Chinese entrepreneur found freedom in French furniture

Ning Li, co-founder and CEO of the online furniture store, already has two start-up companies under his belt. He launched his first business selling furniture over the internet to customers in France after he left a career in investment banking.

He says he went into banking to prove he could do it but soon realised he had a different itch to scratch.

"As an entrepreneur we like… freedom," he says. He found investment banking to be at the "opposite [end] of the scale".

"It's extremely useful in terms of experience but it didn't fit me," he admits. Ning realised he needed to get out quickly. "The longer you go into investment banking, the more you are paid and the more difficult [it is] to leave your job and start something on your own," he explains.

Ning set up his first company in France selling furniture online when he was 25 years old. To him, launching a start-up seemed like a natural progression.

"When you look at what Chinese people do abroad, a lot of them open restaurants and that's a very entrepreneurial approach," he says.

Two perspectives

Ning left China to continue his studies in France when he was 15 years old and he says the result was an exposure to a "double culture of Chinese and French".

The experience made it easy to spot how one market could benefit from the other.

"I come from… a medium-sized town which happens to be one of the biggest furniture manufacturing bases in China," he says. Yet he found the price difference between goods manufactured in Asia and sold in the West astounding. "How could a $300 sofa sell at 3,000 euros?" he asks. "Just crazy."

It was something he asked himself again when he realised that the costs of manufacturing designer furniture were the same or less than regular brands.

Pitching designer brands at more affordable prices whilst still making a healthy profit was a clear business model for Ning Li.

"It's always an opportunity when you see a big market that hasn't changed so much," he says.

Many furniture manufacturers find it uneconomic to supply products in small quantities. Using the internet to aggregate orders helps matters - once enough orders have come in to fill a shipping container, it's possible for the goods to be manufactured and despatched. Ning Li says this approach helps to keep costs down.

Indeed, he says the success of it was apparent from the start. "We had about 300 orders for day one," he recalls. "Three hundred orders for a furniture business - just amazing."

Know your weaknesses

Image caption Ning Li: "Some people are very good at creating a business, some people are better at managing"

Ning Li admits that rapid growth posed challenges for him.

Managing a surge of staff numbers and expanding product lines required skills he didn't yet have.

"Some people are very good at creating a business, some people are better at managing," he says. "I didn't feel I was a manager good enough for the size of that business anymore."

In 2009 Ning Li sold his share of his business in France and took a year off to backpack around the world. He says it gave him the breathing space to start afresh.

It was in London that he met entrepreneur Brent Hoberman who encouraged him to start again with the same idea and the same business model, but this time selling to a British market.

Now Ning Li's online company also works directly with designers to custom-make exclusive products. He says it is harder than buying "off the shelf" products from factories to sell but that "you can still feel in the UK market today a huge gap for designer furniture at a good price".

Modernising business

Image caption Online furniture retail means the ability to take more risks with new talent and designers

For Ning Li, putting the furniture retail market online has helped revolutionise what he calls a "dusty industry."

"Buying furniture is a conventional thing," he says, adding that in the past retailers were reluctant to take risks with new designs or new designers, and talent could become stifled. Now the internet has changed all that.

"If a new designer comes to see us with a new amazing table that looks risky, we say 'Why not?' because the only risk that we have is taking the photo.

"We put it online, if it doesn't sell, we pull it off. And if it sells, then everybody wins," he explains.

But it's not just about risks and exposure. Ning Li believes that speed is also important when it comes to marketing in the modern age.

"The internet allows us to launch products much faster than traditional business," he says. "Speed is king."

"The speed of designing new products and also renewing your catalogue is key… to keep people's interest… keep them coming back to the website."

Buying from China

Many British and European manufacturing industries have outsourced various processes abroad in recent decades.

The result, says Ning Li, is that it can be difficult to find good manufacturers based in the West.

Although some 20% of their suppliers are British, they buy from China - not just because of the cost, but because China has developed an "ecosystem of manufacturing" over the last 30 years.

He believes China's reputation for making goods for worldwide consumption allows the country to understand the global market.

"They have all the insight of what people are looking for," he elaborates.

Alone at the top

Image caption Although Ning Li believes being an entrepreneur can leave you isolated, sharing is important in a start-up

Entrepreneurship can be a solitary occupation, according to Ning Li.

"As an entrepreneur, you always feel kind of lonely," he confesses. "There are lots of things you cannot share necessarily with all your investors and your employees."

He believes there's one thing that can lessen this: co-founders who you get along with.

"It's really about sharing," he laughs. "And sharing is a nice thing to have in a start-up."

Although the entrepreneur has never failed, he says one shouldn't underestimate the trials of setting up a business from scratch, nor the lessons that can be learned.

"There are so many failures of start-ups," he says. "But you will see the people that actually survive and succeed… are actually the strongest believers."

Indeed, Ning Li believes that the initial struggles and despair of launching a start-up mean many successful entrepreneurs never do it for the money alone.

"What I really enjoy in my daily life is having the liberty of deciding what I want to do when I wake up," he says. "That's a huge thing that I didn't get from my investment banking background anyway."