Improvement Direct’s Chris Friedland takes on Home Depot and Lowe’s
Chris Friedland used to want to be a lawyer. Now, sitting in his corner office in a brand-new building near the airport, he laughs about the sharp turn his career path has taken.
“We sell toilets on the Internet. That’s about as exciting as it gets!”
He’s being modest, of course.
The Chico State grad’s homegrown company, Improvement Direct, had humble beginnings back in 2000 in an Eighth Street apartment. It was a school project that he started, along with partner Dave Boctor. Over the years it has evolved into a 16 Web-site enterprise (all can be found at www.improvementdirect.com) specializing in home-improvement supplies, from light fixtures and tools to piping and rugs.
“We want to become a big enough player to compete against Home Depot and Lowe’s,” Friedland said. And the keys to that success are prices and, better yet, selection. “You can go to Home Depot and find 500 faucets. But you can go to Faucet Direct and find 50,000.”
Friedland, a 31-year-old married father of two, grew up in “wonderful Weed,” near the Oregon border, and moved to Chico for school. After getting his undergraduate degree in political science, he opted off the law-school track and returned for his master’s in computer science. Though he never finished that degree, the study has obviously paid off.
“I saw entrepreneurship as the best way for a poor kid to achieve a high level of wealth,” he said. Last year Improvement Direct sold $55 million in home-improvement merchandise. This year Friedland expects it to reach $90 million. And while that’s still only a fraction of the Home Depot/Lowe’s market (combined, they pull in $100 billion a year), Friedland says he plans to get there.
“To get to a percentage of their business, we’d need to make $1 billion,” he said. “Is it possible? Shit yes!”
Improvement Direct, the largest Internet company in Chico, has grown rapidly in its seven years. In June, it opened the doors of its new building, which houses two large office spaces filled with cubicles—the company boasts 100 employees—and a warehouse packed with row upon row of boxes ready to be shipped. There’s also a small photo studio in the warehouse, where 3-D product shots are taken. And though Improvement Direct’s new home sounds impressive, the company is already outgrowing it.
That’s all good news for Friedland, who only sees the company getting bigger in years to come. The Internet, he explains, is going to be the place to be for home-improvement sales. The housing market has dropped off, but as the Web-using population grows and gets older, they’re going to be looking more and more to online catalogs to find the best deals and biggest selection.
“Right now we’re looking for category expansion and category dominance,” Friedland said. “We’re already one of the lead players in all the categories we participate in, but we’re not the leader in all of them.
“We hope to someday do to Home Depot and Lowe’s what Amazon did to Barnes & Noble.”