By Quinn Russell Brown For The Herald Business Journal
A modern antique.
It might sound like an oxymoron, but to Robert Gifford, it’s the best of both worlds.
Gifford is the CEO of Geek Chic, an Everett-based furniture company that makes the hardwood heirlooms you never got to inherit: upscale kitchen, dining room and living room tables cut from the finest trunks of cherry, maple and walnut.
The catch, though, is that they’re only for geeks.
Specifically, geeks who game.
The wooden tabletops slide off, revealing a gaming paradise of custom insets tailored to what you play: a sheet of acrylic glass to slide your Risk map under, smooth maple to skip your Yahtzee dice across, speed cloth for quick dealing in poker.
“Geeks aren’t at pretentious dinner parties, but we do have game nights,” Gifford said.
In a world where entertainment is increasingly technology-based and physical interaction happens less and less, Geek Chic wants to unite people the old-fashioned way.
“We should get together, we should congregate,” Gifford said. “Sometimes you need a reason or excuse to do so. That’s the reason why there are bowling leagues, and Sunday football parties, and knitting circles. Why on earth would you need to knit with other people? You don’t, but we do have a basic human need to get together for social interaction.”
The two halves of Geek Chic’s company name represent the two seemingly incompatible sides of Gifford himself, a chic geek who owns 80 bow ties and 30,000 comic books. One glance at the glossy lineup of brown and beige gaming tables reveals just how “chic” the brand is. Looking to play Clue with class? Pinochle with panache? You’ve come to the right place.
Cup holders and bins attach to the sides. Desktops pull out creating individual stations. Got a game that’s going to take a few days? Call a timeout, throw the top on and pick back up later without losing your places.
Optional chairs are ergonomically designed for eight-hour sittings. Storage units can house your comic books, board games or other geeky goods.
Gifford earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree at Cornish College of the Arts. He wound up a writer in the film industry, splitting his time between Seattle and Los Angeles.
“I was in the biz in a very mechanical way,” he said. “I like to analyze systems and fix things, and that’s how I approached that work. If you treat science like it’s art and art like it’s science, I think you get the best results.”
Living in Seattle during the 2007–08 writers’ strike, Gifford used his design background to draw up plans for a deluxe gaming table. He convinced a friend who was an amateur woodworker to help him turn the 3D model into reality. They drove the table out to a gaming convention in Indianapolis, where they had a small booth in the back of the hall. The product was a hit and a company was born.
Four years later, setting up at conventions is still the primary way Geek Chic markets its goods. Interested customers either call in to the shop or make a deposit online. Then comes a lengthy interview.
“We don’t ask them what they want, we ask them what they do, who they are,” Gifford said. “How tall are you? Do you have kids? It’s all germane to design. The height of this table is going to be the optimal height for the people in your household. The features are going to satisfy the people in your household.”
It’s those personal touches that sets Geek Chic apart from other furniture options, most of which are produced in Asia, Gifford said.
“Specificity is so attractive in today’s day and age of bland uniformity,” Gifford said.
The company delivers and installs tables anywhere in the continental U.S. Prices range from $1,500 and $15,000, with an average order of about $4,500. That makes Geek Chic the closest thing to a luxury brand for geeks, a demographic that Gifford claims has by and large been immune to luxury brands. For geeks, he argues, it’s about functionality, not outward-facing projection of wealth.
“How many geeks do you know that buy a Lexus?” he said. “Designer clothes, what do they do?”
Gifford thinks he could charge 50 to 200 percent more for his products, but he doesn’t plan to anytime soon.
“I would be pricing a huge amount of customers out, and I don’t like the people who would become my customers,” he said.
Right now, their No. 1 customer demographic is married couples, often with combined incomes of under six figures. Gifford is married with two kids, and he and his family are always testing out the newest Geek Chic prototypes in their Lynnwood home.
Gifford traces his love for gaming to having a card-playing grandma. Each year on her birthday, she invited all of her friends over to play Rook, a Christian variant of traditional gambling games. Winnings came in the form of Monopoly money. At night’s end, the party would move down to the basement, where a pile of wrapped gifts sat waiting to be bid on in a blind auction.
“She spent all year I think buying these gifts for her party,” recalled Gifford, who developed business savvy at an early age by attending the parties. Only the diehards stuck around after the auction, where the gaming continued until the sun came up.
“It’s like 24 hours of pure gaming,” Gifford said. “As a kid, how magical is that? You can’t not think gaming is great. That’s a dragon you’re going to chase for a long time.”
The first time his grandma saw a Geek Chic table, though, she fell in love with it for reasons other than gaming. She imagined doing bills on the kitchen table and then storing them underneath the surface when she needed to eat or had company.
Gifford says it’s common for people to approach him for reasons other than gaming. Scrapbookers have found the setup useful, and some people even conceal guns beneath the tabletop.
“Really the only criteria for us to decide whether we want to do it is if it’s geeky,” Gifford said.
Dave Banks, a contributor to Wired.com’s GeekDad blog, bought one of the tables after seeing them at a gaming convention. He uses it both by himself and with his family and friends.
“I work on it when I work at home, because it’s really easy to take the top on and off,” Banks said. “We play a lot of board games, some miniature games, card games, dice games, Dungeons &Dragons.”
Banks thinks the popularity of the tables is in part due to a wider acceptance of geek culture.
“Comic books and fantasy novels are now accepted by the mainstream,” he said. “There are a lot of people who may’ve had these interests in the past and didn’t really talk about them a lot. Now it’s OK to talk about them. Board games especially — if you look at the sales numbers on those, they continue to shoot up. If you go into Target now you can find European board games.”
Sitting comfortably in a niche market, Geek Chic can pick and choose whom they want to deal with. There’s a year backlog on orders.
“All of these items will appreciate as opposed to depreciate,” Gifford said. “The reason why is because the cost to make these kinds of items is in the labor and not in the commodity. Assuming that the cost of labor continues to go up, when these get sold they’re always in the context of what the current value of making a similar object is.”
Geek Chic has 38 employees. The furniture is made in two buildings of a combined 28,000 square feet. The firm’s expanding and will soon need to eye new real estate, but Gifford doesn’t expect to leave the area.
“Every time that we put Everett to the test, it’s been amazing for us,” Gifford said. “It would be hard for us to think about moving somewhere else.”
Geek Chic made $2 million in 2011, but was $100,000 in the red. 2012 saw growth but similar losses.
“Any kind of rapidly expanding business can be expanding and losing money,” Gifford said. “Amazon lost money for almost a decade before it turned profit, and now it’s a monster.”
A hit with customers, Geek Chic’s line was put to another test in the fall of 2012. Could it survive the “Shark Tank”?
The ABC series, which features a panel of investors who offer entrepreneurs money for equity in their company, reached out to Geek Chic.
Donning a red-and-white striped bow tie, Gifford told the panel of investors, referred to as “sharks” on the show, that geeks are shaping the world and his company is shaping it with them.
He predicted Geek Chic would be worth more than $10 million one day, but for the time being he was looking for $100,000 in exchange for a 5 percent stake.
One by one the sharks decided to pass, arguing that the tables aren’t sold at high enough prices or that there are already other things out there like it.
“I look at that and say, ‘That’s a table,’” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “You know, I don’t see anything more there.”
An offer was eventually made by technology mogul Robert Herjavec, who wanted 25 percent of the company for $300,000. Gifford accepted.
On-air deals aren’t final, though. Due diligence allows both parties to say no, and Gifford ultimately chose to go with a better offer from an investor who was already involved with Geek Chic.
While 2013’s numbers have been strong and demand is still high, Gifford says the company might be looking at another minus year. What he cares about most, though, is that revenue is growing by 50 percent.
“It’s hard to not lose money based on that growth,” he said. “The way that the growth line works, eventually you’ll get saturation and you’ll dip back down. Unless it’s a fad item that goes away forever.”
Gifford is dedicated to making sure Geek Chic is here to stay, with or without him at the helm.
“I think the company is my baby, but I work hard to make sure that I am not the brand — that Geek Chic itself is the brand that operates independently of me,” Gifford said. “If I was hit by a bus over the weekend, I want this place to move forward. I like building things. I don’t like to build things that don’t last. And this company has to last outside of me.”