How this former Lehman Brothers banker built a pandemic-proof company

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Declan Ee always knew he wanted to run his own business.

But when he graduated from University College London in 2006, he saw his peers applying for jobs in investment banks and decided to give it a try.

His first appearance? Lehman Brothers.

“I liked seeing how companies work on a global scale. So that was very interesting.”

But the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 not only rocked global markets, it also rocked Ee.

“I was in the subprime mortgage department. I dodged reporters when I went to Lehman’s in Canary Wharf.

… it’s all about building a good foundation and a strong business that delivers value to your target customers.

Declan Ee

Co-founder, Castlery

The 39-year-old Singaporean finally left investment banking in 2016 to build his furniture startup, Castlery.

Today, the business is in the millions, and its modern pieces can be found in over 300,000 homes worldwide, Castlery said. CNBC Make It finds out how.

Furniture for urban millennials

It all started when Ee returned to Singapore 11 years ago and set up his marital home.

His good friend and co-founder Fred Ji was also looking for affordable modern furniture.

“We shared a connection in that… [the process was] frustrating. We want to get the beautiful pieces, but they’re so inaccessible.”

That’s because of things like the price point and managing multiple lead times of furniture, he explained.

That’s when they came up with the idea of ​​selling affordable designer furniture to “urban millennials” between the ages of 25 and 45.

To improve customers’ shopping experience, there is a showroom in Singapore and pop-up stores in the US and Australia.

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“This age group is going through a lot of changes. You leave school, start building your career, get married, have a kid… We add stuff to our homes,” the Castlery president told CNBC Make It.

Ee wanted to provide options for young adults who want an “inspirational space” and “something more than that.” Ikea” – without breaking the bank.

In 2013, Ee and Ji went digital first with Castlery, enabling consumers to view a virtual studio and buy furniture online, revolutionizing the traditional furniture industry.

“When customers started buying furniture online, they realized, ‘I don’t have to go to 25 furniture stores anymore.’ Next time they need to buy something, they’ll do it online again.”

Learn from blow-ups

Ee’s experience in investment banking, where he “saw a lot of explosions,” has taught him a thing or two about running his own business.

When it came to Castlery’s funding, Ee was determined not to go down the drain.Venture Capital Route” for his start-up.

“With the VC game, you want to mimic your rating every 18 months. And when we started, I knew we had to spend time learning the business,” he said.

Having no furniture retail experience, Ee estimated it took him six to seven years to master the ropes, which is as long as the “fund life” of VCs.

“Immediately there’s a conflict … that’s why there’s stress — you’re not clear-headed because you have to scale at all costs.”

Instead, Castlery’s initial investments came from family members and other entrepreneurs who have left their businesses.

“At its core, it’s about building a good foundation and a strong business that delivers value to your target customers. That’s always implemented, no matter what, whether you’re looking to sell your company or take it public,” Ee said.

Pandemic accelerated growth

When the 2020 pandemic struck, Castlery had just begun expanding into the US market in addition to its presence in Singapore and Australia.

“I thought, wow, this is really not supposed to be. I was really stressed because our most profitable country was Singapore and there it was Circuit breakers too.” He was referring to partial lockdowns in 2020 to break the chains of infection.

But his stress turned to surprise when he saw a rise in e-commerce, with nationwide lockdowns urging shoppers to rely on internet retailers for their consumer needs.

We grew so fast our faces turned green.

Declan Ee

Co-founder, Castlery

And as millions of employees were locked out of their offices and forced to work from home, the “meaning of home” changed too, observed Ee.

“It’s not just a place to return to [after work]. You do your work, you pursue your passions, you have your children. How you set up your home is important because you spend a lot more time there.”

As more and more people wanted to upgrade their spaces, “Castlery’s growth accelerated,” Ee said.

“We grew so fast, our faces turned green.”

According to Castlery, the company grew “six times” during the pandemic, made over $100 million in its most recent fiscal year ended March 2022, and became profitable in 2020.

Castlery caters to urban millennials looking for an “inspirational space” without breaking the bank, its co-founder Declan Ee said.

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With or without the pandemic, however, Ee believes Castlery’s biggest selling point is the design and functionality of its products.

“I talk to customers in the US every month and they say, ‘We love your washable couches!’ I was like, ‘okay, it’s a thing?’”

“I think as Asians, we’re pretty hands-on,” he said.

Ee added, “They would explain that you won’t have that option in the US at that price.” According to him, his furniture is “20 to 30%” cheaper than comparable pieces on the market.

Each collection is assigned a buyer, an engineer and a planner – this trio runs a well-oiled machine to ensure products get to market in a timely and cost-effective manner.

This is achieved through a “rigorous process that has been refined over the years,” Ee said.

“Each collection is assigned a buyer, an engineer and a planner – this trio runs a well-oiled machine to ensure products get to market in a timely and cost-effective manner.”

He added: “[The] The buyer will find the best in class manufacturers to work with. Engineers redesign inefficient processes while a planner works to source materials at the best possible price.”

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