Joanna Mahserdjian of Upstate Rug Supply on building a modern heritage brand
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While in college, I would frequent flea markets and explore design magazines at every chance I could. I was drawn to art history classes, and had a curiosity to understand the culture and story behind each piece we studied.
Today, I still get to pursue these passions. My company Upstate Rug Supply ticks all the boxes as a dream career for me: it’s a daily combination of beauty, design, and history. By hand-picking antique rugs that I then sell online, I get to focus on helping others bring items with a story into their homes.
When my friends started admiring the antique rugs I had picked for my home, they affirmed what I believed all along: I have an eagle with an eye for the hunt. I was hooked.
My dining room became the first backdrop for my obsession. I remember taking tons of photos of the antique rugs on the dining table as I set up our first online shop. We would photograph the rugs the dining room, but it was also where I stored the rugs, so slowly, as the collection grew, the piles in the corners got higher and higher
Half a decade later, we now have a physical storefront in Hudson Valley, New York, that compliments our DTC website.
History is our brand: Modern heritage from the past
At Upstate Rug Supply, we feel like custodians of history.
In this age of fast food, social media, Photoshop, and superficiality, we’re steadfast in our belief in authenticity. Antique rugs reflect an appreciation of historic charm and artistic beauty, after all.
“My business acts as a connection between modernity and century-old beauty.”
We focus on building a brand with solid core values:
- Centuries worth of quality: Handwoven as long ago as 1920 or earlier, our antique rugs bear organic dyes which soften with time and uphold the weavers' tradition. Innovation and technology drive human existence, but traditions preserve human heritage.
- Handmade and handpicked: All of our antique rugs uphold the rich tradition of carpet weaving. From the weaver’s village, with no modifications, the antique rugs retain their original traits. We find them and get them new homes for people to enjoy for years to come.
- Uniqueness: No two rugs are alike.
- Education: We teach our customers how to maintain the rugs we sell so they last for years to come. I also help customers choose the right antique rug for their needs to ensure they’re buying a product that will suit their lifestyles. In case of any damage, we offer a full professional and transparent restoration.
We source all our products within the US, and we love to find and source these gems so we can bring them to our customers. It’s like a modern treasure hunt.
Since the business’s inception, we’ve focused on building long-term relationships with our customers. While our day-to-day marketing methods have changed over time, these one-to-one relationships remain a top focus in our business. Through these relationships, we work to better understand the customer experience and strive to constantly improve:
For example: I try to understand how our customers view their spaces and lead their lives. Having this context helps me guide the customer on the best choice of an antique rug to meet their needs. We’ve found this creates a referral engine of sorts, which drives new business as well.
For local clients, we meet in the shop and look at rugs together. Sometimes they will come in a few times and bring in clipboards with dimensions, photos of their spaces, fabric swatches, etc. and we will go through rug options for the space.
If they want to try them in their home, I'll bring a carload of rugs to their house and we will see how they feel in the space itself. For online clients, I do Facetime appointments where they walk me through their homes, and I'll do a virtual shopping appointment where I show them rugs and we chat about their overall aesthetic.
As for leveraging creators: Art is subjective, and our marketing is limited to people who appreciate the art of antique rugs. We do occasionally host fun events or collaborate with a select group of creators to market our products.
One example: A while back, we did an IGTV event in the shop with my friend (and fellow Hudson Valley resident) James Coviello.
James is a fashion designer, long-time antique collector, and Instagram creator. James has been a customer of mine for years, to the point where I now get emails from people in other states who are shopping for rugs and looking for the "James Coviello aesthetic."
For our collaboration, James came in and shopped for a new kitchen rug. We discussed what he loves in a rug and what he wanted for the space. It was a huge hit!
Our long-term goal is to have our marketing reach well beyond the local area of Hudson Valley.
Growth in changing times
I’m a mom to three small boys, and the ongoing pandemic has changed most aspects of our everyday lives. The good news: Our company has shown steady, organic growth since its inception (despite an unpredictable landscape.)
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though; more of a learning curve. Balancing family needs and running a business is a 24/7 struggle. Over time, I’ve learned the power of efficiency and (wisely) delegated some duties to free up some time in my workday.
At the beginning, I did everything myself, but now, I'll hire someone to go and pick up rugs or do a delivery. My husband does the editing for all of the rug photos. In the shop, I've been so happy to have an assistant that comes and helps with the physical labor of showing rugs (opening, folding and stacking.) It protects my time and energy for sales. I also found a great accountant! It’s been so important to delegate some of the time-consuming things that take me away from client interaction.
“The greatest lesson I’ve learned is the ability to pivot and to balance things while keeping sight of the core vision.”
In my daily quest to guarantee the best quality products and value to our customers, I take some risks, and just like in life, some fail, while some pay off. For example: I launched a collection of one-of-kind pillows using antique rugs and we are designing a collection of rug- upholstered ottomans. These take large initial investments to get started: Buying a collector rug and determining the extent of restoration you're going to do on it has been a learning curve for me (and some take thoughtful, significant financial investment.)
Life on the road
Another big part of running this company means being on the road. Because our inventory requires me to be on a constant lookout for new sourcing markets, there’s never a slow period. I've traveled for one particular rug that I don't want to miss, or I'll meet with a collector who is offering several pieces, or I'll find one at a market or shop along the way in my travels. As a dealer and collector, my eyes are always open.
Before the pandemic I was traveling a couple times a month, but in the heat of COVID I relied more on remote communications and shipping to acquire new inventory. Now, I'm finding the middle ground. I'm looking at new rugs every day, learning with each one I encounter.
The future for Upstate Rug Company
One of our key goals looking forward is to reach a wider local market and to expand our customer base. I plan to grow our social media engagements to harness the power of direct-to-consumer sales online.
The future is exciting, but we know our core values will be what keep us rooted. I’m currently exploring new ways to better connect with our clients and to supply an inventory that appeals to their needs.
The last five years have taught me the value of customer feedback and the power of word of mouth. I want to strengthen and leverage the reputation of the company to reach new heights. It's only possible if I keep listening, inventing, hunting, and connecting with our customers.