increasing revenue by 40 per cent a month

Co-founder Ning Li explains how he won the backing of founder Brent Hoberman co-founder turned bigwig investor Brent Hoberman ran into Ning Li in September 2009. The fortuitous meeting happened by chance, as Ning Li was only on a stop-over, pausing in London for a friend’s wedding on the way to Cuba. Li, a Chinese, Paris-based entrepreneur did not intend on stopping for long, certainly not on starting a new business here.

Two years and £2.5m in investment later and Li is still here. In fact, he’s in his office in Notting Hill Gate selling two to three shipping containers full of furniture every day with his company

“I was planning to travel some more but Brent said “Why don’t you stay here and launch something with me?” Explains Li. “Brent has a huge amount of expertise in the UK market and I wouldn’t have started a business here without that.”

A furnishings revolution, the online furniture retailer could be the biggest thing to happen to furnishings since flat packing and Swedish meatballs came onto the scene. In the year and a half since its launch has already broken even and their revenue has grown an average of 30 - 40 per cent each month since launch.

Li is no stranger to such rapid growth. He started his first company back in Paris in 2007 when he was still in his mid-twenties. Li describes his first venture as “the raw version of”. grew at a ferocious rate loved by the pre-crash French market.

Moon chair by Mike To

Moon chair by Mike To

“We raised the money to start quite easily (it was a very different time then economically). The customer base grew, the company grew, and we had offices in Germany and Shanghai also. It was all a bit overwhelming.”

Finding himself underprepared to manage such a large company, Li decided to sell and take a break. French retail giants PPR felt the need to grow an online presence and Li sold his stake to them and hit the road with his backpack.

Fast-forward to 2009 and Li felt ready to get back into the launch pad again.

“I couldn’t go back to working for someone else,” he recalls. “Once you start down the road of entrepreneurship there’s no turning back.” And so, with some light persuasion from Hoberman, Li gathered a strong management team and together they created Li’s co-founders are Julien Callede (now head of operations) and Chloe MacIntosh (head of collections).

“It’s quite interesting to compare the first and second time you launch a business,” says the serial entrepreneur. “The first time you are more involved. The second time you are able to take a step back and see the bigger picture.”

Seeing the wood for the trees is certainly one of Li’s talents. is very much a zeitgeist company.

You would rightly expect that an internet retailer to save on showrooms but also sidesteps the need for warehouses. Every seven days it combines all the orders for a piece and puts them into production. By only manufacturing what’s been ordered they reduce costs.

I wonder if this has a negative effect on timing. If you have to wait to get something made doesn’t it take twice as long to get your hands on it?

“Of course no one wants to wait if they have a choice about it but the reality is that even when you buy from shops they don’t always have the stock either.”

Chopper Coat Stand

Chopper Coat Stand

With 25 per cent of their products manufactured in the UK waiting times aren’t always long. For products manufactured elsewhere (China, South East  Asia and Poland most commonly) Li says the wait can be a little bit longer – but with big savings customers don’t seem to mind.

Customer participation is a huge point of difference for The site often runs votes on whether or not a product that is in the design phase should go into production or not.

“It’s very good for us to get the users to participate in the development of products,” explains Li. “When you have a doubt about a products who better to ask about it than the people with the credit cards”

Taking a chance on new designers

This system, combined with the fact that only orders items that have been paid for already, means that they can take chances when it comes to new designers; something that many suppliers just aren’t prepared to do at the moment.

“Developing a new designer is a risk. In tough economic times the industry retreats and goes back to safe bets. But because we have no inventory if something doesn’t work we don’t incur any costs.”

The use of up and coming designers is just one part of what makes so special and dare I say it – cool. Their innovative business model has given them the advantage at a time when we see other furniture retailers failing – Habitat being the biggest example of fallen furniture goliaths.

Is the phoenix rising out of the smouldering embers of Habitat? It’s not so mythical according to Li, there’s a scientific explanation:

“The retail landscape was changing before the crisis; the economic situation is just a catalyst. When you look at the way many shops sell furniture it hasn’t changed for 50 years.

“People that have refused to adapt their business models have gone into administration – it’s time to change. It’s just evolution.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • I am getting one of their bike's for christmas. It will take until then to get it made but I love the idea that it will be Made (.com) especially for me in the Uk!

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