When Brent Hoberman has an idea for a new website, people tend to listen. Hoberman, 39 and Eton- and Oxford-educated, co-founded Lastminute.com, the shining mascot of the 1990s dotcom boom, with his good friend Martha Lane Fox, whom he met while they were working for Spectrum Strategy Consultants, a technology trend-forecasting company. Having made £26m from selling Lastminute in 2005, Hoberman was itching for a new project. Moving house provided it – he has just launched Mydeco.com, an online interiors venture.
During renovations at the home he shares with his wife, Genevieve, an interior designer, and their two small children (another is due any minute), Hoberman felt frustrated at how complicated it seemed to be to source the things they wanted to buy.
"My wife obviously knows what she's doing in these circumstances," says Hoberman, "but I had no idea what things should cost, why some things were vastly more expensive than others, and how to compare products on the market without traipsing from shop to shop." That wasn't the only frustration. "She would ask me questions such as, 'What sofa shall we have?' or 'What about this colour here?' or 'Shall we put this thing over here – or here?' and my problem was that I just couldn't visualise what she was talking about. It's often hard to know what you're looking for until you see it." Hoberman also noticed how friends would come to Genevieve to ask: "Where can I get great curtains made?" or "Where can I find an xyz?"
"I realised she had this invaluable address book that most people didn't have access to. That's when I thought there could be an internet service that helped solve these sorts of dilemmas." Having spotted a gap in the online market, Hoberman's response was MyDeco.com – a searchable website that features products from 500 retailers, all in one place. A Google for interiors, if you like. Though the site is also much more than that.
What Hoberman wanted to create was a one-stop shop where a customer could search across the market for, say, every design of children's wooden chair available, or red leather sofas with very specific dimensions. He also thought it would be key to be able to see what each item would look like in situ, before buying. To help make it happen, he gathered his former Lastminute cohorts, including Fox and David Kelly, who had since been the number two at eBay Europe. Some heavyweight interiors experts also came aboard, including Chloe Mackintosh, who had previously worked for Norman Foster; and Pia Munden, who was running Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's studio. MyDeco was born.
Among the 500 retailers signed up to sell through the site are big names such as Argos, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis, serious design stores such as SCP and TwentyTwentyOne and smaller chains or one-offs, including Graham and Green, Andrew Martin and The French House.
However, the site, at first glance, seems to have patchy quality control: the homepage doesn't exactly shout "stylish interiors magazine". There are plans to add 500 more shops to the roster. Hoberman is quick to explain. "We aim to have [the] top 1,000 retailers in the country," he says. "We won't accept just anyone who comes along." So you've turned some retailers away? "Yes," he says, "we have." And not just on the basis of quality of product, but also on customer service. "Delivery is the biggest problem," he says, "things not turning up when they should do, or not turning up at all." Taking a tip from eBay, retailers are also rated by users. "If the people using the site don't like a company, we'll get rid of them."
MyDeco is more than just a search engine for furniture. One of its most popular features is the tool you can use to create a 3D version of the room you want to furnish, dragging and dropping items from the site's shops. In line with the user-generated-content Zeitgeist, "the community" is key. Users are encouraged to browse other users' arrangements and profiles, as well as those created by the in-house experts, forming design-led social networks. You can ' even earn money if another user buys an item after seeing it in your "room". The site has enormous potential, though its multifaceted format is a touch overwhelming. "It's only seven weeks old, and still in Beta [trial stage]," says Hoberman. "We're getting feedback and changing things every day." That said, 20,000 virtual rooms have been created by users already.
Hoberman also hopes that people will start to associate shopping for interiors online with saving money – as is the case with CDs, books or travel. MyDeco may need to work a bit harder; one of its retailers, for example, is selling the Uten.Silo (a classically designed piece of storage) for around £37 more than several other shops, on and off-line. Still, the site remains a good place for inspiration and tips and bargains will no doubt materialise. If there is one thing Hoberman is very good at, it is gauging what his customers want.
One of Hoberman's favourite features is the "taste test", where you click through a series of images, picking favourites, to create a style blueprint which enables you to browse rooms, designers, profiles and products likely to appeal. "Have you tried it?" he asks. "It's really simple – and it works."
So what does his own home say about him? Well, that with three small children, fingers in several other pies – including being chairman of WAYN.com, a social-networking site for travellers – and an ever-buzzing BlackBerry, he is incredibly busy. And also that he is incredibly rich. Is it true that he has a gadget connected to his alarm clock which runs his bath before he gets out of bed? Hoberman grins like a schoolboy. "Yes! It's brilliant!"
Disappointingly, bargain automated bath-running gadgetry is not yet available on MyDeco. Not yet, anyway.
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