Free Enterprise Staff  | December 15, 2015

Meet Poppin: The stylish startup disrupting the office product industry

The world of office supplies was due for a much-needed makeover before New York-based retailer Poppin stepped onto the scene in 2012.

The traditional bland, block-like stapler and stiff office chair just simply didn’t work for a new generation of employers and workers that these days are accustomed to lower price points for much more stylish (read: customizable) products.

“We are trying to do so many things wirelessly in so many different places and the products need to respond to that and be as simplified and hybridized as possible,” says Jeff Miller, the company’s vice-president of product design. “That just means that the look and aesthetic of [the products] need to grow effortlessly.”

Miller knows what he’s talking about. The industrial designer has spent most of his career working in the creative space for the award-winning ECCO Design (a New York-based engineering and consultant group) and his own firm before eventually joining Poppin in 2011. It’s the company’s approach to esthetics and product innovation that attracted the long-time entrepreneur to the company in the first place and what sets it apart in the changing industry.

“The opportunity for Poppin came around through a network of colleagues and seemed like the perfect opportunity because there was no long legacy of products [like this] to have to go up against,” says Miller.

“There was a very fresh, new look about disrupting this otherwise stale and mundane, at least to most, product category and the little bit that the company had done was very fresh, vibrant and appealing, mostly because it was a brilliant and simple distilled collection.”

Unlike some of its competitors, such as Ikea or OfficeMax, Poppin not only sells unique pieces—which range from $9 letter trays to $300 storage units—but also designs them as well to ensure quality and consistency. For customers, the ability to buy items from one source that does it all makes customization and color coordinating a dream.

“Most of the consulting design work I did in the past was handing off a concept to a client and letting them take it to the manufacturing process, but now me and my Poppin team travel to China at least four times a year and we can visualize and envision how they will produce a product,” he explains. “We design it, so we put that thinking into the design from the very beginning so it’s not a compromise or a handoff of our vision to a factory.”

The company’s time-consuming and thorough review process may sound exhausting, but it’s those steps that are winning over businesses (especially startups) that truly need comfortable, accessible furniture.

For example, the company’s furniture technology has managed to simplify the much-despised building process. “Looking at our furniture line it doesn’t need any tools,” Miller boasts, while explaining how the company’s patent pending levers work. For instance, its tables can be put together without ever having to pick up a wrench and in as little as two minutes simply by snapping each piece into place.

Since the company launched it’s quickly grown from an online retail shop to showing its collection at select Crate & Barrel and Barnes & Noble College Bookstores across the country, and claims high-profile firms such as LinkedIn, SquareSpace and the NFL Network as customers. For startups eager to mimic the company’s rapid success Miller believes innovation is the key.

“We didn’t have to reinvent the tape dispensers, but in the little bit that we can provide some innovation, some clever detail, some ability to let the user see that this is giving them a better amount of function is important,” he says. “So, I would say that if you’re just willing to put the same product on the market that’s already out there there’s no reason to do it. I think also there has to be some thinking about how that product sits in the larger environment.”

However, at the end of the day, Poppin’s appeal is easy to understand. The world of 9 to 5 and in-office work is slowly shifting and the company has managed to make products that make the transition easier. These days people call home their place of work just as much as they do call the corner office.

“I think work and lifestyle, and life and home are all merging into one sort of situation,” he says. “So our products are designed for working the office, at home, working on your way to work and working on vacation. Work has really consumed so much of our life, and not in a bad way either. People enjoy doing work and some of the things that people do for lifestyle very much overlap with the kinds of activities we do for work.”