I had the pleasure of interviewing Phantila Phataraprasit and Cailtin Ellen.
Phantila and Cailtin are the founders of Sabai, the first sustainable, direct-to-consumer sofa brand. Prior to founding Sabai, they attended Columbia together where they founded a student credit union through a partnership with the U.S. Alliance. They learned about leveraging and cultivating partnerships and how to do all the work themselves. Cailtin has a background in early stage financing, which helps them as they bootstrap Sabai. They became experts on sustainable material manufacturers both domestically and abroad for each of the components needed. One of the chief pillars of Sabai is that sustainability should be accessible to all through ease and pricing. They want to make sustainability the easy choice through maintaining industry best practices to remain competitive not just as a sustainable product, but as an innovative one in the furnishing industry. Their goal is for Sabai to continue to operate as the Impossible Burger of furniture, offering sustainability without sacrificing design or affordability.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Phantila and I worked to found a credit union together in college, and during our senior year, we lived in a communal house and began really trying to incorporate sustainable practices into our lifestyle. We joined the campus CSA and began composting, and when we moved into our first apartments, we were really looking to translate that into our purchases — aiming to buy with intention and fill our home with furniture that didn’t feel at odds with the planet. With the exception of second hand, it didn’t feel that the option was available to us, so we decided to make the product we had wanted when we were outfitting our homes!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’m sure this is a common answer, but “How I Built This” and specifically the Wayfair episode really stood out to us! Partially because of the industry relation — the way in which Wayfair shook up the furniture industry on a large-scale was quite admirable, and the founders took generally translatable entrepreneurship principles from earlier companies (success and failures amongst them), and translated that to their work to build Wayfair. It felt like both a great lesson in the furniture space and how to approach entrepreneurship, and from guys who had quite a few moments of trial and error!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
This is mentioned a bit before, but we really wanted to create furniture that allowed people to live according to their values. While there were many sustainable furniture companies, they were entirely out of the price range of the average person — often starting at $4,000+. To contrast with that, our product starts at $995. Our vision was to really make sustainability the norm, by tackling two things: accessibility through pricing and making sustainability the easy choice. We really aimed to build a product that didn’t require compromise on any front by incorporating the amenities that customers have come to expect in the furniture space, and also by making a beautiful sofa that was in your price range. We like to think of ourselves as the impossible burger of furniture — sustainability with none of the sacrifice. By selling a great product that works on all fronts, we can get customers to make the easy choice and pick the purpose driven product they can feel good about.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I think having your eye on longevity and knowing one loss or win does not determine the final scorecard. Knowing this allows us to keep moving forward, no matter what happens!
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our COO, Phantila, is from Thailand and is in the process of applying for a permanent visa. As many of your readers can guess, now is not a good time to be an immigrant in this country. One big part of that is the risk of leaving and not being allowed to return as immigration policies change by the day. During this time, our Sabai family has grown even closer as Phantila has come to stay with the CEO (Caitlin’s) family. Sabai is all about a community mentality, and we’ve been happy to be able to live true to our morals and also teach Caitlin’s family a little more about good sustainable practices!
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
One of our biggest work related challenges has been handling the closure of our facilities. We bootstrapped this company from the beginning, which has been a tremendous opportunity, but forced us to validate our product while remaining lean. To do this, we did not hold inventory and instead every product was made to order. Because of that, we have had logistical hurdles with the closure of our factories.
COVID has really served as a turning point. Even in a time of economic hardship, we have been able to keep our sales consistent and truly feel confident about the future of Sabai. To be more prepared for emergencies and supply chain problems in the future, we are implementing a stocking program, and will produce inventory so that we can provide sofas even when disruptions occur!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
So much of Sabai is about community — a positive outlook that chooses to focus on the change and impact one person can make, rather than all that is out of their control. Taking that mindset into the time of COVID has been quite helpful, though minimizing negative feelings helps no one.
Ultimately, owning those feelings of chaos, but understanding that this is a global pandemic and a global experience can feel unifying and supporting. No one is alone in this fight, and we will ultimately survive it through community action, care, and mourning.
While accepting these harder truths and feelings, there is an extent to which balancing these with positive affirmations, actions, and feelings can help us all weather the storm. Whether it be a good book, a good tv show, baking, or a nice yoga class, little actions that can shift your mood or provide distraction can help to offset the overwhelming sense of uncertainty and fear we all are faced with each day.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I think there will be a real opportunity to move towards more sustainable initiatives and orient our economy towards the future. Companies such as BlackRock were already trending towards truly orienting the economy towards the need for climate change related policies in companies, and I hope that this will be the reset that we need in order to fully embrace environmentally rooted growth. COVID provided a test run for responding to an issue when it is too late, and the downside of disruptions in society, and if we continue to excel towards climate change, this will just be a test run. 71% of Greenhouse Gas emissions come from 100 companies, and we need a reckoning in the Post-Covid economy.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I hope we take this communal experience as an opportunity to highlight the link between us as we move into a new era. I think COVID has (hopefully) created a great sense of community that will extend into future culture and permanently change the way we behave. Caring about community is what empowers so much of what is special about the human experience, and also has the capacity to alter climate change and our quest for social justice.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We plan to continue and further our mission and commitment to sustainability. By innovating on sustainable materials and looking to address the entire lifecycle of the product, we have only strengthened our resolve to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to rebuild and grow in an image that makes them feel as though they are a positive change in the world. Bringing beauty to others, highlighting sustainability, and really focusing on buying and creating with intention should be the core of any business going forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never hurts to ask” — I think that’s what’s gotten us a lot of our achievements and past our milestones. Phantila asked me to work on this venture, us asking to chat with experts, we’ve learned so much by just asking and listening. The worst someone can do is say no!
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