Aneeqa Khan was busy furniture shopping for her new London flat when the idea for eporta came to her. Despite browsing websites online, visiting shops on her weekends and speaking to people acquainted with the interiors industry, she struggled to find the furniture she really wanted to buy. Partly out of frustration, and partly in the spirit of any budding entrepreneur, she decided to look for answers.
“I realised the reason it was so difficult for me was because it's also really difficulty for trade professionals,” she says. “Buyers - interior designers and architects for the most part - find it really difficult to source pieces directly from manufactures all around the world.
“If you look at a small shop in East London for example, you'll find that the shop owner will be trying to source from a wide range of different places but because of the inherent inefficiencies of doing it, they have to limit the number of designers or manufacturers they work with.
“That meant for a consumer like me - someone who just wanted really nice stuff for my own house - it was really difficult to actually get access to all of these brands.”
The AirBnB of interior design
Using her experience in the tech property industry as head of strategy at Zoopla – an online property aggregator which makes house hunting more efficient – Khan built a new B2B platform that works by connecting interior designers, architects and retailers with manufacturers and designers in a similar way to a company like AirBnB. “It gives buyers access to what is now about 950 brands globally and makes it really easy for them to actually find the items that they want,” she says.
According to Khan one of the big attractions of the platform, named eporta, is the scope of items designers can now access. That can be big brand names like Terence Conran, Poltrona Frau and Tom Dixon or smaller, emerging talent that would otherwise be difficult to find.
“We say we are making a meritocracy in design which means that the products really speak for themselves,” she says. “That is the beautiful thing about online: every single item is formatted and presented in the same way.
“So if you are looking at two different items, say two lights, one from a small Hungarian manufacturer who nobody has really heard of in the UK, and one from a very large brand, the question for you as buyer on our platform is which item do you like better, rather than which is the bigger brand that you have already heard of.”
For architects Khan says eporta also offers a number of benefits, including searching and discovering items, accessing prices and procuring products.
“Architects can go online, into a closed platform and have products from hundreds of different brands that they can search through in one place,” she says. “The speed at which they can do things is beyond anything you would be doing offline, or even online through Pinterest or a supplier's catalogue.
“Architects can also get access to trade pricing. Obviously they have a budget to manage and getting that trade pricing can be very difficult to do. With us you can get trade pricing for 900 brands within 24 hours.
“And the final thing we do is offer an in-house procurement team that can buy items for architects and make sure the items get to where they need to be on time. So really it is end-to-end project management of the sourcing process.”
Building online communities
Although eporta isn’t the first attempt to create an online interior design sourcing platform, according to Khan previous attempts often failed to understand the complexity of the industry and as a result failed to get brands and buyers on board. What distinguishes eporta from these attempts, she adds, is an emphasis on allowing the industry to embrace and generate communities online.
“I think the reason we have had such traction is because we are building a platform that enables the community to exist online rather than just providing a website that sells items,” she says. “If you look at something like AirBnB it’s great because it is all about the community. This industry is all about communication and relationship building too.
“So for us it was about creating a product right from the outset that really enables all of those relationships to be fruitful. We wanted to listen to our users understanding how they work, and ask what is and isn’t important to them.”
Of course getting an industry that Khan says “doesn’t like technology” to buy into eporta wasn’t easy, particularly at the beginning when they lacked a demonstrable buying community. But with many brands and trade buyers now using the system around the world, she says eporta has turned into a proven concept.
“At the beginning it was difficult, she says, “but now we have 10-20 requests per day from brands and we basically decide who we work with and who we don't. At the moment we are in 45 different countries on the brand side and our trade buying community is mainly in the UK.
“For us the next step is boosting the international side of things. We are looking to expand into the US and also into the Middle East.”
Behind Khan’s confidence is a conviction that while the interior design sector has been slow to adopt new technology compared to other industries, it is now finally beginning to wake up.
“For us the overarching theme in the industry is that it is moving online,” she says. “At eporta we want to be there to enable that.”