John McDonald—the Man Behind the World’s Greatest IKEA Hack—Is Ready to Disrupt the Kitchen Cabinet Business

Semihandmade
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Every entrepreneur has a great story about before they broke out with that big idea. John McDonald, the creator and owner of Semihandmade—a Los Angeles company that makes custom doors for IKEA kitchen cabinets—has at least two of them.

Let’s start with his first dream: becoming a star in Hollywood. The kid from Bryn Mawr, PA, moved to Tinseltown after graduating from the University of Delaware with a vague plan of “making it.” He flirted with acting before landing a gig in the mailroom at Paramount Studios through a family friend. “I delivered mail to stars like Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy,” he recalls over the phone from his home in Southern California. “This was back when Eddie Murphy was still Eddie Murphy, complete with a 30-person entourage.” That led to some PA gigs and then finally the hardscrabble life of a struggling screenwriter.

John McDonald, creator of Semihandmade
John McDonald, creator of Semihandmade Courtesy Image

In addition to writing between shifts waiting tables, he and his friends had a unique approach to perfecting their craft. “We used to dumpster dive at Paramount,” says John. “We’d find lots of shitty scripts and we’d also find some amazing scripts that we could use for inspiration.” When he couldn’t find proper representation and without any scripts being bought (he wrote mostly thrillers, he says), McDonald tried to become what just might be the exact opposite of a Hollywood screenwriter—a member of the LAPD. “I ended up not getting in because I made the mistake about being honest about smoking pot twice,” McDonald says. That, plus an unfortunate admission that he ate and gave away to friends more sushi than he served while working at a Japanese restaurant, meant that there was no way he was going to serve with L.A.’s finest. “I’m an emotional person, and if I would have shot somebody, I would have shot myself. I never would have done that job.”

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It was clearly for the best. Both aborted careers meant McDonald could turn to what would eventually become his true moneymaker. Although even his segue into custom furniture making had a rough start, including two severed fingers the first day he brought home a band saw (one was able to be reattached). He also spent years jockeying at furniture shows and teaming up with local architects and designers to create a business from scratch. The big breakthrough came when someone made an offhand comment at one of those trade shows about whether McDonald had ever considered “making doors for IKEA cabinets.” The idea didn’t take off right away, but it stuck in the back of the entrepreneur’s head. After a rough personal period, that included a divorce and moving into his woodshop, he began working with Los Angeles architect Barbara Bestor who made that same suggestion about mixing IKEA cabinets with custom doors. Thanks to some key early collaborations, he landed on influential design blogs and the idea exploded.

Semihandmade
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The concept is simple: IKEA makes some high-quality and affordable kitchen cabinets, but they can use a bit of a makeover. To that end, you can order the cabinet guts from the Swedish box store (including the basic boxes, hinges, drawers, etc.), but Semihandmade will make you doors and fronts in a wide range of custom colors and designs. It instantly elevates any kitchen—and still keeps the cost well-below full custom. McDonald admits it’s an odd relationship between himself and the Swedish furniture giant, but they’ve settled into a kind of peaceful detente. “I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to formalize something with them, but they’re just not interested,” he says. But the fact remains, IKEA sells all its pieces a la carte, and about 10 percent of customers seek out companies like Semihandmade for an upgrade. Clearly, it’s big business, as Seminhandmade reported $14.5 million in revenue last year. But McDonald, a gregarious guy who is passionate about business (and baseball), is not done yet.

The one-time wannabe screenwriter is now looking to further disrupt the kitchen cabinet business, an industry, he says, that is as stale as they come. With his new venture, More by Semihandmade, McDonald hopes to make ordering kitchen cabinets as easy as buying a suitcase online. It begins with a 3D camera that is sent to your home (via a partnering company), which homeowners use to record the details of their space. Once the footage is uploaded, eight different custom designs will be sent back, and you’re ready to place an order. “We want to remove all the pain points,” says McDonald who is more than ready for a new challenge. “This new thing is scary, but I think we’re in a place where we bring a really great infrastructure, and sales and marketing background and also technical knowledge,” says McDonald, adding, ”I am also smart enough to work with people who are smarter than me.” And of course, not make it in Hollywood.

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