Zach Rotholz (MC ’11) is no ordinary origami hobbyist. Using his mechanical engineering know-how, Rotholz is building a successful business, one cardboard chair at a time. Rotholz started Chairigami, an eco-friendly cardboard furniture store, in 2011 shortly after graduating from Yale. With an innovative idea and a ton of cardboard, Rotholz has created a brand of unique furniture that is lightweight, flat-packing, and recyclable. The YEM sat down with Rotholz to discuss the inspiration behind Chairigami, the development of his business, and his advice for budding entrepreneurs.
How did you come up with the idea for the company?
I started my junior summer. I did a really cool internship at this place called Adaptive Design, it’s a nonprofit, and work with children with disabilities and make custom adaptive equipment to support them in school and at home. They do it primarily with cardboard because it’s very easy to customize, it’s really low cost, and you don’t need a lot of heavy-duty machinery to manufacture it. So basically, you could easily customize pieces of furniture for these kids. I did an internship there, totally loved it, fell in love with the idea of corrugated as a structural material, and then brought that back as a senior project.
As a mechanical engineering major, I was designing a modular furniture system, and the central question I was targeting was how can we create flat-packing, lightweight, reconfigurable furniture for college students that’s also inexpensive. Then my friend suggested that I go to the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and keep this as a design project but also make it a business. So I did a summer fellowship at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute the year after my graduation and learned a lot about business, got some really good mentors, made a lot of really good connections at Yale. One of the best connections I made was at the final presentation for the summer fellowship, where I met the head of Yale real estate, who opened up the opportunity for me to have a retail space in New Haven. It was such a great trial just to see the product not just as a design project but also as being used by people. So I developed the idea and obviously expanded beyond just chairs, and tables and everything from beds to bunk beds to sofas to shelves, all sorts of projects germinated and it grew from a really small business to something that completely supports me.
What is your design process like?
I had a recent client who wanted a full mock-up of an airline seat. So basically what I do is I make a profile of the chair and I sort of test it out, sit on it, see how it feels, and when I make a profile mockup, I take that, put it into SolidWorks, and sort of iron out all the dimensions. And then from SolidWorks I make a full-scale prototype. When I have a prototype, I actually do it by hand; I measure all the different folds and slots and kind of just build the chair. And once I’ve built the chair, full scale, I put it back into SolidWorks as a full-scale mockup. This is where I start ironing out all of the issues with bending and slots and solving little mini details. I laser cut small models to make sure that all the parts fit and then we go full-scale production.
On the other side of it, when I have a defined objective, I look at my user and ask how they’re using a space, what they’re using the space for, and how many functions can the object have. Can it be a chair but also serve as a table in another configuration? Or, how light is the object? Is it easy for someone to reuse and reconfigure? You can always come up with some crazy complicated solution, but it may take way too much material or be way too hard to assemble. The more complicated, the more pieces, the more chance for error. So I try to make it as few parts as possible, as simple as possible, and sort of aesthetically pleasing as possible.
What do you think is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far, either with design or getting the company started?
I would say for me, it’s balancing the workload—deciding how much I want to take on myself and how much do I want other people to do. I kind of like having my hands in everything so I’m a bit of a lone ranger here, doing things by myself. But I’m always asking, “Should I hire somebody, should I keep it small? How do I want to develop the business so it’s doing what I want it to do, but I’m also supporting myself and it’s not too much for me to handle?” I don’t want to be the guy who’s just handling the logistics of mass-scale production, I’d much rather be in the design process. I still want to be an idea guy.
I can spend all day here and never go home ever like I did last year and get burned out. It’s really important to just take time and take a breather, get inspired, meet new people, get new ideas. I guess it’s about figuring out how to take something that you see every day and keep looking at it a new way. how to not get bored of myself. You have to really re-imagine it every single day to keep it interesting and keep new ideas coming.
Do you have any advice for student entrepreneurs?
If you have an idea or something you want to start, don’t have any sort of preconceptions about how you might start the business. Going organically, just testing on the small scale. Let’s say you’re a food guy, and you want to do some really cool new restaurant. Start really small, maybe by cooking for your friends, or do a food cart, selling food locally. Start testing your ideas really, really early and a lot of times, because the more repetitions the easier it’s going to be. Don’t have this concept that you need to raise a bunch of money so that you can launch it all at once. Just grow with your idea. Because then you learn early what you like and don’t like about it, and how it works. Don’t be scared to try it. Even if it’s not fully fleshed out, if you have an idea for a planter or pot, make it out of cardboard or coat hangers and test it in your room and see if it works. Don’t think you have to make it perfectly.
Also, have a really good support network of friends that you trust, that you can bounce ideas off of. Sometimes it’s a little lonely being an entrepreneur. You can always learn a lot of stuff on your own, you can always do the research, but it’s a lot easier if you just ask people that have done it before how it’s done, and you also forge really good relationships with people. Reach out, you don’t have to be totally independent. Asking a lot of questions, reaching out to people, that’s part of forming a really good support network for yourself.
What are your thoughts on the entrepreneurship culture at Yale?
The Yale entrepreneurship program is really strong. I feel like it’s grown a lot since I’ve been at Yale. The final presentations at YEI keep on getting better and better; there’s more people there, there’s definitely a culture. I think Yale’s been really supportive. The business school is also reaching out, and there’s a lot more integration of different disciplines. We have business school students meeting with undergrads, engineers meeting with other people—a lot of different disciplines getting together. That’s what I would like to see more of, these sort of cross-disciplinary teams working together. If there was some campus-wide competition where you had an engineer, a business school student, a forestry student and they worked on a business together, I think that’d be really cool.
Where do you see Chairigami going in the future?
I have no idea where I see Chairigami going. I live by the seat of my pants. I’m just kind of along for the ride. No, I definitely see Chairigami going more in the consulting route, where I’m a custom designer doing one-offs for people and solving design problems versus being a manufacturer and a retailer. So definitely focusing more on ideas and problem solving.
Any last advice?
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Go out there and build stuff.