A desperate beginning has led to a wondrous future for James Smith.
More than a decade ago, Smith, now 35, was an out-of-work digital media specialist in Springdale trying to find a way to pay his rent. He was on the social media site Pinterest when he noticed users expressing interest in solid-wood furniture.
Smith, with the optimism and go-for-it attitude of youth, thought, Why not build a solid-wood coffee table and sell it? So Smith went to a home improvement store, bought some lumber and a circular saw and set up shop in his garage.
“I had no carpentry background experience, but I had Google and I had YouTube,” Smith said. “I really needed the money, so you figure things out.”
Although it took a while to sell after listing it online, Smith’s first coffee table, completed in September 2011, was a success. So Smith kept building tables and nightstands in his garage, even after he found a full-time job at Rockfish Interactive in Rogers.
And wouldn’t you know it, the side hustle to make a few bucks turned into a company and career. Smith’s furniture-building enterprise turned into James + James, a nationally renowned furniture builder that has made the top 1,000 of the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in the United States.
Smith said he couldn’t release revenue figures but the company had revenue growth of 672% during the past three years. It is, according to Inc. 5000, the fifth fastest-growing private company in the state.
But the company almost didn’t happen.
“I got halfway through building that first coffee table, and I just stopped and said, ‘This is the dumbest idea I have ever had,’” Smith said. “‘I just wasted this money on this wood and on this saw. What am I doing?’ Luckily, I don’t quit. I finished it.”
After he sold the table — and personally delivered it in his car to the buyer in Fayetteville — Smith received a review of the table.
“The first response I got from Craigslist was, ‘Hey, I love your style,’” Smith said. “It was hilarious because I had just made one coffee table. I didn’t have a style.”
What Smith did have, if not style or carpentry skills, is the creativity of a savvy marketer.
His old boss at Rockfish, Bill Akins, saw it when Smith worked there. Akins is now the COO of James + James, joining the company in September 2021.
“He understood media,” Akins said. “He understands digital and the power of digital. Coming into a media agency, he was like a caged bird, sitting with one client and helping them do one specific thing. He is such an idea man.”
What Smith quickly realized was that there was robust demand for well-crafted furniture. There were many consumers who wanted unique, high-quality pieces.
Shortly after crafting his first table, Smith was hired back at Rockfish, where he had worked previously before moving out of state. But he kept making furniture, and soon his college friend, James Eldridge, joined Smith in a 50-50 partnership, which led to the company’s naming. The two built and sold furniture for the next year.
James + James showroom (Sarah Bentham)
It only took a couple of months for Smith to realize his dumb idea was a winning one. In September 2012, about a year after that first table, Smith left Rockfish and committed to James + James full time.
“It was just a fun thing for some extra cash for the first three or four months,” Smith said. “In January 2012, I told my girlfriend, now my wife, I think we’re onto something here.”
Smith and fellow builders, which included Eldridge and his brother, had a quality product, and Smith’s marketing efforts began to make James + James a desired brand. He remembers delivering a table to a buyer in late 2012 and hearing the neighbor enviously compliment the buyer for getting a James + James piece.
“It was at that moment I realized we have a brand,” Smith said. “They didn’t know who I was, but they knew who James + James were. We developed something unique enough the neighbor knew what it was.
“It felt like people were discovering a band before they made it big. Our customers loved being able to say, ‘Let me tell you about this company. Garage, built by hand, yada yada yada.’ It really helped spread the word like wildfire.”
Smith has long since left the woodshop, ceding furniture production to a talented team of builders and finishers. “It has been a long time since they let me build anything,” Smith joked.
Tomi Dobrenji is among 40 builders and finishers making furniture for the home, office and outdoors. (Sarah Bentham)
The company’s headquarters is in downtown Springdale with 60,000 SF of shop space, a 6,800-SF showroom and some office space. James + James has expanded from a few guys in a garage to 130 employees, including experts in operations and sales, and 40 builders and finishers.
“We are just getting started with what we can do,” Akins said. “He has all the right pieces in play. He was doing all of it for 10 years, but he brought in the senior staff to focus on the operational side. It allows him to focus on product development and utilizing digital.”
Smith said he told his team recently that the company has only reached “2% of the size we can be.”
“One of our core values is unapologetic growth,” Smith said. “More importantly, we believe we have more than 130 of some of the best people in northwest Arkansas. If you have the best people, you have to keep growing the company to give them opportunities or they are going to leave.
“We have done a really good job at creating high-growth jobs. You don’t have to have experience finishing or building furniture. You just have to have the ability to work hard and be a team player.”