At Semihandmade, a chance conversation sparks a cabinetmaker’s career

A comment from a “random dude” changed John McDonald’s life.

A custom cabinetmaker, McDonald was exhibiting his work at a design show in Los Angeles. A photographer who liked his work mentioned that he should consider making doors for Ikea products.

McDonald kicked around the idea for six months or a year, eventually launching his company Semihandmade.

“It was one of those completely unexpected, incredibly fortuitous conversations,” says McDonald. “I take no credit for the idea. But a lot of really hard work went into making it a reality.”

At Semihandmade, a Chance Conversation Sparks a Cabinetmaker’s Career2

Since that point, Semihandmade has been growing by leaps and bounds. There are now almost 50 employees. Revenues last year were $4 million, putting it on the Inc.’s list of the 500 fastest growing companies.

The idea behind Semihandmade is a simple one: create custom-made doors, shelves, and other accessories for standard Ikea cabinets, giving them a one-of-a-kind look. They’ve worked with 3,000 customers all across the U.S. and Canada since launching in 2011.

Up until now, the bulk of the company’s marketing efforts has been at trade shows like the one where McDonald first talked about the idea of creating components for Ikea furnishings. It’s a pricy proposition, says McDonald.

“I can spend $25,000 to set up at a trade show over the weekend, and then I’m gone,” he says. “Factor in six or seven of these over the course of a year, and it really adds up.”

At Semihandmade, a Chance Conversation Sparks a Cabinetmaker’s Career3

So McDonald decided to try a new way to introduce his products to people around the country. In April, he opened a showroom inside Chicago’s WeWork Grant Park space.

“For a fraction of what we would pay for a trade show, we can put our products in front of our customers in Chicago,” says McDonald. “They can get an up-close look at what we have to offer.”

It won’t be the company’s only WeWork space. In May, Semihandmade cut the ribbon on a showroom in the newly opened WeWork Pasadena. Showrooms in New York at WeWork Times Square and WeWork Brooklyn Heights are slated to follow in June. Offices in Seattle and San Francisco are planned for the fall.

“We’re calling these ‘extended pop-ups,’” says McDonald. “We could open them for six months, a year, or even make them permanent. We’re thinking they could replace design shows permanently.”

He imagines other pop-ups opening in cities with big annual events—in Austin, for example, for a few months before and after the mammoth South by Southwest conference to create some extra buzz.

McDonald says don’t look at the spaces as traditional showrooms. Sure, you’ll be able to schedule an appointment with a designer who can help you with that custom kitchen or bathroom project. But he’s also hoping other WeWork members will stop by, relax on the sofa, or recharge their phone.

Having space available on an as-needed basis is one of the most appealing aspects of WeWork, according to McDonald. Now he will have more time to focus on growing his business.

“It’s been a blast,” says McDonald. “We’re growing so fast that it’s hard to take a breath. That’s a great problem to have.”

Photos: Katelyn Perry

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