8 August 2018

Inside the Made furniture-making machine

The pioneering online furniture brand wants to follow in Ikea’s footsteps – but can it too become an internationally recognised design company?

Small things can make big brands. Coco Chanel had her little black dress, and Made has its little red sofa. 

Launched in 2011, the sofa soon became synonymous with the growing UK online furniture brand, appearing on adverts online and in the press. It ticked all the right boxes – it was a designer piece retailing at less than half the usual price and suited for small-space city living. 

‘I remember the first time we saw the prototype I said to my boss, “This is going to be it,”’ muses Paul Tanner, who joined Made from rival Habitat in 2010, the year it was founded. ‘We were selling them within two minutes of sending out the email.’

Back in 2010, Made’s three founders – Ning Li, Julien Callede and Chloe Macintosh – were clearly visionaries, or madmen. Their furniture company had no store, no stock, no warehouses, no designers and no factories. Instead, it worked with independent designers and manufacturers to prototype designs it thought would be popular – and then posted photos of them to its website and emailed its user base to see if there were any takers.

And there were. Made wasn’t making lucky guesses, or forecasting design trends far into the future; it was finding out what its customers wanted, and then making it for them, fast.

Furniture had never been designed or sold this way before. 

‘They were completely on the money. Although it was tiny, you just knew Made were going to do it,’ says Tanner. Against a backdrop of slowing sales for well-known brands such as Habitat, Made took the fast-fashion model pioneered by the likes of Asos a decade earlier and applied it to furniture. It was simple, says Tanner: ‘Prototype it, photo shoot it, load it to the website, email it out, and then people will start to buy.’ And it worked: in 2016 Made posted a profit of £49m in the UK.

‘We used to ring a bell every time we hit a milestone, like making a million quid. It used to happen once every three or four months. Then it became annoying, because we were ringing this bell so frequently,’ adds Tanner.

No longer content with being the most exciting thing to happen to the furniture industry since Ikea invented flat-pack, Made is looking to emulate the Swedish giant by also becoming an internationally recognised design brand. 

In March this year it raised £40m to expand into new European markets, and posted an annual turnover of £127m in 2017 (up 40%). It has customers in eight countries, 400 employees across offices in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin, and is regularly pipped to become a billion-dollar company. 

But as it cranks up the gears and regularly expands into new home and lifestyle categories – from watches and bikes to pet accessories – how is Made planning to stay nimble, keep ahead of the competition, win over European homeowners and maintain its speedy growth?

Try it and see

In the early days, Made stood out because it was closer to its customer than its competition. Its mailing lists let it easily measure what products people were interested in – and, as it only placed orders once it reached a minimum quantity of sales, if customers didn’t bite, products simply weren’t made. It was smart with its media and advertising too, using unique voucher codes everywhere so it could track in which neighbourhoods or publications its products were proving popular – and retarget them.

It also adapted to what customers wanted, fast. In 2012, when customers started turning up at Made’s office on the ninth floor of a tower block in Notting Hill, west London, clutching newspaper adverts and hoping to buy a product there and then, it quickly reacted by opening its first showroom in 2012. 

Showrooms are now an important part of Made’s growth strategy, says Annabel Kilner, head of commercial – although they will remain a rarity, and customers still have to purchase items online. Kilner is currently looking at which store size and locations work best, and what impact showrooms have. ‘We have data on where our key cities are, what the conversion is, and what that could be pushed to with a showroom based on historical data of
other openings.’

Design briefs are heavily influenced by existing customers’ behaviour, and analysis of wider (international) consumer trends. Made’s design director Ruth Wasserman, a self-confessed data geek, looks at what sells and what doesn’t across design styles, categories and markets – ‘we have a lot of flops,’ she admits. That information is paired with ‘some intangible emotional things – a cross section of pieces seen at design shows in the last six months, and in shops, and other people’s data, like top Pinterest searches across furniture, food and lifestyle’.

‘If there’s a big trend for Mexican street food or Asian fusion food, and people move towards bowl eating, we might tap into the zeitgeist and create bowl sets’.

Made for Made 

Unlike many similarly-priced design brands, every product sold on Made’s website is exclusive. Wasserman says 20-25% of Made products are collaborations with external designers (of which they can have 100 on the go at once); the remaining are designed by the eight-person in-house team, ranging from tweaks to a supplier’s pre-existing product to entirely new pieces developed with manufacturers, in the UK, Europe and Asia. 

One supplier, a ceramics factory in Portugal, began hand-making cups and plates for Made in late 2016 from a standard mould, with a custom green finish. Made’s ceramics range has since tripled, meaning it’s now economical for the brand to develop its own ceramics shapes. It’s the standard trajectory for a new category, says Wasserman: Made dips its toes in with minimum commitments and expense, and develops more bespoke items as sales volumes increase. ‘We try to be lean in every way,’ says Wasserman. ‘There’s a lot of investment we don’t have to make in the way we run. We’re very scalable, comparatively.’

Not so fast

The company is not, however, as nimble as it once was – and slowing down rather than speeding up (unlike online fashion retailers). When Made launched, its products were manufactured as soon as enough orders had been placed by customers to fill a container ship, meaning there was very little wastage and few warehousing costs. With scale, it’s become necessary to forecast sales and order in advance – although the supply chain still has minimal links in it.

‘We talked a lot about how agile we were at the beginning,’ says Wasserman. ‘But then we were going to a supplier and placing an order; what we’re doing now is developing from scratch – that’s not quicker.’ On average, products now take a year to get from ideation to a customer’s door, although it is possible to produce them in three to four months. Made’s bikes took a few months to develop and test; by comparison, when furniture behemoth Ikea created a bike, it took over two years – only for them to recall it in May.

‘The word fast fashion has become a bit dirty,’ says Wasserman. ‘It’s associated with waste. Yes, we can develop things quickly, but there’s an expectation that people will buy and keep homeware for longer.’ 

Ugly doesn’t sell

Made is first and foremost a brand – and an image-conscious one at that. Early on, it realised that without salespeople, items had to sell themselves. ‘If you can’t take a good photo of it, then you can’t really sell it,’ says Tanner. Selling online didn’t flatter all products: ‘It’s really hard to take a photo of a table with three legs; it always looks unstable – one leg hides the other.’ Online, it’s also harder to grasp the true size of items. So Made started using silhouettes of people to demonstrate scale, and taking videos of staff opening and closing drawers, sitting on things, showing how fabrics creased. Even today, competitors Ikea and Habitat haven’t caught up. Today, Made is trialling 3D models for some of its products, to bring the website experience even closer to that in-store. 

There’s a full-time photography and videography team in London, and another in China, shooting the 80 new products Made adds to its website each week. Images are then retouched and sent to the copy team for descriptions.

This focus on visuals leaves Made well-placed to take advantage of the new shopping features being rolled out across Instagram and Pinterest, the most popular social media channels in the design sector; relationships Made is actively pursuing. Made was one of a handful of British brands to first trial Instagram’s shop features, and is currently working with Pinterest as it trials ‘shoppable pins’ and new advertising formats. ‘It’s got an exciting future,’ says Kilner. ‘It’s essentially a search platform, like Google but incredibly visual, highly relevant and personal.’ 

Neither channel is, yet, driving significant sales – but Made wants to prepare for when they do. ‘They account for a really small percentage of marketing spend,’ says Kilner. ‘It will grow. At the end of the day, it’s still a new advertising technique; we’re waiting for consumers to adopt them.’ 

Back for more 

‘We want to be the leading design brand in Europe,’ says Kilner: ‘Design in the home is where we are.’ Becoming far bigger and broader than a furniture retailer will, so the thinking goes, keep customers coming back for more and more regularly. It will also open up Made to gifting – and bring it into competition with the likes of boutique store marketplace Trouva, which recently expanded to Berlin (see p146) ‘Super personalisation’ of the customer experience is also high on the agenda – both online and in-store: in October, the company will open a new flagship showroom in Soho, London, upon which it will model all further new sites. It’s highly likely it will feature a small red sofa. 

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