Traveling through Asia on a recent furniture-buying trip, Jake Jabs kept seeing the same low-backed couch in market after market. Feeling a hunch, he put in a bulk order and shipped the “strange-shaped” sofas to his American Furniture Warehouse (AFW) showrooms in Colorado and Arizona.
“We sold 69 sets in the first two weeks,” he said. “That’s what you have to do – you need to try things. I’ve made my mistakes, but it’s important to take chances. I take a risk every day when I’m buying. Almost every risk that I took turned out to be good.”
Jabs, president and CEO of AFW, one of the nation’s most successful furniture retailers, spoke about the keys to entrepreneurial success to an audience of 160 in St. Cajetan’s Cathedral on May 3. The event was sponsored by CU Denver, the CU Denver Business School and the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship.
The event was attended by CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell and included remarks by Gary Kochenberger, interim dean of the Business School, and Madhavan Parthasarathy, director of the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship. In his introduction of Jabs, who in 2013 made a $10 million contribution to expand entrepreneurship education, research, programmatic reach and caliber within the CU Denver Business School, Parthasarathy said “Colorado’s greatest entrepreneur” came from modest means in a small town in Montana.
“Everything Jake’s made he’s made by hard work, dedication, a little bit of luck and by making smart, passionate decisions,” Parthasarathy said. “He’s also a great philanthropist.”
Jabs said his first love was music. In fact, before his talk, he displayed his guitar-playing chops with Diamondback Bluegrass, a CU Denver quintet. The group is made up of students Olivia Shaw (fiddle), Scott Sherman (mandolin), Alex Goldberg (upright bass), Matt Telsey (keyboard) and Gil Clark (guitar).
Jabs owned a trio of music stores in Montana before discovering that furniture offered a much brighter retail future than musical instruments.
He launched AFW in Denver in 1975 and now has stores across Colorado and two in Arizona. Jabs espouses living within your means, carrying little if any debt, working hard and following your passion. Beyond those principles, he offered five keys to entrepreneurial success:
- Realize that competition is good. It makes you work harder and fine-tune your company.
- Become social media/digital savvy. He explained that AFW launched its store in Gilbert, Ariz., three years ago using only social media to publicize the grand opening. “In the first month, we did $2 million in sales using only social media as advertising,” he said. “That store now does $100 million a year.”
- Create a great website. More and more commerce is taking place online and it’s imperative for entrepreneurs to service customers through an informative and user-friendly website.
- Fill a need in the market with your business and provide value to society.
- Provide great value and service to your customers.
‘Have a passion’
He emphasized the importance of being honest, being efficient (AFW owns a huge fleet of trucks and all of its showrooms, and its furniture buyers negotiate directly with factories worldwide – all greatly reducing costs) and giving back to your community. Last year, AFW donated nearly $3.5 million to various charities, organizations and schools across Colorado and Arizona. Jabs also donates his time to philanthropic causes. He mentors students at CU Denver and is a major contributor to the Business School at his alma mater, Montana State University.
He estimates that he still works 60 to 70 hours a week, six days a week. He is regularly seen in the classrooms and his office in the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship in the Business School. He doesn’t view any of it as work, though, because he loves what he’s doing.
“If you have a passion for what you do, you will work the extra hours,” Jabs said. “You will do research; you will read up on things. If you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing, then change – go do something else.”
During the event, prizes of decorative wall-hangings, white stuffed tigers (Jabs’ autobiography is entitled “An American Tiger,” a reference to his popular TV commercials featuring tigers) and other items of AFW merchandise were raffled off.