Global Economics

Can mydeco Democratize Design?


With names like Conran and Starck on board, the London Web site could change the world for interior decorators — and make a killing

Sylvia Ast, a single American woman in her 40s, always thought she had a "good eye" for design. But she was prevented from testing her talent by limited finances, her part-time job at an Atlanta hair salon, and the need to care for her disabled father.

But that was then. While playing cards on the Internet recently, Ast stumbled onto the Web site of mydeco, a new London company that showcases furniture from major retailers and helps users design their own interiors. In little over a month, Ast has created more than 60 virtual rooms using 3D models of products such as sofas, lamps, wallpaper, and vases. Although the mydeco site is still in beta testing, Ast's rooms have been viewed 6,500 times, helping her achieve the status of a "design oracle" on the site and reap encouraging compliments from viewers around the world. "Maybe I should see if I could get a job somewhere as a designer," she says.

Ast's experience is an example of how mydeco, which is expected to launch commercially this autumn, is hoping to "democratize design," giving budding interior designers tools to experiment with different arrangements of furniture, lighting, wall colors, and floor coverings—all on the screens of their PCs. And as it has for Sylvia Ast, mydeco also gives its customers the chance to show off their work and gain renown.

Turning the Industry on its Head

Of course the site also provides makers of furniture, fabrics, lighting fixtures, and decorative objects a powerful new sales channel. By aggregating 1.5 million products from more than 650 sellers, the site offers buyers a vastly larger selection than local design showrooms or even big-box superstores. Artists and sole proprietors also can get into the game, displaying one-off products in mydeco's design boutique.

"We want to be a disruptive force that will turn the whole design industry on its head," says Brent Hoberman, who co-founded mydeco along with Martha Lane Fox. The same duo were behind Lastminute.com, a popular European travel site that went public in 2000 and was bought five years later by Travelocity for $1.1 billion.

To help users get started, mydeco includes a catalog of ready-made home decor styles from well-known designers. Customers set their budgets with a sliding bar that ranges from cheap to pricey. Then they drop 3D versions of furniture and decorative objects into their virtual rooms or even upload photos of real rooms in order to test out what looks good. Some 35,000 objects on the site are currently rendered in 3D, with more on the way.

Earning a Commission

Mydeco's business model is based on advertising, sponsorship, and a 12.5% sales commission on products its customers buy through the site. Another source of revenue could come from selling mydeco's 3D tools to other retailers for use on their own Web sites. Some customers will use mydeco to test designs for real rooms in their homes. But others, like Ast, are creating completely imaginary designs—and stand to gain a 4% sales commission if other customers buy the products they've featured in their virtual rooms.

The idea for mydeco came to Hoberman, now 39, after the sale of Lastminute.com. He splurged on a four-story house in central London. But even though his wife is an interior designer, Hoberman says it was hard to find the right furniture and to visualize how it would look. He longed for a way to compare prices and mix, match, and move 3D renderings of real products in a virtual version of his house.

Mydeco is currently focused only on Britain but plans to expand internationally in the coming months. The company has raised $10.9 million from backers including the Rothschild family, Skype (EBAY) co-founder Nikolas Zennstrom, and Tom Teichman of Spark Ventures (SPK.L), who was among the first venture capitalists to fund Lastminute.com. Also on board: German Internet entrepreneur-turned-VC Marc Samwer, and Yoo Design, a British property development company led by John Hitchcox and Philippe Starck, a French designer known for his hotel and restaurant interiors, furniture, and household objects.

An Internet A-Bomb

"Brent not only came at the right moment, but he brought his knowhow, talent, investment power, and extraordinary technology," says Starck. "This is why, out of the hundreds of proposals we have received over the years from Internet ventures, we have accepted to be only in this one."

Starck believes mydeco will do to decoration what Napster (NAPS) did for music online. Napster "was an atomic bomb that revolutionized everything," Starck says. "Mydeco is going to be the same thing." Just as the Internet opened up new ways to obtain music and also find recordings by independent artists, Starck says he believes mydeco will create opportunities for young designers while letting consumers follow their own taste—rather than have it dictated by major furniture makers and a handful of star designers.

Starck is co-chairman of mydeco's star-studded advisory board. Others include Terence Conran, founder of the Habitat and Conran home furnishing chains; interior designer Kelly Hoppen; and Tara Bernerd, a furniture collection designer and founder of design consultancy Target Living. Conran, the advisory board's other co-chairman, says he got involved with mydeco because it "makes design accessible to everybody and allows everybody to have a serious look at interior decoration." In addition, Conran says the site "is a great opportunity to show and sell my own designs and the products from the Conran Shop, while keeping my finger on the pulse of current design trends."

User Interface Is Easy

Hoberman also has tapped the best and the brightest of Lastminute.com's original team. Among them is Chief Technology Officer Paul Chudleigh, who held a variety of technical positions at Lastminute.com, including head of software development and head of technical architecture. Mydeco's chief executive is David Kelly, who served as Lastminute.com's CEO. Kelly had gone on to work as vice-president for European business operations at eBay, where he led a team of more than 2,000, when Hoberman lured him away to work for mydeco. Kelly says he once again joined forces with Hoberman because he thinks the latest venture has a lot of potential. "This is a small company right now but we expect it to pack a lot of punch," he says.

Hoberman says mydeco has been approached by other investors who would like to lead a second round. For now, the company's 30 employees, including architects, techies, and a business development manager, are squeezed into a tiny space in London that looks more like an overcrowded attic than an office. Mydeco also has hired engineers and Web designers in France, Japan, Ukraine, and Uruguay. Together the team has spent months refining the company's Flash-based 3D tools to optimize the performance on regular PCs. Although the software still contains some minor bugs, mydeco concedes, users like Ast say they find the user interface easy to use and compelling.

Take the Mystery out of Decorating

Integral to mydeco is the notion of a community where people can not only exchange design tips and tricks but also piggyback on the work of others. For example, if someone designs a room on the site and another user wants to recreate that look in his own home, he can open up the existing room, add his own room dimensions, and finish it off with a few personal touches. A possible future addition will be a tool to let users compare prices in their areas for home renovation work and swap notes about service providers. The idea is to take the guesswork out of home decoration.

Experienced designers are among the sites' most active users, raising their profiles by showing potential clients their skills. Young designers of furniture and objects for the home can sell their wares through the design boutique and compete for an internship with one of the advisory design board members and a cash prize in a contest called "Are You the One to Watch?" The winner will be announced on Aug. 31. Hoberman says mydeco may even agree to pay to manufacture some of the young designers' creations.

Starck says he believes Mydeco represents "a structural revolution, a social revolution—which ultimately will give a universal access to creation." Ast, who has to stay home most of the time to care for her father, couldn't agree more. "I am having the time of my life," she says. "If there were more hours in the day, I would probably create more."

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