How two friends named John reinvented the design business

One of the most significant partnerships in the design industry began in 1991 in San Carlos, California, at the offices of a shoe brand called Sam & Libby Shoes. there, John Edelman worked for a company founded by his older brother Sam (“Libby” was Sam’s wife). One day another John came in…John McPhee. The two were the young guys in the office and struck up a friendship almost immediately.

“John was so sweet, he came in and said, ‘Let’s have dinner!'” recalled Edelman as the host Dennis Scully in the last episode of The Home Business Podcast. “I don’t think we realized what that meant back in the day.”

To both Johns personally, it meant a lot – to the design industry as a whole, perhaps even more. The couple would go on to work for another Edelman family business, Edelman Leather, and grow it enough to sell it to Knoll for $67 million in 2007. Then came another challenge: take on then-struggling retailer Design Within Reach, known at the time for cheap copies and turn its fortunes.

When the partners went to meet with the company’s employees, it became clear how difficult the task was. “They looked at us with such disbelief. This was the worst interaction I have ever had to do with a group of people who worked for us. They did not know what to believe; we had to convert them all. It wasn’t pretty,” Edelman says. The duo set about canceling counterfeit production, re-establishing relationships with suppliers and cutting many leases. It was a bumpy ride at first.

“None of us have ever been to the Salone. We had no idea what we were getting into. We had a brand new chief marketer, and she heard that John and I were going to Salone without her, and she was like, ‘No way!'” McPhee says. “Thank God we listened to her. We had 40 meetings in five days with all our key European suppliers. And we didn’t just go there to say, “Hey, we’re John and John.” We said, “We need you to start shipping to us again, and no, we’re not giving you a letter of credit; no, we will not give you cash up front; you have to give us 60 days, but we’re good guys, trust us!”

It ended up working – magnificently – and DWR was eventually sold to Herman Miller for $154 million in 2014. The two Johns stayed on to help with the transition, but eventually moved on to other adventures. Now Edelman is reviving the beloved cult design brand Heller (ironically, one of the first challenges he faced at Design Within Reach was a copyright lawsuit filed by Heller’s founder Alan Heller). McPhee, meanwhile, is now CEO of Chilewich, where he is looking to grow the brand far beyond its origins as a pad manufacturer.

Although both Johns have their own ventures now, the two are still connected to each other’s businesses (McPhee’s son was Edelman’s first hire at Heller) and continue to share insights into a rapidly changing industry. In this episode of the podcast, they reveal the thinking behind some of their biggest moves, explain why economic downturns are opportunities to grow smart, and highlight why—in a time of consolidation—betting on great design is always good business.

“I like acquisitions, I like mergers, but I think people should be interested in design. We don’t make gadgets. We do things that require passion, vision and quality,” says Edelman. “I hope people keep that in mind first. With this you can always achieve success. You can make a short-term hit, but with great design, you’ll be successful forever.”

Listen to the show below. If you like what you hear, subscribe to Apple Podcasts or Spotify. This episode was sponsored by Crypton.

Homepage Image: Peter Hapak

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