MIXING BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE HAS NEVER MADE MORE SENSE
In business, the key to success sometimes lies in not knowing what to do. By doing things your own way and not realising that something can’t or shouldn’t be done, nothing becomes impossible. That’s the approach that HAUS started with out of necessity and is now a core philosophy out of choice. We talk to Louis, the founder and Managing Director of HAUS, to find out how early adversity made HAUS what it is today.
WHAT IS THE HAUS BRAND ALL ABOUT?
HAUS focuses on lifestyle. At first glance, we may seem like a furniture store, even though it’s not how we are run. Certainly we don’t stand out as a retailer. Perhaps because we don’t follow the retail rule, and even today, I’m not sure what that is. We just like to create what appeals to us.
And it so happens that we have a group of customers who are good enough to support, believe in us, and still love what we’re doing after 10 years. We are still focusing on the initial philosophy of how we started it all – affordability. Of course, we have some things that lean more towards the premium range, but those products are specifically for certain markets.
HOW DID HAUS START?
We needed to find furniture for our house. During that time all the nice looking furniture were either too expensive or too expensive. So while we absolutely loved imported Italian furniture, it was beyond our financial reach. We were just like any young adult on a budget at the beginning. So I told my wife that there must be a way we can do something for ourselves and there must be a lot of people like us that like something nice but can’t afford it. So, in a nutshell that is how it all started – in my living room.
HOW MUCH EXPERIENCE DID YOU HAVE WITH FURNITURE DESIGN BEFORE THIS?
My previous job was being the buyer for a multinational company. I started doing that, and prior to that we also have collaboration with all the European importers. Through some friends we began the business. I’m not a designer by profession, but I always like interesting designs.
WAS IT DIFFICULT NETWORKING WITH SUPPLIERS AND GETTING PRODUCTS IN THOSE EARLY YEARS?
It was very hard, as I recall. We first started by going to the local manufacturers and talking to them, to see if they can produce some designs for us. This was because Malaysia was a major producer for furniture about 10-15 years ago. But when you are small, you are a nobody, so nobody talks to you or takes you seriously.
This forced me to look outside Malaysia. We scouted a few destinations, and we finally returned to the roots of trading – China. Back then, China was buying from Malaysia, so they didn’t really know much in terms of style and so on. I eventually found a small producer willing to work with us on this crazy idea. They were small and so were we, and we obviously made a lot of mistakes along the way, but that is what HAUS is about. From then on, we continued evolving and tried out different things along the way.
IS THAT STILL THE CASE TODAY?
Now retail is only part of HAUS. Currently our main emphasis now is contract based. We now focus on developers, show houses and commercial premises such as hotels and such. Two years ago I partnered with my good friend from Portugal, who is a very well-known interior designer from Europe to start an interior division.
SO JUMPING IN THE DEEP END WITH NO PRIOR EXPERIENCE HAS BENEFITTED YOU IN THE LONG RUN?
Yes, it has benefitted us. The important thing is that when we first started, since we are not a retailer or furniture shop; so we had to learn everything from scratch, and do things with no guidance whatsoever. Whatever you see today, the culture, the lifestyle or the way we do things, it’s all from us. That’s what I told my team, (when we first started, we were only three people) is that we either follow the band wagon and whatever others do, or we do it ourselves. It’s safer to follow others, but you will always be the follower. So we took a risk, because we are passionate in what we do, and it wasn’t just for the sake of sales figures.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU DID THAT WAS CONSIDERED GROUND-BREAKING BACK THEN?
Well, we are the first in Malaysia I think, to tell people that everything we sell is made in China. And you know how difficult it would have been to tell people that a product came from China about ten years ago. Because back then, the ‘Made in China’ tag was associated with cheap, knock-off goods. I remember my first retail staff was so against it and told me, “boss if you’re like that it is very difficult for me to sell.” I said no, you have to tell customers were it came from.
I’d like to think that we were the first to state that our merchandise came from China. And true enough, today does anyone even bother anymore? Almost everything you use now, from shirts to smartphones, is made in China. Nobody blinks an eye.
LOOKING BACK, HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED SINCE YOU FIRST STARTED IN THIS BUSINESS?
It’s changed plenty. HAUS started with a long journey. Nobody wants you, especially when you are just starting out; from banks to suppliers, and even for a simple thing like a credit card machine. I still remember the credit card merchant asking me if we were going to close in three months. Now the same merchant recently came to us and I said “No!” because their rates were simply too high. It is a vicious cycle.
When we had our first transaction and had managed to sell our first piece, we literally had no clue how to go about it. In our excitement we then realised we didn’t have a credit card machine! How will we do the sale? Thankfully, there was a Japanese restaurant next to us and they had a credit card machine. So we ran over next door and the owner was kind enough to let me use his machine to collect money. I still remember that incident in 2004. Truly grand beginnings from back then.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE ISSUES YOU HAVE HAD TO DEAL WITH IN THE BUSINESS?
In 2008, we decided to close all the other small outlets, to consolidate them into one. Like I mentioned, we don’t know how to do retail and we thought that having many shops around is a good thing. During that time, we could only afford to open the small stores because we only have pretty limited much money to spend (Stores were about 1500sqft max).
And that time we thought it was very exciting, we thought we were big, but that actually came with a lot of problems. Every store requires one set of staff each. And if there is one store not doing well, it drags down everything. The logistics become a nightmare because when you display the same thing in four stores, it doesn’t actually produce actual returns.
WAS CLOSING THE SMALL STORES A BENEFIT IN THE LONG RUN?
It actually was, in ways we never foresaw. By opening all these smaller stores, we thought that we were reaching out to a wider customer base. But we realized that the same customer in Klang or Puchong would drive all the way to Hartamas to purchase the items. So I asked the customer why he didn’t buy from Puchong which is closer to him instead of driving all the way here? They reluctantly mentioned that they preferred buying in KL.
I didn’t get the message at first but then I realized that people in that locality want to venture out to buy something more stylish and they do not want their friends to say they bought the product somewhere in Klang and that is the psychological factor. We did not realize that at first, but for general items it is okay, but for our items, it hit us. Actually because it is a different category, we should not sprinkle salt and pepper stores everywhere. Instead we should consolidate into one because it is also easier to control.
TELL US MORE ON HOW YOU ENHANCE THE AURA AT HAUS.
Very subtly, in fact – especially by appealing to our five senses. In terms of sight and sound it is through clever use of display, vivid colours and soothing music. But we didn’t stop there. We also brought in an Italian fragrance, ‘Picture’, to further immerse our customers in the HAUS experience.
The reason was that when we started doing projects, everytime there was a handover and switched the air-conditioning on, something was lacking. We weren’t allowed to have music on so what was it? Then it hit me, our sense of smell! The bathrooms need to smell decent and the living room. When you open the door, the room needs to smell nice. Just like when you go to a hotel, you are greeted with a nice smell and that will actually lock in your mind without you realizing it. And so every time before a handover I will go purchase a nice fragrance locally so when the owner comes, they will be happy with it.
WHAT DO YOU SEE IN TERMS OF THE FUTURE FOR HAUS?
Now looking back, when you mention HAUS, I hope one day they don’t associate us with just furniture, but appreciate the kind of direction we are aiming for in terms of lifestyle. In five years I think HAUS will expand beyond our current furniture based repertoire. Who knows? But it has to be in line with what we believe in.
I think the Malaysian market is still full of potential. We’d love to be part of that. I’m not saying we want to be number one, since we’ll always be a relatively small company. Small but fun! Hopefully! Our people who work with us are still with us or have been with us for a long time. Of course they benefit financially. But there’s the emotional and psychological aspect as well, working in a place you like and doing the things you love.