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Real business story

We just took advantage of the demand for sofas!

After 18 months in business, innovative direct-to-consumer sofa company Swyft is exceeding all expectations and has just unveiled its fourth new model. Follow the company's evolving story as we check in each month to track progress and improvement efforts.

Weekly demand at Swyft soon outpaced founder Keiran Hewkin's estimations

When Keiran Hewkin launched furniture brand Swyft at the end of 2019, he was aiming to manufacture 15 sofas per week.

Fast forward a year and weekly demand was more than ten times that. His solid background in the furniture sector helps him to run a workforce that is split between the UK, where the products are sold, and Portugal, where they are made.

Let's start by looking at how Swyft fared as a new business in the pandemic and some of the challenges Keiran has navigated in the last 18 months.

How Swyft started the year

Launching four months before the start of a global pandemic might not be recommended as a general business strategy, but when your product is something that everyone wants as they sit at home to ponder the state of the world, it's proof that every cloud has a silver lining.

Such was the case for 'sofa-in-a-box' company, Swyft, a forward-thinking direct-to-consumer brand whose innovative and elegant sofas proved popular with buyers almost as soon as the pandemic hit.

"We just took advantage of the demand for sofas," said founder Keiran Hewkin, back in November.

It hasn't, however, been a walk in the park. Challenges have tested Keiran and his team at every turn – such as the time 250 sofas en route from Portugal, where they are made, were stuck in Calais. Brexit has certainly provided plenty of head-scratching moments, with the firm struggling to make sense of everything from supply chains slowing down to an abundance of extra paperwork.

One knock-on effect of this was Keiran's decision to put a lot of his freight demands in the hands of large, well-established businesses who had quickly emerged as experts in the post-Brexit logistics world.

"It's probably been really hard for some of the smaller companies," he admitted, "because they just haven't got the resources behind them to make sure things happen. In a way it's a bit sad, because lots of independent carriers do a great job, but they were just caught short by Brexit."

Selling out of a new product line in four hours

Swyft's most recent big news came in April, with the release of their model four sofa – their first sofa bed. "It sold out in about four hours, which is always a great problem to have," said Keiran. "The demand was insane."

It also gave the young company another shot of confidence in their vision for the business, as this model has been designed from the ground up. "Our other sofas," said Keiran, "are arguably traditional sofas with a novel assembly method, whereas this sofa bed has got 12 bespoke parts in it.

"We've completely rethought how sofa beds should be and how they should be built, as well as how they should be used, assembled, priced and marketed. So we're really excited that the feedback's been so good."

It's helpful to be able to paint such a positive picture, said Keiran, when the firm communicates with investors: Swyft is currently in the middle of series B fundraising.

"We've got lots of interest and we're having lots of conversations, and that's a really nice position to be in," he said of their fundraising efforts. "We're very fortunate to be in a space that's grown so fast – and with a product that people just resonate with. They get it."

With so much going on, plans to introduce other products to the Swyft collection have fallen behind a little. Keiran certainly intends to expand their offering into side tables and other items, but admitted that this perhaps isn't his top priority right now.

"Furniture beyond sofas is not our primary skill set, and we've only got a few people in the business that are specialists in that," he said, "so we can't throw lots of resources behind it."

To date, the first prototypes for several new items have been completed, said Keiran, and a new locking mechanism that will hold them together has its patent pending. Keiran is confident of a product or two later in the year.

What will be interesting to see, he said, is whether these new products can be sold to existing customers, as opposed to just new ones who were searching for them and found them on the Swyft website.

Defining what success looks like for Swyft

After the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and post-Brexit logistics, we asked Keiran to set a one year from now success statement – a situation the business would be in that would represent progress towards his long-term vision for Swyft. We then got him to identify the five individual targets that would be most important in making that success statement a reality. See what he set out for the business below.

Time for some targets

Update one: June 2021 – "We've done our first TV ad, and on paper the budget looked insane"

Keen to massively ramp up brand awareness this year, Keiran Hewkin, co-founder of sofa brand Swyft, is trying a new type of advertising for the young company.

"One of our targets for 2021-22 is to increase brand awareness, and to help with that we've just completed our first TV ad. It sees us drifting away from the traditional digital advertising we do on the likes of Facebook and Instagram, and it was a totally different experience.

Firstly, the budgets for TV are just insane when you look at them on paper. They look positively scary, because you've got to factor in directors, composers, creative agencies and media buying agencies – it's quite an operation in comparison to sketching up a few digital ad storylines and posting them over the weekend.

In total, everything came in at less than 100k. It was about the same as three or four weeks' worth of our digital spend – although it's much easier to justify the latter because the results for that are much more measurable.

But the TV ad is something we can use throughout the year, and the intention is that we will be in the front of people's minds when they're ready to buy a sofa. They'll already know about us, rather than us constantly having to find the right person who's looking for a sofa at that point in time who also likes our style.

Around 4 per cent of adults in the UK know the brand at the moment, and we want to increase that to 60. The good thing right now is that, while TV advertising is expensive, it's not as expensive as it has been in the past because the demand for it isn't as strong.

As for the ad, I'm really pleased with the result, which sees us take a bit of a risk and do something a bit different. It's not just 'sofa porn' where you've got a lovely sofa in the middle of a room with some fancy music.

I'm also hoping it will mean my parents will stop asking when I'm going to get a real job now that I'm on the telly!

Another of the targets on my list is to launch new products this year, and we're on track to do that in August with a coffee table, side table and media unit.

We've now got the prototypes signed off, and we're optimistic about what these can do for us. We've got a patented locking device that enables them to be assembled without tools, like our sofas, and we hope it will translate the Swyft experience into casegoods furniture rather than just upholstery."

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Update two: July 2021 – "TV works!"

So says Keiran Hewkin, co-founder of sofa-in-a-box company Swyft, whose first foray into television has been a lesson in the power of old-school advertising. Here, he also updates us on two of the other targets on his 2021/22 success statement...

Increased traffic

“It was good. We did get caught out a little because we were one of many companies who bought a Sky advertising package and ended up being used on the new GB News channel on its launch day – and we got loads of grief for that. Fortunately, there was no long-term damage.

We did some larger Channel Five stuff in the evening and we saw immediate traffic. And we've seen increased brand awareness and searches since, so we can see the impact already, which is great.

We just did a survey and part of that asked 'How did you hear about us?'. About 3 per cent of people said 'TV ad', which is great because that probably accounts for about 0.1 per cent of what we've spent in the history of our business. So the TV ad is already proven to be stickier in people's minds than social advertising. TV works.

Progress against other targets

“Some are a little quiet, but everything's going well on our factory move in Portugal. It's just down the road from our current premises, and is about two-and-a-half times bigger. It's all going through the legal stuff now, but there's been a handshake agreement and we're renting it from the local government, so I doubt they'll go back on their word.

Once we've transferred everything from the old place to the new, which we'll do over the summer, we'll be able to hire more people. We're at about 75 people now, and that's pretty much the limit. We can't really squeeze any more in, especially with social distancing; we need bigger premises to be able to create more products and do it in a safe way.

Manufacturing

“We're manufacturing around 2,000 units a month now. It's a lot. When you look back at the start of the pandemic, we were shutting our factory and putting everyone on furlough in case no one was going to spend any money for the next 10 months. In hindsight, that was stupid, because everyone was going to sit at home and buy sofas. But no one knew anything at that point in time, so it was more a case of holding onto every penny and then seeing what happened.

Finding investors

“It's always more complex than you think. People have their own opinions, their own ideas and their own valuations. And, of course, success doesn't guarantee success. What our success means is that, to some people, we might look expensive. And they might think that our success is down to a pandemic boom – and that the future won't be as good as the past. That's a totally valid concern that investors may or may not have.

But we're talking to people. We've been successful, so we're in a position where we can be choosy and make sure we get a partner that really understands the brand, wants to take it forward and doesn't just want to do a short-term turnaround. It's easier for us to raise cash at any cost, because we've got the size, the scale and the growth to back it up. But equally, because of those things, we don't want to raise at any costs.”

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Update three: August 2021 – “We just launched our new website”

When Keiran Hewkin, co-founder of sofa-in-a-box company Swyft, was setting out his goals for 2021/22, improving the customer journey was a top priority. In this video, he explains how the brand’s new AI-powered website is helping with this by making it easier for customers to find exactly what they’re looking for.

Update four: September 2021 – “We've just gone into John Lewis”

Sofa-in-a-box brand Swyft has a fantastic digital presence, but co-founder Keiran Hewkin recognised that he could widen his reach – and make progress on two of his 2021-22 goals – by teaming up with a major retail partner. Here, he brings us up to speed with four key things he has learned this month...

Not everyone wants to buy a sofa online

“We're built on a direct-to-consumer model, but we've always had partnerships with a few independent retailers where people can try out our sofas before they buy. The big news this month, though, is that Swyft is now in John Lewis. It was a year's worth of work to get there, but in the first week we saw four times the sales we had forecast. John Lewis is a kind of shortcut that says to people, 'You can trust us'.

“We're in six stores at the moment, and within two weeks of starting we were successful enough to start talking about adding more stores, possibly even the big-hitters like Peter Jones and Oxford Street in London. The JLP staff are great, they really know furniture, and they really get the concept. And what it all means for us is that it allows people who are perhaps less confident about online purchases for a high-ticket item to see the product, try it out and talk to someone. Being stocked in John Lewis ties in nicely with two of our 2021-22 goals: improve the customer journey, and generate more brand awareness. It will also help cut down on waste. We offer a 100 day trial, and taking sofas back is expensive and a waste of resources.”

Maintaining organic traffic

“As I said last month, our new website has recently launched, and what's really great to see is that we managed to maintain organic traffic while migrating. You normally get a drop in performance no matter how well you do it, but we actually saw an improvement. So full credit to the Swyft team behind that and all their planning and hard work.”

Investors like long holidays

“One of our goals this year is to secure series B funding, but that got put on hold over the summer because it's hard to get lots of important people into a room, especially in August. People from big equity houses seem to have quite nice, long holidays – and rightly so, I'm sure.”

Marketing

“Our first TV ad went live in July and it was a big expense putting it together, but we still see spikes whenever it airs. It was on again three days ago and did exactly what we hoped. I'm happy for that ad to run for a while, because I don't think people are bored of it yet and it's definitely helping with brand awareness.”

  • website: swyfthome.com
  • location: London
  • business size: 100-249 People
  • business type: Retail & wholesale

Lessons learnt

When Swyft launched its sofa beds, the demand was huge and they sold out in about four hours.

Despite Keiran's initial reservations about the cost of TV ads, they've proved to be stickier in people's minds than social advertising.

Swyft has the size and scale to be attractive to investors, but Keiran's waiting to find an investor who is the right fit.