How a small New Zealand company pivoted to survive when the world shut down
There’s a special kind of magic when a production team is in the right place at the right time to create the perfect product for their customers. Back in 2013, having worked in the entertainment touring industry for years, New Zealanders Matt Waterhouse and Joe Bradford saw how desperately entertainers of all types needed durable road cases for taking their shows on the road. Matt and Joe put their heads together and Fiasco was born, producing quality cases to protect gear for acts all around the world for the next seven years. Fiasco Cases
By 2019 Fiasco had 12 employees in New Zealand, designing and overseeing the manufacture of touring cases through a facility in China. Recognising their clients’ increasing needs for custom cases, Matt and Joe made the huge decision to buy two CNC routers to make custom inserts for the standard cases coming from China. One CNC arrived in New Zealand, and the other to their recently opened site in Los Angeles. As Matt put it, they “went from knowing little about using a CNC machine, to 2019 where we had two CNCs in two countries and were figuring out how to streamline those products.” Business was booming and they were stoked with their new set-up.
Then 2020 happened
In February 2020, Fiasco started to get some early warning signs of coming issues for their business and for the whole world. Matt says, “China went on Chinese New Year break, but instead of coming back on February 10th, the pandemic just caused them not to come back to work. Ports were closed.” This was a massive problem for Fiasco, with no-one on the ground to manufacture their cases. “We had just closed some of our biggest sales, which was exciting but we needed China to get out of lockdown.”
As things rolled into early March, the live entertainment industry around the world started to drop off and the vibe in the air was not good. “Customers began canceling orders, including the big ones,” Matt says. It became apparent the show biz side was going to be off for awhile. On March 7th Fiasco landed their largest sale ever. By March 10th it was dead, and their other jobs started to drop with the same momentum as they had been building up.
Over the next seven days they lost 95% of their business, and panic mode set in. Matt remembers thinking “we have got a problem that’s fundamentally going to break the business… so we started to think about what we can do.” They played around with all kinds of options: contract cutting, kitchens, coffins, and many other ideas. Two ideas emerged which were both very relevant for the time and actually seemed possible: desks for people suddenly working from home, and protective screens for essential services.
An opportunity businesses don’t normally have
In the normal life of a business, Matt says,”you can’t just stop what you’re doing and change, because there is too much risk. But Covid forced us to make an entire shift.” And they had just the right team to make it happen: strong in-house finance, an in-house engineer, two designers, a CNC guru, a photographer/creative director, leadership coming from Joe, plus a killer sales team.
Even so, it was hard to make the shift. Matt said,”I had to convince the team to stop working on the cases, and start designing desks.” They quickly started prototyping, cutting, and experimenting, led by their two designers with two different points of view. One was pushing for more conceptual designs, and the other wanted to be more practical. The cooler concepts were less stable, and the utilitarian ones were too boring. Eventually they ended up bringing their best ideas together, and like most great design teams, learned to pull the best bits from each other.
Work from home desk – Design constraints
They found the triangle was the most sheet-efficient design. They had started to develop a scope for what the design needed to be because, Matt said, “we felt like companies would buy desks for their employees to work from home.” With this in mind they felt the design needed to be adjustable so a company could purchase a large number of desks that would work for anyone. Other design parameters were that the final product had to fit in a box, and had to be made only with the materials they had on hand. Fortunately they had been able to get a few pallets of materials as Covid started to ramp up in New Zealand and around the world, but they knew they wouldn’t be able to get any more materials for a while.
One thing they hadn’t thought of was fasteners. They had the plywood to construct the desks, but not being able to order fasteners led to another important design criteria. Whatever they designed had to work without fasteners, and that’s how they refined their system down to what it is now.
The Fiasco team had just enough time to get things started before the full lockdown began in New Zealand towards the end of March. This was a pretty full on lockdown, with the whole country under a stay at home order. Unless you were an essential worker (grocery store, pharmacy, or hospital staff), or a few supporting suppliers of those industries, you had to stay home.
Getting the desks into peoples’ homes
It turned out that the Fiasco team made a crucial choice in pivoting to both work from home desks and screens to protect essential services staff from Covid. Manufacturing protective screens for essential services businesses “deputized” them to be allowed to open during lockdown. This also meant they could also get the less “essential” work from home desks underway.
Again Matt pays homage to his team for what they were able to accomplish. Joe, Matt’s business partner, put on his marketing hat and cranked out a website “Work From Home Desk” while their finance manager Rebecca priced the desks and figured out the company’s burn rate. Once they had those two things sorted, they started marketing and their first orders started to flow in. They quickly managed to sell their first six desks to Genesis Energy. Now they needed to figure out how to ship these desks at a time when you couldn’t purchase packing supplies.
Within a few weeks the New Zealand government started to change the rules on what businesses could be open. These were wild times as this nationwide lockdown was unprecedented. The government was adjusting rules on a daily basis in response to better information or new issues. As rules changed, more and more people were needing better work from home setups and Fiasco was optimally positioned to fill that need. The orders were flying in and now they had to produce them.
From design company to plywood furniture manufacturer
Before the pandemic, Fiasco was a design and sales company. Their products were mostly manufactured in China, and they were just making small-scale custom inserts for the standard cases. Now with their Chinese facility completely out of action, they were forced to shift to a full-on manufacturing business. They took this challenge on in two different countries at the same time. Both locations had matching equipment setups, allowing the design work coming out of their New Zealand workshop to be quickly sent to their LA workshop. It was as simple as emailing the machine programming file. These design files were optimized to reduce waste and to produce as many desks as possible. The team discovered that by splitting up the various parts and making them in batches, 10 desks could be produced with just seven sheets of plywood.
By April, two weeks into New Zealand’s lockdown, they were selling 30 desks a day. Matt says, “we had to figure out how to keep up with the massive number of orders.” They chewed through the material purchased before lockdown. As a result they convinced their plywood supplier to come out of lockdown to send down some more product. Without their suppliers cooperation they couldn’t keep production flowing.
All hands on desk
It was all hands on deck to launch the manufacturing process within a matter of weeks. To streamline production, they had to figure out setting up a push-off table for their CNC machine. This was something they had never needed in the past, but now offered a crucial way to save time loading and unloading the machine. Eventually they had to move into a larger shop to handle the production. “We had no choice,” Matt says. With the whole country in lockdown, they used their own capacity to figure out how to make the move happen. This was on top of producing desks for their very hungry customer base. And let’s not forget this was also happening across the Pacific Ocean in their US workshop at the same time. Orders were flowing in, and the whole process had to be managed across two continents.
From the first prototype, Matt and the team continually adapted and developed their designs for the work from home desks. The care and attention they put into their very first designs, landed them with a magic recipe of a design. The parts from those original models are interchangeable and still work with the current iterations. As Matt says, “it’s like a hit single.” They just happened to hit on this great design with a dash of all the right elements. Having the in-house designers and the team operating the equipment meant they were able to quickly prototype and try things out, to make this recipe just right. It’s truly amazing that they could see the signs of trouble ahead due to Covid and were able to pivot their entire business to a well-designed functional desk before the first lockdowns in New Zealand.
Finding a new normal
After the first few crazy pandemic months, when they had to think fast, move fast, and adapt fast, things eventually started to settle down to a new normal. Although their Chinese facility has reopened and their touring case business is growing back, the pandemic has left them with a totally transformed business. Fiasco went from 12 employees in 2019 to 28 in 2022, and now are working on expanding their furniture range beyond work from home desks.
Sourcing materials was a challenge across the globe due to supply chain issues during the pandemic. Thanks to their road case and home office furniture businesses, Fiasco had been able to forge relationships with producers of premium birchwood. To open up that supply chain with other manufacturers, they created an additional arm to their business activities in the form of Makers’ Ply, a website selling a carefully curated selection of the finest natural wood veneers on high-quality birchwood cores in New Zealand.
“Whether it’s been with Fiasco or Work From Home Desks, we’ve always been committed to providing the highest quality product,” said Matt.
“The best quality for us begins with material choice, and we’ve worked hard over the years to secure materials that meet our exacting standards. We know how difficult it is to find reliable and genuine materials suppliers and so it was an obvious move for us to step into that role and bring our expertise in this area to other manufacturers.”