As Zach Rotholz waited for customers in one of the 54 hours a week he spends at his Chairigami store, a middle-aged man walked in.
John Ziebell stopped in after seeing the cardboard furniture displayed in the York Street window, with lots of questions.
"This supports weight?"
Rotholz, a tall young man with a ready smile, told him to sit down and try it out.
"Oh wow, it's sturdy. You guys sell this stuff?"
In fact, Rotholz has sold between $6,000 and $7,000 worth of his cardboard designs in the six months since he launched his business just a few months after graduating from Yale with a mechanical engineering degree.
"We had a big Super Bowl weekend. People needed more sofas," Rotholz replied. It packs flat, he explained.
"Wow! That's great."
And Chairigami had made another convert, if not another paying customer.
And, not to bend a metaphor too far, that's the crusher for Chairigami. The clever designs of chaise lounges, standing desks, podiums and coffee tables, all made from sturdy corrugated cardboard, put a lot of smiles on faces in New Haven, Conn. With the cheerful Sharpie designs Rotholz has applied to cardboard placemats, the punny "Love. Seat." written on the love seat on display just after Valentine's Day and his own demeanor, it's easy to see why.
But at his current sales volume, Rotholz is only able to cover his discounted rent, utilities, the cost of buying cardboard wholesale and paying two interns piecework rates for assembling chairs or desks. He can't actually pay himself, even minimum wage, for those 54 hours a week.
"I don't need much to survive," he said, and is able to get enough out of the business to cover his student-level expenses.
But is there a way to sell enough to draw a salary?
One tack is more sales to businesses. He's making $500 for three standing desks and custom shelving for a local startup. He did a set-up for a snowboarding company at a trade show, making 30 couches and six tables. That was the first time that he rented time on an automated machine to cut the notches in the cardboard, that, when matched with tabs, keep the pieces steady.
That company found him because a local TV news report about his company made CNN. After it aired in early December, his website got 42,000 hits and almost crashed. As a result, nearly 20 percent of his sales have been outside the New Haven area.
Rotholz realizes he needs to go beyond York Street to sell enough to survive, and he would like to do more trade shows, provide desks for political campaign offices, tables for caterers, and go in pop-up stores in New York. He'd like to find a way to take a truck to other college towns in August and sell right out of the back.
But how could he staff all these spots? When he went to the machine cutter, he had to shut down for a day because his downtown storefront is open seven days a week.
"You find friends to kind of be your little soldiers and go out and sell," he said.
Rotholz never had worked retail before opening his store. In fact, he'd never had a paying job at all. The summer after his junior year, he'd wanted to apprentice with a sculptor, but instead, ended up at a nonprofit that makes equipment out of cardboard for disabled children. It could be a set of stairs up to a sink, a tray that fits on a wheelchair, or a stander that, with a strap, helps a child stand who can't stand unassisted. That nonprofit uses nails and Rotholz's designs use no glue or fasteners, but it was the seed of his idea.
"The whole summer blew my mind, how we could rethink temporary furniture in general," he said. Cardboard "was so available, it was so strong."
Rotholz didn't look for a job his senior year. He made lots of cardboard furniture for his roommates, and he thought about applying for a fellowship with the hackerspace movement, a trend popular in cities around the world, where the community can come together to make electronics or other things.
Instead, he found his way to Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, which gave him the advice and confidence to launch his business.
"I never had a job," he said. "My first job was hiring myself."
He's learned that running a store is more tiring than he thought it would be.
"You have to be on point all day. It's hard to keep that energy," he said. "It's draining to keep it up."
Sometimes people say: "I can't believe you charge $70 for this." (The desk chairs, one of the top sellers, are $70.) Then he has to defend his product.
He has learned the art of the soft sell.
"Selling is more like educating or teaching. You educate them about the brand, about cardboard, your story," he said, so you can make an emotional connection. "When you sell, you can't hound people, you can't be really, really aggressive."
Before he opened Chairigami, he thought being his own boss would give him freedom.
"Sometimes being free isn't all that," he said. "It's a lot of responsibility. Sometimes it's nice to have someone to tell you what to do."
There are days when he'd like to be creative, designing high-heeled shoes out of cardboard, or a sculpture. And those flights of fancy can lead to sales -- he sold seven cardboard erector sets at Christmas.
But he could be spending that time drumming up business, or promoting himself online.
At moments, he thinks this is not going to work out and thinks: "I should never have gotten into this."
But other times he's excited, explaining his concept of recyclable, lightweight cardboard furniture for the urban nomad. He said he has to trust himself to be able to learn the ropes of running a business fast enough that the business can grow.
Just as the weight of a person's body wears a spot on the cardboard sofa that follows the contours of one's posterior, Rotholz has been changed by the last six months.
"It's a huge growth experience, the real world smacking you in the face," he said.
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