Why Aamir Baig co-founded Article, the fastest growing company in Canada

Sep 25 2019, 10:12 am

Daily Hive’s “Something or Nothing” series features both up-and-coming and established entrepreneurs from around the country and asks them why they do what they do, their biggest failures, success strategies, and more. Know someone who should be featured? Let us know.


Facing hardship is an evitable part of life.

And for Aamir Baig, Co-Founder and CEO of Article, going through a tough time is part of the journey, where struggling means you’re on the right path.

That’s the type of grounded, stable mentality that makes a great entrepreneur – and Baig has had a lot of practice on that front.

Growing up in Pakistan, moving every year or two because of his father’s role in the Pakistan Air Force, Baig and his family immigrated to Canada in the mid-1990s, moving to Edmonton at the age of 17. He did his undergrad at the University of Alberta before moving to Los Angeles to start his first business, Etilize, a data research company.

After running the company for 11 years, and selling it, he needed a change. So he got together with some friends to start something new – in a space they had no knowledge of or experience in before.

In 2011, Article was born – and Baig hasn’t looked back since.

The Vancouver-based company has skyrocketed, landing as the fastest growing company in Canada for the past two years. From a small team of engineers, the company currently employees over 350 people across North America (with more than 200 in their Vancouver HQ), and they’re not stopping.

Baig took the time to speak with us about how and why Article started, why he gets to the office at 6 am, how he copes with stress, and what’s next for this game-changing company.

Sam Prochazka Aamir Baig

Co-founders Andy Prochazka and Aamir Baig (Article)

  • Birthplace: Karachi, Pakistan
  • Age: 40
  • What you wanted to be when you were a kid: Cricket player
  • Favourite class in school: Toss up between math and physics
  • Previous job: Co-founded of Etilize
  • How do you commute: By car (a hybrid Toyota Camry)
  • What you always have with you besides your phone: Apple Watch and a loonie (in the small pocket of my jeans in case I have to use a trolley at a grocery store)
  • Favourite vacation spot: Ormara, Pakistan
  • What time you normally wake up at: 5 am
  • What time you normally sleep at: Ranges from 9:30 to 11 pm
  • Normal breakfast: A banana or an apple
  • Reading/listening to right now: Reading “The Founder’s Mentality”
  • Favourite piece of furniture in your home: Rocking recliner in the living room (a non-Article piece)

What’s your elevator pitch?

Article’s mission is to engineer remarkably better furniture experiences. We look at the whole process that’s involved in people furnishing their spaces, and how we can we make that process remarkably better.

How did it all begin?

After I sold my previous company and started figuring out what to do next, I got a call from an old friend from engineering school — he had some ideas around how the world of retail could be made more efficient.

I’ll spare you the details, but his ideas centred around using the internet as a direct consumer sales channel, and then more integration on the back-end down to the manufacturing level. And those ideas appealed to me, so we started talking, brainstorming, and hatching a lot of ideas. From there we landed on furniture as an area where we saw a tremendous amount of inefficiencies, so we went with that.

We came up with a model and said: we can bring better products at better value and higher convenience, and better service to the market. The idea of creating a new kind of furniture company, that was remarkably better than what was in the industry then, was inspiring.

We started everything in October 2011, under the previous version called Bryght, which was launched in May 2013. We’ve been operating ever since then and changed the name to Article, if I remember correctly, in 2016.

Did any of you know anything about furniture at the time?

No. We were definitely outsiders when it came to the furniture industry, none of us had worked in it. We’re engineers, so we like building things. Maybe some of us have dabbled a bit with different carpentry projects, etc, but other than that, we’re complete outsiders.

That has pros and cons. On one hand, you come at it with a fresh perspective. But, even though you end up inventing a lot of things that simplify and move things forward, which is a great part, you also end up re-inventing the wheel in some areas. That’s the bad part.

Overall, I think it’s the approach that moves us forward at the end of the day.

@article / Instagram

Have you raised any money to date?

We have, but it’s mostly be funded by myself and my co-founders.

We’ve had one venture fund invest a little bit of money, but we’re partners in that fund — it’s called Rhino Ventures (formerly Vancouver Founder Fund). We’ve been profitable since 2015, so we’ve been able to grow the company from recent earnings — it’s mostly through the bootstrap.

How has Vancouver played a role in the development of Article?

As we’ve grown, we’ve continually been able to hire and recruit talent successfully in this are. It hasn’t come without challenges, but I think that Pacific Northwest beauty and outdoor elements have certainly played a role in how we present our brand, so, there’s been some influence there.

There’s also some design influence that we take from here. West Coast Modern is a sub-design that’s part of our catalog offerings. So being in Vancouver has certainly influenced our business.

What’s one of the biggest challenges your team is facing today?

How to maintain high growth at scale.

You know, having reached a tremendous amount of growth over a short period of time is one thing, but to continue to do that over the next several years – I mean, if we are successful in that, you’re talking about becoming really a household name, a really well-known, an important company. So how do we continue to grow at scale, because with growth comes complexity and complexity kills growth.

So how do we not become this slow, stagnating, non-innovative incumbent, and maintain that aggressive startup, innovative mentality as we’ve grown and not become complacent? It’s a mentality thing to maintain across the organization that I would say is what worries me the most.

article vancouver office

Article’s Vancouver HQ

What do you wish you knew when you started?

Everything that I know now from the time we started to where we are.  There are so many learnings, so many things.

The point I’m illustrating in terms of biggest challenge, I think you can only know it if you’ve faced the situation before. So, if you face it once, you know what to expect and what will come. And you start preparing and building things to accommodate that from day one. At the end of the day, you pay for your inexperience.

There’s just no shortcut to it. On the other hand, I think the older you get, the more you mellow down a little bit — initially, you’ve got that aggressive ambition that gets you going – if you could have that youthful, energetic, innovative ambition along with the experience of having seen everything somehow from day one, that would be a killer combination.

What’s been the biggest pain that you yourself have had to overcome?

I’ve been really fortunate in life. I have great health, relationships, happiness, family, all of that. So life is good.

That being said, everyone faces challenges and adversity. Things are working sometimes, and then suddenly everything can go horribly wrong. That’s all part of the journey — I don’t know if I would describe it as a pain. To me, it’s just part of life.

In my first startup, I was working excessively hard. And I think that came at the cost of not giving enough time to my relationships. My grandfather passed away during that stage. And so those are some aspects that were a bit life-changing and impactful for me. So, you could maybe describe those as being a bit painful, but pain is typically part of the journey of driving growth and challenging the status quo, and making things better. If you don’t have that struggle, then I think you’re not on the right path. So it’s a good thing.

What are you learning right now?

Well, I’ve mentioned the book that I’m reading, “The Founder’s Mentality.” I’m trying to learn more about how to create the right mindset and culture and base of working at Article that keeps us hungry, keeps us innovating, keeps us fighting for the unsatisfied customer, keeps us from being complacent and continue to grow at scale, and push boundaries. That’s a bit of an area of focus for me.

What’s your morning routine normally like?

The routine has recently changed. Now, I typically get up at 5 am and offer my morning prayers. Then I leave home at 5:30 and in the office at 6 am. Previously I’d way up the kids, get them ready, drop them to school, then come to work later around 9:30 am. But work demands have forced me to change that schedule.

I’m finding it’s more productive between 6 and 9 am before everybody’s in the office. Those three productive, distraction-free hours are really, really useful. And then it allows me to get back home earlier so I can spend time with the kids in the evening.

How do you prevent burnout?

My first kid was born a month after we started Article, so we could say it was my second kid in some ways. And I’ve had two more since then.

When I was running my previous company, I lost some relationships that I truly valued, one relationship in particular, and that really had an impact on me. Now, I don’t compromise on time spent with my family, with my kids, with my wife, to me those are lines in the sand – I just don’t compromise on those.

So that’s that, and everything else that’s outside that time, I try to do the best that I can, and I’m willing to live with the consequences. So it boils down to priorities, I suppose.

And then making it a team effort, making it a team approach, taking a balanced long-term approach. You’re running a marathon, not a sprint. It’s just some things that you learn if it’s not your first rodeo.

Throughout your life, is there any moment where you look back and you say, “That was rock bottom for me”?

I don’t think so. I’ve never gotten really low, and I’ve also never gotten really high. For me, I’ve always had a bit of a sense that if things are going well to not get complacent, and if things aren’t going well, I just have this bit of resolve to make it right and not get too down.

article sofa couch

The Burrard Sofa from Article (@thecobbhaus/Instagram)

Whether it’s been a product or feature, is there something at Article that you’ve made that you shouldn’t have?

Oh, many.

There are so many products that we’ve made that we should not have made, they weren’t successful in the marketplace. Or maybe they were successful, but we had defects or whatnot. There have been tons of features, innovations, even whole business models that we’ve adopted that we’ve learned weren’t the right ones. Our whole experience is littered with many failures.

We don’t put every product out to market. We’re really good with our product design and development, and forecasting to what customers would want — we’ve got a good system on that front.

Of course, we aspire to put out as many products we develop as possible, but we certainly launch products that aren’t successful. We have quite an obsessive customer mindset, so we don’t take the approach of pushing product at customers. We will typically design and build products, making them in small runs, and we test them in the market. Only if we have valid business demand for a design, would we then move into large scale manufacturing. And sometimes we don’t, in which cases we commission those products.

Other than sales, how do you measure success?

Other than sales? Look, I’ll go back to the mission. If the mission is to engineer remarkably better furniture experiences, to me, success would be achieving that mission. And what would that mean? That means we’ve created a type of furniture company that’s important to the world. That matters, that makes it so easy for people to furnish their spaces well, that people say, “How do you live without it?”

So something that really moves the needle, moves it forward, brings that transformative customer experience of the future, achieving that and it being head and shoulders above the incumbent, that’s what I would call success, ultimately. And if that’s achieved, you would have, of course, high revenue numbers, high market shares, high enterprise values, high profits, high all of that. But there’s more to it than that.

article vancouver office

Article’s Vancouver HQ

Is there a quote that’s changed the way you approach business?

I don’t know about business, but I have one for life in general. I don’t know where it’s from, but it did have an influence on me: “What happens to you is less significant than what happens within you.”

It highlights the importance of attitude and mindset, and controlling your responses and your thought processes. Your mentality is of far higher significance than the uncontrollable controllable sequence of events that can happen in pseudo-ventures or in life in general. That quote helps me stay focused on what I can control instead of what I can’t.

Do you consider Article as a tech company, furniture company, or is it both?

Of course we’re in the furniture industry, and certainly tech is a huge component that underpins everything that we do, and it’s shaped our approach very, very differently.

So you could either say we’re or both or none, really. I would say we’re a customer experience company. We’re a customer experience company within the furniture industry with a very strong use of technology. But I’ll leave it to everybody’s interpretation to what to call it.

What’s the most surprising element of your job that people wouldn’t necessarily think is part of your day to day?

I am very frontline obsessed. What that means is I need to know the details. I’ve driven delivery trucks. I’ve been in our warehouses, I’ve taken customer service calls, and I’m working on making some of these procedures mandatory for all our senior leadership teams.

So maybe the view of CEO, senior leadership, might be somewhat, I don’t know, a bit too removed from the front lines. I see it quite the opposite where I feel that it’s a must that those ingredients be there so that the senior leadership in the company can make the right decisions, and make strategic decisions.

Aamir Baig article founder

Aamir Baig and co-founder Andy Prochazka (Article)

Do you have any mentors?

Not officially, but certainly my father and my father-in-law have had significant influences on me. And my colleagues, I learn a lot from my colleagues.

What do the next six to 12 months look like?

Busy. Look, we’re on this journey to continue to push the boundaries, go deeper in supply chains, evolve, make discovery, make the experience better, build more newer products, build the people culture aspect of the company. So many things. It keeps us excited.

Do you have an exit strategy?

Yes, it’s not to exit. It’s to build.

So no, we’ve never built this company to exit. We built this company for it to last. At the core, we’re builders. I’m an engineer by education, so we didn’t start it to exit. So we don’t have an exit strategy, we have a build strategy.

How do you want people to remember you personally?

I don’t know if I want people to remember me. I want people to be happy with their lives and move on. And really for me, it’s not been about creating any personal legacy. That’s not what drives me.

But I want people to trust me.

It’s a bit of a catch-all, wide statement. It’s not something that I deliberately target, but just speed of relations, execution, everything flows so much easier, more efficiently when there’s trust amongst people. So trust would be nice to have.


Interview edited for clarity

 

To learn more about Article, visit their website or follow them on Instagram at @Article.