Startups To Start Noticing: ATTIC DC
kaylee | Aug 31, 2016 | 11:00AM |

If you’ve just moved into a new place, are looking to upgrade your Ikea collection, or just want some sweet new threads, ATTIC DC is here to help you sort through all the noise (and drain your productivity). Created by Tarek Anandan and Francisco Serrano, their website (and app, for those of you who need to look for coffee tables on the go) aggregates photos from thrift, vintage, and flea stores all across the D.C. area into one helpful place. There are even (really helpful) filters for you to sort by types of furniture, styles, and price.

We called up Tarek to talk about how he became interested in vintage furniture, next plans, and the special piece he’s still on the hunt for.

How did Attic get started?
My wife and I moved into a new home in the Petworth / Columbia Heights neighborhood. We liked vintage furniture stores and we found it hard to dig around and find out what was in stock in places and available. You had to go to different Instagram accounts or Facebook pages or different websites. Basically every store had their own method. I tried to solve that problems. I’m a programer, so I built an aggregator completely focusing on local vintage furniture, so coming from local stores or vintage stores in the DC area. We did that. We launched it with 30 store and dealers, and shortly after that  a lot of stores contacted us to see if they could get on. We did a launch party at Miss Pixies, last June and it went really well. It wasn’t really the intention of going public, immediately. I built the tools for my wife and I. But it seemed obvious that others could take advantage of it. It seemed to be pretty well received.

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So that’s where it started last year, and then from there we… actually. When I say “we” I’m not referring to my wife, I’m referring to my business partner Francisco, who is also based in D.C.

How did Francisco get pulled into this?
We have a company, I mean, a small company, but we’ve been working together for about five years. This is kind of one of those things we do. We work for clients and build their things. We get asked to build websites, business applications, a variety of things. Occasionally one of us comes up with an idea we want to pursue. We typically have a few of these ideas kind of floating around. We throw things at walls, so to speak, and see what sticks. So far the furniture has stuck. He didn’t have a specific interest in furniture, like I did. So I had to make the pitch to him and he was intrigued by him and I working together and developing the technology that does what it does. It looks at all the stores, literally every hour, to see if they’ve added new stuff and pulls it in, if they have.

And you guys have updated the app since then. You don’t only deal with furniture anymore, you do flea and fashion, correct?
When we started seeing success with the furniture, a lot of people said, “Oh, what are you going to do next? Are you going to go to another city?” That was kind of what everyone asked us. “Oh! You should take this to another city.” I guess because of the roots of where some of this came from… I liked vintage furniture because I liked walking around D.C. on my Saturday or Sunday mornings and ducking into these stores. I also traveled a lot and what I would see a lot of times was, I was kind of bored with seeing the same stores. I would go all the way to San Francisco, or some other city, and see all the same stores. The good stores, you know, national retailers, but when you go to another place you wants to see unique things. That was the impetus for saying, “Let’s not go to another city, but let’s think about what seems to be working for furniture and try it with fashion.”

I think a lot of people come to cities, when they travel, or their just settling down in D.C. and they want to know what’s unique about D.C. They want to know about the boutiques that didn’t exist in the last place they’re at, so that was kind of it. We knew we could use the same technical concept. So we just rebranded it a little bit. We gave it a different look, to reflect the aesthetic we thought people might like for fashion, but fundamentally, it does the same thing. Every hour it’s looking at 70 stores and dealers, a mix of boutiques that sell new stuff, well known vintage clothing dealers, some that are only dealers but are located in the D.C. area… There’s a bunch of local jewelry makers, shoe stores. There’s a mix of men and women. More women, but a good number of men’s stores. Particularly when it comes to skate and streetwear.

So, fashion, I guess, is another experiment. Furniture was an experiment and it seemed to work. Fashion is another one. I think it’s a very different market and maybe the people who are into fashion shop differently. So, we’re just kind of trying it out.

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When did you become interested in vintage furniture? Was it only when you moved to D.C.?
Yeah. I mean I think I was taken to garage sales as a kid, by my parents, but it really happened when I moved to D.C…. I think I moved to D.C. before Ikea was even located in the area. So there were fewer affordable furniture options. So that’s how I got into it. I think I was looking for things to furnish my first small studio apartment in D.C. and I kind of just got into the routine and started to like it. Even as my taste changed, maybe I wasn’t buying things just because they were cheap, but I started to really appreciate the aesthetic of older pieces you can’t buy new anymore. But I think it did start from a practical need.

What is your taste? What are you looking for when you’re looking for a piece of furniture?
Personally, I like a wide variety of things. I happen to like somethings that are particularly hard to find and you don’t see a lot, which is Art Deco stuff. You don’t see it a lot. I do like Mid-Century furniture quite a bit, which is very popular and my wife loves Mid-Century, so our house happens to have a pretty eclectic mix of things we picked up throughout the years. From D.C. stores, as well as stores in Boston where my wife used to live.

What do you look for in a shop you’re going to feature on the website? Can any vintage store get on it? Or is there a certain bar they have to reach in terms of quality or style?
Definitely not style. I think a lot of furniture stores focus on Mid-Century stuff, but we have other stores… I mean Mid-Century is popular so a lot of stores have started to supply what the market is asking for, but we definitely don’t try to eliminate anyone because of style. Our bars are kind of more technical. Are you using a service we can import from? And are you taking photos that do a good job at showing your product? Because we’re an image intensive website, we want to make a good first impression with our visuals. Which is one of the reasons why we changed the look for fashion. We kind of had a more vintage-y look for the furniture, but with fashion we wanted to be a little more contemporary and modern. I think there is more of a focus there of hitting the market of… early grad up to… lets say 50 years old? Which is still a wide spectrum, but it’s a little more narrow. For that, we’re looking for stores that take really good photos, have interesting or unique clothing, not just stuff you’d find at a large chain. It’s a mix for fashion between vintage and brand new clothing. And jewelry that’s made in D.C. and sold by D.C. makers. Which is pretty cool.

Is fashion a more difficult market to work with? It seems like there are so many more variables.
The hardest part has been that… well, for furniture I was already shopping at these stores for years. Like 10 years. I knew a lot of the store owners, maybe not really well, but we recognized each other. That’s definitely not the case for fashion. Especially when we’re talking about women’s boutiques. I’ve gone into a handful with my wife, but they certainly won’t recognize me. Furniture partly worked because I had to convince, or sell the idea, to a lot of the furniture stores. Which fashion, I’m starting with having to introduce myself and go through a lot more. And I think clothing stores get pitched on new ideas like this a lot and I think, to be honest, they’re sometimes a little tired. They have to do their Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram. Now, if you don’t have a Snapchat, you might have a problem. Then when someone walks through the door and goes, “Do you want to try this?” They don’t have any time to do more social media.

Which, one of the ways we got it to work with furniture, and I think one of the ways we’re going to get it to work with fashion is, for the most part, we were able to turn the switch and show them the stores. It’s already done, they don’t have to do anything. If we can import, then you don’t have to do anything else. Just keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll bring it all together. I think that obviously appeals to them. I have to do some more groundwork, to start talking to people and get the word out, but I think unlike a lot of services that maybe try things like this, they’re always asking store owners to do another thing. And that is really a hard sell.

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Where are your favorite places to shop in D.C. for furniture?
Oh man, you’re putting me on the spot here. My wife and I really loved and visited, as often as we could, a place called Off The Beaten Track Warehouse. Which, unfortunately, two months ago the owners, for life reasons, not business reasons, chose to close up shop. They moved out west. They had this amazing warehouse over in Northeast D.C. and they just had really good taste and were great people. I’ve been going to stores like, Miss Pixies for a long long time. I have a few Miss Pixies’ pieces in my house. Some I got as soon as I moved to D.C. I’ll go with that. I like almost all the stores, though. I like the diversity. I use Attic on my own. I load it up every morning just to see what’s new from other stores because I like to see the variety. If you get into the habit of just going to three stores websites or following five stores on Instagram, you’re probably missing quite a bit of what’s out there.

Would you ever open your own furniture store?
To be honest, that was something I had thrown out five years ago. I told my wife, “I think I want to retire at 50 and run my own furniture store.” I think I realized I was pretty naive. I’ve never gone to an auction. I’ve never done the things that these people do to keep their business going. I’d have to learn all of that. I think doing ATTIC was my way, given my skill set, to get my way into that industry without necessarily quitting my job to become a shop owner, where I have no experience. I think this might be the right way for me to hover around this area of vintage furniture and local businesses in general.

Do you see ATTIC moving into other vintage / flea market items? Besides furniture and fashion?
Oh yeah, there are a couple. So, we’ve gone with the ‘F’, meaning furniture, fashion, flea. It’s just worked out. So one of my criteria when we think about a new domain is we need to come up with an ‘F’. So I thought, framed. For locally made artwork. That would be a cool thing. There’s a lot of great creative stuff coming out of D.C., but if you really want to follow the art scene, I’m not sure there’s one place where you can get the spectrum. I think that’s what we’re trying to do. Show people the spectrum. There might be some others, but I have to come up with a word that starts with ‘F’ if it’s going to fit.

What was the hardest part of getting ATTIC off the ground?
It wasn’t the tech. I think the hardest part is kind of right now. It’s making very small amounts of money in a variety of ways and we would like to build the service up. For example, we would like to have a native app where if you like specific stores, the app will notify you when they have something new. We need development time to do that and to pay ourselves and not do other jobs. We basically need to start making revenue. We are making a little revenue right now, but to really take this to the next level we need to make more. I think figuring out the exact business model and, for furniture, the place where there’s probably not huge margins… Some people say it’s not the best business to get into, working with local, small businesses who are trying to compete against giant national companies. Like, where are they going to come up with money? I think if we do this, if you add 70 fashion dealers and stores and 50 furniture, plus some flea… if we just made little bits of money from all of them it would be enough where we could make the service even better and make those stores happier. We wouldn’t have to ask for a lot of money from anyone. Turning that corner is probably the hardest part. The good thing is that we have the stats to back it up. We had our first month where we hit 25,000 views and usage is increasing month over month. We have more newsletter signups. Our Instagram account is growing. Things like this that show we’re reaching people. We hear from stores that they’re selling things and people are mentioning ATTIC. So things look good, but we have to take that step of saying, “Alright, let’s make this a business with a specific business model.”

Are you guys on the hunt for any personal furniture right now?
Embarrassingly, we’re still looking for a coffee table. When I talked to the Washington Post a year ago, that’s what I told them I was looking for. I think what I have in my mind doesn’t exist and that’s the problem.

What do you want it to be?
I’ve claimed I want an Art Deco style coffee table, but the truth is, when I’ve talked to some furniture stores… Well for one, those just weren’t as popular, so you don’t see them very often. That’s one thing. Beyond that we already have two sofas but my wife wants a smaller love seat. So the house is turning into a coffeehouse of some sorts. We have two sofas and now I’m on the hunt for another.

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