Alex Willcock was in a bad way. He lost both his marriage and his company, and was going through a period of intense self-reflection. As part of it, Willcock started working through The Artist’s Way, a program devised by writer Julia Cameron to help creatives build habits around their work and get in touch with inspiration. Part of the program is to write every morning in a stream of consciousness style Cameron calls “Morning Pages.”
“One day, in a fairly dark state of mind, I [started journaling], OK, now let’s look to the future,’” Willcock tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “All of this stuff that happened—I chose on some level. And this writing challenged me to choose again. What would happen if I chose to do something I loved doing, in the way I loved doing it, with the people I loved?”
It was a simple question, but radical in implication: It led to Maker & Son, a direct-to-consumer furniture brand started in 2018 by Willcock alongside his son Felix Conran. (Conran is the grandson of legendary retailer Terence Conran, who Willcock worked for early in his career.)
From the beginning, the brand took an unorthodox approach. For most of its short life, it essentially had only one product: a sustainably produced, pillowy sofa that retails for more than $10,000 (a loveseat version is available for less). It’s a bet, say Willcock and Conran, that consumers will be drawn to furniture that delivers not only physical comfort but peace of mind.
“How can you be fully comfortable unless you know the thing has been made in a sustainable way with natural materials? That it’s been made by people paid a fair wage?” says Conran. “When we first started, I think people quite liked it … but maybe one or two in 10 wanted to really engage … Now, four years later, it’s a really important thing for people.”
Maker & Son is also a bet on the idea that you can grow a furniture brand through unorthodox marketing and distribution methods. Willcock and Conran’s marketing spend is almost entirely online, and they’ve crafted a surprisingly sophisticated data operation allowing them to sort leads and look into new territories efficiently.
Also: no big showroom rollout. Instead, the father and son team mostly rely on a fleet of vans that drive to potential customers to show off the furniture in person (they have one brick-and-mortar location in Manhattan, and one in Sussex, England). Like a lot of things about Maker & Son, it started organically as a way to save money—how else can you establish a physical presence in a market without a big spend on building out a store and paying rent? But over time, it’s become an integral part of the brand’s strategy, and Willcock says the average conversion rate for van sales is an impressive 50 percent.
“The vans were born out of necessity, but very rapidly they became a very key part of how the business has grown,” says Willcock. “I was showing [the van] to a prospective customer and someone walked past—and they said: it’s like you’ve opened the doors to a portal to another world.”
Homepage photo: Felix Conran and Alex Willcock | Courtesy of Maker & Son