Online crystal ball predicts trends for interior designers

Entrepreneur Marc Worth tells Deirdre Hipwell about his return to the style forecasting business

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:13

Brothers Marc and Julian Worth pocketed £142m when they sold Worth Global Style Network (WGSN), their online information service for the fashion business, to media giant Emap in 2005.

Founded in 1998, WGSN had by then become the most authoritative source of research, design trend forecasting, and industry insider intelligence for the fashion industry. By providing subscribers with information ranging from what colours and styles would be hitting the catwalks to what consumers wanted to buy, it became as essential a service to the fashion industry as financial information provider Bloomberg is to the City.

Five years on from the sale, elder brother Julian is still enjoying his share of the spoils after retiring to ski and hike in Switzerland. But after a hiatus inspired by a three-year non-compete clause and his multimillion-pound payout, Marc, 48, is about to launch a new business which aims to do almost exactly what WGSN did, but for the global interior-design industry.

Stylus, his new online information service, launches next month funded by £5m of his own money. Not only is it the first big new venture for the entrepreneur since his break, but it is taking on Emap. Last week the private equity-owned media empire launched WGSN-Homebuildlife, which is also tailored for the interior design industry.

Worth, who recalls the exact moment – 4am on 15 October 2005 – he finalised the sale of WGSN to Emap, says: "For the best part of the past five years, since we sold WGSN, I have been buying minor stakes in small start-up companies, but I needed to do something else. I am too young to retire and I decided to do something I know about that is in my comfort zone."

So he set up Stylus Media Group, based in Marylebone, west London, and hired former Deutsche media investment banker Elizabeth Vlcek as his chief operating officer. He also brought in two former WGSN employees, Larry Nipon and Stuart Hubbard, as chief strategy officer and chief technology officer to complete the executive team.

Financing Stylus was less of an issue for Worth. He thought of seeking venture capital or bank finance but realised that "I was sitting on a pile of cash and could use my own money to start the business. If I financed it myself, I was also not answerable to anyone".

Since then, he has hired 40 "trend specialists" in London, New York, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and Sydney. They will compile content and attend the world's major trade fairs seeking specialist information in 14 product categories such as furniture and bed and bath products. Worth says this "big picture forecasting" will help designers in the multibillion-pound industry to predict consumer buying and aesthetic trends thereby reducing "expensive mistakes".

When Stylus launches next month, about 350 companies will try it for two-weeks free with an option of taking a full-year, £10,000 subscription for three users. Each additional user pays an extra £500. Worth expects at least 10 per cent to convert, rising to 50 per cent in time.

Worth says he first thought about launching such a company "at least two years before we even sold WGSN". It appears Emap has been thinking along the same lines.

WGSN-Homebuildlife launched last week to provide "dedicated trend forecasting and product development services for the global home and interiors industries". It is being provided on an introductory basis to all WGSN subscribers for the remainder of their existing subscriptions, after which it will charge online users £5,000 a year for the service.

Susanna Kempe, WGSN's chief executive, says she is looking forward to the competitive challenge with her company's founder. "Homebuildlife is a much bigger service. We can be much broader and deeper and more global from the outset, but it is healthy for the industry to have choice and it's helpful for people to have a comparison."

WGSN is still the star performer within the Insight business-to-business division – one of Emap's four operating units – and last year produced more than £35m in subscriber revenues.

The challenge is on, however. In WGSN, the Worth brothers created a business that within seven years was sold for 34 times earnings before interest tax and depreciation. And his ambitions are large. He is already looking at the potential of expanding Stylus to provide information for any retailer or manufacturer of design-led consumer products, such as makers of electronic products, planes or cars, or the advertising, architecture and property development sectors.

"It is quite feasible to get to the same number of 1,500 subscribers WGSN had [when it was sold] within four to five years. That is the aim."

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