industry insider | Aug 11, 2020 |
John Pomp on scaling an artisan business

On a recent Instagram Live chat with multiline showroom magnate Thomas Lavin, John Pomp did a funny thing. The Philadelphia glassblower was giving Lavin’s followers a tour of his facility when, abruptly, he hopped on a skateboard and did a few laps on a half-pipe in a corner of the 60,000-square-foot converted warehouse. Most studio tours don’t feature skateboarding demonstrations, but most business owners aren’t John Pomp—a veteran artisan who combines a passionate obsession for his craft with a laid-back affect.

Pomp built up his reputation in early-aughts Brooklyn, operating a small custom glass studio in Williamsburg in the thick of its hipster heyday. In 2008, he started his own line and shortly thereafter moved to Philly, where he could afford to buy a building. (It was rugged: Pomp and his wife slept on the floor of his facility and cooked their meals on a barbecue stove for more than a year.)

John Pomp on scaling an artisan business
John PompMartin Crook

Now, he oversees a 40-person team, building collections and custom pieces for a who’s who of the country’s multiline showrooms. Business of Home chatted with Pomp about what it takes to scale an artisan business, the future of the multiline model, and why artists can make great businesspeople.

Tell me about the first person you hired. How did you start to grow the business?
The biggest shift was when I met my now-wife in 2005. At the time, she was an operations manager at a biotech hedge fund, and she was miserable and hated her job. I was just like, “I could use some help, let’s work together.” She said, “Can you afford that?” And I was like, “No, not really, but come on, I’ll make it happen.” That was the big shift. She’s a big part of the company now, running all the operations and financial side, and that freed me up and enabled us to grow and scale the company with our two skill sets, together.

In the beginning, you were making custom pieces. When did you start developing a collection?
I launched [my first] collection at ICFF. I knew the show director at the time and she was like, “We should get you a booth.” I remember I thought, “Yeah, I’m interested, but I’ll only do it if you have a premier spot.” Three months before the show was going to go on, somebody big backed out of one of their spaces—a big corner booth that a small guy like me [normally] can’t afford, and I was like, “Yup, I’ll take it.” At that time, I had no collection, no money—I put it all on credit cards. I think we were $80,000 in. I went to the bar every night, took my drawing paper, and I just created a whole collection, and we took it to the show. It was 2008, super risky—it was like, “Hang on tight!” But it all worked out and a lot of people approached us about the collection.

Is that how you got into showrooms?
I wasn’t into most of the trade industry showrooms, because [they used] a really old-school model, but I wasn’t dumb. I knew that most of the business was driven through those design buildings at that time. I ended up being approached by De Sousa Hughes in San Francisco, and [co-owner] Eric Hughes taught me the trade business. Once we got it dialed in, it started to take off, and then we just started adding multiline showrooms to the roster ever since.

When you say he taught you the trade business, what did you have to change to make the business work for that model?
We had to get organized, develop tear sheets, and make [our product] customizable. For an artisan designer, it’s easy just to make a handful of fixtures a year, but to develop [the business], you have to have all those pieces of the puzzle really dialed in.

Is that when you started growing?
Yeah, because then I locked myself into a distribution model. At first, I didn’t stack up a bunch of showrooms, because I was careful not to grow too quickly. But we slowly added showrooms as I felt like I could scale and handle it.

What are the challenges of scaling an artisan practice? What’s the hardest part?
All of it. Just like scaling any company, there are growing pains. Your systems fail along the way. I can’t tell you how many times we redesigned or re-engineered one of our pieces. For example, we have this really complicated piece—our Rondelle credenza. When we first debuted it in 2012, it was a 10-page document in CAD. Now it’s a 50-page document.

It’s not like I’m doing anything new, I’m just learning how to do what the bigger companies have done, on a smaller scale. It takes a lot of infrastructure layers, reinvesting time and money. Unfortunately, you grow out of people and systems and then you have to keep reinvesting in all those things. I think that’s also why we ended up connecting with [Urban Electric Company and Makers Alliance collective founder] Dave Dawson. He came [into the industry] from out of left field as a lawyer, and I think he finds it really fulfilling to do the Makers Alliance because he was kind of alone all those years.

John Pomp on scaling an artisan business
Pomp’s Rondelle credenzaCourtesy of John Pomp

I’m sure there was a moment early on where you had a great business, were selling through a couple trade showrooms, you’ve got five people on staff, and you were thinking, OK, we could do more, but should we?’ How did you approach that?
You do that every couple years when you’re small, right? There are a couple of sweet spots in terms of levels of profitability with the amount of infrastructure you’re holding at any given time. Then you hit a ceiling and you’re like, Well, I can’t make any more inside that building or with this system or these tools, and you have [to ask]: All right, do you want to take it to the next level? You have to want to do that. I’m still pretty small in the grand scheme of things, but I’ve crossed the threshold to being a midlevel company. The first several growth phases are the hardest; [after that], it starts to become easier because there are all these economies of scale.

The growth from one to 10 is a lot harder than the growth from 20 to 50.
Exactly. When you’re a onesie-twosie shop [with] just a couple million [in revenue], that’s fine—and some people just want that, and that’s OK. You have to want to reinvest and put all the chips back in. Once you get to a certain level, you have the resources to really scale and grow.

How has manufacturing for the design trade business changed over the past decade?
There’s a lot happening. Technology is weaving its way through, everything’s moving really fast, and I think the made-to-order manufacturing business model has to evolve. The expectations of deliverables are a lot higher.

John Pomp on scaling an artisan business
Pomp’s lightingCourtesy of John Pomp

Do designers want something different now? Faster lead times?
Our quoting times are less than 24 hours, and have been for the past six, seven years. [There are some] manufacturers still taking a week to get a quote. Like, you’re fucking out of your mind! That’s insane. We all expect to order our Starbucks [from our phones] and it’s sitting there [when we arrive to pick it up], and it’s no different for our business. And there’s no reason why it can’t happen, unless you’re an old company that doesn’t want to change how you operate.

Right. It’s complicated, though, because making custom pieces isn’t a one-click e-commerce business. It needs to get faster, but there are some hard limits there.
You’re right, we’re not making widgets here, and we’re not just going to click a button and it ships out. I think everybody’s trying to get quicker lead times and that’s good, but you have to be really careful. What I love about the business is we’re a made-to-order business, and the golden rule for lean manufacturing is: There’s no inventory. But as manufacturers want to get into [quick shipping] in a more significant way, you need to start putting millions of dollars’ worth of parts on your shelves. And to do that, you have to start playing a different business model. As an industry, I don’t think we have figured that out yet.

One challenge I keep hearing about with quick-ship programs is that designers usually make a small change anyway, and it ends up pushing the piece back to a normal lead time.
More than 90 percent of the stuff that goes through here is customizable, even if it’s just one dimension change. As much as everybody wants to offer shorter lead times, they end up having to rush around and make it from scratch anyhow.

We were talking about Dave Dawson, who says he’ll never show Urban Electric in a multiline showroom. Would you ever pull out of the multiline model and go direct to designers?
I think the industry will dictate that, and I think it’s starting to [happen already] in some ways. Not because I’m chasing it, but there are areas where we don’t have representation—Australia, London, New Zealand—where people are buying $25,000 lighting fixtures and furniture, sight unseen, over the internet. There’s a certain amount of every designer’s business that is outside of the multiline showroom model.

What percentage of your business is direct-to-designer right now?
I don’t know the exact percentage, but it’s really small and it’s not my focus to do that. One thing I will say is, when I bought this facility, we have our own showroom, and designers come in. Unfortunately, we’re unable to open the showroom because of COVID, but at some point it’s going to be nice. And we’re putting together a VIP program where designers can come in, have lunch, tour the facility, and have a glassblowing experience. Through that program, maybe we can start talking [about the process with] designers who do prefer to just work with us. I’m not going to stop that, right?

One thing I noticed kicking around your website, which features the phrase ‘The Living World of John Pomp’ and pictures of you, it is clear that you’re building a brand. How consciously do you think about that?
I’m aware of [branding], and in this day and age, presentation is everything, but I’ll be honest—I’m not a great marketing guy. It’s not my thing. I’m not really passionate about it, but I’m starting to put more effort into it, and in this next year, we’re putting more and more effort into it.

[Now that] everybody’s working more remotely—and quite frankly, I think we all know that the level of activity physically in the showrooms is going to be less—people are going to want to go direct. COVID is just accelerating what was eventually going to possibly happen. Now I don’t know how slowly or how quickly, and I don’t know what that multiline turns into, eventually. I’m not sure. But of course, we have designers coming to us directly.

What are you hoping to do over the next five years?
[The coronavirus pandemic has prompted] us to think differently about how we do things, and to question a lot. Right now, we’re in the middle of making our website more shoppable. I also hope when we reopen to have more of a relationship with our designers that want to come visit. Everybody likes to know where the things come from and be a part of it—and that doesn’t happen at every company. I’m proud to share that.

John Pomp on scaling an artisan business
Pomp and his team work out of a converted warehouse in Philadelphia.Courtesy of John Pomp

Have you ever been approached to do a licensing collection with a brand like RH, for instance?
I can’t tell you how many people have approached me, but I don’t do that. Manufacturing glass is tough. It’s really specialized. If you do find somebody to go make you a piece of glass, usually it’s just artist glass and doesn’t have tolerance to it, and when you make lighting at scale, tolerance is everything. A lot of companies have come to us, but I’ve never done it, because I’m fortunate to be able to produce our own collections.

I have my own art studio, so what I’m doing concurrently is a lot of limited-edition work. I’m an artist first and foremost, so I like the challenge of being able to make some expressive work, and it ends up really feeding a lot of product lines here too. We have a handful of VIP designers across the country that I work with directly on very special projects. We’re looking to develop that program further.

So you can have the business running and then have a more artistic practice stacked on top of that?
That’s what’s happening. I have my own little art department, so I have a couple guys I’ve hired just for special projects. Listen, I never really wanted to make money. Money’s not a driver for me. I’m not a quantitative guy, and it got to a certain point where I couldn’t even get into my studio to blow glass. That’s insane, and I felt really constrained for a couple years because it took a while to find a building and lock it down.

Like every midlife artist, I’m coming full circle and getting an art studio back again—the first one that I’ve had since I was in my 20s. I think most guys in my position want to continue to pursue the scaling of the business and the money, but I’m not interested in just that, I'm interested in both.

It’s hard to do both!
I really enjoy it. I think artists get a bad rap in that way, but all artists and designers are great problem-solvers, as long as you apply critical thinking to business and money and systems. I’ve gotten some level of fulfillment out of doing that.

Homepage photo courtesy of John Pomp

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