When GTEC Director Christoph Räthke first met Roominabox at One Spark Crowdfunding Festival in September 2014, he loved what they did so much that he went out and bought their iconic cardboard bed. The experience of “throwing out 70 kg of bulky wood and iron and replacing it with an easy-to-handle 8 kg of cardboard just felt so right – it was liberating.”
That things should feel right, good, easy is a running theme in the narrative Gerald Dissen and Lionel Palm (two of three Roominabox co-founders) tell. I meet them in their Berlin workspace. The windowless container on a Lichtenberg industrial estate mostly occupied by steelworkers has no obvious lunch choices. We drink tea instead, on the raised platform overlooking the vast cutting machine and stacks of cardboard.
“We wanted to produce furniture that makes sense.” Gerald says boiling the kettle. “I always think of my grandparents. They didn’t know about being environmentally friendly; they just did what made sense. They grew vegetables in their garden, invested in quality clothes and furniture, never threw anything away. That’s what our furniture is – high quality, but in a way that fits with a modern transient lifestyle. Cardboard just makes sense. It’s cheap, robust, sustainable and feels and looks so nice.”
The truth is Roominabox furniture makes so much sense that GTEC commissioned them to design and furnish our new Lab. When the Lab opens in June, it will serve both as an inspirational space to work in for GTEC and fellow entrepreneurs, and as a showcase for the incredible flexibility and convenience of Roominabox’s furniture, with desks so light (4kg each) that they can be rearranged into any structure at the whim of a new founder and entirely covered with a whiteboard surface to be scribbled on and wiped off in place of a notebook. This is the sustainable and innovative office furniture of the future, ideal for fast-paced entrepreneurial environments.
It’s a compelling story: how the pair met by chance at a party whilst studying business at Witten Herdecke; how at that party Gerald recounted to Lionel his idea, inspired by sitting on a cardboard chair at a sustainability fair, that a cardboard furniture startup could have potential; how Lionel had a brief stint working in a cardboard factory; how friends told them about the Beuth Gründerstipendium; how Lionel came to stay with Gerald so that they could dash together a business plan before the Beuth deadline; how they delivered it by hand the day the applications closed; how since October 2014 they have been fully independent in their own workspace with their own tools, producing three lines of cardboard products – home furniture, innovation furniture (whiteboards and desks with whiteboard surfaces), and custom-designed furniture, all selling well and all made from 75% recycled material and fully recyclable in their own right.
“We’ve been really lucky. We only won the Beuth Stipendium because we wrote a good business plan,” Lionel says, “But we had absolutely no idea how we were going to actually make cardboard furniture.”
As I pick up my tea from an impressively robust cardboard desk and listen on, I realise the reality is not as serendipitous as they make it sound. They are too modest to say it, but their success is much more to do with business acumen, the ability to connect with the right people, a flair for marketing and sheer determination, than with good luck.
They won the Beuth Stipendium (€2,000/month for each founder for 18 months plus a free workspace) because they had a good business plan and because they had already partnered up with innovation agency Dark Horse, who were using and promoting Roominabox’s cardboard whiteboards in their client meetings. At Beuth, Gerald and Lionel connected with the Professor of Packaging Engineering. “He was sort of surprised that there were these two business guys wanting to make cardboard furniture”, laughs Gerald. The professor introduced them to a student deeply interested in working with cardboard – this was Christian Hilse, soon to be third co-founder. Later, wanting to grow the business in the direction of its original purpose – beautiful, portable and sustainable cardboard furniture for the home – they sought crowdfunding to prototype and batch-produce the bed, because crowdfunding was a brilliant way of simultaneously raising money and encouraging sales by raising the profile of their new product.
Learning about entrepreneurial character traits at Witten Herdecke, Gerald didn’t think he was the right fit for being an entrepreneur. But the idea that he could do something special with cardboard furniture gave him the confidence to try. Lionel was always determined to start his own business, even as a child. A part-time job in a consulting firm (“boring and repetitive” – his words) and a taste of setting up a business at university gave him the spark to put his studies on hold and join Gerald. “It just felt right.” he says.
I want to know what’s next for Roominabox. To thrive in the intensifying competition within the cardboard furniture market. “I like competition because it pushes you and it gives higher visibility to your product,” Gerald tells me confidently. To grow the business organically towards the original idea of furnishing an entire room “in a box”, as their name suggests. To stay open to the possibility of the right angel investor with the fitting experience and attitude to help them achieve these goals.
We empty our brightly coloured mugs. They should get back to their cutting machine. On leaving I cannot resist testing the weight of the boxed double bed in the corner. It really is no heavier than a half-filled Kaisers bag – just right for affordable, durable, sustainable, stylish furniture for both office and home. “A box is a box is a box,” Gerald says, but again that’s too modest, because Roominabox make boxes into something remarkable.
Founded: April 2013
Founded by: Gerald Dissen, Lionel Palm, Christian Hilse
Location: Berlin Lichtenberg