Piece By Piece

Raised around the millwork business, John Humphrey ’10 ’12MBA created Greycork—a startup with a social conscience that’s brash enough to take on the big-box furniture stores while its first pieces roll out.

(Photo by Greycork) (Photo by Greycork)

John Humphrey ’10 ’12MBA had been searching for a way to combine his family’s century-old woodworking traditions and his new business skills. He also wanted to use his entrepreneurial spirit to make life a little easier for those who move often because of work or family.

The result was Greycork—a company with a social purpose and a serious desire to succeed. It’s designed to beat furniture giants such as Ikea in style, quality, price, and assembly. Yet Greycork is also intended to spur innovation in the manufacturing sector and to inspire others to be more present and mindful in their lives.

“I always thought about ways to tap back into my roots,” says Humphrey, who is CEO. “And I wanted to find a way to connect my peers with this manufacturing process that I loved and they didn’t know about. I wanted to get them to appreciate it and support it.”

Indeed, Greycork’s first products, due to ship in late 2015, include a sleek, sturdy sofa that goes from pieces in a box to ready for use in just four minutes, without tools, screws, glue, or nails. The entire five-piece living room set—which includes a sofa, a chaise, a coffee table, a side table, and a bookshelf—can be assembled in 20 minutes. It can be quickly disassembled as well.

Humphrey’s firm, based in Providence, Rhode Island, doesn’t shy away from comparisons with competitors. The new company notes that its five-piece living room set (listed at $1,130) saves customers $250 in costs and 2.5 hours in assembly when compared to similar products from Ikea. Clearly, this feisty startup wants it known that it’s ready to compete right out of the box.

While the company’s fight for market share has just begun, Humphrey and his equally young partners are already drawing positive coverage from publications such as Forbes and Fast Company. Early sales look promising too, with more than $250,000 in confirmed orders during September—the first month of online business.

Although Greycork sells its products online, it focuses on connecting with potential users through a lifestyle magazine and its Providence headquarters, where invited customers can share a meal while using the company’s furniture.

“We quickly learned we need to know the intended user, keep them at the center of the process, and use their insights and feedback,” Humphrey says.

And Humphrey isn’t kidding when he adds, “We wanted to create a new customer experience in purchasing and assembling.” Customers can even sleep in the Greycork showroom by booking an overnight stay in the headquarters’ loft space. Other small showrooms may be in the offing, each likely to reflect the culture of its location.

Following graduation from Rollins, Humphrey went to work at Arsenal Venture Partners in Winter Park. He enjoyed it, but he kept searching for his own entrepreneurial niche. He loved the artisanship and close business relationships that his family’s business had spawned, as well as its manufacturing process, which he observed while sweeping floors in the family business as a kid and working in production as a teen.

He believed that the more he could demonstrate to his business peers how to understand this sector, the greater its potential for innovation and U.S. job creation. But he needed a concept to prove it.

After mulling several ideas, he found himself with nothing to do one rainy Winter Park weekend in June 2013. So he went to Home Depot, purchased supplies, and before long, he had a prototype and a plan. The goal was to simplify at-home assembly using precision- cut parts that slide into place and furniture legs and dowels with threaded ends to screw into predrilled holes.

Needing skilled designers to create both appealing furniture and innovative manufacturing techniques, he reached out to recent graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design. As online meetings became in-person discussions, he discovered two founding partners who shared his vision of making something meaningful while committing to ethical manufacturing practices.

“You can’t fabricate relationships only over emails, which is something that may be overlooked in today’s modern society,” Humphrey says. “Even when we looked for manufacturing partners, we met with them, toured their factories, and got to know their family stories.”

As his group set to work, they had a couple of early missteps, so they tweaked their process and sought financial backing, ultimately raising $255,988 in crowdfunding on Indiegogo.

Now as the first products roll out, what advice would Humphrey offer other new entrepreneurs? “Keep seeing the bigger picture. Remind yourself of why you’re doing it. Never forget the importance of your team. And get back to work.”