As seen on LikeMinded.ca
L: Define JM & Sons for us.
JR: We’re a design house. We simply design and manufacture things that we love and want in our lives. We really focus on bringing to the market a product that we source from local builders and local materials. Thus far our success, or what we’re trying to succeed in, is selling online.
L: How is this different from other design houses?
Mackenzie: Most furniture companies don’t sell online. If they do, it’s to support their offline business. Not many furniture companies start online and then move offline. We don’t have a store, we don’t have the physical space to go see our stuff and that’s been the challenge thus far that we’ve picked. Not to say that we won’t go offline eventually and open a store but for now that’s been the challenge.
JR: And also the main differentiating factor in our company vs. the other brands is that we do very high quality premium goods at a very competitive price. So we’re able to use local materials and local suppliers. We don’t outsource to China for manufacturing and we have control over the quality and we’re able to bring in a product on the marketplace at a very competitive price.
L: As interesting people, we’re sure you’ve had at least one other career before this, what other lives have you lived?
JR: My background in finance. So I studied International Business, went into banking right away and then my employer supported me to go do my MBA and then go back into banking. However midway through my MBA I decided I wanted to explore some new avenues that were in a more creative field and I always wanted to bring to life products, my own designs. Whether it was furniture, or wallets, even clothing. So that was the start of JM & Sons. My entire family are very creative people, and I definitely consider my dad as an artist. So I grew up with that drive of “I have an idea, I can execute it.” So throughout university I would build furniture using old Ikea frames and re-do them myself.
Mackenzie: My parents are both entrepreneurs as well, and creative in a much different way than I am. My dad was always designing and building houses a lot, and my mom’s an author. I was always building things when I was young, I was even into sewing for a while and building tree-forts and making anything I could make. And then when I graduated I studied film and graphic design, I got into doing web design and all of that stuff and I’ve always done photography. Growing up it was always more travel and nature photography after doing graphic design for a few years realized I wanted something a little more social as a job so I started assisting and trying to transition into fashion photography, and I’m still doing that. Then JR and I were building random pieces for our apartments and I started doing it in exchange with a woodshop near my place in Montreal so I ended up building this big harvest dining table at an affordable price because I couldn’t afford a few thousand dollar table. And that was what kind of kicked it off for me designing furniture that could potentially turn into a company.
L: How did the two of you meet?
JR: In high school.
Mackenzie: We bonded over snowboarding.
JR: In BC. Mackenzie’s from BC and I’m from Montreal and I wanted to learn English and loved snowboarding. So it was a no-brainer. And we were on the same team for search and rescue. That was 15 years ago.
L: Have you ever sat down and drawn a connecting line between all of the things you’ve done?
JR: No, I’ve never done that to be honest. Have you?
M: Yeah, all the time. I’m very much a starter. I love ideas. I love getting something off the ground. For example I stared a not-for profit, and what I learned is that I don’t need to run it. I can come in and help when I need to and I think that’s a lot of what I bring to the table. Not necessarily the day to day, other than photography, which is something I’ve kept. When I was in grade 6 I started another company with one of my best friends, Paul. Remember when fleece hats were cool? We made $1500 each so we could buy our snowboard passes. In grade 6 that’s like a million dollars and the all the local ski shops wanted to carry our stuff and we were like “No, we just wanna snowboard”.
L: So does that pose a problem when you’re actually committed to a business?
M: No, I think what I’ve learned from Apathy is Boring, which is the not-for-profit that I co-founded with a friend of mine 10 years ago. I’m still on the board, and over those last 10 years I would spend a lot of time not involved then I would come back, do what I can and then step back. What I’ve learned over the years is you just focus on what you’re really good at and work with people that really complement that. So much like photography, I hate re-touching because I hate sitting in front of my computer. And I’m the most valuable on set making photos happen but not retouching. And so I work with really good retouchers, so I can be out doing what I’m best at but the overall product still gets finished. So you work with people who are the best at what they do, and you fit somewhere in that puzzle, and then as a whole group you create a way better product.
JR: Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t see. You learn so many things and so fast that eventually you realize…you start to see your strengths, you think that you’re really good at this until you meet someone who’s better than you and you say, “Ok, maybe that’s not what my strength is.” And you work on that, you focus on your strengths, you know you want to push it, you want to monetize that a certain way. And for your weaknesses you just try to make the best out of it. You try to mitigate them, whether to learn or like Mackenzie said maybe just to outsource, find the right person for you, the right partners, to make sure you’re the best, and can bring value to the table.
L: Do you think that’s harder or easier the fact that you’re friends?
M: Both harder and easier.
JR: Yeah, it’s right down the middle.
M: We obviously love spending time together, but it’s also more charged and maybe if we weren’t friends and I’d bring something up, I wouldn’t care so much if I offended him. But the other way around, because we have so much trust I will bring something up because I know he understands where it’s coming from.
JR: It’s really a marriage. My parents are in business together, Mackenzie’s parents as well, you could tell if there’s love and passion and you care for each other it makes business a bit easier even though you shouldn’t mix emotions with business. But the truth is, it’s a marriage. The business is an extension of both Mackenzie and I, and if we don’t understand each other’s personalities, if don’t understand each other’s weaknesses, just like relationships you end up fights, you end up in divorce, and it’s costly it’s messy and you lose everything.
M: It all comes down to communication really.
L: Do you remember a decisive moment or conversation that pushed you to leap into this new venture?
M: I think there definitely was a moment, I remember having a conversation, or conversations, that JR didn’t want to go back into finance and that we had been building these pieces of furniture for fun. And he was like “I want to make it. I want to start a company.” JR’s always had this amazing ability to be ahead of trend and have designs that would fit perfectly, but I’ve never seen him have the space or the opportunity to execute things and actually bring products to life.
JR: We managed to find some really beautiful wood at a good price, a couple of guys who do welding in Toronto. We’d do it, I’d put it in my place, friends would come over and love it, they’d want to buy one, we’d make money and we’re like ok, this is fun. I was happy doing it, Mackenzie was happy doing it. Did we fully grasp what kind of business we were jumping into?
L: At the point of making this leap, what did you think would be your biggest challenges?
JR: I think Mackenzie would say the biggest challenge would be manufacturing at first…the thing with starting a company in hindsight is being overconfident. But to a certain extent you have to be overconfident to start a business. You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in your partner, you have to believe in the company, in the brand, in its goals, in its path to reach the goals. It’s so easy to underestimate the competition. We’re not competing with other furniture companies, we’re competing with computer space, when a person goes on their computer we’re trying to be that website that people are going to come in and spend five minutes a day. That’s our competition and that’s massive. We’re talking millions and millions of views. It’s really hard.
M: Manufacturing, and I still stick with that in a way. But the hardest thing is to find the right people to fit the different roles in your company. Especially as a startup, if we had $100K to pay anyone in each role you could get the best of the best for certain roles, but as a startup you have to stay super lean and how do you find the right people who fill those roles in a very quality way but still manage your cash flow and grow. That was something we didn’t really see. For me it’s how do I manage my other career and this career, and how do I still keep another career growing and successful while still putting in tons of hours to JM & Sons. Things have a hard time holding my interest. So I’ve had a really challenging two years with photography just as a creative whether I want to do that or not. But JM and Sons has been a perfect outlet because I’m still creative and I’m learning a lot from JR and it’s different. So that’s re-ignited my photo career. So ideally where I’d like to be in 5 years is still doing both. We’ve framed JM & Sons around furniture right now but we can kind of make anything. The product scope is wide. We could have JM& Sons adventure camps.
JR: We even thought about hotels.
M: Basically making mini-hotels that you can drop in the middle of nowhere and you curate and adventure around that. So you send people out to these little cabins that are essentially a hotel experience in the middle of nowhere. Like things that we would be interested in as people that we could infuse into the company.
JR: The thing with starting a company is that it fuels your ideas even more. It also allows you to screen them better.
M: Having a company gives you a bounce-back board. So instead of starting a belt company from scratch, and rebranding, and making a new website, we have somewhere for that to come and live. So it takes down a lot of the barriers to that.
L: How do you deal with the phase after the endorphin rush of startup?
JR: It’s a personal thing, how to stay motivated. For me it’s changes, if we can change the routine, if we could come up with a new project, if we come up with a new product, a new strategy. We get super hyped up about that. We love changes we love doing things that no one else is doing. Once you get bored that definitely fuels me and Mackenzie to do something different. So when we hit that rut, first we try to take a vacation, whether we take it alone or we take it together. Take a weekend go up winter camping, ice fishing, fly fishing or whatever. It’s nice because it gives you some headspace and it allows you to think of what’s next.
M: That’s always been part of my creative process. I have friends in Montreal that say I have the annual June meltdown. So in June, I always freak out. So I always try to go away in January for a couple of weeks. I usually try to go surfing and just spend time alone and turn my phone off and not talk to anyone and read books. If I can do that twice a year I could avoid my annual June meltdown.
L: The community, is a big piece, everything revolves around this community that you’re building. Tell us about this the Roncesvalles / Dundas West neigbhourhood and why you chose to live and work here?
M: The second garage we rented was near Christie Pitts. I was kind of homeless and jumping around with my photo life. And we did our pop-up down the street and the guy that runs the gallery out front, we became Facebook friends and he posted “Looking for someone to move into the apartment behind the gallery, has a two storey garage and a full basement and a back yard and it’s totally affordable.” So I thought, I need an apartment, it’s cheap, had space for us to work, it’s near JR’s house it’s a cool neighbourhood. Done.
JR: And I had moved into the neighbourhood six months before. I was living near the Drake before.
M: If you would have asked me a few years ago if I were to move to Roncey I would have said no. It’s too far, it’s too quiet, it’s too boring. Now I love it. It’s the best place I’ve lived in Toronto.
L: Are there key people that are reference points for you in the city?
M: We’ve met a company that’s called Brothers + Sons just down the street, it’s a guy named Lucas, I met him on the side of the road because I had my old Honda motorcycle and he was riding his pedal bike so I called out to him. He lives right by JR, and now I go out for beers with him occasionally. Super nice guy. We’ve met a guy named Jeff from Stacklab who was a friend of a friend. Very different clientele and love his stuff as well. And I think everyone has their place, much like the photo world. I’ve met lots of photographers who have their back up, because of insecurities. But over the years I’ve found a sort of crew, where people hang out, and it’s cool. And I get that we’re both going after the same clients, but it’s all good. We have the same interest. I think if you attract the right kind of people, there’s a great community to be built.
JR: And especially us, we don’t have 15 years in woodworking or carpentry, and a lot of the other shops that’s what they do. And we definitely have a lot of respect for what they do, and I think they appreciate what we do. We’re definitely different. We have a different angle, we’re a brand vs. making products. That’s what we like to do. We love branding, we love creating a company that screams who I am and what Mackenzie is, but maybe people don’t know us personally, but they know the branding, they know us for sure.
M: And I think we’re pretty upfront about not being cabinetry makers. We’re designers and our designs reflect us. They’re basic. But it’s an aesthetic that we really like. We don’t build a chair that takes 40 hours to build. And that’s great if that’s what you do and I have tons of respect for that. But it’s not what I aspire to do or be. So there’s space for everything.
L: How do you balance between healthy competition and community building among other players in your field?
M: I think that’s all internal. When I was first getting into photography there would be a contemporary who would get a big job and sometimes you want to hate that person. “Why are they getting it, I’m just as good!?” and eventually you need to be motivated by that. You need to say “That’s great! There’s someone like me getting these amazing jobs. I can also be getting those amazing jobs.”
JR: Through JM & Sons I’ve never experienced jealousy. When we read an article about someone new, often we just end up following them on Instagram.
M: Or writing to them, “This is great!” I wrote one of my favourite outdoor surf photographers, Chris Burkard, he’s in California. Amazing stuff. And I randomly emailed him, didn’t think I’d hear back. A day later he writes me back “Hey man, I really appreciate you emailing me.” So we do that as well with brands. And a lot of our contemporary brands we want to collaborate with. That’s changed in that last few years I think. It’s great for brands to collaborate now. Even like a Club Monaco is collaborating with something smaller. Or two brands jam together to make a product that overlaps. So if you’re really open to keeping things positive between potential competition, there’s so much room for everyone to benefit from everything.
L: What are your current challenges and how are you going about addressing them?
M: We were in a full-blown sprint in the last six months and now we’re just catching up with getting procedures in place and making our business run without us having to be there every day to make sure that everything happens properly. There’s a lot of books written on entrepreneurs who’ve built the company around themselves so you just work 80hrs a week and you can never leave. And that’s not how it should be. You should build a company so you can employ people and the company should run and you can guide it.
JR: We experienced the last Aug-Dec just a crazy jump in sales and business and new designs. I’m still surprised that we pulled it off truthfully. It was nice because we had a great team. But we realize in the future we need to have a really strong infrastructure, a really strong base and then have the right resources and team.
M: We’re not done yet, but looking back, if we’d had all this stuff in August this last six months would have gone off without a hitch. And we did pull it off. It was exhausting and super stressful but it would have been a totally different thing if we’d had this stuff in place and we will have it all in place.
L: What was your biggest fall?
JR: The biggest fall is when you start a company and assume that you should be doing everything. And Mackenzie assumed that I would be doing everything and I assumed Mackenzie would be doing everything. And you finish a week and you haven’t done shit…. I remember sitting down at my computer and having 30 email tabs unsent, because I couldn’t even finish an email before another one would come in and I would start replying to this one. And that’s not good. Obviously you emphasize clients first. I truly believe the biggest weaknesses in an entrepreneur, and that was the case with us, is to assume you should be doing everything. And you want to do everything because you don’t want to spend money on somebody else, you want to invest in the company.
M: Prioritizing is very hard and if you want to do everything yourself it’s a very short-term view. That was a lesson I learned with photography. I get x amount to be on set everyday, and I get substantially less retouching. So if I’m on set 5 days a week, then I’m retouching for 10 days. So that’s 15 days. But if I’m on set 15 days and I hire a retoucher I’m going to make a lot more money being on set for 15 days.
JR: And a lot happier.
M: And that, more than anything, money aside, I’ll be a much better person and happier person. But that was really hard for me to see at first. That mentality shift really saved me in photography. We could be in the shop everyday building pieces, but we wouldn’t be out doing all the other stuff that would grow the company.
L: How do you define success?
JR: If you were to ask me when I was 21, I would have said success has a lot to do with money, but not all. I think it’s just happiness. Money plays a part, because I love experiencing new things and going out to dinners and travelling and even if you travel with a backpack it still becomes expensive. Health is everything. Without health you’ve got nothing.
M: I would say the same. When I was 21 I wanted to be a millionaire, or I wanted to be famous, or I wanted to be recognized in my industry. Now success for me is definitely how I spend my time. And whatever I’m doing, whether it’s work or it’s personal, I want to be passionate about it. And I want to be able to build from that. So if I break my day down into different parts, I want all of those to return this feeling of gratitude toward what’s happening in my life. And of course money plays a part in that. I love travel, I love meeting new people, new experiences, I love the fulfillment of designing or creating new images going for coffee with people. Really it comes down to health and experience.
L: What do you hope they’ll say about you when you’re gone?
M: In one term, I would hope that people would say I was a good person, more than anything.
JR: I really hope they say, “Fuck he lived long!”
M: Long? I’d rather live well.
JR: Give me live long and I’ll take care of living well.