Q&A with Keiran Hewkin – Co-founder of sofa in a box company, Swyft
Business Leader sat down with the Co-founder of Swyft, a company that creates sofas that you receive in a box and assemble at home. Keiran Hewkin founded the company in 2019 and aims to revolutionise the interiors space, delivering over 70% of its product the next day and offsetting 200% of the carbon it generates.
Is your background in interior design? What experiences led you to where you are now?
No, not at all. My background is pretty far from that. I started my career in the plastics industry before working in automotive and chemicals. But that was all really serious work with lots of really clever scientist-type people, so naturally I knew my days were limited!
I got into the furniture business about nine years ago when I moved to London as it was one of the last few manufacturing jobs left in London (outside of FMCG), so I took a chance and never looked back. I am more of an operations person by trade, so my interiors “career” started in production planning of all places.
Why was there a gap in the market for Swyft?
Great question. I think that it’s because upholstery has stayed very similar for a long time. There are a lot of entrenched interests in keeping the status quo of managing a large order book and looping people onto long-term finance deals. Often hidden behind the illusion of “choice” in that you can pick whatever fabric, size or shape you want and, therefore, you “have” to wait for it.
Whereas we decided that by offering a targeted range that fits most needs, we could turn the supply chain upside down and not bankroll it on customers’ money. I mean if you can go and buy a brand new car from inventory without waiting 16-20 weeks for it to be made for you without it “devaluing” the brand or proposition then why not a £1000 sofa?
Can you tell me about the technology you use in Swyft sofas?
We have a host of different pieces of technology that make up our portfolio at the moment: six trademarks, three design registrations and two patents. But the majority of the tech is focused on locking mechanisms and making everything toolless from assembly to disassembly.
Think Ikea without the arguments. However, without subtracting from our achievements, most of it is relatively simple physics but ingeniously applied. We can’t patent our wedge locking system , for example, because people have been using wedges for construction for thousands of years – we just used that for sofas.
There is a lot that can be done by applying old ideas to new applications. We are about to launch a bed with a new mechanism and are already fairly far along looking at furniture pieces and where we take things after the living room.
What impact did the pandemic have on the interiors retail sector?
It was unquestionably a boom time for us. We are one of the luckiest industries and we should not forget that. It brought the focus to the home and made people really think about their space and how they live, especially in urban areas.
How much of that will last is up for debate. Personally, I believe a lot of business was bought forwards rather than the sector increasing exponentially as a result and 2022 will be somewhat of a correction in regards to a YOY comparison. What will last is the acceleration of the move online. That was already a steadily marching trend that will outlast the pandemic.
How is geopolitics impacting supply chains?
It has been significant. Materials that were typically commodity items are now in short supply, such as timber and plywood. Suppliers are needing more and more notice and demand planning to manage stock levels. In regards to the shipping prices that have helped us as a European manufacturer with nearshore capability, that is something that has been positive!
What is the future of interior design?
I think like most industries with specialist skillsets the future is going to be the democratization of that skillset through technology. Things like our augmented reality function are already helping people decide what product will, or won’t, fit their homes. We are actively working on a solution that suggests colours based on your colour scheme, which is cool.
What is competition like at the moment in interior retail?
Probably pretty fierce. Lots of people are trying to lap big numbers from last year and are pushing to keep that level of sales in a lower demand environment which breeds unusual competition. That said, we just focus on what we do, our proposition and trying to continually offer more for less and let others worry about the competition.
What is the most exciting thing emerging in the interior design space?
Different ownership models, like furniture rental. It is something we are very excited about in the future as typically our products outlast someone’s need for them by two to three times. So, the environmental impact of consumers deciding to own less is really encouraging across all industries, but especially for us in interiors.
What makes a great CEO and leader to you?
Empathy. Great leaders all show this in spades. One of my old bosses told me to remember that each day you may have 50 conversations with your teams but that day they might have only had one with the “boss” so never underestimate how they feel or how you can impact that. Leadership is a privilege and should be treated as such.
Secondly, you work for them. You are there to deliver results for your people and they trust you to focus on the health of the business so they can focus on their job.