Q&A: Ning Li, Founder & Chief Executive, MADE.COM

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Ning Li describes himself as an internet entrepreneur. He is the founder and chief executive of MADE.COM, the London-based company which launched six years ago with the aim of making great design accessible to everyone. Here, he talks exclusively to Retail Focus about setting up the company, collaborating with designers and why it's important to have a physical presence.

RF. What inspired you to set up MADE.COM?

NL. I was setting up my own flat in Paris and realised there was a gap in the market for inexpensive, good quality furniture. I knew that it was possible to create good quality design for less than some of the existing designer brands, and so started to think of ways to streamline the manufacturing process to keep costs down further to bridge the gap I had spotted in the market.

RF. How did you meet your co-founders Julien Callede and Chloe Macintosh?

NL. I was at business school in Paris with Julien. Chloe was introduced to me by an investor later when I decided to set shop in London.

RF. What motivated you to move offline with showrooms in the UK, Amsterdam, Milan and Paris? Why is it important for you to have a physical presence?

NL. We are still a purely online retailer but realised it was important for people to touch, feel, sit or lie on the products. Since opening a showroom in Berlin [in September], we now have showrooms in five of our six European markets, which shows how important we see these physical spaces to be. We do think of MADE Unboxed as an ‘online showroom’ – it’s a way that our customers who can’t get to a showroom or who are looking for inspiration can see how others have styled their MADE products. We could never have the space to show all the amazing ways people use their products in a physical showroom with keeping costs to a minimum.

RF. Do the showrooms share a similar aesthetic?

NL. That’s certainly something we strive for. We like our showrooms to inspire with small room sets and plenty of space, so it doesn’t feel like a generic showroom but a good place to hang out. The showrooms aren’t a place for us to push sales but more of an introduction to the MADE brand and a place where people can touch and feel the quality of our products, and then go home, think some more, go online to purchase if they wish.

RF. You teamed up with architect firm Bureau de Change on the Soho showroom, and retail design consultancy gpstudio on the new Paris space. Why is it important for you to collaborate with outside design agencies?

NL. We are very collaborative with all aspects of design. We collaborate with up-and-coming and big name designers for furniture, and with architects to design our spaces. It’s important to work with the best names in the field.

RF. How involved did you get in the design process?

NL. Ruth Wassermann, our head of design, oversees all in-house design and designer collaborations. She certainly keeps me in the loop but she’s the expert.

RF. How do you go about selecting the products that you sell online?

NL. It’s a real combination. Our design team go to all the design shows, look at upcoming trends, and we try to think about our customer base – largely urbanites, so anything with added functionality or to brighten up a small space goes down very well. As we don’t hold a lot of stock, items are made based on customer demand – it gives us much more flexibility to trial new products and see what the response is. We release more than two new collections every week, so a lot is about being agile and trial and error.

RF. Did you visit this year's London Design Festival? What was your highlight?

NL. Sadly, I was actually in New York for this year’s festival but I got a lot of updates from the team about the activities in the London showroom – it was certainly a busy year for MADE.COM. We had the brand’s first ‘live’ window display, where we set up the window to be the size of a typical London living space and had customers living in there, to highlight our space-saving, multifunctional furniture perfect for urbanites with less and less space. We also announced the winner of our annual Emerging Talent Award – a competition for designers across Europe to have their product made and sold on MADE.COM. I was on the panel that decided the six shortlisted and am so excited about this year’s winning product – a dim sum-inspired stackable storage system by KIMXGENSAPA, a design duo from Milan. Designjunction is always a highlight at London Design Festival and we showed the new collection inspired by the Transport for London archives, which I hear went down well and already seems to be selling well.

RF. What are your priorities over the next few years?

NL. The priority is to become a one-stop-shop for everything for the home across Europe. We have recently launched new smaller home accessories – everything from clocks and vases, diningware, artwork and more, this collection will continue to grow.

RF. What's your favourite piece of furniture on MADE.COM?

NL. The Steuart Padwick Stroller desk will always have a special place with me. It was one of the first items we sold on MADE.COM. Originally the desk designed by Steuart Padwick was for sale for a high cost and people loved it but no one could afford it. We took the desk, deconstructed it and created a version for under £400 and it continues to be a best seller to this day.

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