tools and a space. I strapped everything together and set out to see how long I could last. And as it turned out, I was able to survive."
He found his niche in custom projects. "Almost every single thing I produce is new," he explains. From dining and cocktail tables to buffets, benches, beds and nightstands, most of Schlaefer's custom work is commissioned by area interior designers on behalf of their clients. To date in his 2,000-square-foot shop, he estimates that he's crafted hundreds of unique pieces that now reside in Colorado homes.
"My background and training in art really gets me looking at the design side of things," Schlaefer says. "And my connections to the interior design world keep me on top of the trends. That differentiates me from other people in my industry."
His design approach is different as well. Eschewing modern drafting tools such as CAD, Schlaefer prefers to start each project with a scale drawing done in pencil. "It's old-school, but it's what I need for my process," he explains. And he often works backwards, starting with a texture or finish and allowing it to inspire his journey towards the finished product.
Overall, Schlaefer says that his company has had good growth over the last few years, "especially since the economy started picking up about three years ago." The population boom in Colorado hasn't hurt, either. "When people buy homes, they need to furnish them, so the increase in home purchases is good for me," he adds.
He recently acquired showroom space at Carter Inc., a high-end, to-trade furniture store in the Denver Design District. While most of his business is "done through word of mouth, hustling and meeting people," Schlaefer hopes his showroom pieces will increase his exposure to the area's newest crop of interior designers. "I'm noticing a lot of younger designers out there," he says. "These are new designers who weren't there before, and thus, they represent more job opportunities for me."
Challenges: "I need to grow the labor side of my company," Schlaefer says. "But you can probably imagine the questions I have to answer first, like, 'Do I have enough business to afford an employee?' I don't want to hire someone and not quite be ready, but at the same time, it's a little overwhelming when I take on too much work. So, my biggest challenge now is the labor side of growth."
Opportunities: An expanded showroom presence should help Schlaefer grow his market. "My goal is to increase visibility here in Denver and then get into other showrooms across the country," he says. "That means I have to create more showroom pieces and one-offs that take a decent amount of time to produce without a customer to buy them, but that's the only way I'll increase my visibility out there."
Needs: "I could use more hands than just my two," Schlaefer says. "They could do office work or whatever else needs to be done. I need to be able to grow financially so I can afford employees and delegate other duties. That infrastructure is certainly a need."