Career & Success

Rob Forbes: The Power of Simplicity

The founder of Design Within Reach and PUBLIC Bikes explains why "design makes a difference."

October 17, 2012

| by Erika Brown Ekiel


Rob Forbes is a serial entrepreneur with an eye for design. He earned his MBA from Stanford GSB in 1985, and founded Design Within Reach in 1999 on the premise that he could disrupt the furniture and decorator businesses by selling modern designer furniture direct to consumers over the internet. The company reached $100 million in revenue in less than 5 years and now sells through 43 stores. Two years ago he launched PUBLIC Bikes, which designs and sells commuter bikes. “Most business people underestimate the value of visual thinking,” says Forbes.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

The value that design brings to our everyday lives: optimism. (The right chair or a bike ride can put a smile on anyone’s face.)

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

You cannot control as much as you think you can. Whether you believe it or not, there are forces far greater than our strategies, passion, and will power. I have become very expansive and humble in how I think about different answers.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?

Surround yourself with people you trust who complement your skillset, and then encourage debate and dissention. Keep your ego in check. Everyone at the company should feel comfortable having their own opinions. I don’t believe in blue-sky brainstorming or design by committee. I like to come in with ideas and ask individuals to challenge them.

What inspires you/How do you come up with your best ideas?

What inspires me is beauty and the human desire and capacity to create it. I listen to Glen Gould’s piano pieces or other acoustic music in the morning. My best ideas come randomly. I take naps and steam baths. You need to interrupt the logical mind and allow space to daydream.

Einstein said the theory of relativity came to him when he was riding a bike. The best ideas will not come from slamming three espressos and grinding it out, but rather at weird moments: in the middle of the night, when you are traveling on a train, when you are receptive to oblique inspiration and the suspension of disbelief. Zen teachers refer to this as “the beginner’s mind, where possibilities are many.” We are all too finely tuned. Our mind uses us more than we use our mind.

What is your greatest achievement?

The fact that, as I get older, I feel more optimistic about life and its possibilities. I continue to discover more magic in friends and in the world.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

My inability to find peace in my personal life and make a longstanding relationship work.

What values are important to you in business?

Honesty and simplicity, and doing something that you believe has real value. Many companies do market research to try and anticipate the needs of the customer. I say just develop great products and tell an honest story about them. All the excess marketing spin in the commercial world has created a desire for authentic goods.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

I’d like to make a positive difference socially as well as economically.

I started PUBLIC Bikes at a time in the world when we consume 15% more goods than we produce (or need). I asked myself: What could you sell that if you sold more, it would improve the quality of our lives? Bicycles are one solution. Getting people to reduce their dependency on private automobiles would do a lot for our environment and to improve connections with our communities. We need to sell 100,000 bicycles a year in the U.S. to make a difference.

I started DWR because I thought there was a market for higher quality and that the U.S. consumer was not as price driven as many companies make them out to be. I felt customers would appreciate design better if they understood what was behind these objects: the human endeavor and initiative. So we associated all of our products with designers’ biographies. It worked. Maybe it will also allow customers to appreciate themselves as designers; we all design something. Even a business memo is a piece of design.

What was your first paying job?

I was a dishwasher at Tuesday’s Child restaurant in Laguna Beach when I was 16. Fortunately, no one has to hand dry crystal goblets any longer.

What is the best business book you have read?

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. Gladwell helps us see that little things can make a big difference. Pirsig writes about a preoccupation with quality, which is elusive, and coming to terms with technology and understanding how it fits into a world with beauty.

What businessperson do you most admire?

I admire the people who manage small businesses every day more so than those who have been successful in launching larger businesses. The great new chefs and restaurateurs in San Francisco who have built our food culture care deeply about what they do and perform the same tasks again each day out of passion. TracI des Jardins is a good example. She owns Jardiniere, Mijita, Public House, and Manzanita and excels as a woman in a man’s world. I admire her tenacity and love as much as her food.

What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?

The friendships and ongoing relationships trump everything else. Your peer group becomes an important part of your life.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

Apple, with its Genius bars. Intelligent people working in stores is the greatest thing that’s happened to retail. Apple got people to rethink the potential of product design and retail. Compare that to the U.S. automobile industry. Clearly, they don’t think design makes a difference.

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