By Sarah Sawler
It’s been a good year for Sam Vlessing (BA’14). He’s the founder of CommerceBear, a young tech company that offers a scalable and simple way for furniture manufacturers to sell and manage their products on sites like Wayfair and Overstock. In September, the company was recognized for its innovation by CIX, which inducted CommerceBear into its Top 20 list of early stage Canadian tech start-ups.
“It feels great for me because I put a lot of time and energy into it but honestly, I’m happy that my team gets to realize that all the time and energy and work they’re putting into Bear is starting to pay off,” says Vlessing.
For Vlessing, CommerceBear is the next step in a long family history of work in the furniture industry—a history that began in the 1920s. According to Vlessing, the family’s most notable companies include Hickory International out of North Carolina and Ceja Leather line of Toronto.
“Our products have been ubiquitous, from airport lounges coast to coast to changings rooms in stores like Roots and American Eagle,” he says. “I grew up spending a ton of time at the manufacturing plant and saw all aspects of the supply chain from production to the loading docks.”
Vlessing didn’t plan to follow in his family’s footsteps. He went to Dal when he was recruited for the Dal Tigers soccer program and earned a bachelor of arts in Political Science. After a brief stint in graduate school, Vlessing moved back home to Toronto where he worked on Bay Street at CBRE Capital Markets. But his father was determined to get him interested in the family business. For three years in a row, Vlessing’s father asked him to attend the High Point Furniture Market in North Carolina—the largest home furnishings trade show in the world. In 2016, Vlessing finally agreed to go.
“High Point is this tiny town that for two weeks of the year grows by 75,000 people, all working in home goods,” says Vlessing. “It’s like the Superbowl of furniture.”
As Vlessing went from showroom to showroom, chatting with manufacturers, he discovered that most of the industry was using the same transactional tools it had relied on for years. “There was no tech, no sophistication,” says Vlessing. “I had tons of conversations and I discovered that my own family’s company was struggling deeply with the adoption of e-commerce.”
Vlessing says the biggest pain point was dealing with product data. Listing products on channels like Wayfair, Amazon and Walmart requires hundreds of data points that merchants typically don’t have. “The question was, ‘how do we get this data subset into something built-out and scalable?” says Vlessing. “There was a need for a software company to bridge that gap, and no one had done it yet. That’s how CommerceBear became the first mover in the vertical.”
After building a team and developing his idea, Vlessing built his own private-label brands and tested the CommerceBear platform by selling them on Amazon and Overstock.com. “We literally became the merchant,” he says. “We sourced products, listed them, handled customer service, and fulfilled orders across the US.”
This approach helped Vlessing ensure that CommerceBear would meet the real-world needs of furniture merchants. Now Vlessing is proud to extend the family’s furniture legacy for another generation. When he appeared in Furniture Today earlier this year, two decades after his father appeared in the same magazine, he was thrilled. Vlessing’s even found a way to involved the family dog, by naming the company after him.
“My childhood dog is still with us, but he’s a really old man today. His name is Bear and he’s a Spinone. He kind of looks like that,” says Vlessing, gesturing to the CommerceBear logo on the wall in his office. “He’s really shaggy, he’s huge. This is a little sentimental, but a corporation never dies because it’s an entity. So CommerceBear Inc will always be around.”