Stephan Widmer and Marc Simoncini have shown they can start businesses successfully. Now they're after each other -- and ultimately Ikea.
This is the story of two European serial entrepreneurs. They come from different worlds, but now face each other in direct competition. They are both innovators. Both forerunners in the new economy. They have both taken digital technology and prospered from it. And today they continue to take risks, by bringing an innovative approach to the new market of online furniture retail. These businessmen have both put their money on the idea that more and more people will be furnishing their homes with beds, wardrobes and sofas bought on the internet. Each has found a way of bypassing the middleman and using digital technology to their advantage to provide customers with the best deals. They don’t know each other but are currently competing head-to-head on this immense market estimated at €80 billion in Europe. One is from France and the other from German-speaking Switzerland. They have both become wealthy by bringing people together. One helped people find romance by creating a dating website, while the other helped them get rid of their clutter through an auction platform.
Marc Simoncini was born in Marseilles in 1963. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to grasp the potential of dating websites. In 2002 he launched Meetic, a phenomenal success that has brought together six million couples in France. When his company was sold to the American giant Match.com for €500 million, Simoncini made a fortune. Since then, he has been investing in innovative companies such as the online media website Melty, and OuiCar, a peer-to-peer auto rental platform.
Stephan Widmer was born in Paris in 1971 but grew up in Switzerland, where he has partnered with his brother Michael in several businesses. He worked as an IT consultant in the US before coming up with the idea that made him rich. In 1999 the brothers launched the website Ricardo.ch modelled after eBay and Amazon. Ricardo.ch became Switzerland’s most popular auction website and has withstood international competition from the behemoth eBay. They sold the company in 2000 to tackle new business ventures.
Since 2009, Marc Simoncini and Stephan Widmer have been competing in the online furniture retail market. Marc Simoncini invested in Made.com, while Stephan Widmer, again teaming up with his brother, created Beliani. Both companies design their own furniture, have internalised production, manufacture their creations in Asia and then sell them online. By cutting out the middlemen, the companies say they produce furniture at half the cost of the traditional market. However, the difference lies in their target group. Made.com aims its products at the urban Generation Y with bolder designs, and by offering more compact furniture for smaller apartments, while Beliani addresses an older demographic with more ample space and budgets.
Both retailers have set their sights high. Their end goal is to topple Ikea, which now dominates the global furniture market. But the business has its challenges. Logistics are expensive: Beliani has just invested €20 million in distribution centres, while Made.com raised €66 million to develop its production chain. To convince customers to buy furniture online, the companies, paradoxically, need brick and mortar showrooms – and flexible return policies. Now, only time will tell who, between these two talented entrepreneurs, will win this battle and create the best digital alternative to the Swedish giant.
By Clément Bürge