Brent Hoberman is surprisingly relaxed for a man who launched an e-tail business only 24 hours before being interviewed.
His easy demeanour seems to indicate quiet confidence that his latest e-venture, Mydeco.com, will be just as successful as the one that made his name, Lastminute.com.
Mydeco.com, which went live last week, showcases 1 million-plus homeware products from more than 500 retailers – including Argos, Marks & Spencer, Next and John Lewis. Customers can try out looks online using the dimensions and details of their real houses.
Hoberman initially raised£5 million to start the site, which he hopes will take more than£400 million of furniture and interior design spend in two years’ time.
To some, a launch in the present economic climate – which has hit trading at various big-ticket retailers – would be a daunting prospect. But Hoberman is sure that this is the right time to enter the market.
“We see Mydeco as a way to get people to spend more on their homes than they otherwise would,” he says. “This is a£20 billion addressable market in which we believe online will account for 10 per cent in the coming years.
“The sector could now, funnily enough, compete against the travel sector in terms of where people will choose to spend their disposable income. We think that, as the housing market slows and less people move, they will spend on improving their homes instead.”
If anyone knows anything about timing, it is Hoberman. Together with business partner Martha Lane Fox, he built up and floated travel site Lastminute.com, one of the start-ups of the millennial digital frenzy that survived the dotcom crash.
Hoberman says that the furniture sector is experiencing an “easyJet and Ryanair moment”. He explains: “The likes of Ryanair helped Lastminute in the early days by offering exclusives online, forcing people to the internet to shop. Similarly, big players like M&S and Next are offering more and more of their furniture on their web sites, which is great for us and means that the customer is adapting to online.”
He also dismisses doubts that consumers need to feel and touch furniture before they buy it. “What people miss is that Argos is the biggest seller of beds in this country and nobody touches an Argos bed before they buy it,” he says.
Site users can become part of an online community, exchanging their design tips and ideas. “We see this as a case study for Web 2.0 applied to retail, because the strong community aspect really works with interior design,” he says. Eventually, users will also be able to show the rooms they create on sites such as Facebook.
Retailers are involved in the site in one of three ways: new or small sellers can sell directly through the design boutique; Mydeco can “scrape” a retailer’s site for product images and information to display on its own site; or retailers can supply their own data feeds. Eventually, retailers will be able to create entire rooms and looks online using their products, which customers will view as 360 degree models in rotation.
Hoberman hopes to double the number of retailers on the site in the coming months and sees great opportunity for the site on a global scale. Furniture sells well online in the US, for example, but Hoberman says no one site offers the choice, creation tools and community aspect.
Mydeco will also collect trend data and monitor spending behaviour. “We will measure how well each retailer is doing and create traffic reports for them. We will also have the ability to see what customers are searching for and how they are searching for it, which we will publish for the market,” adds Hoberman. Mydeco will make its money through ads, pay-per-click revenue and sales commission.
He believes retailers will increasingly use sites like Mydeco as part of their research and development. “Right product at the right price is still essential to retail – and doesn’t online help to see what the right product is?” he says. “Location is also key in retail and location on the web is very important as it is now increasingly retailers’ biggest store.”
And Hoberman is determined to lay claim to a share of that store’s revenues and profits.
Education: Eton College; New College, Oxford University Family: married with two daughters and a baby on the way
Career history 1998-2006: co-founded Lastminute.com in April 1998 with Martha Lane Fox. Remained chief executive until April 2006.To date: non-executive board director of Guardian Media Group; non-executive chairman of Wayn.com, a travel and leisure social network with more than 10 million members; governor of the University of the Arts London; an angel investor in several internet companies