Our founder, David Kahl, on Fully's origins

Nov 13, 2019

The following is an excerpt from David Kahl's interview with Daniel Bach on the Monocole Entrepreneur's podcast:

Daniel Bach: Beyond just shaking off stuffy corporate culture and the depressing confines of a cubicle world there is now a growing appreciation for what thoughtful design and indeed good furniture can do for our health and the greater company culture. This week we meet David Kahl the founder and CEO of Fully, a Portland based company designing desks and chairs. It exists to encourage a more active and energetic work environment from standing desks and ergonomic chairs to clever storage and lighting solutions.

David is originally from New Orleans and started his professional life as an accountant with an exciting career that took him from Los Angeles to Mexico City and eventually to Manhattan where in the year 2000 David was a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company. And although he had an incredible salary the reality of corporate culture was starting to eat at him where he was increasingly aware of the problems created by an office that encouraged working long hours and keeping your feelings and emotions hidden.

And then September 11th happened. The pain and horror of that day and the aftermath eventually drove David to make a drastic change and to focus on building positive work environments and inspiring connections in the workplace. And so Fully was launched in 2006 and as a company today of more than 100 people. Fully is also a B Corp and like all certified B Corporations we've had on this program it means they are committed to impact and sustainability throughout the business. Last year the company moved into the European Union by acquiring Belgian furniture startup Jaswig and then earlier this year Fully was itself acquired by Pennsylvania-based Knoll which has more than 80 years experience in the furniture manufacturing business.

Here's David now with the story of Fully. 

David Kahl: Well we are a company that creates, designs furniture that encourages more embodiment more movement in the workplace so that we can have a better relationship to our work so that our energy is more present our bodies and we can create better, we can think better, we can do whatever better.

Bach: So how did you start thinking about this because obviously there are so many different ways that we can do that but this is particularly in furniture and the actual physical space in the actual design of where we are. So when did you start to think about that?

Kahl: Well I wasn't really I don't think thinking about it when it was happening when I was sitting in bad furniture. I'm originally a CPA I'm a recovering accountant, so a certified public accountant, and working long hours at uninspiring unergonomic furniture. And I was walking past the mirror one day and I said well what's my dad doing in my apartment here. And I was looking at myself the posture that I had I was in my late 20's and I looked like an old man and I felt like an old man. So the furniture that I was using just wasn't taking very good care of me. I always knew that I wanted to start a business. And after some awakening of what to do, why to do it, I thought this is a great opportunity to create things that are really better for us so that we feel better so that we have a better relationship to our to ourselves and to others in the workplace.

Bach: In this day and age, a lot of companies are starting to think about this and the well-being of their employees and and the space that they create. You worked for a lot of big companies. Price Waterhouse I think among them in your career is an accountant so you were used to this corporate environment which may be does now have the best choice in furniture or you know workspace so is that sort of what really got you thinking about this is how you had spent your time before and also how you were feeling?

Kahl: For sure I really was in the middle of the one size fits all mentality when I was in my early part of my professional career where we had cubicles and there was everybody got the same kind of task chair with the same minimum maximum height and everybody got a certain number of square feet and you were to go to your cubicle and do your thing. So I knew then that I wasn't connecting well with others and I guess it wasn't until later some events that happened in my life. specifically 9/11 when I had a wake up call and realized that I just felt super disconnected from everybody in my work. I think we all want to feel like we belong. We all want to feel like we're creating things individually and together and feel like that people appreciate us for who we are. So that was kind of the big picture around creating products that encourage us to be who we are and we can only do that when we feel comfortable when we feel safe.

And I think a lot of the corporations back when I was in my early part of my career really weren't thinking about those things they weren't thinking about culture as much or potentially maybe thinking about cognitive culture some but not so much the emotional culture that we know now is so important.

Bach: Yeah can we dig into that a little bit? I was so curious read about your experience in 9/11 and that sort of personal communication that you sort of woke up to and that we weren't really doing that in our world until something bad happens really.

Kahl: It's true. For me I was working and my career had evolved into a really great role in mergers and acquisitions on on Wall Street and was working for a large Fortune 500 company and obviously we all know what happened on 9/11. But on September 12th when I was walking to work in New York I took that long walk down Broadway that I've taken so many times before. But unlike the other days when I was just disengaged counting my steps or looking for some kind of distraction I was actually looking people in the eye and connecting with them at a deeper level and I think maybe for the first time in my life allowing them to look me deep in the eye. And I started to wear down my walls of letting people in and recognizing that I'm really a human and I have my own flaws and by the time I got to work I was so moved by the connections I was feeling with others that I was in tears. And when I got to work my, my co-workers look at me kind of kind of funny like, what's going on with you. And that's when I really the light bulb went off for me that this isn't for me. I need to really explore who I am more deeply and work in environments that allow me to be who I am more deeply and I don't want to hide who I am. I want to embrace all that I am and I want everybody to feel like they can do that. So that was the beginning of the journey for me and I think I didn't have all of the pieces of the puzzle put up yet but that was the light bulb that I needed to make a change. I need to move in a direction that was gonna be better for me.

Bach: That's fascinating. I wonder if somewhere inside of you then all that time you were an entrepreneur you were someone that was going to be a leader and start to make change for other people? Was that part of it do you think?

Kahl: I'm not sure I feel like I've always been someone who has wanted to fit in in some way and not necessarily lead but I think what I found and there are a lot of people like me now is you don't necessarily have to be a leader in the traditional sense to be a great leader for others and to be a role model for others. I've always been one that tried to blend in and not really stand out. I don't think I ever really thought I was going to be an entrepreneur but I knew I wanted to do something that was going to make a difference.

Bach: When you decided to set out on your own, what did that look like? What were the early days of trying to create a brand and trying to create a company?

Kahl: Well for several years I didn't really know for sure what I was going to do. And like any process it's a connection of a whole bunch of different life experiences that eventually start dripping and coming together and to illuminate a path forward. So after I resigned from my job on September 12th I took a lot of time off and just wanted to reconnect with who I was. Maybe I'd like to say rediscover but maybe just discover because I don't think I really knew who I was. I hadn't allowed myself to see what it was like to be a gay awkward person working in the financial markets where everyone has more of a bro culture so giving me the opportunity to peel back some of the layers of the onion for me and see what I was all about. I took some time and went on some meditation retreats, backpacked around, read books about brain neurology, and integration and realized that companies in general aren't really paying a lot of attention to how their employees feel emotionally at work and I wanted to do something about that. I wanted to create a culture that was inclusive; that was a place where people felt like they could bring their full selves to work and they were belonging and they were part of something bigger. For me I knew that for office furniture in general needed to evolve. It needed to evolve because in order for us to be human we needed to have furniture around us that allowed that to happen.

Bach: Yeah to make you feel comfortable or just more like yourself I guess because if you're in discomfort or set up in a way that you're not connecting to people around you that makes a big difference because we spend so much of our time at work. Tell me about the early designs than the early products you thought that might help you sort of create this brand.

Kahl: Well I'm an accountant so I had no design experience whatsoever. So the beginning stages for me was the beginning stage was creating a portfolio of products that inspired me that were great for movement that were designed by others. The Norwegians, the Scandinavians in general and the Europeans are really good at creating furniture that is both functional and has an emotional element to it that draws us in. So I assembled about six or seven active sitting chairs I called them which, at the time using the words active and sitting next to each other, were just crazy. And I started to do a website directly to consumers because as part of this premise of wanting to connect deeper with ourselves and others I know if I wanted to build this company I needed to have a direct relationship as well with customers and not go through the traditional route of dealers and at that time that really wasn't an option.

So I created the website put that portfolio of chairs around and soon after I realized I really wanted to create a height adjustable table to accompany these. At that time, this was 2009 2010, the height adjustable tables on the market were very expensive. They looked like they all belonged in hospitals or in industrial settings. They just weren't very aesthetic so I for the first time tried to create my own product. And it's funny because I have no industrial design experience whatsoever. I knew what I wanted. I knew functionally what it needed to be and I had a vision in my head of how it should look.

I partnered with a company that actually makes hospital beds. I realized in my in my research that linear actuators which are the machines that make the lifting columns go up and down and our height adjustable tables are actually the same products that are in hospital beds that go up and down for patients. So I worked with this company with their engineering team and about nine months later we had a product and my goal was to have the first electric height adjustable desk that was under 1000 dollars. And doing it directly to consumers. So that happened in 2013.

Bach: And did that take off? Were people started to order these? What was that like?

Kahl: Well for the first the first couple of weeks it really didn't take off and I thought wow this was a really bad experiment. We started to get some online reviews and bloggers and third parties who were buying our desks and testing them out and writing great things about them. So it started to take off about two months after we released it and then within within a year the desk was outselling all of our chairs combined and it really started to take off in 2014. We also started to have a lot of wind at our back in terms of people were starting to talk more about wellness in the workplace and wellness in general and we don't just we can't be expected to just go to the gym for an hour or take a run and it's all going to be fine after that we needed to live a full life where we were active. So we certainly had some luck as well of the wind at our back. But overall. Just trends in the market of wellness and people started buying things more from us and then it grew from there and now our Jarvis table was -- we've sold more than one-hundred thousand of them in the market.