Chennai-based Karthic Rathinam launched Out of the Box, a venture that sells cardboard that you can easily assemble into a variety of furniture such as chairs, stools, laptop stands, bookshelves and more
You receive a package of flat cardboard sheets and a set of instructions. You unpack the items, follow a few steps, and voila! A stool is ready. This stool can withstand over 100 kilos of weight and has a lifespan of five years. Now isn’t that something?
Behind this genius idea is a 23-year-old from Chennai. Using an interlocking method to fit cardboards,
Karthic Rathinam has developed IKEA-like furniture that requires neither nuts, bolts or screws nor the sticky adhesives that can get super messy.
Karthic’s creativity rose out of necessity rather than as a business prospect.
Making the most out of nothing
In 2018, the Maharashtra government issued a notice to attach the properties of noted builder D S Kulkarni in an alleged land scam. The entrepreneur, known to have his presence across the real estate, education, hospitality, entertainment, dairy, power and travel industries, suddenly found his properties seized across the state.
Among those who suffered were students of DSK International School Of Design, whose property was seized by the government as well. And among these students was Karthic.
“The students were asked to move to a temporary campus. The change was sudden, and I moved out with other classmates,” he says.
He recalls that his old campus hostel had all the necessary facilities and infrastructure. But suddenly forced to move out, Karthic now found himself sitting in an empty flat.
“All I had was 40 cardboard boxes that I had used to move my belongings. I had no money to buy furniture and did not wish to put the financial burden on parents,” he says, adding that he even considered buying wood and building furniture himself. But the prospect was economically unfeasible.
So Karthic decided to use his skills in product design to overcome the issue. “I used the cardboard boxes and prepared a bed and stool out of it. The bed lasted for eight months,” he says.
Then, he built a study table, a sofa, and other items by sourcing cardboard. “By the end of my graduation, my entire apartment was furnished with cardboard. I felt that such experiments were not done commercially and decided to pursue it on a professional level,” he says.
However, as he was finishing his degree, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Karthic returned to his hometown.
“The beginning of the pandemic saw many sanitisers dispensing stands sold in the market for as much as Rs 2,000. I thought of building one from cardboard at a cheaper cost,” he says.
Karthic built one sanitiser dispensing stand with cardboard and published a video on Facebook. Soon enough, the minute-long video offering the device for Rs 500 had led to the establishment of a successful startup.
He says he anticipated about 30 orders initially, but to his astonishment, about 2,000 poured in within a week.
“It was difficult for me to scale the manufacturing alone. I approached many vendors seeking help with the process, but most doubted the possibility until one agreed. I shipped all the orders to different parts of India, and about 800 in the UK,” he says.
But Karthic learned that his device could not be built and shipped, as it required more space, which was expensive. So he made flat cardboards that could be quickly assembled by the user.
He adds that his video also reached a person in South Africa, who wanted to manufacture the cardboard furniture himself. “We came up with a royalty sharing model, and I patented the design. The person sold 28,000 such units across 55 countries of South Africa. The overall business earned me Rs 6 lakh,” he shares.
He then decided to move to Gujarat and carve more products for scaling up the business. “The state is known for its paper industry, so it’s easier to find superior quality paper. I hired a team of six and came up with 55 designs. But I faced logistical and business issues, compelling me to shut down operations and return to Chennai in April 2021,” Karthic adds.
In June 2021, he hired four more people and decided to start from scratch. “We conceived 26 products until December, which underwent multiple prototypes and testing.”
In January 2022, Karthic launched the startup Out of the Box, which offers eight cardboard products, including a chair, stool, laptop stand, bookshelf, hexagon shelf, table lamp and study table.
“All these have been made from 100 per cent cardboard and can withstand 150 kilos of weight. The products are water and oil proof and can last for five years. Moreover, it is entirely eco-friendly as the cardboards used in India are recycled, and no trees are chopped to make them,” he says.
Karthic says his products have the strength of items made from thin plywood. “A lot of time has been invested in identifying the pressure points of cardboards and finding the weak and strong sections. The cardboards are cut and designed in a specific manner, which acts as pillars. They’re cut in a way that they assemble like IKEA furniture. It enables easy transportation and avoids the use of sticky adhesives. Apart from making it convenient for a layman to assemble, the method also adds structural strength to the product,” he says, adding it is cost-effective as well.
All products come with a plant-based starch coating that makes them water and oil-proof. They are priced between Rs 49 and Rs 700.
Chennai-based Karthikeyan, a graphic designer, learned about Karthic’s products through a friend. “My friend shared an Instagram page which had all the details. Intrigued by the concept, I purchased a stool and two desks in four months. I feel entirely satisfied with them,” he says.
He adds, “I have gifted a laptop table to one of my friends too. I consider the products brilliant as they are easy to assemble with the interlocking method, sans any screws or adhesives. Also, it is convenient to discard or shift them if needed.”
Within a month of announcing his startup, Karthic has received almost 200 orders, he says.
An eco-friendly alternative
Karthic is now working to build a small house from cardboard. “I have already started testing on water and fireproofing aspects of it. Besides, I plan to release a new range of products every quarter such as cabinets, pop-up instals, and more,” he says.
However, establishing a startup without financial support has not been a cakewalk. “Initially, I put Rs 1 lakh from my internship work. Later on, I invested the profits earned from selling sanitiser stands. I kept using my earnings, which put limitations on the funds, as well as research and development. Plus, I had to struggle while designing products from a customer’s point of view. I had to cut and prepare the boards enabling a layperson to interlock and fit within minutes. My parents were not entirely convinced with my decisions, but agreed over time,” he says.
Karthic says that convincing customers to put faith in his products was also another challenge. “It took time for customers to accept the concept. They had many questions about the durability and quality of the products. But they were confident after buying and testing it themselves,” he adds.
Now, he aims to bring more eco-friendly and convenient furniture to serve as an alternative to conventional items.
To order or inquire more about the products, email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +919176499225.
Edited by Divya Sethu