Not a good fit? That's impossible. With the online program form.bar, everyone can create their own furniture and have it made by a local carpenter. And it works – even despite the price war in the furniture industry. A portrait of the Okinlab start-up.
About the founders
Alessandro Quaranta (left) and Nikolas Feth have known each other since their school days. Together they came up with the idea of inventing software for custom-made furniture.
“Show a wise person a mistake and he will thank you. Show a foolish person a mistake and he will insult you.” This piece of wisdom from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse hangs on a piece of paper right opposite a natural wood bookshelf with wavy shelves. This piece of furniture is one of the bestsellers at Okinlab GmbH in Saarbrücken, the start-up behind the form.bar software.
Alessandro Quaranta, one of the two managing directors, explains the form.bar principle: “Customers can use our online software to design their furniture individually from home. We then send the production data to a carpenter located close to the customer.” The company specialises in moving from the digital world back to the physical product for the living room at home.
However, the start-up does not seem to need reminders like Lao Tse’s – on the contrary: although it has only been online for just over five years, the design platform form.bar has already won many awards. Certificates line the hallway of the administrative floor: for the KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award Saarland, the German Start-up Award, the State Prize for Design, the German Design Award, no fewer than four awards with the title “Germany’s best online shop” and other awards.
“Many people want to express their individuality, but this is often difficult to put into practice. form.bar enables its customers to transform their ideas into real furniture – it can hardly be more personal,” says Christian Buhr, Managing Director for Corporate Finance, Start-Ups and Education at KfW Group and member of the jury of the KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award.
An extraordinary success
The team also won its offices in the centre of Saarbrücken in a competition – complete with low rent and other start-ups for sharing ideas and networking. “Without our previous experience we would not have been able to implement form.bar this way,” says managing director Quaranta, a man in his late thirties dressed in a t-shirt and shorts – he almost makes you feel like you’re already acquainted. Quaranta has been self-employed before: he owned two shops for upscale men’s fashion. He also worked as a consultant for student start-ups at Saarland University at the same time.
Two pieces of the puzzle that fit together a short time later. Quaranta was commissioned to furnish a shop for the university. But the shop was small, tube-shaped and had high ceilings. There was not nearly enough space for conventional shelves, sales counters and a changing room. Quaranta sought advice from his school friend Nikolas Feth, an architect researching lightweight construction elements. They went back and forth and came up with the perfect solution together with carpenters.
Even the shop’s opening party was an instant success: Quaranta and Feth unexpectedly received enquiries from the guests – not about the fashion but about their furniture. The two began to negotiate orders. “But this back and forth between carpenter and customer with us in the middle was far too complicated,” says Nikolas Feth.
However, the idea of harnessing the potential of local carpenters to make customised furniture – and to make it affordable for the average earner – never left their minds. It seemed that there was a market for personalised furniture, the only thing that needed to be optimised was the time-consuming and thus expensive coordination process between customer requirements and production.
When the friends met up again with their families at Feth’s a little later – “actually just for a cosy evening”, as Feth says – their heads were spinning. Until well into the night they talked over beer about empty corners in rooms, expensive custom-made products and the same Ikea shelves in their circle of friends.
form.bar goes international
The next morning at five o’clock Alessandro called me again – it was clear that this was not just some silly idea over beer. “We absolutely want to do it!” says Nikolas Feth. They applied for the EXIST Business Start-up Grant and reached an agreement: if the application was approved, they would set up a start-up and both would become managing directors.
And they kept their word. The “idea over beer” has become a company with more than 20 employees, including programmers for the online tool, design experts for furniture design and marketing and social media experts for marketing.
Now the aim is to become even better known. “Currently, more than 80 carpenters work with us, more than 300 have already contacted us. The idea is to have a nationwide network, and we have already almost achieved this in Germany, so that the furniture can be produced as close as possible to the customer. Not just in Germany, but everywhere in the world,” said Quaranta. Regional worldwide – this is form.bar's dream, which is increasingly becoming a reality. The platform has been successful in Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg for some time now, and in recent months its push for internationalisation has been gaining momentum. form.bar furniture is now manufactured in several other European countries as well as in South Africa and Canada.
“Fair, affordable prices”
Why is it so important to them? After all, it would be cheaper to produce with a large supplier in Eastern Europe. “Of course, labour costs are lower outside Germany, but this would make us very inflexible with last-minute orders,” says Nikolas Feth, pointing out the opportunities their system also offers their business partners. “If the time-consuming design process is eliminated because customers can create their own furniture, carpentry firms are competitive again.”
And Quaranta adds: “That would also conflict with our philosophy. We do not want to launch large-scale production and ship the furniture around the world, we want to use the technology to be able to produce regionally again and at the same time enable fair, affordable prices.”
As easy-going as they seem, the pressure on them is enormous: as managing directors, they not only have responsibility for their company and the employees, they also have to provide for families with small children.
Is it risky to go into business with a friend? “On the contrary,” says Quaranta. “We already knew each other very well and were well aware of what we were getting into. You can accomplish a lot with a strong team!”
The described project contributes to the following United Nationsʼ Sustainable Development Goals
Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Non-existent or dilapidated infrastructure hinders economic efficiency and thus engenders poverty. When building infrastructure, the focus should be on sustainability, for example, by promoting environmentally-friendly means of transport. Factories and industrial facilities should also ensure that production is in line with ecological aspects to avoid unnecessary environmental pollution.
All United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. At its heart is a list of 17 goals for sustainable development, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our world should become a place where people are able to live in peace with each other in ways that are ecologically compatible, socially just, and economically effective.
First published on KfW Stories: 1 August 2017, last updated: 1 November 2020.