Hayes Shanesy picked up a small photograph from its perch on a wall beam just inside the door at 1110 Alfred Street in Camp Washington. It was dusty, and the frame’s protective glass was broken.
In the picture, Powel Crosley Jr., perhaps Cincinnati’s most famous entrepreneur and industrialist, stands between a desk and stacks of electronic equipment holding a note pad. It is 1922, and he is in one of the rooms on the second floor of the unassuming Alfred Street building.
Besides Crosley’s own living room, this was the site of WLW-AM’s first studio, years before it grew to be the 500,000-watt Nation’s Station. Now, more than 90 years later, another young company hopes to find success at the same address.
“We’re not Powel Crosley yet,” Shanesy said. “But we’re gaining on him.”
Shanesy is half of the team in charge of Brush Factory, a custom furniture company that has garnered a following among locally minded renovators and designers, particularly in Over-the-Rhine. More recently, Brush Factory made a clean sweep of the prizes at the Aug. 27 finale of the Big Pitch, a program created by ArtWorks to help eight creative, young, growing Tri-State businesses. It was Big Pitch's second year.
From initial applications in the spring, eight finalists were chosen to take part in an intense, 10-week program to help hone their skills and business focus. Each was paired with a mentor and a small-business specialist from U.S. Bank. As part of the process, the finalists crafted business plans that they submitted to a panel of judges.
The process culminated on Aug. 27, when the eight made live big pitches — a la TV’s “Shark Tank” — to the judges and an audience of more than 400 at the Cincinnati Masonic Center. At stake was $20,000: $15,000 from the judges and $5,000 from an audience vote.
Shanesy went first. He and his partner, Rosie Kovacs, had decided he would do the talking, although she was on stage with him.
“I was surprised not to see anyone I recognized in the crowd,” Shanesy said. “Some of the other businesses had big groups of people supporting them.”
He looked at it as an opportunity.
“There were lots of people who had never heard of our business before. I had a better chance of convincing them,” he said. They were a clean slate.
He also had something up his sleeve. Until that night, including in a story for WCPO, he and Kovacs had kept their next big plan under literal wraps until their presentation.
Although they had clients to keep them busy for the foreseeable future, “we were missing out on residential business,” Shanesy said. “Custom furniture is too expensive.”
That was the cue. Kovacs unveiled two tables, both clearly influenced by a mid-20th-century aesthetic — clean lines, light form, legs angling out from a simple top. They are to be part of “Surface,” a small collection of table and desk designs that Brush Factory will soon begin to manufacture in quantity. They’ll publish a catalog of the collection, too.
“Hayes was able to articulate why he was so passionate about making high-quality tables and why we should all care. When I saw the tables up on stage I could imagine myself sitting around them with friends and family,” said J. Corey Asay. The Dinsmore & Shohl attorney was one of the judges.
“I came away from their pitch thinking, ‘I want one of those tables!’” he said in an email.
Another judge, Maggie Paulus, concurred.
“They are … right at the crest of becoming something great. Their product is beautiful, hand-crafted and truly has an audience in the downtown Cincinnati neighborhood,” she said.
Paulus is strategy director for downtown-based LPK.
“Their pitch was spot on,” echoed judge Rachel Roberts. The owner of the Yoga Bar, Bija Yoga School & Retreats and Rake Strategy should know: She’s seen business pitched from every angle. She made a winning pitch as part of Bad Girl Ventures' class of 2014. She was also in the audience for last year’s Big Pitch, rooting for a friend.
“They have a tangible, beautiful product,” she said of Brush Factory.
The judges’ prize was awarded based on a combination of scores for the live pitches and the finalists’ business plans. Again, the judges said, Brush Factory stood out.
“Brush Factory had a clear, well defined business plan that articulated how their furniture could create a positive impact in the Cincinnati region,” said Max Sullivan, a CPA with Clark Schaefer Hackett Downtown when he’s not a Big Pitch judge. He was particularly impressed with how Brush Factory confronted the elephants in the living room, big box retailers like Ikea and Target.
In an email, Sullivan said their plan described “exactly how they fit into the marketplace among current competition. Brush Factory knows the giant big-box stores … command a majority share of the consumer furniture market, but he did a great job identifying why the products that those big-box stores [sell] are inferior to Brush Factory's current market line, and he understands how his products compare to his competition on both a price and quality scale.”
“They had a really thought-out launch idea,” Roberts said. “I rated their business plan highest, too.”
“All the finalists have viable, sustainable businesses that will add to the dynamism and growth of Cincinnati,” said Asay. He said Brush Factory’s “great” business plan put them over the top.
Specifics were key. In an interview for the previous WCPO story, Shanesy said the prize money would pay for a big order of lumber for inventory (because they now have room in Camp Washington); the catalog of the Surface collection; and hiring an apprentice.
The apprentice is key to one of the underlying missions in creating the business — to train more wood craftsmen and help build a thriving, local community of furniture manufacturers. He pointed out Cincinnati’s history as a hub of U.S. furniture-making in the 19th century.
“It won’t ever be what it was,” he said, “but we can take back the legacy.”
That, too was a message that resonated with the judges.
“I’m thrilled to see manufacturing coming back to the city,” said Roberts.
“There is a huge trend in Cincinnati whereby locals want to support other local entrepreneurs, and Brush Factory's pitch did a nice job capitalizing on that trend,” Sullivan said.
The other seven Big Pitch finalists received a surprise award of $1,000 each from U.S. Bank. The seven were: