My week: Ning Li of Made.com

The furniture-selling entrepreneur on sprawling exhibitions, factory visits and politicians in the buff.

by
Last Updated: 19 Jan 2015

I have spent the last week in China based out of our ever-growing office in Shanghai. I kicked off the week with a visit to my parents in Foshan, the main region for furniture manufacture in China. I picked a great week to be here as it’s also the start of the Shanghai Expo which launched on Saturday. Luckily it’s going to be around for five or so months because although I caught the opening ceremony, I didn’t get a lot of time to visit. The exhibition halls are about twice the size of Monaco and it takes at least three days to do them justice.

I have two main reasons for being here this week: products and people. My business, Made.com, uses the internet to showcase the work of furniture and lighting designers and if enough people want to buy the products, we go ahead and place an order with a factory we’ve sourced that can do the job. It’s crowd sourcing for design – voting for chairs instead of politicians. So I need to visit the factories to talk to them about producing prototypes that we can photograph and get up on the web site for people to respond to.

Busy as we may be, the General Election back in the UK hasn’t passed us by – we launched a new union jack armchair this week and through the wonders of photoshop we managed to enlist the leaders of the three main parties to help us promote the chair on the homepage completely in the spirit of our ‘prices stripped bare’ tagline. You can probably guess what that means for their state of undress... Twitter has been buzzing with that one all week.

We are developing six or seven collections at the moment and each one needs its prototypes so I have been travelling around to visit different factories. It’s common that a factory specialises in a particular material, so this week I met with with leather, cotton and metal specialists to find the right supplier for a sofa, a beanbag and new lighting. The factories are based in Shanghai and Guangzhou, which is only a couple of hours flight away. I’ve been working with many of these factories for a few years now despite the fact that Made.com is a new business, because my previous business was a similar concept but based in France where I was at business school. Made.com came about when I met Brent Hoberman on my travels to the UK. He really likes the concept of using the internet to facilitate long tail manufacturing – making products to order. He invested through his PROfounders fund, along with my old boss at Meetic in France, Marc Simoncini. We're supported by Brent’s business MyDeco in other ways too - we work out of their office in Notting Hill.

The mood in China is much more positive this year following last year’s crisis when the government pumped a lot of cash into the economy to speed the recovery. In fact, some factories are even finding it hard to hire enough people in certain provinces. We are hiring too: in Shanghai we are doubling the team to recruit more people in sourcing, quality control and office management and in London we are looking for a new marketing person. We need to get the message out there that you can buy designer furniture for up to 70% of the typical retail price because we cut out the middleman and go direct to the factory.

The other main job for me this week has been photography. We have been shooting the prototypes and casting models, which is hectic as there is always a line of people in the office chattering and laughing. And of course we are consistent with our cheeky ‘stripped bare’ tagline so we had to turn the heating up!

Ning Li is the founder of Made.com is an online furniture retailer www.made.com

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