Miller, the 45-year-old CEO of JMX Brands, walks the floor of his new, 3,800-square-foot DutchCrafters showroom, eyeing furnishings for every room of the house and outdoors as well.
Mention Amish furniture and you’re likely to conjure up images of curved-back dining room chairs and heavy oak bedroom sets, but DutchCrafters upends that stereotype. Bedframes display clean, contemporary lines and trendy smoky gray finishes, and bar tables bear irregular, natural edges that highlight the wood’s natural grain.
Customers are eating it up. Last August, Inc. magazine ranked JMX at 1,983 on a list of the fastest-growing companies in the country, up from No. 3,197 the year before. In July the company was picked as one of 101 Florida companies to watch by GrowFL, the state’s economic development program. And for four straight years, JMX has been included in Internet Retailer magazine’s ranking of the nation’s top 1,000 online retailers.
Most companies move from selling in person to selling online, but JMX went in the opposite direction. The company has sold Amish furniture through its website, DutchCrafters.com, since 2003; in recent years, online sales have skyrocketed. Revenue increased from $3.8 million in 2013 to $6 million in 2014 to nearly $8 million last year. In 2015, JMX sold a total of 15,500 pieces, crafted by roughly 200 different woodworkers spread across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. And that same year, they finally opened a showroom at 3709 N. Lockwood Ridge Road.
It sounds like a contradiction: A high-tech online marketplace that sells artisanal goods crafted over weeks and months by rural Amish and Mennonite woodworkers—many of whom have no computer or smartphone.
Miller grew up in a small Amish and Mennonite community in southern Michigan and later attended Goshen College, a Mennonite-affiliated liberal arts college, where he studied business. He came to Sarasota in 1993 when he got a job as an associate pastor at Bahia Vista Mennonite Church. But entrepreneurship always appealed to him, and when his alma mater launched an adult education program in Sarasota, he took a job as director. Miller says that in Mennonite congregations, the gap between laity and clergy isn’t as great as in other denominations. As a result, it’s not uncommon for pastors to move in and out of occupations both in and outside the church. In 1998, Miller enrolled in business school at the University of South Florida in Tampa. That’s where he met Miao Xue.
Xue was born and raised in China, but came to USF for grad school in 1999. He and Miller became friends and decided to get into e-commerce. They launched JMX—a blend of Miller’s and Xue’s initials—in 2003. But they weren’t sure what they wanted to sell.
“We started with a concept in mind: ‘Here’s how we want to do e-commerce,’” Miller says. “I was trying to look for products. I started thinking, ‘Who do I know? What’s special about me or my knowledge?’” A Mennonite friend recommended he call on Amos Kaufman, a Pennsylvania woodworker who crafts 6-foot-tall decorative lighthouses. Miller and his wife, Linse Miller, who helped found the company, paid Kaufman a visit. Kaufman was skeptical. Previous e-commerce pitches had failed to pan out. But when sales took off, Kaufman introduced the Millers to family members, neighbors and friends.
Miller says Amish and Mennonite crafters prioritize family and community over success in business, even when that means helping out a competitor. But entrepreneurs in both groups are still happy to hear the cash register ring.
The Millers spent much of the company’s early years driving through Pennsylvania cornfields looking for crafts, quilts and other goods to sell. As the site slowly took off, so did word of mouth among tight-knit Amish and Mennonite communities, and the couple eventually began collaborating with woodworkers in Ohio and then Indiana.
It was Linse who first suggested adding indoor furniture to the company’s catalogue. “We had been searching for furniture for our own home,” she says, “and it was really difficult to find solid wood.” Miller wasn’t sure indoor furniture would sell online. Would customers pay for an expensive dining room set they’d never laid eyes on? But Miller gave it a go. “I was dead wrong,” Miller admits. “The next year, we did half a million dollars in indoor furniture.”
JMX’s unique product management system easily displays the same product in different “packages” on different websites. A Kaufman lighthouse might be billed as an “Amish lighthouse” on one site, a “nautical lighthouse” on another, an “outdoors lighthouse” on another. That diversity allowed the company to sell the same product to customers hunting online with very different searches and keywords. The company also focused heavily on building organic traffic from Google, not by advertising.
But online shopping has evolved.
“Our products are quite different from a pillow or electronic products,” says Xue, 42, a co-owner and the company’s vice president of international business. DutchCrafters furniture can be customized in a number of ways, with different woods, sizes and varnishes available. “We have 10,000 products, and each product has anywhere from a dozen to 100 different combinations,” Xue says. It was vital to develop a custom interface to let customers easily navigate through those options.
Getting customers to the site also has changed dramatically. In 2011, Google rolled out major updates to ranking search results, installing a system that looked at hundreds of factors to identify top websites. JMX began working with outside companies to optimize its search results and also invested in creating a website that works seamlessly on desktops, cell phones and tablets. More than 50 percent of traffic to the DutchCrafters site is now coming from mobile phones and tablets.
On the supplier end, JMX works with craftsmen who frequently don’t use email. “Some of them will only take paper,” Xue says. “We have to contact someone in their area and they will print out the email or fax and go deliver the message.”
Issues like that force the company, and customers, to embrace a slower process than with most online sales sites. A customer typically waits between six and eight weeks between ordering a piece of furniture and receiving it. JMX’s dedication to unhurried, painstaking craftsmanship has set it apart from the rush-rush, deliver-it-yesterday ethos of Amazon.com, a company whose immense power looms over any discussion of online commerce. JMX products are highly customizable and only built after the customer places an order.
“You’re not getting it tomorrow; you’re not getting it next week,” Miller says. “This product is Old World. It takes a long time. A lot of our customers actually find value in that because it’s so different, sort of a novelty.”
JMX’s 25 sales, service, administrative and marketing employees work in an office above the furniture displays. Miller wants the new showroom to cover its costs this year, and is also hoping to more aggressively pursue business-to-business opportunities like supplying furniture for restaurant chains. He’d like to concentrate on growing some of the company’s other brands, like its bamboo furniture division, JMX Bamboo. (DutchCrafters currently makes up 90 percent of JMX’s business.) The company also wants to invest in creating videos that tell stories about the company and its woodworkers.
Viral videos about Amish crafters? Might sound like a stretch. But JMX’s growing success shows that Old World and new media can come together and thrive.