Young entrepreneur Ning Li was in his mid twenties, working as an investment banker, when he had an epiphany that led him to create Made.com.
Li, living in France at the time, was in the market for a sofa, and showed a friend a picture of the €3,000 (£1,850) item he was considering buying. His friend told him his family manufactured the same model for just $300 (£185). Li realised there was a market in this; making furniture more affordable by cutting out the middlemen.
“Obviously I bought it directly from my friend’s factory when I realised how outrageous the difference in price was between the store and the manufacturing costs,” says Li.
Li launched online furniture shop Myfab in France at the age of 26 to tap into this market. Given his background – Li was born in Foshan in south China, one of the biggest furniture-making districts in the world – the path he took was arguably unsurprising, even if his business model was.
Launching in Britain
Li sold his stake in Myfab in 2009 and after a year of travelling he met Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman in London through a mutual friend, who persuaded him to start again in Britain with the same idea and same business model.
With financing from Hoberman, the following year Li launched Made.com, a true disruptor in furniture retailing that this week revealed a 68% surge in revenues to £26.2m in the year ending December 31, 2013.
The 32-year-old credits Hoberman for mentoring him when he was still relatively inexperienced and for providing him with contacts in the UK, which he was lacking.
Li also counts Marc Simoncini, the founder of French online dating company Meetic, as another mentor. Li worked under Simoncini at Meetic and praised the entrepreneur for entrusting him with responsibility and giving him “a lot of desire to do something on my own”.
“I have had two great mentors who are also online entrepreneurs,” says Li. “Most people only have one but I am lucky enough to have had two.”
One source describes Li as a “terribly nice guy” who is “process driven and all about the business model”, while pragmatic about his strengths and weaknesses.
Indeed, Li says he has learned a lot since his first business endeavour. “I co-founded Myfab with a former colleague from Rothschild and neither of us had any ecommerce or retail experience,” says Li. “The growth was out of control and we could not fulfil demand and ended up neglecting little details in a high growth environment.”
The key lesson Li says he learned from his Myfab experience is that while it is “easy to grow the revenue, it is much harder to build a brand”.
Li is clearly putting those learnings into practice when it comes to Made.com, which is eyeing overseas expansion as revenues grow.
Li says the company is investing heavily in customer experience, an area he admits was neglected at Myfab.
But Li is careful not to pigeonhole the company as a traditional retailer. “We don’t consider ourselves as a retailer at Made, we consider ourselves a brand that just happens to use online as a channel to sell our products,” concludes Li.