Sandrine Zhang Ferron founded Vinterior after she was unable to complete the simple task of buying a chair. She wanted a particular yellow Scandinavian chair so began looking for one in local vintage shops at weekends. Three months later, she was frustrated by how time-consuming and fruitless her search had been.
Zhang Ferron had been working in the City since 2007, after majoring in finance and graduating from ESSEC Business School in France. ‘The financial markets were still very glamorous then,’ she says. ‘I took an internship at Swiss firm Tradition Financial Services in London. I liked maths and was quite nerdy and technical so I found working on options and derivatives exciting. I liked the idea of the trading floor’s fast-paced environment and thought it would be high energy and high intensity.’
She was soon working as a sales structurer, covering the Belgian market. With the 2008 crash and all the disruptive volatility that followed, there was even more need for structured products, so she exceeded her targets and found herself hugely enjoying her job. Then she took a role at a family office, researching investments and managing its global assets. Meanwhile, she and her husband moved to Finsbury Park. ‘It was 2014, and I was spending more time working remotely from home,’ she says. ‘I started to miss office life, chatting with colleagues and going out for drinks.’
She turned her attention to making her new house a real home and so began her search for the perfect chair. At that point, she had no idea it would lead her out of the City. ‘I discovered furniture prices were high and I’m too impatient to wait two months for a sofa. I loved the idea of owning vintage pieces that no one else would have and I didn’t want my home to look all brand-new and beige. I started looking for them at weekends, walking all over London, but it was tedious. Many of my friends, especially those with kids, didn’t have time to do that so were just settling for kid-proof furniture from Ikea.’
With her City-trained eye for opportunity, Zhang Ferron spotted a gap. ‘The vintage shops didn’t have a way to connect with shoppers,’ she says. She decided to build a mid-market online platform to do just that. However, when she told her husband and friends about her idea, they saw her as a lowly sole trader delivering furniture from the back of a van. Confounding them all, Zhang Ferron left the City and went to what she calls ‘coding bootcamp’. ‘I didn’t want to be dependent on anyone else for tech and I was nerdy enough to learn,’ she says. After an intensive 12 weeks, she was ‘knackered’ and went travelling – she’d never taken off more than two weeks while in the City.
In 2015, Zhang Ferron returned and began approaching dealers and building a website. She set herself a target of 200 products and achieved it that December, when she opened for business. In January 2016, she made her first sale – a pair of black leather Belgian chairs. ‘I ran downstairs and did a little dance,’ she says.
Three years later, the website has more than 150,000 products from 1,800 dealers, ranging in price from £1 to £1m. Vinterior has gained investors, initially Seedcamp, and now has a team of 28 and offices in Spitalfields. It supplies property developers, interior designers, hotels, co-working spaces and Soho House. ‘My City skills are highly transferable and made me see it was all about execution rather than marketing and capital,’ she says. ‘With start-ups it’s essential to understand: is it useful and can you sell it? You have to know what a customer needs and then find a solution. In the City, I matched buyers with sellers and I learnt from that when building my platform. It’s a beautiful, asset-light business model as the dealers are responsible for the shipping and paperwork themselves. The City taught me that companies heavy on logistics are capital-intensive so more likely to fail. Also, I learnt to be comfortable pitching products to institutional investors and I know what investors want to hear: they need to know how their money will be returned.’
Four years after leaving the City, and as Vinterior continues to grow, Zhang Ferron says she has no regrets. ‘When I started cold-calling dealers, I knew that people would eventually say yes if I persisted enough,’ she laughs. ‘I really had the City mindset. I called one dealer, whose product I loved, every two days for seven weeks. It’s crucial to be tenacious and never, ever take no for an answer.’