For a business traversing the worlds of interior design and technology, you might expect the office of Eporta to be plush with elegant textiles, walnut coffee tables, and moody pendant lamps.
But presently, it’s not. “I am someone who cares about my surroundings,” says Aneeqa Khan, founder of Eporta. “This office really isn’t nice enough – that’s why we’re moving.”
The business is certainly in the right place, off Leather Lane, in fashionable Clerkenwell – “an amazing area,” says Khan: “we’re staying around here but getting an upgrade very soon – actually in three weeks. We’ve only been here for eight months, but we’re expanding rapidly.”
Khan’s background is as far away from home couture as possible. Originally from Manchester, she grew up discussing business around the kitchen table. Both her parents have companies; her father’s a promotional goods business, which she thinks instilled the entrepreneurial spirit and business savvy that has got her so far.
“I think that if you’ve grown up in a business environment it’s not unusual; business is a normal thing to do. You wake up and help out on reception sometimes, for example. I didn’t realise the difference it made until I started Eporta, but I think it means that you don’t fear business in the same way other people do.”
Despite her upbringing, Khan went on to study the staple of career politicians the world round: PPE at Oxford. “A lot of my friends are actually going into politics now,” she tells me, but it wasn’t for her. “I just wanted to do something really interesting. I’m still very excited by philosophy.”
You often hear of the competitive job market faced by those leaving university, and yet Khan was plucked by Guy Hands of Terra Firma aged just 21, his youngest ever hire. After a few years working close to Hands, she was offered a position by property website Zoopla, to lead it to an IPO. “It was great exposure, a great learning curve and the opportunity to manage lots of people,” she says. But “I never thought going into the City that I’d be in it forever. It’s interesting but I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial, I wanted to start my own thing, but not for the sake of it. I needed to really believe in it.”
While at Zoopla she came up with the idea for Eporta, through an online struggle to find original, high-quality furniture for her flat in Brixton. “I was struggling to find pieces, and at the time friends of mine were starting to escape the flatshare, looking at investing in a property. Lots of other people were going through the same issue. And I just thought ‘hang on a minute, I’m at Zoopla, that aggregates property online, why doesn’t something exist for furniture?’”
Unsure of the market and with no background in the industry, she took a step back from Zoopla to research her idea. “I just blitzed it. I really wanted to get out there, but I was cautious – I didn’t want to create something not needed.”
Her research uncovered a ripe gap in the market. “I found that there’s a huge number of great people who design and manufacture amazing products, but they’re just not being seen by the [interior design] trade. That in turn means that a consumer isn’t going to see them, because you either buy from a shop, or appoint an interior designer or architect, and you’re beholden to what they’re showcasing to you.”
Khan’s advice for idea-laden entrepreneurs in her past position is test it out. “Don’t ask your friends and family, they’ll always tell you it’s wonderful. Go and try to sell your idea to someone who does not care about you, and see how that goes down.”
Her backers include her past employers, both Guy Hands and the founders of Zoopla, among a combination of other high-profile VCs and angels. With a proven concept, Eporta was born.
Eporta is a (free) membership based, trade-only, community platform to connect brands and manufacturers with interior designers, architects and the like. You have to be a business to sign up, and imposters are soon wormed out. Khan tells me that the name means “trade and opening doors, in Latin and Italian, sort of like e-trade.”
There are two words she uses frequently throughout our conversation: Community, and Meritocracy. At this point in time, Eporta hosts about 1,000 different brands from 50 different countries, ranging from the very top end to relative unknowns. “I think globally we’re the largest source of inventory for interior products online,” says Khan.
Is Eporta, I ask Khan, an enabler for these smaller, emerging brands? “It gives them exposure like they’ve never had it before,” she says, unabashed. “We really believe in a meritocracy of design; the bigger brands don’t get any more exposure, everything is side-by-side. And when everything is mixed in, the product is really allowed to speak for itself, without pretense.”
While I try to figure out whether Eporta is a technology or interiors company (“very much both,” I’m assured), we move onto the subject of women in technology. “Women are underrepresented,” says Khan, “but – and maybe I’m being naive – I don’t feel that there are as many barriers as there were before to women starting technology businesses.
“In particular, I think that a lot of people realise that men and women are very similar in lots of ways, but also, some women will care about certain aspects that a man might not, so it wouldn’t make sense for a man to lead the charge in that sort of business. People are understanding now that a range of opinion is important.”
Discussing a bugbear of mine, the term “disruptor,” to my relief Khan tells me that Eporta is “not a disruptor, we’re an enabler... we’re just helping people to do things in an easier way.” But it wasn’t so easy to persuade those more set in their ways to adapt, however easy it made their lives.
“When we started out it was really hard to convince retailers to do something which saves them a lot of time and gives them access to all these wonderful brands – because it’s something new. It’s this classic thing of ‘early adopters’ and ‘laggards’ as they’re called, this market has less early adopters than other markets because it’s been behind over the years.”
Eporta is already operating in 50 countries, and its ambitions for the future are global. “We’re looking at the Middle East and also the US as two sizable markets to target,” says Khan.
“We want to grow, we want to develop, but making sure we do the right things at the right time is important, because if you try and do everything at once it never really works. We’re trying to make what is really a very big, complicated, fragmented market, really work online as part of a community.”
Khan is clearly ambitious and determined, hard working and resolute. I ask about an article in which she is quoted as saying she doesn’t believe in work/life balance. “I absolutely did not say that!” she says, “everyone who’s read that article has told me that I’m some sort of crazy person. I have complete work/life balance – I think I do work a lot, but it’s hard to have really solid work/life balance, especially at the stage we’re at. But to say I don’t believe in it, God no!”