Sharon Kevil is the founder of Forti Goods. She previously spent over a decade as an interior designer before turning her talents to develop furniture for Kohl’s. After an overseas factory trip where she witnessed subpar working conditions and horrible pollution, Sharon got to work building the kind of company she wanted to work for: socially & environmentally sustainable, meaningful and family-supporting.
Forti Goods is the first furniture company with lockable drawers to safely and securely store cannabis products. Based in Milwaukee, this anti-fast furniture startup creates handcrafted pieces for responsible cannabis use within the modern home by keeping curious hands out. Forti’s products are made in the USA, sustainably-sourced, built to last, have controlled access via an app, carbon filters that neutralize the scent of cannabis — and use FSC-certified woods and water-based finishes.
Q: Tell us about your background and what are you working on?
I wasn’t one of those people who just knew what I wanted to be. On my second attempt at college, I actually planned to be a dental assistant. I figured people would always need their teeth cleaned which is job security, and it was something I could do from anywhere.
Thankfully, when I went to register, I learned there was a two-year wait list for the program. I went home, upset because I had spent all my brain power coming to this decision and it wasn’t even an option. My younger sister took the program book from me, paged through it, tossed it back to me and said, “Interior design. That’s your major.”
My sister picked my major, and she was right.
After completing two years at the technical school, I enrolled at a small, private university and finished my BA in Interior Design. While in school, I worked for independent designers, furniture dealerships and an architecture firm. At each position I learned more about what I wanted my career to look like. Eight months after graduation, and much to my dad’s dismay, I left the architecture firm and co-founded an interior design firm.
Later, I went to work for a large retailer after a friend reached out with a position he thought would be perfect for me. I transitioned my clients and took the job, a unique interior design and project management position that included overseeing a small team, which I did for a few years before transferring to the product design team.
I had never developed a product line before, but I had designed custom furniture for my interior design clients. I leveraged that experience, and sold my skill as an interior designer as an asset for designing the retailer’s furniture lines. I spent the next 9 months hating life; I went from being very confident in my skill as an interior designer, to not knowing what the hell I was doing. It was hard. It took a full year of development cycles before I felt like I had my feet under me again. There were some amazing people on the team who helped me learn the ropes and shorten my learning curve.
Part of the job was traveling overseas to work with the factories who manufactured products for the retailer. It was a lot of fun: traveling business class, staying in nice hotels, seeing countries I had never seen before - and my favorite part: being in factories, seeing things being made.
But on one trip when I was 5 months pregnant, we landed in Shanghai to an air quality alert. By evening, I had a sore throat and felt like I was coming down with a cold, but it was just the pollution. On that same trip, the factory couldn’t provide me with a respirator while walking through the finishing department, which was spraying heavy chemicals. I wasn’t going to expose my baby; I went ahead and on my way out the door I looked around to see that none of the workers had a respirator. I was horrified that they didn’t have the basic PPE that would ultimately impact their quality of life. When I brought it up to leadership, I was told that this is simply how they do things. On a trip in another country, I saw workers on a furniture assembly line who were barefoot.
After that trip I realized that making furniture for landfills was not only not funny, but by staying I was saying that money was more important than my values. Later—after some soul searching—I decided it was time to start the kind of company I wanted to work for. I walked out the door on a Thursday, and the very next day, I filed the paperwork for Forti Goods. I raised a small amount of money to get my company off the ground, and we launched our first line at the end of October this year.
Q: What motivated you to start Forti Goods?
What motivated me to start Forti Goods is deeply personal and borne from my career experiences over the past 20 years. I’m building the company that I want to see in the world: quadruple bottom line business-focused. We want to do good by our customers and our team members, by the environment, by our community, and make enough profit to keep it all going.
Q: What are your plans for growing the company?
We want to be a household name in quality, American-made furniture. We also want to normalize parent’s use of cannabis in the same way we’ve normalized a bar cart or liquor cabinet in homes.
Right now we’re in our first phase, and we’re focused on getting the word out, and getting our furniture in people’s homes. The pandemic has put a lot of twists and turns on our path, but we’re hanging in there. We’re looking forward to a time when we can safely meet our customers at in-person events.
The manufacturers we’ve contracted with to make our line are amazing, and we are proud that we can provide small batch work that they can be profitable on, too. Right now, we have two manufacturers in Wisconsin and one in Ohio. As we grow, we’re looking to open our own shop. We will start small, with things like accessories, and build up to bigger furniture items.
Our product line will definitely grow and expand to include additional styles and new features that go beyond safe cannabis storage furniture and accessories.
Q: What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
We have a direct to consumer (DTC) model right now, through our ecommerce website where customers can buy safe and stylish cannabis storage furniture for their homes.
We’re already growing revenue through sales, and sales are coming from word of mouth, via press, social media and digital advertising. It’s a really exciting time and the positive feedback has been overwhelming!
Q: What are your goals for the future?
In the short term, I’m really looking forward to this time next year when we have a year of manufacturing and sales history under our belts so we begin our certifications process. We’re looking to become a Benefit Corporation in our home state of Wisconsin, as well as through the (national) B Corp. program, in addition to getting certified as a women-owned business.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?
Well, raising money took a long time, and was the opposite of fun. We all know that women don’t get a lot of funding dollars. That’s getting better, but I just didn’t have an easy path to “yes” from a lot of investors. Working against me was 1) I’m a woman. 2) I’m not considered “tech”. 3) Cannabis related. And then when I started talking about wanting to do good by my employees, community and the environment? Ha! Most investors’ eyes glazed over because a lot of them are just playing the numbers game. Invest in a lot of high growth startups and hope one hits it big.
Eventually, I found two groups that were interested. It was a daunting decision, but ultimately, I chose to sell some equity in the company to a seasoned private investment group. It was a little like getting married after four months of dating, but a year later I’m still so thankful to be working with them.
Q: Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I believe in focusing on the positive, so there are many things I could say. Since we’re the first to market with this kind of product, our voice can be a little louder than if we were just another new D2C furniture brand. I also think the amount of time we spent developing the lock controls, app, carbon filters and furniture designs are another advantage for us.
Q: What's your advice for female founders who are just starting out?
Two things have changed my life. First: Get yourself a champion or a mentor. Find a professional womens’ group to join and get involved.
There’s a women-focused networking group in my city that I joined just before I started Forti. They’ve been hugely supportive with connections, advice, skill sharing, and mentoring. In addition to learning, growing and expanding myself through their programming, I was introduced to my investor by one of the women in the group. It’s a connection I literally would not have made without being an involved member.
Second: If you’re doing what you want to do, don’t quit. Find a way to keep going.