Saturday, November 18, 2017
Business

Shoe designer reinvents office furniture

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Former shoe designer Martin Keen has turned his personal desk into a business called Focal Upright Furniture.

Keen, the creator of a sandal that's ubiquitous on the feet of hiking aficionados, recently was at a Chicago office-furniture expo where he showcased his design — a workstation for people who don't fully want to sit down or stand up.

His 1-year-old Rhode Island company sells its basic desk and seat for about $2,000. Keen says he hopes to one day sell a less expensive workstation to public schools. He hopes to increase sales of about $1 million fivefold within a year.

The workstation's stool is designed to accommodate the natural curvature of the buttocks. The desk is tilted forward, like a drafting table.

Keen said he got the idea for the workstation in the 1990s.

"I don't like to sit down when I'm working. I feel that it sort of shuts your body down and subsequently shuts your mind down a little bit," he said. At the time he had no intention of going into the furniture industry, he said. "I was really just looking for a way to make myself more comfortable."

As he worked on the sandal, which has a rubber bumper covering the toes, he continued to tinker on the workstation design. He went through nearly 500 drawings, 42 scale models and 20 prototypes.

He eventually patented the sandal and co-founded Keen Footwear in 2003. In 2010, after more than two decades in the shoe industry, he grew tired of designing shoes, sold his remaining stake in Keen and focused on taking his Locus Workstation to market. To do so, he reached out to his manufacturing contacts and used websites such as Alibaba.com, which gave him access to hundreds of vendors.

Keen chose suppliers in China, Germany, Canada and some in the U.S. It took him two years and about $250,000 to figure out how to mass-produce the workstation, which he unveiled in 2012 at a furniture fair in New York City.

Since then the workstation has notched awards. He also opened showrooms in Manhattan and San Francisco and now employs nine people, mostly in sales.

Keen said his business is primarily online and aims at selling directly to clients, which has been a problem because a lot of companies buy furniture only through "approved vendors." He said he's run into situations where a company likes his desk but won't buy it unless he partners with those vendors.

He prefers not to sell through dealers or retailers, Keen said, because they usually take a percentage of the sale for picking up and delivering the workstations.

This year, a friend put him in contact with Google, which asked to test two stations. Keen, who discovered that his social media manager was also a street artist, asked the artist to make a design for the desk based on the science fiction book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

(If you type "the answer to life the universe and everything" in a Google search engine, the first result will be a calculator with the number 42, which is a reference to the book.)

Keen said Google was pleased. The company bought the two workstations and is ordering more.

"They are assessing how many to order. It's very positive," Keen said.

Keen said he initially wanted to manufacture the desk in the U.S., but after crunching the numbers he determined he could make the parts overseas for a third of the cost. As his business grows, he hopes to slowly bring production to the U.S. The move, he said, could cut shipping costs and reduce his inventory.

He also plans to apply for a federal grant and use the money to design a cheaper version of the desk that would be made in Rhode Island. With that goal in mind, he has enlisted the help of his alma mater, Ohio State University, and asked it to help with research and development. He hopes to test the new workstation, which would be used in schools, by September or August 2014.

"It's a lofty goal, but somebody has got to do something with the issue of employment in this country," Keen said, adding that he wants to target schools because he believes his products would help children, who generally don't like to sit, pay attention and learn.

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