There aren’t many women in the furniture-making business, which allows the unique craftsmanship of Jacqueline Sharp to stand out even more (her six foot tall frame, model looks and charismatic warmth don’t hurt). Sharp is the founder and CEO of FORT, a Los Angeles-based company that leverages reclaimed materials to create beautiful pieces of custom furniture. The name is a throwback to building forts during childhood, when every item in the house suddenly held newfound potential to transform, and become part of something creative, and new.
Sharp grew up in the Midwest, and was attending the University of Iowa when her younger brother passed away after a battle with Leukemia. At first devastated and angry at the injustice of it all, it was during a trip to Los Angeles that she began to feel her spirit brighten, aided by the diversity of people, food, and culture she observed – a stark contrast to her previous surroundings. She decided to leave college after her junior year and move to LA, both terrified or excited by her decision to walk away from what seemed the safer path. But losing her brother so young had clarified the preciousness of life – she didn’t want to waste any time doing what she thought she was supposed to do to be happy.
Sharp and her boyfriend at the time pulled their funds together and rented a large home in Mount Washington – a trendy gentrifying area northeast of downtown Los Angeles. But with both looking for work, they didn’t have enough money left over to furnish all of the rooms, which sat empty for months. Determined to find a solution, Sharp was walking through a furniture store one day when she fell in love with a large table that was so expensive it led her to think, “That’s ridiculous! I bet I could build something like this.” Many people have likely had a similar thought, but what sets Sharp apart is that she acted on it.
She purchased a cheap table saw using Craigslist and, when the seller learned she had no idea how to use it, he gave her some tips to avoid injury (she now jokes that dangerous tools are probably not where you want to be frugal). After visiting Home Depot to buy wood and realizing the effort and expense it would take to stain and cut herself, she again used Craigslist to find wood that was going to be thrown away, and relied on YouTube videos to learn how to build – starting with custom tables and mirrors, and growing her line from there. She also began frequenting estate sales, and enjoyed learning about the history behind the pieces that caught her eye. She found scrap leather to reupholster the chairs and couches she purchased, and started working with a company called Good Planet Media to obtain used rope, wood and other items leftover from Hollywood movie sets. Soon their Mount Washington home was fully furnished with unique pieces that she had either made from scratch or repurposed.
Friends that came over began asking for a tour of the house, raving about her taste, and asking if she would make similar pieces for them. And so, bit by bit, she began selling individual items and using the revenue generated to continue doing what she still considered a hobby – until she had so many items that she was forced to rent a storage unit. Around this time she and her boyfriend broke up and, twenty-six at the time, she was confronted by the need to be more financially independent. She was already doing what she loved, and though it began as a cost-conscious endeavor it had evolved into a deep passion for sustainability, diverting waste, and reusing materials. Says Sharp, “We live in such a disposable culture, and I think that bleeds into how we treat each other. There is so much inherent value that we can learn to better appreciate.”
And so, with the encouragement of having recently sold a piece to the highly respected craftsman and collector Jason Koharik, Sharp walked into her local library one afternoon and said, “I want to start a business.” It was here that she was introduced to the Valley Economic Development Center (VEDC), a nonprofit organization that provides free education to new and established business owners on how to run a company. After ten sessions with a woman named Marsel Watts, Sharp was on her way. FORT officially opened its doors in November of 2012, and business is booming – aided by a recent promotional flash sale through Fab.com, and a print ad featuring small business owners for American Express. To this day, she’s avoided the need to raise funds, instead growing entirely through revenue generated from sales.
The majority of sales currently occur by appointment, Sharp’s loft a venerable mishmash of custom pieces that hands feel drawn to touch. This is also where items can be dropped off, for those seeking a more responsible way to dispose of furniture (made from real wood and metal). However, much of their inventory is now also available through FORT’s website, which has allowed the brand to grow its customer base beyond Los Angeles. For those living locally, and with an interest in both craftsmanship and community, Sharp hosts occasional workshops cleverly called “FORTnight” (they’re announced two weeks prior), where she teaches attendees to make various pieces from her collection. Part of her reason is that she firmly believes in the importance of simply getting started, and enjoys helping people to break through whatever excuses they may have for not practicing their craft.
Says Sharp; “It’s all about one foot in front of the other. The more you talk about it, the more you visualize it and commit to it, the more people who believe in you will rally around. Every journey begins with that first step and a commitment to keep moving forward. If you work from 9-5 with your day job, then work on your business venture from 5-6 or during your lunch. If you have kids, have everyone sit down for homework hour and you do your research while they do theirs. If you live in an under-populated area look into an e-commerce or Etsy store. If you don’t have the money, pay as you go or figure out what you need and how to procure these things through other means such as bartering. Decide you have a destination and go there. If you say you are going to the store and there is a detour or roadblock you don’t just stop and turn around to go home. You figure out another route. There is always another way. Always.”
Clearly, she’s a woman of her word.
Source: Forbes Business