There is no need to introduce the very promising 29-year-old Ning Li, founder of made.com, and no point in retelling how he and other forward-thinking individuals created the company one sunny morning in Notting Hill in 2009 - or how he successfully raised £2.5m in March last year - or how he gained the support of heavy-weight lastminute.com star entrepreneur Brent Hoberman.
Finally, there is no value in noting that made.com is Ning Li’s second very successful venture after the French start-up MyFab.com. Created in 2007, MyFab.com completely transformed domestic furniture-purchasing habits overnight before becoming part of the French retail mammoth PinaultPrintempsRedoute in 2009.
In fact, you must be wondering what it is I want to talk to you about... Well, I want to talk about his unusual journey to entrepreneurship, his inspirational views about cultural roots and – of course – some advice for you.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
I think you mean: how did I fall into entrepreneurship? This will sound counterintuitive, but I was taught entrepreneurship.
After my A-levels in France, I joined the entrepreneurship program at l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC), which included one year of real-life experience. Believe me, this was the real acid test for me. I would recommend something similar to anyone who wants to test their commitment to living this type of life.
You learn first-hand from entrepreneurs, seeing them in action through the diverse phases of any venture: creation, fund raising, turnaround, growth, and IPO or liquidation. As an added bonus, you spend the last three months of the program shadowing a successful venture founder. For my internship, I had the privilege of following Marc Simoncini, founder of the first French online dating service, Meetic.com, and subsequently worked for him. In a short time-span, I acquired the basic skillset needed to sail off on my own journey, and a fantastic network of mentors and like-minded individuals.
After working briefly at an investment bank, I re-joined the Meetic team to develop my knowledge further, then started MyFab, sold it to PPR, founded Made.com with Julien Called and Chloe Macintosh – and you know the rest!
Why did you choose this path – especially over investment banking?
I could see this question coming. It suited my philosophy of life better: being free, doing what I love, blazing my own trail. There is also a cultural angle to this.
I mentioned earlier that I was ‘taught’ entrepreneurship; I believe I was also predisposed to it through my cultural heritage. My origins are Cantonese. You will find chinatowns around the world, in London, Paris, New York City, San Francisco, truly everywhere. These are mainly founded by people from China’s coastal provinces, instead of northern Chinese. The coastal Chinese population was able to travel easily and was exposed to different cultures.
Many southern Chinese migrated to the United States during the 19th century railway-building boom. They needed to make a living. They did not have a great deal of skills so they started their own businesses. They observed what was most needed – food and laundry – and went for it. This is part of me, I believe.
Entrepreneurship is rooted in necessity: you need to find a way to survive so you have to observe your environment.
I think I am a good observer. I was, and still am, crazy about beautiful furniture and was frustrated by delivery times. I then realised I could not be the only one. Everyone hates long lead times when they buy furniture, and most shoppers are not attached to specific brands. I also noticed a counterintuitive trend: the more you pay, the more you have to wait!
I came up with the concept of high-end, reasonable value products with minimal lead time – and MyFab was created!
Any advice for a young wannabe entrepreneur?
That is a tough one! There are so many things that I have discovered and learnt that I could pass on, but I’ll pick two.
Build a strong network. Cultivate your sense of community. I experienced this directly at an early age when I worked for a Chinese bakery during my student years at HEC, as I needed to support myself financially. This gave me first-hand experience of the value of work and the importance of community. After my MyFab adventure I took a year off and travelled to Cuba to get re-energized but also to observe the cultural journey and compare with China. When I came back, I met Brent through my business network. We clicked and decided to start something together.
Multiply your exposure to cultural differences. I spent 10 years in France and was educated there, and also spent also some time in the United States, but I remain truly Chinese. This diverse background helped me to find my ventures and also helps me everyday with problem solving. I believe multicultural people are more open to creation as they are more open to difference.
One last thing: never be afraid to choose a different path. Try, and if you fail, try again!
He smiled softly, thanked me warmly, and gracefully left the room, onto his next venture. I was left pondering on his advice: observation is key, exposure to different frameworks critical of course, but one thing resonated with me for longer. Entrepreneurship can be taught at an early stage in one’s life.
What if this was a universal truth? What if this would alleviate the myth of the natural entrepreneur, in the same way leadership training and adequate grooming somewhat alleviated the myth of the charismatic leader?
Let’s explore this further next time with some views from the founder of HEC’s Entrepreneurship Program and Ning Li's first mentor Marc Simoncini.