Virtue From Necessity – How An Award-Winning Furniture Startup Launched In 2020 With An Entirely Virtual Team


“We have sixteen people on the team and I think we’ve met ten of them, “ says Dierdre Mc Gettrick. “And the team members haven’t met each other.” 

In partnership with Ray Wright, Mc Gettrick is co-founder of ufurnish.com, a business that began trading in July 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. With around 200,000 users so far the company has got off to a good start in a difficult time, despite having to work with a team that never meets in a physical space. So when I spoke to the founders I was keen to find out about the realities of launching a new venture at a time when working from home as the new normal. 

Mc Gettrick and Wright had the idea for ufurnish.com back in 2017 when they were buying a flat together in South East London. The flat, of course, needed to be furnished and Mc Gettrick – a lawyer working in investment banking – was looking forward to indulging her passion for interior design. 

But there was a problem. Mc Gettrick had a very clear idea of how she wanted to furnish the flat but finding the pieces that aligned with her vision was – to say the least – time-consuming. It was a case of going from store-to-store in search of the ideal sofa or table often coming away empty-handed.  “It was frustrating,” she recalls. “When you know exactly what you are looking for, it can be very hard to find it.”  

No Aggregators

It quickly became apparent that when it came furniture and interior design retail – unlike other industries – there was no one in the U.K. aggregating online content to make it easier for consumers. A business idea was born – a website that would act as a kind of Skyscanner for furniture shoppers. A single port of call where buyers could search for items from a wide range of retail brands.

The lack of an established aggregator was – as Mc Gettrick acknowledges – a surprise. Over the past twenty years or so, consumers have grown accustomed to buying everything from insurance and financial services to flights and holidays by going to third-party sites that enable a comparison of all the brands on offer. So why not furniture?

Well, it has to be said that furniture and interior design might represent a different kind of market. Maybe the lack of an aggregator was a sign there was no consumer appetite. So Wright and Mc Gettrick spent time talking to consumers and potential retail partners to assess whether it was an idea with legs. Having tested the water a decision was made. “We decided we should go for it,” says Wright. “We handed in our notice in 2017.” The next two years were spent developing the platform and signing up retail partners. With the preparations completed, the company began to trade.

Cause to Celebrate 

As the year draws to an end, the business has cause to celebrate. In addition to 200,000 users, the platform has won two industry awards – namely the Lloyds Bank New Entrepreneur of the Year and the Tech Nation Rising Star. Big name retail partners include John Lewis and Made.com

 But navigating a course through the pandemic has been a challenge. Received wisdom has it that the last nine months or so have given a huge boost to online sales. A combination of store closures and public nervousness has seen consumers turn to online outlets across just about every retail sector. An ideal time, you might think,  to launch a site that makes furniture shopping easier.  

The People Issue

In some ways it has been. But businesses need people to work for them and as things stand in the U.K., people are being told they should work from home if they can.  That can be a problem for companies managing an existing payroll. But what about new businesses starting from scratch?   

Before this year, it was just Ray and I,” says Mc Gettrick. “Then we went up to sixteen.”  

The first hurdle was recruitment. Given that face-to-face interviews weren’t possible or even desirable, the interviews were virtual and once brought on board, staff were required to work from home.   

“It has been very challenging,” says Mc Gettrick. “It is tough to build a culture when people aren’t meeting face to face.”   

Even more so than the economic headwinds created by pandemic, the associated recession and (in January) the U.K./E.U  Brexit transition period coming to an end, building cohesive teams using remote working tools may be the toughest thing that a brand new company will have to do at the present time. But as Mc Gettrick explains, it’s certainly not impossible to create a company culture. There are things you can do. 

First of all, there’s the social side. “We can’t all meet in the pub,” she says.  “But we do organise quizzes. And we have some highly competitive quizzers,” she says. “And we’ve also organised a virtual escape room for our Christmas party. We want people to enjoy their work.” 

 More formally, the company holds regular meetings to make sure that team members feel engaged while also trying out an array of collaboration tools. Thanks to technology, it is possible to recreate (to a degree) the experience of working in a single office space.  

But is there a danger that in the all-hands-on-deck culture of a typical startup, the borders that once existed between the home and the office will break down, and not necessarily in a good way?  For instance, an office worker might stay late but can effectively turn off the moment he or she walks out the door. For a homeworker armed with a laptop, there is a danger of being always on call. Working life leaks into the home. 

Wright acknowledges that people who are passionate about the work they do will often “open up the laptop” when they think there is something pressing to be done but he stresses the importance of helping the ufurnish team establish a balance between work and life. He cites the example of the dark winter months. “We encourage people to take advantage of the daylight – going for a walk or to the gym in the middle of the day,” he says. Thus, the workday is flexible and adaptable to the individual. Employees are consulted about their experience using the various collaboration tools. “And we check in on people to make sure they are OK,” adds Wright.

In terms of the economic challenges, Wright sees an opportunity to work in partnership with retailers to help them solve their problems. He cites the example of logjams at the ports and potential shortages after Brexit. The government, Wright says, is encouraging retailers to build stock. The problem is third party warehousing companies don’t have available capacity. One answer is to sell old stock to make space for new. Wright says ufurnish, can help retailers do this through tools such as special promotions. 

In that respect, the company seeks to more than an aggregator. Instead, it wants to be a platform that adds value for retailers ( who pay a commission on sales) while also being a source of inspiration for consumers. With 122 retailers signed up, the company has demonstrated that the pandemic need not be a barrier to a successful launch.

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