When the Sharks Finally Catch You: The Death of Geek Chic
  • When the Sharks Finally Catch You: The Death of Geek Chic


    Gaming tables are a high-end commodity that home-owning geek adults increasingly covet for their dining rooms and game rooms. A company who can produce and deliver such a product was a dream come true for Geek Chic when they appeared on the reality television show Shark Tank. The rise and fall of the company reflects the struggle of geek manufacturers everywhere.


    Swimming with the Sharks

    Shark Tank's reality show premise pitches aspiring entrepreneur-contestants to a panel of "shark" investors, who then choose whether or not to invest. In May 2013, a new kind of competitor appeared on Shark Tank: Geek Chic. Robert Gifford's pitch was $100K for a 5% stake:

    Robert is a self-proclaimed geek. He started designing furniture that is more than meets the eye. The dinner table he has in the tank can be transformed into a game-playing table and desk. There also ways to attach bins, counter holders and even wine glass holders. Robert did $2 million in sales in a year, but they were in the red by $100,000.

    The Gazette Review delved into Geek Chic's finances:

    The tables run for $3,500 roughly, and Mark Cuban asks about the sales. Robert reveals the fact that Geek Chic did a shocking $2 million in sales last year, which causes Kevin to nearly snap his own neck from turning his head so fast. Robert Herjavec and Daymond are both blown away. Lori asks about the profit, but unfortunately, Geek Chic ran a $100,000 loss...$2 million is what they did in the last fiscal year, and projections for this upcoming fiscal year would be $400,000 to $500,000. With the investment from the Sharks, Robert intends to buy a truck to enable the company to run their own logistics, and even look into purchasing more advanced machinery. The average order is for about $4,500 worth of products, Robert explains. Mark asks about the profit margin on the table, and Robert estimates that is around a 50% split; each table yields about $1,800 in profit.

    The sharks were not entirely convinced:

    Lori thinks Robert is great and loves his enthusiasm. She just doesn't know how he'll get the competitive edge on the high-end companies. She's out. Even with all the functionality of the product, Mark only sees a table in front of him and nothing more. He's just not that into furniture. He's out. Robert buys into the design, but he doesn't buy into the furniture company. He's out. Kevin thinks Robert is in a really crappy business. He's out. Daymond doesn't know if he can hang with the geek aspect, but he likes the product and how Robert is running the company. Daymond offers $200k for 25% of the company. Robert counters with $500k for a 15% stake. Now Daymond is finding a flaw in Robert's character.

    One of the Sharks brought up an interesting point:

    Kevin then says that the furniture making in the United States has been all but destroyed due to sending parts to Asia, so why is Robert not a “dead geek?” Robert explains that they are attempting to minimize the cost, but Asia cannot make the same quality of product out of American wood that is made in the United States. Lori admits that she thinks the product is great and she loves Robert’s enthusiasm, but she has ultimately seen a lot of similar tables. She does not know how Robert can get the competitive edge since some tables are very high end...

    In the end, the two Roberts (entrepeneur Gifford and Shark Herjavec) came to an agreement:

    Daymond stays firm on his offer, but Robert thinks that his equity stake is too high. Robert the shark then offers $300k for 25%. Robert the entrepreneur thinks Robert the shark is a better partner when it comes to the geeky ways of his business. He accepts his offer over Daymond's.

    For a time, life was good for Geek Chic -- one of the company's Sultan tables was used regularly on Wil Wheaton’s TableTop webseries. But the company's popularity wouldn't last.

    A Sinking Ship

    After the cameras stopped rolling, Herjavec was no longer Gifford's business partner:

    As can happen on Shark Tank, deals are not final and are contingent on both parties ultimately agreeing; ultimately, both Roberts did not see it fit to form their Robert alliance, and thus, Herjavec is no longer an investor or part-owner of Geek Chic.

    The reason? Gifford found a new investor:

    On-air deals aren’t final, though. Due diligence allows both parties to say no, and Gifford ultimately chose to go with a better offer from an investor who was already involved with Geek Chic.

    That curious footnote aside, there there were signs of trouble in 2013:

    While 2013’s numbers have been strong and demand is still high, Gifford says the company might be looking at another minus year. What he cares about most, though, is that their revenue is growing by 50 percent. “It’s hard to not lose money based on that growth,” he said. “The way that the growth line works, eventually you’ll get saturation and you’ll dip back down. Unless it’s a fad item that goes away forever.”

    Gifford wanted the company to continue independent of his temporary boost of fame:

    I think the company is my baby, but I work hard to make sure that I am not the brand — that Geek Chic itself is the brand that operates independently of me. If I was hit by a bus over the weekend, I want this place to move forward. I like building things. I don’t like to build things that don’t last. And this company has to last outside of me.

    Things wouldn't quite turn out that way.

    Up a Geek Without a Paddle

    The company stopped responding to email and phone calls on June 12. On June 13, Gifford released a statement on Facebook:

    It is with great sadness that I must announce Geek Chic has ceased operation. Despite heroic efforts by many, this outcome is out of our hands. While I am certain there are many outstanding questions, we are currently limited in our ability to respond. The website will be updated with appropriate contact information and procedures as they become available. I am forever indebted to those who joined us on this adventure, and am absolutely gutted about it’s end.

    Polygon posits what might have gone wrong:

    The trouble is that Geek Chic required payment well in advance of the delivery of their products, which often ran in excess of $3,500. That means many customers’ tables are finished, or nearly finished, and may never be delivered. When or if they are able to get their money back is an unresolved question.

    Scott Thorne at ICv2 noted that, in addition to costly production costs in the U.S. and a very small target market, competition was likely a factor:

    Although both said the two companies had a supportive relationship, Carolina Gaming Tables is/was a viable competitor to Geek Chic, offering similar products at substantially lower prices. Customers could look at Geek Chic’s high-end, high-priced products for many thousands of dollars, then look at Carolina Gaming Tables’ selection of similar products, priced thousands less, and opt for those. After all, as noted earlier, there are only a limited number of customers for high-end gaming furniture and Carolina Gaming Tables says on its website that the company currently operates debt free.

    As of today, Geek Chic's web site returns an error message.

    Geek Chic's model was challenged by production issues that many other geek-oriented companies face when manufacturing in the U.S. The company's failure is an important lesson about the sustainability of the rising geek marketplace that's getting bigger each year -- but not big enough to support Geek Chic. In the end, it wasn't the sharks on television that Geek Chic had to worry about.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 32 Comments
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      Geeks don't even want to pay extra for an electronic copy of their D&D books.

      I don't find the failure of Geek Chic surprising at all, in fact I am surprised they lasted as long as they did, and surprised they had so many orders in the first place with their whacked business model of full payment up front.

      Dumb Consumers.
    1. Tyranthraxus's Avatar
      Tyranthraxus -
      I totally disagree with the premise of basing production in the US. THe overhead costs are way too high and its ridiculous to insist that the tables be made of American Wood.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Crazy high prices meant it would only be possible for a very small portion of the gamer market, at best. Stupid business model.
    1. snowbound's Avatar
      snowbound -
      When I grew up and started buying real furniture, I realized that $3500, 6 month lead time, and payment in advance is not unusual for a piece of craftsmanship that will last generations. Often a better deal than Ikea items that fall apart in a few years. Sounds like Geek Chic almost made it, and was actually shipping to paying customers, which is more than most people can say.
    1. jhallum's Avatar
      jhallum -
      I just bought a CGT tablezilla last month, it's slated to come in a few months, after I saw their tables at Origins. I just didn't need all of the gewgaws and knick-knacks in a geek chic table, along with all of the added costs. I just need a table with a wide rail for laptops that has a cupholder that can seat 8. CGT did that for us and at a fantastic price.
    1. Evenglare's Avatar
      Evenglare -
      This sucks, I had been following them actually since before Shark Tank and was delighted when I saw them on shark tank. The reality is though that it was just too expensive. I think he should simply work on commission and keep doing it at least as a part time gig, and yes im aware how long it takes to make them, part time doesn't seem like the right word but eh...

      It sucks, but you just.. you have to appeal to the mass market, you just have to theres not really any other way around it. Especially being in a somewhat niche hobby. Wish them all the best though.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      In carpentry, there is a way to get US craftsmanship and control costs, but it's not easy. You find some partners in the Amish community who are willing to work with you.

      I disagree that Carolina Gaming Tables was simply cheaper than Geek Chic. The big difference is that they have much more stripped down packages than Geek Chic seemed willing to offer, that put their tables on par with what you'd pay for normal furniture. Geek Chic specialized in 'dream tables' for a high end market, and didn't really offer anything comparable to the very basic designs you get with Carolina Gaming Tables. Notably, Carolina Gaming Tables stripped down designs sacrificed gonzo gaming functionality for something that looks much more like a normal piece of furniture, which is a good compromise when one spouse is a gaming fanatic and the other is a gamer but also wants a normal life.

      I considered a Geek Chic table when looking for a dining room table, ultimately going with a traditional hand made Amish piece, because ultimately the features of a dining room table outweighed the features of a gaming specific table. I agree with jhallum that ultimately all the 'geegaws' on a Geek Chic table meant that it was the sort of thing most families would only put into a dedicated gaming room, and that means you are catering to a very limited market indeed.

      I'm sad to see Geek Chic go though. The very idea that they were doing $2 million dollars in sales, and putting that many high end gaming tables out on the market warmed my heart, even though I wasn't a customer. I have no idea exactly what their struggles were, but I can't help but think one of the biggest issues was the cost of advertising such a heavy and difficult to transport product. It can't have been cheap to transport the tables to conventions in hopes of encouraging sales, and yet is hard to imagine how they could have created excitement for their product without it. I also have to imagine that 100 years from now, if there is still such a thing as 'Antiques Road Show', they'll have created some truly exciting and perhaps valuable and collectable conversation pieces. I can't help but notice that the PnP RPG geek market is such that it's almost impossible to make money keeping things in print, but once things are out of print the prices on them can sky rocket. Everything desirable seems to become a 'Black Lotus'.
    1. Stereofm -
      Anyone knows of a company doing the same kind of tables in Europe ?
    1. SteveHardy -
      http://www.geeknson.com/ is based in the UK
    1. Staffan's Avatar
      Staffan -
      There's also https://www.rathskellers.com/ in Greece.
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      Read about this on another forum. There was discussion there about possible missing money and some internal strife between investors. Apparently, there are pending lawsuits so none of the involved parties are talking. Might be a while before the real story comes out. Or never, since a lot of settlements involve non-disclosure clauses.

      Just hope all of the folks that already paid either get their orders or a refund.
    1. tmanbeaubien's Avatar
      tmanbeaubien -
      I'm an owner of an GeekChic Emissary table. Ordered in January 2015 and delivered in Feb 2016. I love it, it's awesome. I saved up for four years to purchase it and got it for my 50th birthday. I tell everybody it's my mid life crisis motorcycle except it has legs. And I plan to play a hell of a lot of games on it! :-)

      I don't think I'm a dumb consumer. I looked at products available in the marketplace and I decided I was willing to spend more to get a really superior product. One that will easily last the rest of my life if I take care of it. Yes, custom products do cost more and you usually have to pay in advance.

      I do have a dedicated game room - it's a converted garage. But the delivery guys for the table said that only one out of about ten people actually had a space like mine. They said most tables were the dining room style table and they went in the dining room.

      With the mention of price and volume, I feel like it is worth noting that not every business wants to make several bajillion copies of their product. The whole point that Robert Gifford made again and again in interviews is that he wanted to make a product that you could leave to your heirs in your will. It's great wood, it's made very well, and there are no shortcuts.

      Carolina Gaming Tables makes some great stuff too. But they are a somewhat different product, just like a Ford is somewhat different than a Mercedes. Will a Ford meet your needs? Great - you're set. Does anybody need a Mercedes? No, of course not. But that does not invalidate the value of Mercedes' products. Just to be clear, I'm not trying to hate on Fords or CGT. I have owned three Ford vehicles in my life and I liked them all. In this discussion, anybody who is buying a custom made gaming table of any kind is already buying a luxury product.

      GeekChic did offer a simpler Emissary style table without all the drawers and such for a lot less. But I bet they didn't sell many of those just because once you are in the showroom, you'll be drawn towards the higher end products they were known for. That's why you came to their website in the first place. So their brand may have actually worked against them selling very many simpler tables.

      At the end, none of us know why GeekChic seems to be in bankruptcy and there could be many possible reasons. I wish the best possible outcome for the employees and their customers who had paid towards their tables.
    1. Eltab's Avatar
      Eltab -
      The book Making It In America was written by the Plant Manager (and later CEO) of a US-based furniture factory. His experiences have some bearing on Geek Chic's woes.

      Trying to occupy the luxury high-end of a small-ish market, and offering something that will last a lifetime, doesn't sound like a sound long-term plan. What do you do after you've sold 1 table to everybody?
    1. DragonBelow -
      Quote Originally Posted by Tyranthraxus View Post
      I totally disagree with the premise of basing production in the US. THe overhead costs are way too high and its ridiculous to insist that the tables be made of American Wood.
      I am hobbyist woodworker, and I can 100% appreciate the products that Geek Chic was producing, the problem is when people are used to buying disposable, assemble-yourself, type of crap from chain stores, don't value the time and effort it takes to produce an item of the quality Geek Chic was producing. Their prices where perfectly inline for comparable pieces of fine woodworking type furniture. Also, american woods are cheaper in US, walnut, cherry, white oak, are staples of the american woodworker.
    1. DragonBelow -
      Quote Originally Posted by lyle.spade View Post
      Crazy high prices meant it would only be possible for a very small portion of the gamer market, at best. Stupid business model.
      Yeah, that's why mercedes and bmw have such trouble selling stuff
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by DragonBelow View Post
      Yeah, that's why mercedes and bmw have such trouble selling stuff
      ...to a market that will never be as big as that of Kia or Ford.
    1. tmanbeaubien's Avatar
      tmanbeaubien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eltab View Post
      Trying to occupy the luxury high-end of a small-ish market, and offering something that will last a lifetime, doesn't sound like a sound long-term plan. What do you do after you've sold 1 table to everybody?
      Why, you introduce new products which are different than your old ones. Which GeekChic did. They started with one table, the Sultan. The supplemented that with several others over the years. And added the GM Valet as well.
    1. Eltab's Avatar
      Eltab -
      Quote Originally Posted by tmanbeaubien View Post
      Why, you introduce new products which are different than your old ones.
      If you mean like Tesla, which has been moving from 'rich guy's show-off toy' market to 'usable family vehicle' market, then I wish the company well. (no sarc here)

      But for each previous GC customer: how many tables can you buy before you run out of space in the house? It's just not a repeat-customer-friendly business model.
    1. tmanbeaubien's Avatar
      tmanbeaubien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eltab View Post
      If you mean like Tesla, which has been moving from 'rich guy's show-off toy' market to 'usable family vehicle' market, then I wish the company well. (no sarc here)

      But for each previous GC customer: how many tables can you buy before you run out of space in the house? It's just not a repeat-customer-friendly business model.
      And their later products did exactly that - less stupendous, more general purpose but still with features for gaming. Dining room tables where you can eat and do homework, coffee tables with storage bins for your console controllers.

      I get that the number of customers they potentially had was finite, but I seriously doubt that lack of willing customers was the cause of their bankruptcy. Otherwise, they would not have had a 6-8 month wait to start making the ordered goods. Maybe they got crushed by their orders and people withdrawing deposits? Maybe two key pieces of machinery broke at once and they had no more capitol/credit to draw on to get repairs? With the razor thin margins they seem to have maintained, it wouldn't take much to tip over the cart.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eltab View Post
      If you mean like Tesla, which has been moving from 'rich guy's show-off toy' market to 'usable family vehicle' market, then I wish the company well. (no sarc here)

      But for each previous GC customer: how many tables can you buy before you run out of space in the house? It's just not a repeat-customer-friendly business model.
      Depends on how good the product is, how hard the customers are on it, etc.

      My folks built a house in 1998. They've bought 2 round tables for their breakfast nook in that time, and are talking about replacing the current one. It's not that they buy crap tables, either- they have a 170 year old dining room table a master carpenter wanted to buy from them., and I've been using the rectangular folding oak nook table they gave me when they moved in 1998 as a gaming table (it didn't fit their new nook).

      Needs evolve. Things happen. So there IS a repeat customer market out there. The question is of its size.

      Another factor is information & market penetration. Even though I've never heard of any of the companies listed here, I am a potential customer. But even though I live 10 minutes away from a huge store that sells arcade games, bar furniture, pool tables, "gaming tables" and the like, the only commercial gaming tables I have ever seen were aimed at poker and other, similar games. Getting their product in a store like that or getting their ads in front of more eyes would probably have been a positive force on their bottom line. It isn't just RPGs or geekier war games that could use tables like that. Many traditional family board games would benefit from that kind of setup. Risk?
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