As a designer and artist, Heather Sawtelle has always loved craftsmanship, inspired by the dedication and care that goes into making fine furniture and objects. She recalls three days she spent training in New York City at P.E. Guerin, America’s oldest decorative hardware company, whose products have adorned the homes of the country’s most illustrious abodes, such as the Kennedy White House.
Walking up the stairs of an unassuming four-story building in Greenwich Village, she entered a massive foundry with artisans crafting ornate hardware, doorknobs, hinges and bolts — Louis XIV-type of stuff that usually isn’t her taste. “However, after spending three days watching and learning the history of the company, and how these artisans made hardware just like fine jewelry, I was hooked. Every single object in that workroom was created with precision, expertise and care,” said Sawtelle, CEO of Bellvine, a platform for premium interior furnishings.
“I was transported to another place and time,” she said, adding that artisans like these and those who make furniture, as well as the designers who create beautiful spaces – are what make the design industry so interesting.
When we interact, work, or live in an incredibly designed space, it makes us think differently, react differently, and pay attention to the world in a new way that fosters creativity, says Sawtelle, pointing out that beautiful spaces set the stage for inspiration, elevating us to higher standards.
Think of a time when you were in a jaw-dropping interior that was forward-thinking, outlandish, interesting, and intriguing. “Did it feed your soul, fuel your imagination? What could you create for yourself and the world?” she asked.
Evocative spaces that transport us cannot exist if we don’t have unusual objects and beautiful interiors. But how do people even obtain access to these things?
Enter Bellvine, an online marketplace for premium furnishings. Bellvine provides interior designers easy access to exquisite furnishings online so they can offer their clientele excellent choices and faster service while manufacturers expand their brand awareness and grow their customer base.
Sawtelle shared her vision to protect, preserve and promote the world’s artisans, how the design industry needs a revolution technology-wise to survive, and why Bellvine is the right company at the right time.
Q. Great companies start with passionate founders. What inspired you to launch Bellvine?
I created Bellvine with a deep understanding that it was essential to create a marketplace platform that uses technology and the internet to streamline business operations in the design industry.
At this moment, only two percent of premium manufacturers are online. There are just a small handful of showroom distributors who have online transactional websites. These showroom sites may provide some of the features a designer needs like price, lead time, quote requests or ability to download a tear sheet but I don’t know of any that offer actual buying on the website let alone have the ability to instantly modify change orders without hours of labor.
There are 75,000 interior designers in the US and their design process starts online. Designers do 90% of their initial research and product discovery online. Yet, when a designer finds a unique product, if they can’t easily price and buy it, they switch to transactable online sites (like Wayfair) and buy substitute products of lesser quality.
It has become routine for designers to compromise their design choices in order to save time with over 50% of all of their products purchased online. By switching to substitutes, the artists, the clients, and ultimately the design industry, are cheated out of a superior design result.
Q. Why is the high-end, luxury design industry ripe for disruption? What is the pain point?
After 20+ years in the industry, I observed how slow it was to adapt to the digital age of e-commerce. Every single professional said streamlining the industry was impossible. If we don’t evolve, premium manufacturers will go out of business and our industry as we know it will die.
Due to the bespoke nature of premium furnishings — highly customized pieces with seemingly infinite options: types of finishing, knobs, materials – manufacturers said it was just too difficult to conduct business online. The trade would say: “But this product is made to order. There is no system or standard way manufacturers price their products, and there are so many different product types.” It looked too difficult to automate, but I knew it could be done.
The past year proved it is possible to conduct all sorts of business online. Entire industries moved online at warp speed. Put simply, these industries – and companies, small and large — have no choice.
Q. What makes Bellvine unique?
Bellvine is one of the few platforms that allows a designer to click and build their own product based on all the countless possibilities from a manufacturer. Bellvine is the only marketplace for premium bespoke products to offer accurate prices right then and there, with customization for any part of the item, whether a different size or finish and to buy anytime.
We connect all stakeholders in real time. Layering real-time technology into operations revolutionizes the way the industry is doing business.
Because the marketplace directly links designers, manufactures and their showrooms, Bellvine shatters all previous methods of access to products, saves time consuming research and hours spent on mind-numbing change orders.
If a designer needs to make a change she calls her rep at a showroom,“Hey, can you change the ship to address on my order?” While that seems simple, because business is still done the old-fashioned way in most companies, changing the shipping address can take many phone calls. Imagine how much time that takes if several clients have changes? On Bellvine’s platform, the designer can go to their order, and simply change the ship to address. Manufacturers and showrooms are notified of the update the moment changes happen.
Q. What experiences provided the real-world examples that helped you build a company that understands the pain points?
I once ordered $40,000 of custom-printed fabric from London for a huge custom job. It was December 18th. The workroom calls me to tell me they are closing on the 21st, so that if the fabric has not arrived from London by that time, it will either sit on the street in San Francisco for days, or it is going to be returned to London.
Nobody could tell me if the fabric had been shipped, or if it was going to be on time or not, so that I could change the ship to address. We went back and forth. I never got an update. The holidays passed and I didn’t know until January 6th whether the fabric was late or if it had been stolen from the sidewalk.
If I had Bellvine at my fingertips, I would have logged in, and put that question out right away. The manufacturer would answer whether it had shipped or not, given me the address and tracking number. If it was late, I could have automatically updated the ship to address and wouldn’t have to call the showroom to ask.
I wouldn’t have to keep calling everybody to find out where the order was. Super simple, right? There’s no finger pointing on approvals or missing details because Bellvine keeps track of all actions taken and sends alerts and prompts to keep the order and ultimately the project moving forward.
Q. Why are you uniquely qualified to launch this type of company?
I have more than two decades of experience in the industry – I have worked as an interior designer and decorator, as well as in business development, sales, and marketing. I have managed showrooms for all sorts of design companies, large and small. I have also served as a member of the San Francisco Modern Art Council Executive Committee, the main fundraising branch of SFMOMA. And after graduating from an international startup program I realized I could apply my leadership, problem solving, and collaboration skills to bring talented tech people on board and solve this $46B problem.
Building this type of company takes somebody who truly understands the field and how it functions on a granular level. It also takes someone who understands every stakeholder – the artisan, the manufacturer, the designer, and the showroom. I am not an outlier, but have lived, breathed, eaten and slept every facet of the design industry.
Most importantly, it takes someone who wants to build and lead a tech company. Building a tech company that caters to the multifaceted interior design industry is a challenge but like a beautifully designed space, also worth it.