How did 2 mom-friends grow their DIY decor business from 1 in Pineville to 77 across the country?

How'd AR Workshop do it? Two Charlotte friends talk about their DIY success.

Maureen Anders and Adria Ruff talk about their boutique DIY wood craft business, AR Workshop, that has exploded to 77 locations nationwide in 20 months.
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Maureen Anders and Adria Ruff talk about their boutique DIY wood craft business, AR Workshop, that has exploded to 77 locations nationwide in 20 months.

Adria Ruff swears she’s not being forgetful or glib when she doesn’t know exactly how many franchise locations there are today of AR Workshop.

It’s a sign of how fast the DIY wood-craft boutique business has exploded since she and friend Maureen Anders opened the doors of their first location, in downtown Pineville, in June 2016. Not even two years later, 77 locations are currently operating or in production around the country, and inquiries come in daily from wanna-be workshop owners as far away as Germany and Aruba.

The AR Workshop business model is this: Customers, often groups gathered for a ladies-night-out or a birthday party, spend two hours at the boutique-vibe workshop and emerge with a customized stencil-painted wood or canvas craft. There’s a party atmosphere in the workshops; beer and wine (usually BYO) flow and music plays.

paint bar
Anywhere there’s an ‘AR’ together in a word (such as ‘bar,’) you’ll see the Anders Ruff logo at AR Workshops nationwide. Courtesy of AR Workshop

The Charlotte market alone has four locations, and at least one or two weeks a month, Ruff, Anders and others on their six-person corporate team host new franchise owners at the Pineville flagship location for three-day training sessions. (Late February saw owners from Pennsylvania, Nevada and South Carolina. This week, Anders and Ruff are on a tour of seven AR Workshop locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.)

While Anders and Ruff said they always envisioned franchises in other cities, they’re stunned by how quickly their business has spread across the country, from San Diego to St. Petersburg.

“How did it happen? People found our work and loved it,” Ruff said.

Here, they share five strategies key to their success:

Keep ahead of the (design) curve

Anders and Ruff, who met in the halls of their kids’ preschool and who both have serious art and design backgrounds, ran a printables graphic design company together for years, where they racked up celebrity clients and designed for magazines and Hollywood premieres.

hammer hooks
Teal apron hooks made from hammers are a signature part of the design for all AR Workshop locations nationwide. Courtesy of AR Workshop

They consider themselves trend forecasters, and say they have a constant eye on what’s new in the world of fashion and home decor.

“When people were doing chevron, we were doing it two years before. Everybody follows the trend, but we try to stay ahead of the trend,” Anders says. “We don’t use other (sign or invitation) designers for inspiration. We’re inspired by fashion, we’re inspired by home decor, we’re inspired by vintage old tins and apothecary jars.”

They figure they roll out between 10 and 12 new stencil designs for projects every month. Some of the latest are a break from the wood-plank personalized signs and lazy susans that got them started; these days they’re promoting wood trays with boho patterns inspired by popular blue and white pottery. (But, in AR fashion, you won’t see the patterns in the bright white and crisp blue that made the pottery famous. AR’s esthetic is “industrial farmhouse,” so its take on the pattern is in earthy neutrals.)

“Not everybody wants 50 signs on their walls, so how do we change?” Anders says.

Painstaking attention to (teal and gray) details

The walls in every AR Workshop nationwide aren’t just gray, they’re Dorian Gray by Sherwin Williams. Franchise owners are taught to accessorize in teal, and they do, down to the teal Keurig coffee makers, teal antique cars to park out front and teal jewelry for sale. Anders and Ruff are even specific about the nail polish hue that most perfectly matches the trademark AR teal: Essie’s Mint Candy Apple. “We used to include it with every licensee kit,” Anders laughs.

In every location, every crafting table, every saw-horse table that holds paper rolls, every apron hook made from overturned teal hammers are built by hand by the franchisees following Anders and Ruff’s specifications, which are spelled out in the 200-page franchise agreement. (Franchisees usually make them themselves, or hire someone to do it.) Every franchise location is required to hang the same two types of light fixtures: one fashioned from industrial metal painted teal, and another made from rope.

Be picky about who you do business with

You need not apply for an AR franchise if you don’t have a few key strengths: an energetic, social-media-friendly personality, a love for creative DIY projects and a savvy business mind. Opening a franchise costs between $59,000 and $99,000, the women say. There’s a $25,000 franchise fee to open, and franchise owners pay 7 percent of their earnings to AR corporate each year.

In some cities, multiple people have vied simultaneously for the chance to open an AR Workshop, but sometimes nobody gets the deal. In Asheville, for example, the company fielded inquiries from three different prospective franchisees and turned them all down before finally being contacted by someone they agreed would be a perfect fit. (The Asheville location was announced last week.)

“We consider each one of the owners to be a friend of ours. We like to have a personal relationship with them, and sometimes it’s not a good fit,” Ruff says.

AR Workshop national franchise sales director Kasey Wright (who also owns AR Workshops in Raleigh and Cary) says in addition to looking good on paper, prospective owners must take a class with an AR Workshop owner, who will give feedback on their energy level, technical skill and personality. (Most owners are women, although a few have opened businesses with their husbands.)

“I have to picture you leading a group of 30 men and women. I’m thinking, how are you going to engage them and wrangle them in?” Wright says.

Atmosphere is everything

Every wall in an AR Workshop studio looks magazine-photoshoot ready. The vibe is HGTV’s Joanna Gaines-chic. You won’t catch Anders or Ruff wearing bright red or hot pink in the workshops; even their clothes are neutral black or tan, to blend in with the esthetic. Their franchise owners follow suit.

“I just had one owner ask me, ‘Is it OK if I wear a navy dress to the grand opening?’ ” Ruff said. “I said, ‘Of course. Just put some aqua jewelry on with it.’ 

jewelry bar
There’s a boutique-style retail area in every AR Workshop location with jewelry and home accessories. Courtesy of AR Workshop

Each workshop has a retail area stocked with Ruff- and Anders-approved jewelry, bath goods and accessories that can be paired with the crafts customers produce. Everything is in the AR palette of greens and neutrals.

The retail areas give the space a boutique-y feel, and buying a little something, even if it’s a $15 pair of earrings or a few bath bombs, extends the experience for customers, the women say.

“When you go to your favorite restaurant, your favorite someplace, sometimes you want to be able to take home a little something, even to give it to a friend,” Ruff says.

Chimes Anders: “They want to know how do they display this tray? With a vase, a cotton branch. We don’t want to run a gift shop, but we want to pair the two together.”

Aim high

Anders and Ruff expect to finish 2018 with more than 100 AR Workshop locations.

Anders says she dreams of having AR Workshop-branded tools and product lines in major retail chains, and the possibility seems likely, judging from some major brands that have reached out to them recently, she says.

Ruff has another prediction: “Where will we be in five years? Probably on a TV show.”

Small screens aside, Anders and Ruff say they’re grateful every day to have a business that melds their creative and business sides and empowers others.

“Do you know how hard it is to be an artist and be successful?” Ruff asks. “We have created a concept that we are basically creating art that goes into everyone’s homes all over the country, and helping other people,” she said. “What artist wouldn’t want to have their artwork in everyone’s homes?”