As far as Shawn Nelson is concerned, the family couch isn’t simply a piece of furniture.
Nelson is a native Utahn and the founder and CEO of Lovesac, the furniture company best known for its giant, foam-stuffed chairs of the same name. To Nelson, living room furniture is part of a family’s life.
The self-proclaimed “couch entrepreneur” wasn’t setting out to start a company when he sewed together a massive bag of foam as an 18-year-old. He was just experimenting.
“I wish I had a better story, but I was sitting on my parents’ couch in Holladay, Utah, and I was 10 days out of high school, watching ‘The Price is Right,’ eating a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, and I just had this idea,” Nelson said.
He decided to make the world's largest beanbag, went out and bought fabric and created a 7-foot "Lovesac." That first Lovesac was Nelson’s portable lounge chair for a few years. He took it to parties and other events, and people loved it, he said. But it was still one of a kind, and Nelson didn’t think any more of it than that.
Nelson served an mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Taiwan and learned Mandarin Chinese. When he returned, a neighbor commissioned a Lovesac for a Christmas gift, and Nelson realized that people were willing to pay for his invention.
“Shortly after that their friends wanted one, and their friends wanted one, and everybody want(ed) one,” Nelson said. “And it was off and running.”
As Nelson made Lovesacs for his friends, the furniture's fame spread around Utah, a state that Nelson said is great for starting a business.
“It’s pretty obvious that Utah is a very entrepreneurial place,” he said. “And I think it does come from a lot of these returned missionaries who see the world and realize what’s possible and also happen to have really great people skills and sales skills.”
He also said that people in Utah have a certain open-mindedness and are inclined to embrace trends, which helped the Lovesac catch on.
“If you can create something that’s truly unique, it can spread very quickly in Utah with very little marketing,” Nelson said.
Nelson registered Lovesac as a company in 1998. His Chinese language skills came in handy again and again as he worked to first build and then grow his business. He used the language to buy fabric in China for his first big order, according to a history of the company on lovesac.com. He has continued to use Chinese since.
“I think learning Mandarin Chinese has played a huge role in my success. We’ve been able to manufacture in China for years,” he said, adding that Lovesac now also manufactures in the United States.
Building a company that has close to 60 furniture stores around the country was never an easy venture. Nelson used a lot of grit and any resources available to him to build a successful business. In 2005, he won a $1 million investment on Richard Branson's reality TV show "The Rebel Billionaire."
After 20 years of building Lovesac, Nelson is a furniture guy through and through. But he is no longer an 18-year-old watching “The Price is Right.” His life circumstances have changed. He is now a husband and father, and his priorities have shifted.
“When I began this thing I was a bachelor,” he said. “We got married 12 years ago now, and we’ve had four children, and I guess as Lovesac has grown up, so have I. Or maybe as I’ve grown up, so has Lovesac.”
Nelson has managed to take care of both his family and his company with a strategy he calls “play along the way.” As he travels for work, he takes time out to sightsee and brings his family along when he can.
“Work can kind of suck you in,” he said. “So I think one of the keys is just to play along the way. And of course with a family, play with your family. If you don’t, then you see your life escape you.”
The family focus is reflected in Lovesac’s Sactional, a changeable, durable couch with washable covers. According to Nelson, the couch is the new kitchen table; it’s where families gather and bond.
“I’ve done interviews with people where I just asked them to tell me about the couch they grew up on, and a big smile always floods across their face,” he said.
After a lifetime focused on furniture, he hates the idea of families growing up around their sofa and then throwing it away when it gets old.
“I think that we have some of our best memories on the couch,” he said. “We see our children take their first step holding on to the cushion.”
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