“The biggest wins I had were always attributable to finding the right people”: Interview with Ning Li, founder of MADE.COM and Typology

Research shows that there are several psychological traits successful founders share and one of the most impactful is ‘Entrepreneurial Alertness’, which means the ability to see business opportunities without searching for them. While interviewing serial founder Ning Li and learning about his stories, we noticed starting his businesses almost seemed a natural and logical process strongly showing his ‘Entrepreneurial Alertness’. 

Ning Li is the founder of London-based company MADE.com, where they work to offer high-end design without the high-end price tag, reporting net revenue of around €147 million in 2017, with over 45% growth. He also recently started Typology, a Paris-based skincare brand that provides highly natural, vegan products via a 100% digital channel.

We talked with Ning about building two successful business, and advice for first time founders. Ning also believes that entrepreneurship can be natural for immigrants, thanks to having to learn from different cultures, face immigration struggles, open up their worldviews, build resilience to work harder, and overcome every challenge, giving an advantage when choosing to start a new business.

Hi Ning, thank you for joining us. What first got you into entrepreneurship? Have you always been a ‘creator’? What is your story?

I was born in China and I am the only son in my family, and my parents sent me to France at the age of 16 to pursue my studies.

In China, traditionally, as the only child, especially a boy, you will have to provide for your parents when they grow old. Therefore, there is an enormous amount of pressure to succeed.

Not speaking French, my first year was very difficult. I had to take the French Baccalaureate with my dictionary.

During my business school, I had the opportunity to intern for Marc Simoncini, a serial entrepreneur. It was an eye-opening experience and it gave me the opportunity to think I could be too, one day, an entrepreneur myself. Later on, I set up my first e-commerce startup, Myfab (a flash sale website). The company grew quickly into a 180 people group and we received investments from people like the Kering group.

Once I sold my stake in Myfab I moved to London. I set up Made.com as my second business, in 2010, from a small meeting room in Notting Hill. I ran the business for the first 7 years as founder and CEO and in 2017, I moved back to Paris and stepped down from my day-to-day duties while remaining a shareholder and a vice-chairman.

Back in France and while researching a cream I had to buy for my new-born daughter, the idea of starting Typology​ came to me. I realized that the cosmetic industry was very opaque and out of touch with the expectations of new consumers. Typology is a skincare company that wants to be transparent, natural, and at the right price.

Do you have any advice for first-time founders?

My first piece of advice for a young entrepreneur would be to find the right partner(s). This is probably the first essential step – both for the success of your project and for having fun in the process – your co-founder should be people you absolutely trust and you get along very, very well with. There will be bumps in the road and a strong relationship can help you survive many rocky situations.

What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago, if you could?

I could have spent more time hiring. As a young founder, I sometimes was too impatient to get people into the business – but I realize that when you make a wrong hiring decision, you could waste so much more time and it’s actually counterproductive to hire too fast.

You are based in Paris with your new beauty tech venture Typology, and the HQ of​ ​Made.comis in London. What differences do you see when it comes to starting up a tech company in each location? 

It’s been amazing to be able to start a skincare company in Paris. The French capital has everything on offer to start a strong cosmetic brand: the expertise, the talents, the best and largest laboratory ecosystem in the world when it comes to innovation.

I do miss my time in London. The UK has plenty of advantages when it comes to starting a new company: flexibility of labor system, international talents, capital, and dynamism.

In reality, I do think that most of us do not really “choose” a city to start a new business – the HQ of a startup is often where the founder is living. There are pros and cons in each city, I guess you just need to play the card of your own location to the strength of your business.

We have read that you moved to France from China at just 16 years old, not speaking a word of French. How do you believe being an immigrant has changed your mind and helped you achieve your goals?

From my point of view, being an immigrant brings you many advantages, including a certain open-mindedness that can allow you to bring a new perspective to your projects. A different vision that draws its inspiration from your culture of origin. This is also an advantage in recruitment. Diversity in a company is beneficial. Because of my background, I have always favored hiring people with different backgrounds and origins, which brings different perspectives to the business that are essential to a good decision-making process.

For you, what does entrepreneurship mean culturally between both places?

It is very ingrained in the culture for the Cantonese – people from the south of China like myself – to become entrepreneurs. There is a very commercial culture in this region of China – many of the earlier generations of Cantonese immigrants went on to start restaurants, laundry shops in Europe because that was the only thing they could do without having to speak English or French. So it is almost a matter of survival.

The French notion of “entrepreneur” is more complex – a “patron” as they call it here, is both revered and often detested with jealousy.

What has been one of your biggest failures, and what did you learn from the experience?

It is hard to pinpoint my ‘biggest’ failure as I have made so many of them. Some of the costliest mistakes I made have always been around people: the wrong hire, the wrong investor, or the wrong co-founder. But then again, the biggest success and the biggest wins that I have had were always attributable to finding the right people, too.

And in order to make the right choice, both for hiring and finding the right business partners, in a certain way it comes down to both spend enough time and having the right network. A great network that you cultivate in the right way can provide you more choices and more references.

Finally, Ning emphasised leveraging discipline through the entire process, as he’s certain this is what helped him the most throughout his entrepreneurship journey.