American consumers who learned about design through Ikea are starting to appreciate other brands and are "very ready and ripe" for online retailers like Ahalife, according to Shauna Mei, founder of the e-commerce site that has just hired former Net-A-Porter director Christopher Colfer to drive the brand's global expansion (+ exclusive interview).
"The average consumers, especially in America – where 85 per cent of our audience is based – are really not savvy when it comes to design brands," Mei told Dezeen.
"We have an internal joke that a lot of Americans are like Ikea graduates – Ikea taught them design for the first time, and now they're starting to appreciate design."
Mei believes that Ahalife can become a new type of shopping platform for America's recent crop of design aficionados.
She founded the company with the aim to create a global online marketplace for homeware, fashion accessories, cosmetics and gadgets. It currently offers products by over 4,000 designers and artisans in more than 45 countries.
"We can not only serve as a portal for these amazing designers from all over the world to plug in and reach a global audience, but the savvy demographic within the US that's looking for design to pick up," said Mei.
"That's the vision for Ahalife. We think that the United States, and globally as well, is very ready and ripe."
Mei studied engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was previously an analyst for investment bank Goldman Sachs. Prior to launching ahalife.com, she served as the COO of Swedish activewear company Casall and co-founded the Aronsson Group, a luxury fashion investment and advisory firm.
She founded Ahalife with business partner Sachin Devand in September 2010, and the company was valued at between $65 million and $70 million when it was first listed on the Australian stock exchange last year. At the time, the company had revenue of $4 million Australian dollars and was making a loss.
Ahalife recently appointed Colfer to its board of directors to assist with the company's strategy and growth, following his success with online fashion store Net-A-Porter and British fashion brand Dunhill.
Colfer believes that e-commerce is "absolutely paramount" to retail today, but a number of online platforms have struggled recently.
Earlier this year, Ahalife acquired design site Bezar for what is thought to be a knockdown price and online startup Hem was sold to the parent company of Swiss design brand Vitra. In 2015, flash-sales pioneer Fab was bought by supply-chain giant PCH.
Last week, designer Stefano Giovannoni announced he was launching an online design brand called Qeeboo to close the "irreconcilable gap" between physical and online retail.
"What we're dealing with is a very fragmented market but with all the independent designers all over the world, trying in their own way to reach a global audience," said Mei.
"That's what Ahalife is trying to solve the problem of. Consolidating them into one curated space, where a consumer can have a consistent experience, and designers can finally have a platform to reach the global consumer."
As well as influencing American tastes, Swedish furniture giant Ikea also transformed attitudes to design in Britain with its 1996 "chuck out your chintz" campaign, according to ad executive Naresh Ramchandani.
Read our exclusive interview with Shauna Mei and Christopher Colfer below:
Dan Howarth: How did the two of you meet?
Shauna Mei: A dear friend of the company is Mark Sebba, who is the former CEO of Net-A-Porter. He's been at Net-A-Porter from the beginning, growing the business with Natalie Massenet. During the growth of Ahalife, Mark has given advice over the years about e-commerce and growing in scale. The growing pains of transforming from a startup to where we are today.
After we listed on the Australian stock exchange and went public, we wanted to think about rounding out our board and Mark very enthusiastically recommended that we get to know Chris, and his experience of really being a very active board member of Net-A-Porter over the years, and what he brings to the table.
Chris, and my business partner Sachin and I, got to know each other over a series of video Skype calls and meeting in Australia.
We all have an aligned vision and passion for what we're building, and both Sachin and I are excited to learn a lot from Chris.
Christopher Colfer: I spent eight and a half years working with Mark Sebba while he ultimately became CEO of Net-A-Porter, and I've stayed in touch with him. As much as a work colleague he's also a very good friend.
Dan Howarth: What exactly was your role at Net-A-Porter?
Christopher Colfer: I was one of the original non-executive board members on the company. I did everything from assisting strategic development of the business, to sitting on various committees.
Predominantly my work was around building the business, building up the platforms and being a voice – I guess of reason, but in other ways a voice to push.
Net's early days were very much unchartered waters.
Dan Howarth: Is your role going to be similar at Ahalife?
Christopher Colfer: Pretty much. It's as much about the council side as it is about the strategic development side. Also, shared experiences. I've done a lot in that e-commerce space, from Net-A-Porter to Lyst, to this business.
There are a lot of learnings in high-growth businesses. When I joined Net is was well under $10 million in turnover and it ended up a billion plus company by the time I'd left it. You don't slip through life without one taking big decisions along the way, but also making mistakes. What I can add to it is where a lot of the pitfalls are.
Dan Howarth: What are the first goals you'll be setting out at Ahalife?
Christopher Colfer: First and foremost, I'm not the chairman of the company. I work as an advisor to them, so I won't be setting direction with them but I'll be working with them on the direction, and assisting them.
I think they've got a fantastic platform, a very unique platform in the world right not, in this whole artisanal space. Giving that side a bigger voice is absolutely paramount. The business model is fantastic, I think it's a next generation model. I like it for the reasons that I like Lyst and various other companies that are housed this way.
The biggest liability is no longer in the company, which is buying, warehousing and managing stock. This is independent of that and I think that's a fantastic aspect that Ahalife has, and that we need to leverage more, and can leverage more. The optimisation of that is in its infancy.
I have to go and work with them on the people side of things, like structures and how things grow.
Dan Howarth: How important is e-commerce to global retail brands?
Christopher Colfer: If e-commerce isn't your biggest door, or if it's not in your top three, and you're not planning to make it that way, then you need to rethink how you do things in your business. E-commerce is absolutely paramount, and has been since five years ago. One voice, globally. It's a platform where you can be creative. It's a platform where you can push design. It's a platform where you can extend your brand. And it's the platform that enables you to engage your customer – directly but also creatively.
I think it's got to be the number one strategic priority of any retail organisation right now. It's a big part of everyday life in retail now.
Dan Howarth: How is it affecting change in the field of design?
Christopher Colfer: From a design point of view, one of the great things that Ahalife does is to give that artisanal side of voice. It gives the ability to tell the grass-roots story of whatever invention or creation is coming through.
But also about the people. The product is one thing but the people are the other. People buy emotionally, and one of the great things about Ahalife is their ability to leverage that emotional element on the site. Giving the true story about the people, the true story about the product, and what it's about. But also the true story behind design.
Part of the reason for buying emotionally is about buying beautiful things. Beautiful things are about design. So for me that's the link all the way through.
Dan Howarth: What's the vision and goals for Ahalife over the next few years?
Shauna Mei: When we talk about design, it's a space with hundreds, if not thousands of players all over the world.
The average consumers, especially in America – where 85 per cent of our audience is based – are really not savvy when it comes to design brands. We have an internal joke that a lot of Americans are like Ikea graduates – Ikea taught them design for the first time, and now they're starting to appreciate design.
That's where the storytelling comes into play. We can not only serve as a portal for these amazing designers from all over the world to plug in and reach a global audience, but the savvy demographic within the US that's looking for design to pick up. We can bring forward the story of the artisans, where these products are created.
That's the vision for Ahalife. We think that the United States and globally as well, is very ready and ripe. But the process of finding these goods is very very clunky in the offline space. There isn't a Neiman's market for design objects, it just doesn't exist, because of the breadth of use and inventory limitations that department stores would have to hold.
What we're dealing with is a very fragmented market but with all the independent designers all over the world, trying in their own way to reach a global audience. That's what Ahalife is trying to solve the problem of. Consolidating them into one curated space, where a consumer can have a consistent experience, and designers can finally have a platform to reach the global consumer.