By Starting Small and Staying Focused, Dormify Found Room to Grow
Many of us have been told to “think big” when defining our goals, but when Amanda Zuckerman and her mother, Karen, started Dormify, they found value in thinking small instead. When the mother-daughter duo went shopping for supplies for Amanda’s dorm room before her freshman year of college, they were surprised by the lack of small-space decorating options — especially for someone with a sense of personal style.
Amanda says, “There was nowhere to go where you could get everything that you needed—a one-stop shop—and there wasn’t bedding product available in the required Twin XL size that was stylish and current for my age group. It was all very juvenile, just because of the nature of a twin bed.”
Karen Zuckerman runs a creative agency, and her work inspired an entrepreneurial mindset in Amanda from a young age. As they struggled to find the kind of dorm room décor Amanda wanted, they both recognized that there was a hole in the market.
Amanda says, “She and I kind of turned to each other in the store, and said, ‘We can’t believe this doesn’t already exist. We need to create our own bedding line, and we need to create a one-stop shop.’” In that moment, the idea that would go on to become Dormify was born.
Amanda and her mom didn’t start Dormify right away. They let the idea marinate for about a year. When Amanda started college, she wasn’t necessarily dedicated to becoming an entrepreneur, but she knew she wanted to follow in her mom’s footsteps and do creative work.
She says, “I entered school with a graphic design major and a second major in marketing, because I wanted the business background as well as the creative background.” Both areas of focus became important in her work for Dormify as the company’s co-founder and creative director.
From the moment they launched Dormify together in 2011, Amanda and her mom knew that they wanted to design their own line — not just sell other company’s’ products. As Amanda and Karen struggled with the logistics of launching a brand new bedding line, they had to ask for help. They went to a big textile building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and started knocking on doors before they even had business cards or a website. They asked different companies to work with them and help them figure things out.
Amanda recalls, “So many people said to us, ‘You’re crazy. You’ve never manufactured anything. You don’t know the home linen business. Good luck, because you’re going to need it, and you’re going to fail.'”
Instead of giving up, Karen and Amanda kept asking for help. “We finally found someone that wanted to take a risk with us. We figured out how we could reach the fabric minimums, and how we could actually do this. They held our hand at first, and our warehouse held our hand at first. All of those people really believed in our brand and our vision and our team, so they were willing to help us grow.”
Looking back, Amanda realizes that initially they were trying to grow Dormify faster than realistically possible. She grew to understand that with a new company, it is important to have a specific focus.
“When we came up with the idea, and really solidified the brand — with the look and feel and our plan — so many people loved it and had ideas for us. And of course, we had a million other ideas, too. We bought up other domain names like “Apartmentify” and “Campify”, and all of these other brand extensions that we could branch off into, but we had a very small team and very limited funds. Thinking about all these things while simultaneously trying to growing our college and dorm business wasn’t going to benefit our overall growth. We needed to own the dorm market before expanding into these other things.”
Amanda continues, “If you’re spreading your brand or your team [too] thin, nothing is going to prosper.”
Even when Dormify was ready to expand, they took it one step at a time. Their first step was adding dorm room décor products that would appeal to guys. They branded themselves as “small space experts” so that they could expand beyond dorm décor and sell products for other small spaces as well, like studio apartments.
Amanda says, “We think it’s really important to educate our customers so that they know that to “Dormify” your space means to decorate a small space. That’s what we’ve been trying to do over the years so that people don’t think we’re dorm-exclusive. We can have teens decorating their bedrooms in high school; we can have post-grads decorating their first apartments.”
Most recently, the company expanded offline, launching several pop-up shops. “We felt like this was a natural next step, because in the home décor market, it’s really important to be able to touch and feel our products, and that was the big barrier that we found with our online store,” Amanda explains.
Last summer, the company tested a small showroom in their New York City office, inviting customers to work with a stylist on an appointment-only basis.
“It was wildly successful and we wanted to scale it up for this year, so we’ve expanded that into two locations at malls — one in Maryland and one in Chicago,” Amanda says.
Dormify decided to hire college-aged girls to work as in-store stylists, because college-bound customers see them as big sisters and appreciate their expertise.
The company’s online offerings continue to grow, too. Amanda says, “Right now, about 75% of the product on our site is Dormify-branded exclusive product that we design and manufacture. The rest of the product on the site is curated from other brands, and the reason for that is so that we can get the best of the best in different categories that we’re not equipped yet to manufacture. As we grow, we will be working toward all of the products on our site being our own brand.”
Now that Amanda has been out of college for five years, she realizes how important it is for Dormify to be aware of current and future decorating trends. “The way that we solve for that is by constantly bringing college graduates onto the team in some way or form—through our brand ambassador program or through our own team at HQ,” she says, adding, “What really sets us apart is how we are able to speak to the customers in their language.” This fresh energy keeps the designs and the products as relevant and trendy as possible.
Seeking input from young employees is just one example of how Amanda benefits from networking and building connections. For anyone starting a business, she offers the following suggestion:
“Make sure that you have some sort of advisor, mentor, or advisory board, even if you don’t have a formal board set up in the beginning, because there’s no way you’re going to be able to connect with all the people you need to be able to connect with just off of your personal contacts. By combining your inner circle and their contacts, you’re going to have all the people that you need at your fingertips.”
She acknowledges that building relationships takes work. “You can’t just shake [someone’s] hand and expect them to remember you. You need to maintain that [relationship].”
Of course, the most important relationship at Dormify is still their mother-daughter cofounder bond. Working together has brought Amanda and Karen Zuckerman closer than ever. Their shared passion for the business means there’s very little separation between their work lives and their home lives, but Amanda says it’s rarely an issue.
“Honestly, some of our best ideas come out of a conversation that we’re having on a beach on vacation, or when she’s in New York and sleeping over at my apartment or something like that.”
Every once in a while, though, Amanda admits that she finds herself asking, “Mom, can you just be my mom for a second instead of being my business partner? I just need a mom for half a second and then you can go back to normal.”
When Amanda looks to the future of Dormify, she emphasizes the company’s overall mission, saying, “We’ve said from the beginning that we want to be the place that every single high school senior thinks of as soon as they get their college acceptance letter.”
Going forward, Dormify will continue to focus on providing decor and inspiration for small spaces as a way to bring personal style to every stage of life, no matter how temporary it may be. For this mother/daughter team, success is all about thinking small—and dreaming big.