Boxing match: Couch-less kid takes on FedEx

When Jose Avila, 21, moved from California to Tempe, Arizona, to start a new job, he found out just how expensive moving can be. The young software engineer had enough cash to make the move and rent an apartment, but no money left over for furniture or home furnishings. When a friend in a similar predicament made a crude desk out of FedEx boxes, Avila was inspired to take things a step further. Using FedEx shipping supplies, he designed and constructed enough "FedEx furniture" to outfit his entire one-bedroom apartment.

With his pad fully furnished– with an L-shaped desk, dining room table, bed, nightstand, chairs, and nine-and-a-half foot recliner– Avila proudly began displaying his work online at fedexfurniture.com, drawing the attention of prominent bloggers as well as the lawyers at FedEx headquarters.

Now Avila and FedEx are engaged in a David versus Goliath-type standoff, with FedEx working towards shutting the site down and Avila defiantly standing up to corporate America. In the midst of it all, Avila has been hard at work at his new job, saving his pennies until the day he can go out and buy a proper couch.

According to Avila, his financial predicament can be directly attributed to housing costs. When he was offered the new position in Arizona, he still had several months remaining on his lease in California, where he shared an apartment with roommates. Instead of leaving his roommates in the lurch, Avila agreed to continue paying his share until the lease expired.

"I did not want to go to my friends and say, 'Have fun paying for the apartment on your own. Good luck.' That's not the type of person I am. I wasn't going to screw over my friends," he says.

So for the last few months Avila has been spending the overwhelming majority of his salary paying double rent, leaving little left over for much of anything except Ramen noodles and Coca-Cola, which he drinks round the clock, up to 20 cans a day. In the meantime, he's had to make do without any store-bought furnishings, not to mention a car or a television. Avila has been commuting to work on a motorized skateboard, hardly ideal transportation when one considers summer temperatures in Phoenix can soar to 115 degrees.

Still, sitting and sleeping on the floor of his new apartment was more than he could take, not just uncomfortable, but a strain on his bad back. Shortly after settling in, he called his friend Tom, who had recently moved from Los Angeles to Seattle, and happened to be using FedEx boxes as a desk for his laptop. Tom e-mailed a photo of his "FedEx desk" to Avila, who was inspired to improve on Tom's design and build furniture of his own. A one-time aspiring architect, Avila was convinced he had the skills to design structurally stable pieces.

And since FedEx was already Avila's preferred shipping company, obtaining free boxes, padded envelopes, and shipping labels was easy. All he had to do was order the supplies via fedex.com. After experimenting with "small," "medium," and "large" boxes, Avila began building, and assembled a complete set of furniture during the course of a single weekend. "I just got creative and did what I had to do to be comfortable in my environment," says Avila matter-of-factly.

While most of the pieces came easily, prototypes of a bed and couch collapsed under Avila's weight, necessitating subtle yet crucial design changes. In their final form, both are remarkably stable, which Avila recently demonstrated to a live national television audience by jumping up and down on the bed on NBC's Today show. But the couch– made of 14 large boxes, 45 medium boxes, 12 small boxes, and 31 FedEx tubes, all held together by countless shipping labels– is arguably his finest achievement.

"The couch was the most difficult piece to build because I wanted a 60-degree recline," says Avila. The recliner also features fold-up "cushions"– made up of 36 padded packs– which reveal a hidden storage compartment.

As soon as Avila finished his handiwork this past June, he posted photos of his furniture online, and bloggers took notice, helping drive tens of thousands of visitors to the site. That was enough to get FedEx's attention, which responded by invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and sending fedexfurniture.com's Internet Service Provider (ISP) a cease-and-desist letter, claiming that the site infringed upon the intellectual property rights of Federal Express Corporation. Shortly afterward, the ISP took fedexfurniture.com offline, and Avila was staring at the possibility of legal action.

"I was feeling threatened and was wondering what FedEx could do to me," Avila says, "so I called a friend for help and he put me in touch with Jennifer Granick, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society Cyberlaw Clinic at Stanford University."

Granick filed a counter-notice and had the website back online three weeks later. Granick (and the clinic) are now working pro bono on behalf of Avila to defend him from any further action by FedEx, which has thus far been limited to additional letters alleging copyright and trademark rights, as well as breach of contract (of the terms and conditions of fedex.com).

But Avila insists he poses no threat to FedEx whatsoever, and even if he did he has the law on his side. "The site is not commercial, so I'm protected by the fair use [provisions of the Copyright Act]. I'm not selling the furniture or trying to make a profit. Who is going to buy box furniture? If you have a bed made of FedEx boxes, you are not going to have a woman," he quips.

At the same time, the furniture just might be inspiring girls to give him a second look. "There's a couple of girls who live next door who look at me and smile a lot more often now," he says. "And I received one marriage proposal in an e-mail [which read], 'Any girl who doesn't like your furniture isn't worth it.'"

On the other hand, Avila's most recent date went south as soon as he took her back to his apartment. "She didn't like the d├ęcor, and it was a really short night," he laments.

At this point, Avila's relationship with FedEx doesn't seem salvageable either. In fact, the company abruptly closed his shipping account, making it inconvenient for him to send packages. "FedEx will still let me ship and will still deliver to my apartment, but to do a pickup I have to write my credit card number on the shipping label, and I don't feel comfortable doing that," he says.

So in order to use FedEx, he has to trudge down to the local shipping store and pay cash when he drops off a package. Without the account, he's also unable to order supplies, which limits his ability to make repairs after he uses a piece of the couch or the bed to mail a mission-critical box to a client.

"I still ship FedEx, but I am looking at other people," he says, implying that he's considering throwing all his business to UPS or DHL.

In fact, Avila just recently signed up for an account with DHL, which sent him a starter package and pre-printed mailing labels, a gesture that Avila regards as "very cool." He's already pondering how the new relationship may afford him the opportunity to re-model using DHL's red-and-yellow color scheme.

In the meantime, Avila remains very wary of FedEx and its employees. "I was outside work one day when the FedEx guy was delivering, and he just gave me this weird stare," says Avila, who concedes that the driver may have been reacting to his hair, which is dyed bright pink. "Maybe I'm just paranoid when I see a FedEx truck. But sometimes they look at me like they know who I am. Maybe there's a big "WANTED" poster at the local FedEx Distribution Center with my face on it," he says.

Still, Avila maintains that he will not be intimidated. "I feel like if I stand down and take the site offline to avoid the hassle, I'll give the impression that it's okay for the big corporation to push around the little guy," he says.

Yet he admits looking forward to the day when he can afford to buy from a home furnishings store, so he can disassemble his furniture and use the materials to ship packages. That day may be coming sooner than he thinks. For one, a new Dormia mattress is already scheduled to arrive on his doorstep, offered free-of-charge by a Dormia executive. And as he garners more and more publicity, it's conceivable that more furniture manufacturers may reach out to him.

For now, though, Avila will have to be content with inspiring others to stand up to corporate America, or at least reminding others how good they have it. "Maybe some people see the website and say, 'At least I'm not that guy!' They can laugh and feel better about themselves," he begins. "The point of fedexfurniture.com is to reach out to people and say, 'It's okay when you're in a tough situation to make the best of it.' Look at me. I'm still smiling, and I'm living on boxes."

Jason Zasky is the founder and editorial director of failuremag.com, where this article first appeared.

 
Source o' free furniture?

PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER