Daily Candy's annual Start Small, Go Big awards, which push small businesses into the big time by giving them coveted publicity and one-on-one mentorship, has gay-owned Apt2B as one of three finalists for this year's Most Inventive Award, sponsored by Chase, being considered for itsrisk-taking and forward-thinking business practices.
Founder Mat Herman says Apt2b bridges the gap between IKEA and Crate & Barrel (clearly underestimating the impact of his cool gay sensibility and a quirky, post-Jonathan Adler curatorial style). Herman isn't being shy about trying to rally LGBT supporters to vote for Apt2B at Daily Candy's awards page before the contest ends August 24.
The company was recently part of Yahoo's Ultimate Surprise, where Apt2B hooked up with Dell Computers to help redo the computer lab for a youth homeless shelter in Los Angeles. "It was the most rewarding thing we have done as a company so far," says Herman, who posted his own It Gets Better video last year and has been volunteering at the Trevor Project call center for the last four years.
We caught up with Herman to ask about his queer eye, what it's like to work 18 hours a day, and how he keeps his site so damn fresh.
The Advocate: How old is Apt2B?
Mat Herman: We launched in June of 2011, but I have been building Apt2B since October of 2008.
Do you have partners or employees?
I am the founder and president and majority holder in the company, but I do have a business partner. Alex Back [pictured with Herman, above] and with his wife, Becca McHugh, have been on board since day one, and the three of us run the entire business. I like to think that most people think we are a team of 40-plus, and I wish we were, but as a startup goes, it's not as easy as it sounds. We just hired our first full-time employee last week and we are really excited about that.
Tell me about the Guy in 2A and the Girls From 2C, two features on your website.
So I started a blog about a year before we launched Apt2B called The Guy in 2A. I felt that there was no voice out there for the 20- to 30-something guy who may not be making the kind of money to have his entire place outfitted by Design Within Reach but still wanted nice things and was over IKEA. There's a million design and lifestyle blogs out there, but unless you have a house in the Hamptons, where would you put this stuff? I believe you don't have to be rich to have taste, so I tried through humor and wit to give my readers some fun tips and advice on how to make $1 out of 15 cents. From there I launched the The Girls From 2C with a more female spin, and they were always a part of the big picture of Apt2B. Essentially they are the spokespeople, or the residents, as I like to say, of Apt2B.
But Apt2B is not merely an e-commerce site; we are a lifestyle brand, and the Guy in 2A and the Girls From 2C are not merely talking about furniture and home decor. They give our followers recommendations from things to do on the weekend to their favorite gyms and restaurants in Los Angeles. We believe that if you like our products you probably also like what we like too so we want to share that with you. It's all part of the branding. We as owners are the Landlords, and we even have Stan the Super, who is probably the funniest character in the whole brand.
How is your business model different than others?
Apt2B has a truly unique business model unlike any other online site. We have revolutionized the way customers shop online. You see, Apt2B lives only online, with no brick-and-mortar store, but we operate on a local level in a specific metropolitan city. By selling, warehousing, and delivering locally, we operate as a "virtual store next door." Apt2B really targets a generation of tech-savvy, style-conscious consumers and embodies a culture and voice unlike any other home store. Through Facebok, Twitter, blogging, and our own high-end website, the characters of Apt2B provide local tips and advice from weekend entertainment to our "just the tip Tuesdays," where one can learn that if you want candles to burn twice as long, just put them in your freezer before using them. Apt2B is not merely an e-commerce site but a lifestyle brand that has huge scalability. We are proving ourselves in Los Angeles with hopes to take it to every major city yet still run it on a local level in those cities.
Do you curate everything you sell? If so you have a phenomenal eye, just really sharp and witty and modern.
Yes, and thank you! I am adamant in letting people know I am not a designer but rather a merchandiser and buyer with a good eye. I buy what I like, and my taste is pretty eclectic, but if I like it, I buy it for Apt2B. Last year I sold everything I owned and outfitted my entire apartment from every piece of furniture to the towels, sheets, kitchenware, and tchotchkes in my home from the products we sell at Apt2B. I not only did that because I naturally like that stuff because I bought them for Apt2B, but because it is so important for me to test and sell good-quality products. The same sheets and towels we sell, I use. Well, of course I wash them first before we ship them. [Laughs]
Tell me about your background. How did you get to Apt2B?
I have been in the home furnishings business for 15 years on both the wholesale side and the retail side. I went to Indiana University and after graduation I moved home to Cleveland, Ohio, and was a sub-rep for my dad, who has been in the furniture business for 40 years. Shortly there after I was transferred to Los Angeles in 1998 to have my own territory and the rest is history.
I say you have a great gay eye, but you must have a wide array of customers. Who is your biggest fan base?
I like to say that we cater to the people who are starting up or starting over. Basically 20- to 40-year-olds living in the heart of Los Angeles who are looking for fun, functional, and stylish items for their places. We definitely have a huge gay following. Originally I think that came from word of mouth through myself and my friends helping spread the word of Apt2B when we first started. I'm the voice of Apt2B from all you see on the site and our social media, so I know I attract the gay consumer because I am a gay consumer, and I like to think they I have good taste.
Has the recession affected you greatly?
This entire business model was built around our current economic situation. I built Apt2B because I was hit as hard as anyone during the recession. I lost my job in 2008 and shortly there after I lost my house. This is when I realized there was a huge void in the marketplace. I was too old for IKEA but could no longer afford Design Within Reach, but I still liked really nice stuff.
Does being a gay entrepreneur hold any perks or challenges?
Having my own business has been a huge growth for me personally as a gay man. I had no idea the effect it would have on me regarding this. I have been out since I was 27, but embarrassingly not out in my industry. Now that I've launched something that is truly mine, I am proud to boast that I am a gay business owner.
To vote for Herman, go to Daily Candy.
To read more about Herman, visit MO.com.