Ning was born in China, in the city of Foshan, which is the country’s major manufacturing base for furniture. It was the experience of setting up his own flat in Paris that inspired Ning and a business partner to use their connections to help source furniture directly from the factories in China. Aftern having business success with his first business Myfab.com, he met Brent Hoberman of MyDeco and lastminute.com. Together they decided to improve on the Myfab.com model by launching Made.com in the UK in April 2010. Ning Li tells us about his experiences of doing business in the furniture manufacturing industry.
Q: You’ve had a varied career path, originally starting out as an Analyst for Rothschild & Company. What inspired you to leave your well-paid job in investment banking and go into the furniture retail business?
A: After starting my career in investment banking, I quickly realised that I needed something other than the pay to be happy at work. I needed the freedom and creativity to thrive, and that is the last thing a job in investment banking can give you. After my brief time at Rothschild & Co, I wanted to work on my own terms and setting up my own company was the only way to do this.
Q: How difficult was it to get funding for your business ventures?
A: When I started my first company in France – myfab - my co-founder and I spent nearly a year raising funds to launch the business. None of us had an entrepreneurial background and we were pitching an idea that was very new, innovative (and risky) at the time. We had no income to support us, as we both left our previous jobs, but we never had any doubts about the idea, despite our uncertainty about whether we could source the capital to launch it.
I remember it being a tough year and I am still grateful that my landlord didn't kick me out when I owed him several months of rent!
For my second venture, Made.com, it was a lot easier as I had a track record and most importantly, a great team.
Q: Your first business was a successful Paris-based furniture company, running a similar service to that of Made.com. What inspired you to start your next business in the UK instead of returning to the French market?
A: I hadn't planned to run a similar business model again and after selling myfab I went travelling for a year in search of new challenges. I came to the UK as one of our investors, Brent Hoberman, now the chairman of Made.com, convinced me to stay in London and start Made.com. Chloe Macintosh and Julien Callede, who make up the founding team, joined the project too and I quickly become committed to working with such talented people.
Q: Has being an entrepreneur always been one of your long-term goals?
A: Yes and no. I had always been entrepreneurial in my earlier life but after I graduated, I went on to work for an investment bank. I did this, partly because I wanted to prove that I could do it and it paid well, but also I wasn't too sure of what I really wanted to do. However, I realised very quickly that I needed to start my own company.
Q: What challenges have you faced in your entrepreneurial journey? If you were to do things again would you do them differently?
A: Having a work/life balance is challenging...but that's part of the game I guess.
Julien, Chloe and myself, have all made a few wrong turns on the way but I wouldn't have done it differently. I think making mistakes is the fastest way to learn as long as you don't make them twice.
Q: Did you have a business mentor to guide you through your first start-up or did you succeed on your own knowledge?
A: I had two!
- Marc Simoncini - a great French entrepreneur (founder of Meetic, the leading online dating site sold to match.com). Marc showed me the way of entrepreneurship when I was still working for him, and he told me how to do business on the Internet. He was the lead investor of Made.com when it launched.
- Brent Hoberman - (founder of lastminute.com and mydeco) convinced me to come to the UK to start a business. He is still actively involved in Made.com and challenges me on a daily basis to develop Made.com as a bigger brand and ambitious company.
Q: How do you manage the work/home life balance?
A: I'm trying my best.
Q: How involved do you get with the different departments of your company?
A: I'm a very hands-on entrepreneur. I get involved at various levels, especially in the inception of the project, but as we grow I'm teaching myself to delegate.
Q: You have had co-founders for both of your businesses. Why is this and what are the benefits of having a co-founder?
A:Yes, Julien and Chloe (co-founders of Made.com). There are enormous benefits to having co-founders – they allow you to share your concerns and make you feel less lonely in your entrepreneurial journey. If you are lucky enough to find complementary co-founders, they can be key to developing and improving your ideas. They also bring a whole new set of skills and perceptions to the table.
Q: What are the risks of running a ‘made to order’ businesses and how do you avoid them?
A: We are a small team running global logistics. There are huge execution risks but we are lucky enough to have a fantastic team that are doing brilliantly on this end.
We have heavily invested in an IT system to overcome the risks associated with made to order - I believe this makes it one of the largest entry barriers for competitors – and this allows us to automate as much as possible and reduce the room for errors.
Q: What are the pros and cons of having 75 percent of your products manufactured in China and is buying from the Far East something you would recommend to other retailers?
A: It is not something specific to Made.com. We are just being upfront and telling the (true) story to our consumers. We believe in honestly and transparency.
Q: Entrepreneurs: Born or made?
Q: What are the best and worst things about being an entrepreneur?
A: For me, freedom, above all, is the best thing about being an entrepreneur. The "flip side" is that you have to work hard but I do not necessarily dislike it.
Q: What three pieces of advice would you give to other entrepreneurs and potential start-ups?
- Belief. Be persistent and believe in your own ideas. If you don't try, you will never know.
- Share. Find one or two co-founders - you will find it's a real help if you find people that believe in your ideas as much as you do.
- Focus. Jumping on too many opportunities can kill a business. Being an entrepreneur means that you are the ultimate person who has to learn to say no to the wrong, but tempting, opportunities.