Khushal Ahmed began his business journey at the age of 13 years in Afghanistan. After years of travel, education and relentless willpower, Khushal has built The Larkbury Group. The group has several businesses including bespoke luxury interior design company The Sofa & Chair Company; an outlet luxury furniture platform Luxsale; and Larkbury Curtains, a bespoke curtains and blinds company, to name a few.
Ahmed talks to FOUR about his business philosophy, natural flair for design, and inspiring road to success.
First things first – has interior design always been your passion?
No, not at all. In fact, I was a tailor by trade. It was a very different life in Afghanistan, growing up was difficult. I was the only son and had three sisters to look after. I was 13 years old when I was first taught how to make a suit. By the age of 15, I was running my own factory with a workforce of 16 people. We made beautiful clothing worn by high society at the time. It was a good time. I think being a tailor was very useful as the construction of a good suit is extremely complex – if you can make a suit, anything else is easy.
When, and why, did you leave Afghanistan?
Well, the factory was doing pretty well, but the market was limited. So, I went to Russia. I spoke a little Russian and figured there would be more opportunities. It was completely different from anything I knew. I was only 17 at the time. I opened a market stall and sold shoes. It was not very luxurious, but my stall did well. While all the other tradesmen were busy tidying their shoes and boxes, I would create this terrible mess every morning. All the other salesmen would look at me as if I were crazy, but everyone would come to my stall. Their stalls were too perfect, uninviting – their customers didn’t feel comfortable. In my stall, they felt something was going on and they wanted to find out what it was. That’s what I did differently, I found a niche – and it worked. After several years in Russia, I decided it was time to move on and I headed to England.
What was your experience moving to England?
It was the early 2000s and I could not speak a word of English. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going to go. I had £20 in my pocket and ended up in Birmingham. I didn’t want to go back to tailoring because I could see the competition was already established. I needed to come up with something different.
How did you decide on your path moving forward?
I had been living in Birmingham for a few months, learning English and working part-time selling second-hand tyres. I remember I was waiting for a bus and it was taking forever to arrive. I noticed a furniture shop and became transfixed by this elegant Chesterfield sofa in the window. I stood there for a long time – I remember being so cold, but I didn’t want to stop looking at this sofa. It was at that moment that I knew I was going to make furniture. I headed to London thinking that would be the place with the most opportunity and spent two months trying to find work in a furniture factory.
When did you get your big break?
It came from a small re-upholstery shop on Fulham High Street named after the founder Moses. I told him I would do anything for him if he showed me how to make sofas. I swept the floor, washed the windows… all while observing everything around me. Watching how they carved and created, I took it all in. After 3 months I made a wingback chair, fully upholstered. Moses did not believe that it was me who made it. Soon after I was the Production Manager. Moses Upholstery only focused on antique furniture, and after a year and a half, I felt it was time to move on to expand my skill set. I joined Leather Chairs of England in Acton, where I learned everything there is to know about leather – cutting and upholstery. I then mastered cabinet making at Opus Magnum, experimenting with woodwork and carpentry.
When did you start your own business?
After I had built up enough knowledge, I was determined to go off on my own and start my business. It was September 2006 when I started designing my own sofas; I created a new style, a London Heritage with a modern take. I made a 3-seater sofa in grey velvet with a walnut base, put it in a rented van and drove around Chiswick looking for a store to sell it in. I found a shop that had enough space in its window and told them I had a sofa in my van that they could have and take orders from. They thought I was mad, but they were curious and came out to look at what was in the van. I took 12 orders of the sofa that same month and as they say, the rest is history…
How did you come up with the name, The Sofa & Chair Company?
My first company was called Ahmed Upholstery – my surname. I didn’t know anything about branding or marketing, I just knew how to make beautiful sofas. Then one day I got a client from Camden, Bill. He had an advertising agency and we made a deal. I said I would make two chairs for free if he came up with a good name for my business. He asked me a simple question: “What do you want to make?” I replied, “Sofas and chairs.” After 2 weeks I came with the chairs and asked about the name. He just smiled and said, “The Sofa & Chair Company.” It always makes me laugh because it sounds so simple, but that is one of my business mantras – keep it simple. Don’t complicate things.
Tell me more about the manufacturing process…
For me, quality and design are everything. I can imagine a piece of furniture in my mind and sketch it up very quickly because I understand how each element will be made. I spent 7 years making furniture myself, so I know what works, and how to push the boundaries. I started with a 180-square-foot workshop in Hanwell with 15 craftsmen, now we have a 16,000-square-foot workshop on Roslin Road and have 60 people in production. To support the growth of the business we invested in another large factory in Portugal.
I have trained most of the craftsmen myself and have run apprentice programmes since the beginning. The very essence of my business was based on bespoke orders. Clients would come with their ideas and we would make them – we never said no, we always found a way – that’s how we built up the business. When you make life for interior designers easy, they refer you to their friends. So, we grew very organically. I didn’t spend money on marketing until the last few years really.
What is the story behind your London showroom? It’s massive!
Well, I looked at all the other interior and furniture companies with their tiny boutiques in Chelsea and I wanted to do something different. I wanted space where interior designers could come together, where everything was under one roof. When I built the showroom in Acton my friends in the industry said no one will go there, it will never work – but it did! It’s 100,000 square feet and we have our manufacturing just down the road which makes managing everything more efficient.
Who are your clients?
Well, we started out only doing B2B, and it is still a large part of our business. When I built our current website, back in 2008, I wasn’t really thinking e-commerce, I was thinking about trade – they were my clients. I wanted to offer the largest choice of fabrics, so I started building relationships with all the best mills in Europe and now we stock the largest fabric library in Europe. However, we have been selling direct to the consumer since 2010 as well.
Over the years we have also created our own interior design service to support clients that need it – we make their life easy. We do all the visualisations, mood-boards, all the way through to product design and manufacturing. Service is crucial for us – we offer a White Glove delivery service, meaning all the packaging is taken away and we will install any furniture in your home to make sure it fits and that you are happy with it.
What does the future look like?
It’s definitely an exciting time for me and for the business. I have big plans. I am extremely passionate about technology and we will be focusing more on digital in the future. I want to mix beautiful technology with beautiful products in order to offer the ultimate customer experience.
Sounds like you have it all sorted out… what do you think has made you this successful?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I definitely dream big. I work hard and I work smart. I see problems in the industry as opportunities. Challenges motivate me. I have built each department of my company from the ground up, so I really understand how to make every detail of the business work. If you engage in every detail of the business then you can add value.
Also, at the end of the day, it is the people that make the company. It is so important to surround yourself with capable people and have a strong leadership team. If you don’t, you can never really grow. It is impossible to control everything as one person.
Any advice for entrepreneurs trying to set up new businesses?
Be prepared to work hard. Be passionate about what you do. Passion is the fuel that drives you despite the odds.
To find out more, visit The Sofa & Chair Company’s website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Call 0208 752 8935 (retail) / 0208 993 4415 (trade) or email firstname.lastname@example.org for any enquiries.
The Sofa & Chair Company’s showroom has reopened and is showcasing a brand new collection, along with a variety of other ranges. Visit the showroom at the below address:
The Sofa & Chair Company Ltd
1 Western Avenue Business Park