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how MADE.COM went from niche startup to global company

Charlotte Jee | June 29, 2016
What the team behind MADE.COM learned when launching then expanding their startup, from funding to expanding abroad to the differences between the US and European tech scenes.

ning li made com

Ning Li (far right) previously founded and sold startup MyFab before going on to help launch MADE.COM © MADE.COM

Startups could find far worse sources of advice than UK 'scaleup' MADE.COM.

MADE.COM launched in London with four founders in 2010. Six years later it has 160 employees and operates in seven countries, with a growth rate of 50 percent last year, according to cofounder Ning Li.

The company has a simple pitch. It allows people to buy attractive, niche furniture online at much lower cost than usual as goods are sourced directly from the manufacturer, thus cutting out the middle man and a great deal of expense. It's an idea which Li says he originally devised.

"Initially when we first started, selling this sort of stuff online was pretty new. Today it's a given," he says.

However it hasn't all been smooth sailing. From funding to expanding abroad, the team have had to take some significant risks.

Expanding abroad

"Companies like M&S have a lot of experience and expertise, yet when they tried to go to France they failed. It's certainly no easier for a smaller startup," Li says.

Despite the risks, MADE.COM had a number of advantages: the fact it is online only, can pursue an agile 'test and see how it goes' strategy and has a diverse, international team, according to Li.

It has now successfully broadened its reach from the UK to include Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

One of the main barriers to expansion abroad is not language but culture, in his view. However Li believes culture is becoming increasingly homogenised among the customersMADE.COM targets.

"We target an increasingly globalised population. People who shop on MADE.COM are urban, affluent professionals who use iPhones, go to Starbucks, Zara, use Facebook and so on. Taste and cultural behaviour are getting more similar across countries. It's great for us as it means we can sell the same products everywhere," he says.

Barriers to 'scaling up'

One issue MADE.COM has faced is the difficulty involved in 'scaling up' startups in Europe, especially compared to the US.

"VCs get a lot of value from scaling up a business rather than betting on another startup. Any successful startup has to scale up eventually," Li says.

So why is 'scaling up' rarer in Europe than the US? It's mainly down to people and mindset, according to Li.

"In the US there's an ecosystem of companies that have grown rapidly and successfully and quickly become billion dollar businesses. People then leave a business - be it Uber, Facebook, Google - and set up their own businesses.

"In Europe we're bound more into hiring people with existing experience in the traditional retail industry. They're capable but they don't' have the growth mindset from tech startups or the scale which the US has," he says.


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