JasonL was founded when Jason Levin couldn’t get a job.
Graduating into the depth of the global financial crisis in 2009, his preferred career in consulting looked out of reach. Levin had run a lucrative eBay business while at university, so he figured he could extend that, opening an online furniture store.
In the early days, he did a contra deal with a designer he knew: some free office furniture for some company branding. And so, a mascot was born.
“I looked around at companies that were doing well,” Levin tells SmartCompany. “Companies like Crazy John’s were built around a memorable character. I thought, ‘no one’s doing that in office furniture’. And sure, the business name happens to be mine, but I didn’t want to be the face. So I thought, if it’s not me, let’s create a character to represent the business.”
Jason, the character that is, looked scruffy. He had bright, spiky red hair and a slightly nervous smile. He looked like the new young guy in the office, which, really, perfectly represented the company at that stage.
Jason Levin was soon joined by his brother Marc in running the business, and together, the two of them did everything, from putting furniture together to delivering it. But over time, the business grew.
And it changed.
“I thought I’d sit behind a computer and watch the sales come in,” Jason says. “That’s not how it worked. In office furniture, you need a lot of consultation, a lot of expert advice. Someone redoing their office needs to have a level of trust in the person they’re bringing in to do it. And for us, the mascot, though we liked him, didn’t represent the trust factor.”
Today, there are 15 people working at JasonL, and the company made nearly $4 million in sales last financial year. The business was doing well, with small companies keen on the products.
But corporates and professional services firms weren’t buying furniture from the company, even though its founders thought they should. Jason and Marc made a painful decision. Sideshow Bob, as the workers at the company had taken to calling their spikey-haired mascot, had to go.
“We had a ceremony for when we killed him off,” Jason reveals. “We took him off the wall, carried him outside and said a few words.”
Sideshow Bob still adorns the JasonL office. But now, he’s been covered up by another character – a sleek, smiley chair with a face.
Sideshow Bob’s forced retirement was months in the making. It all began when JasonL was approached by Re:, the branding subsidiary of global advertising agency M&C Saatchi.
They proposed a contra deal: they’d rebrand JasonL, and JasonL would pay a discounted fee for allowing them to use the rebrand as a case study.
Jason and Marc agreed. And so began a long, but ultimately rewarding process for the young company.
“It took six months all up, and lots of consultation,” Marc says. “They wanted to really understand what our point of difference was. We had had some success, but we wanted to take it to the next level. And we had a lot of trust in them. We said: ‘You guys are the creative. We don’t need to put you in a box. Just come up with something interesting and creative for us – we’re prepared to take the risk’.”
After analysing the brand, the creatives came back and said there was a ‘disconnect’. Some customers loved the character, but many didn’t understand him. They asked how the brothers would feel about letting him go.
“It was a tough conversation,” Marc says. “We thought we were doing a good job, and the business was growing. But we had the confidence in them to come up with something more interesting and more sophisticated.”
The brothers wanted the business to still be perceived as friendly. They didn’t want to go too high-end – they were middle-market players.
“A lot of agencies want to make everything really clean and expensive-looking,” Jason says. “We were quite strong on the brand remaining friendly.”
The final solution was a family of avatars – friendly, stripped down furniture adorned with a smiley face.
The brothers were thrilled. “By keeping faces in the avatars, we’re still very friendly and approachable,” Jason says.
And it’s having an impact. While sales haven’t dramatically increased, the company has seen a distinct change in the types of businesses buying from it. The morning they spoke to SmartCompany, the business had made its first sale to a law firm.
“In business, we often talk about gut feelings,” Jason says. “It’s just been a few weeks. But over the next couple of months, my gut feeling is that we’ll see certain segments growing.”
JasonL got the royal treatment: most businesses of that size can’t afford to get a high-end firm like Re: to do their redesign.
For affordable designs, small businesses often turn to online marketplaces like 99designs or Freelancer.
Do the brothers believe their experience validates the worth of high-end firms?
Marc says it’s complicated. “I’m a firm believer in using the best to get the best results,” he says. “But we don’t have an in-house creative. So even though the concept came from an agency, all the execution – adapting the design for specific needs – has come from using things like 99Designs or one-man-bands in Melbourne.
“We do outsource a lot because the costs are lower. So there are definitely two sides to it.”
Jason pipes in: “We’ll be the first to say to you that if we didn’t have the chance to get the case study done, we wouldn’t have the money to use an agency like that.”
Doing so was an eye-opening experience.
“From my perspective, I didn’t study marketing and advertising at university,” Marc says. “My background is in finance and operations. So it was wonderful for me to see the process around creating what we hope will be a national, and maybe global, brand. It really has been rewarding.”