Kelly Smith and Traci Roloff are the founders of FilzFelt, a Boston-based wool felt supply and install company that was recently acquired by Knoll. Both have gone on to hold senior positions within Knoll as part of the transition, and now Traci is VP of Marketing & Communications and Kelly is launching her own design studio, designing products and consulting for the interior design industry.
Interview by Stefane Barbeau | 04.28.2017
Stefane: how did FilzFelt start?
Kelly: we had a design date. I was selling t-shirts on Etsy, and Traci bought one. We realized we’re both in Boston, and had a lot of common interests. We connected through the industry, basically, which is strong in Boston. Boston’s size enabled this kind of connection. Entrepreneurs are more connected here maybe than corporate designers. There are fewer degrees of separation.
Traci: We both wanted to make a change. We’re both careful about researching things before jumping into them…but we met for coffee, and it wasn’t long after that that we started the company. Kelly had been working with felt for a while already, and I loved the material. I wanted to start a business. I didn’t actually need to think too much about it. I think we launched FilzFelt about 6 months after we first met.
Kelly: It was 2008, at the height of recession. But this was good for us. We also had part time jobs to keep paying bills, and didn’t actually work full time on FilzFelt until a year before being acquired by Knoll. This security gave us the room to work out the bugs and terminate our other ventures at the right pace.
Stefane: How has design been used strategically in your venture?
Kelly: We went into it thinking that we’d be a felt supplier as opposed to felt designers, and we didn’t realize the opportunity for the installation, or custom manufacturing, side of the business until someone asked us if we could do it. The Wyly Theater was the first commission like this.
Traci: Yeah, we came back to our core skills as designers; we added value to the product by showing what the raw material could be made into. It was important for our customers to understand that we were not just selling a raw material. We’ve always been very open to what the market needed. We roll product development into customer orders, and then we can re-use that same product for others companies. Basically, the successful custom install projects allow us to develop specific designs that can be repeated and offered to others. This strengthens the partnership with the originator, and they collect royalties from other sales that happen.
Kelly: ARO (Architecture Research Office) is a good example. They designed modular acoustic panels that are easy to install. Their first project for Knoll’s NY showroom included felt-wrapped acoustic planks. That became a product for FilzFelt, and has been very successful. They continue to design and introduce new products through FilzFelt.
“We’ve got access in Massachusetts to a set of much broader thinkers who are very design literate.”
Stefane: Was it hard to let go of your vision when you sold it to Knoll?
Traci: We had no problem selling the business. It was clear what our limitations were in terms of capital to grow – we were so at the mercy of the customer demands. We had very little buffer to weather that, and we needed to make a practical change – a leap – and needed help. We had looked at other growth options like VC firms. But then we got an email from the CEO of Knoll, and it was pretty clear this was a good fit.
Kelly: We did have to let go of the small studio idea when we were absorbed, but that was okay. We had to adapt to the idea that that FilzFelt became part of a much larger corporation, but it was good for the health of the business. And for us.
Traci: The fundamentals of what we do have stayed the same…we’ve evolved our offering, but the tone is the same. We don’t lead as much from the gut anymore, but this is the reality of growth, and was crucial, actually.
Kelly: I was involved with facilitating collaborations with other designers, so it was a little hard to not be the designer. We became a lot about efficiency and less about conventional ideas of design. But we’ve got other outlets now; Traci has renovated a vacation home, for example, and I’m back in a small studio setting, juggling multiple design-intensive projects at once.
Stefane: before and after the acquisition by Knoll, how did you measure the ROI for the design work you did?
Traci: Knoll is so design-driven that the value of design is a given. Their interest in us and the acquisition itself was the ROI for the early design work that Kelly and I did, and it very much paid off, if we want to look at it from a pure numbers standpoint. As for post-acquisition: Knoll is already past the need to measure and prove it; They’ve had a proven track record for decades of the value of design based on their position in the marketplace. We’ve got a LOT of really good products in the pipeline, and we’re being very aggressive about pursuing them and not getting hung up on figuring out if the product will be worthwhile. That metric is already built into the system.
Kelly: In our early days, a good indicator of the ROI was in the response: we met with people from Herman Miller. We met Jonathan Adler. We received lots of press and awards. During the building period, this was the best confirmation of the value of what we were doing. I think if we had looked at it from a purely financial standpoint, we would have been paralysed and the vision would have been clouded. And then, of course, the biggest confirmation was the Knoll CEO just blindly emailed our info box, and that ultimately led to the purchase.
“The acquisition itself was the ROI for the early design work that Kelly and I did, and it very much paid off.”
Stefane: How are you structured now?
Kelly: “Knoll is a constellation of design driven brands.” That’s the official line on Knoll’s model. Now it’s FilzFelt’s too.
Traci: We work with all outside talent, and many are from other states and countries. The result is a diverse, nimble product line due to the outside influences. This is Knoll’s model. We have 15-20 people inside who manage the relationships, and they’re design-literate, but they’re not designers. We also do lots of manufacturing in the USA.
Kelly: We embraced the reality that it’s important to hire experts. I’m a designer, and I’ve shifted from thinking I can do it all to wanting to hire the right people for the right thing. For finding talent, I think there’s still some stigma associated with Boston. But FilzFelt’s story is proof of what a global city we’re in – beyond just raw talent, which does exist in many places, we’ve got access in Massachusetts to a set of much broader thinkers who are very design literate. I don’t think we could have pulled this off in some other city.
Stefane: Are there some other companies you admire?
Kelly: In the U.S., I really like Bludot’s personality and type of product, and their messaging. I also admire Emeco’s sustainability mission and quality products.
Traci: Bludot has used our felt. it’s fun and flattering when we see a company we admire and discover they’re using our product as part of theirs. It’s a nice connection. Kvadrat and Hem are two companies that I admire in Europe. Kvadrat just has a wonderful and complete sense of the brand and it’s clear in everything they do. Hem I appreciate because it’s a new business that, like Bludot, is trying to make contemporary design affordable and accessible.
Stefane: Thanks you two! Best of luck with all you’ve got going on!