In the next in our series of interviews with tech and digital industry leaders, MBS’s Stephen Rosenthal talks market disruption and new approaches to customer engagement with MADE.COM CEO Philippe Chainieux.
Ten minutes in MADE.COM’s Soho flagship showroom is all you need to understand you’re fully immersed in an effortlessly cool brand experience. And then you meet Philippe Chainieux, the physical embodiment of the brand he presides over.
In a world where physical retail is rapidly pivoting from bricks to clicks, to survive the new world order, MADE has gone the other way. The company that convinced us to splash out on £700 statement sofas we’d never touched, let alone sat on, is now methodically dropping physical showrooms in highly-targeted locations.
But if you’re expecting a traditional furniture store, you’re in for a surprise. Behind the physical retail is a digital mindset that sets MADE out as one of the most disruptive brands – and it is a brand first and foremost as I discovered – on both the high street and the digital superhighway.
With visionary founders like Brent Hoberman, Ning Li, Julien Callede and Chloe Macintosh, the success of this bold, industry-shaking disruptor is hardly surprising.
“It’s worth remembering that the furniture industry hasn’t been disrupted for about 30 years. We believe that the customer wants interesting, unique products, sourced directly from individual designers” – Philippe Chainieux, CEO, MADE.COM
The London-based business recently opened its third UK showroom at the Mailbox shopping destination in Birmingham and is now plotting growth across Europe. At the same time, it continues to hone its model of connecting consumers directly with the best home design talent. Its new TalentLAB concept, for example, is a crowdsourcing platform that lets customers decide which products get created.
I had the pleasure of having Philippe walk me through the core ideas behind his vision and strategy for MADE, and how an outstanding online dating executive with no previous experience in furniture can be world class in a totally different sector.
What sets MADE.COM apart in the furniture marketplace?
The furniture market today delivers a rough deal to consumers. Broadly, you have two choices: low price, low quality and generic or high-end, aspirational and expensive.
Today’s customer demands exciting, design-led, inspirational products. We’re trying to connect this consumer expectation with a global community of talented designers who are creating amazing products every day, yet have been denied access to the market as it’s currently structured.
It’s worth remembering that the furniture industry hasn’t been disrupted for about 30 years. We believe that the customer wants interesting, unique products, sourced directly from individual designers, in an always evolving product range. We believe that if we work in an agile way, we can deliver affordable, aspirational products.
How would you characterise MADE’s go-to-market strategy?
We’re more inspired by the fashion model than the traditional furniture model. Traditional furniture businesses base their ranges on two seasons per year. To build the ranges that hit their showrooms, the decisions on design, trends, sourcing, manufacturing and stock levels have to be made 18 months earlier. If styles evolve in that time, there’s potential for a lot of undersold, off-trend stock and the need for significant discounting.
We don’t think in seasons – we think more in terms of capsule collections, where we curate products from our community of designers by continually gauging feedback from customers. It’s a lower volume, lower risk model that allows us to be bolder in the designs we offer. Every decision we take is based on the interactions we see between the designers and customers we bring together on our platforms.
Why is it important for MADE to use physical showrooms?
Traditional furniture retailers have large, outside-of-city sites because they need the floorspace to display their entire range. MADE’s physical showrooms (three in the UK in Soho London, Redbrick West Yorkshire and Mailbox Birmingham) are right in the city centres, in much smaller showrooms. We only show a very small percentage of our range.
MADE showrooms are less focused on sales and much more about building our brand story, customer confidence and quality of experience. It allows us to raise the level of awareness of the brand in different geographies by offering a tangible, immersive extension of our online experience.
Before MADE, you worked in online dating – how did you find the transition to an ecommerce business?
When I was working in online dating, in the earlier days of the industry, we had to combat the challenges of social stigma – many users didn’t feel it was socially acceptable to tell their friends they were using it – and trust, as we were essentially introducing strangers.
To change behaviours, we worked exclusively on building trust in the brand and the platform. Fast forward to today, where online dating is used openly by millions of people. The world has moved on, but so has the customer’s trust in online businesses. There’s a clear parallel with MADE.
“We’re more inspired by the fashion model than the traditional furniture model” – Philippe Chainieux, CEO, MADE.COM
If you think back five or six years ago, it was difficult to imagine that people would be willing to buy big ticket items like sofas online without sitting on them, touching or feeling them first. Very few people would have thought ‘I saw this picture online and I’m going to spend £600 or £700 of my money on it’. So the challenge now is the same: creating enough trust in the brand that people feel confident to place an order online with us, and tell their friends and family about it.
So how have you built confidence in the MADE brand?
In a number of ways. Key is full transparency in everything we do. Each time a customer buys something from us, they’re requested to give feedback and a rating via Trustpilot, meaning we are always presenting our feedback publicly on a third party platform. There are currently close to 40,000 reviews of our service on there.
Transparency runs through all we do. We incentivise the executive team in line with the customer satisfaction scores and reviews we receive.
Another way we create trust is through social recommendations and engaging directly with our customer and designer communities. Our TalentLAB initiative invites designers across the world to post their designs. Customers are then invited to pledge a small, fully-refundable amount to any concepts they love. If the design generates enough support, MADE will make the product, providing the designer with our global production and distribution network – and the customer gets a 30% discount on a product they love.
We want to be the go-to destination for designers and a place where we engage customers in the curation of our ranges. This attention to what our designers and customers desire is what allows us to create daring new products.
How are you able to scale the MADE model internationally?
We have a model that is extremely easy to roll out across different countries, as well as the benefit of targeting a population of increasingly shared tastes. Many young people are inspired by the things they see on Instagram, Pinterest and so on, so there is more convergence of taste and styles. If you were to rank the top 50 collections we sell in each country we operate in, you’ll find almost exactly the same top 50 whether you live in London, Milan, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin or Vienna.
We have capacity from there to really build the brand and a platform that is highly scalable. Our brand DNA stands for the same things across our different markets, and people have the same perception of the brand and the product proposition wherever they are.
We have built a brand rather than a series of showrooms.
Philippe Chainieux: Quick facts
Born: Nîmes, France
Role: CEO, MADE.COM since January 2017 (Previous: COO at MADE, Match.com, Meetic, Cegetel)
What do you do when you’re not working?: I have three children, so I spend a lot of time with my family. I also enjoy sports, in particular cycling.
What excites you about technology?: I remember that when I was 22 I looked into starting my own company. At the time, you needed a lot of capital to get anything off the ground. What has changed meaningfully is that technology has massively lowered the barriers to entry – if you have an idea and the capacity to make it happen, the cost of failure is close to zero but the potential if it works is phenomenal.
Who is your mentor?: There have been a lot of incredible people who have helped me. I’ve worked with some hugely impressive, renowned people around the world and I’ve been extremely lucky to learn bits from all of them.