Suzann Bozorgi’s business is on its way to becoming a household name but up until eighteen months ago, the idea her company originated from hadn’t yet crossed her mind…
Having traded the world of advertising in for interior design in her early thirties (and gone on to design some of the capital’s most luxurious venues thereafter); a unique request from a client a year and a half ago, sparked Suzann Bozorgi’s decision to embark on an entirely new venture…
It’s a Thursday afternoon in early February and in a glass fronted booth in tech startup investor, Forward Partners’ Old Street Office, I sat down with the witty thirty-nine year old entrepreneur behind RoomLab – an online interior design platform and the VC fund’s latest project – to find out what inspired her decision to walk away from her existing business; and her subsequent experience entering the (previously unfamiliar) world of tech …
After digressing in an instant over who she reminds me of – anyone else think Geri Halliwell has a long lost twin?! – within minutes of listening to Suzann’s story, it became clear why she beat thousands of applicants to secure investment last year…
Suzann Bozorgi. So RoomLab is an online interior design platform – it essentially connects super qualified, highly skilled interior designers with customers. Interior design previously, was a very one-on-one, time-consuming model but this is an online way for people to work with designers for a low fee and to their style and budget.
She can. She did. It’s such a great idea! I never considered interior design when I was doing up my flat because traditionally it’s so expensive, whereas this is what? £199?
SB. £199 yes but we’re also doing a £79 mini design service to give as many people access to great interior design as possible! We’ve got to make sure that we pay the designers what they deserve though and that’s really important to me too because it’s 95% women that we work with…
SC.SD. Through choice or coincidence?
SB. I think it’s a female industry. There’s no freelance work for interior designers really which is one of the reasons I wanted to set this up because friends of mine who had kids or were travelling, couldn’t work all of a sudden. Now they’ve got a more flexible way of working so we have to make sure they feel like they’re being looked after; but we also want to bring the price down as much as possible and give our customers a percentage of the trade discounts that we get. Hopefully that will then make people go, ‘oh my gosh! I need this!’
People are already telling me that this is a service that they want. A lot people like you are really interested in interior design but they don’t know what they want or they order things and they’re the wrong size…
SC.SD. Or they’re like me and spend a fortune on little mini paint pots to just go back and settle on the first one they bought…!
SB. Exactly! I got sent a photo from a friend of mine and I’m not exaggerating, she had about thirty different shades of grey on her wall! People really, really need help! Like you said, they see interior design as an expensive thing and I don’t blame them. I was a normal interior designer before and I would charge between £2000 and £7000 per room.
SB. Yes! I’m hoping that we can bring design and beautiful furnishings to everybody and make it more affordable through volume and our relationships with suppliers. I’m just super excited!
SC.SD. Let’s talk about the beginnings of RoomLab… How did you know where to start?
SB. So I was running a normal interior design business for about six years after being in the ad world in my twenties and I always, always wanted to work for myself. I liked the transformation side of interior design as a lot of people do but then I was offered a remote project and I turned it down because it was too far away. The guy who owned the house said, “how about we try and run this via Skype online? Please help me! My wife is about to have a baby and I’m going nuts because I need to get these rooms done!”
So we did it all online, it worked really well and so I thought, ‘okay there must be something in this.’ That’s when I started researching it and that was about a year and a half ago…It seems like forever ago!
SC.SD. It’s crazy how much you can fit into a year when an idea takes over though isn’t it?
SB. Oh yeah! I always say RoomLab is like my third arm because it’s always there! You get to the end of the week and you can’t believe what you’ve achieved but then it’s like Friday, Friday, Friday! Now I’m in here, these guys work at a really fast pace too so time just flies!
SC.SD. What role do Forward Partners play in your business?
SB. So Forward Partners are a VC fund but they have a team of operators too which means that when they invest in someone, as well as capital they also get execution support from day one across areas like marketing, PR, and recruitment…
If you’re very early in the journey, like RoomLab, you even get office space! There are three businesses in the room at the moment and everybody else is here to support us! It’s kind of like Dragon’s Den but then they give you the team support too. A year and a half ago I started scaling back my existing business, researching this, and thinking, ‘ok this has got some legs, let’s see what happens!’
SC.SD. From instinct or just because that Skype service went well?
SB. The Skype went well and then I started doing some market and I could see there was a gap in the market for an accessible design service. There were also obviously companies like Purple Bricks disrupting traditional industries and taking business models online to great success.
It made me start thinking in a way I’d never thought about before; it was a case of, ‘how can tech enable my company?’
SC.SD. So it was a whole different world you were entering into?
SB. Absolutely! It’s a tech-enabled business in my opinion and it’s a huge step change from running a business offline. I never think of myself as a tech start-up, merely that I’m harnessing tech to enable my business and ambition.
SC.SD. What were your first steps once you realised you were going to go for it?
SB. So I got a web developer and I got two guys helping me part-time. Because I didn’t have any money, I bootstrapped and they agreed to work for a slightly lower rate than they would have done usually. They built the website and we then launched it in April last year!
SC.SD. Without VC initially?!
SB. Yes but work was coming in through word-of-mouth quite quickly which made me realise that I didn’t have any the funds I needed for advertising, I needed staff etc…! That’s when I came across Forward Partners. I was literally sat where you’re sitting in my first meeting… It’s called ‘Office Hours’; you have to send your pitch deck in advance explaining what your business is, they look through it, and then you’re invited in for a fifteen minute pitch…
SC.SD. So you’re not going in blind then? They already, ish, know whether they’re interested in the idea?
SB. Definitely, they see around fifteen to twenty people on the day and only a tiny percentage of those go through to further meetings! I had five further meetings after that and at every stage I had to present on different aspects of the business… My business plan, my thoughts on competitors, where I saw my business going…
SC.SD. So it was a case of preparing for each stage?
SB. Exactly! It totally inspired me to start thinking about my business in a new and deeper way and I became even more excited about where I could take it and the strategy to achieve success at scale! I was suddenly watching Harvard lectures on YouTube and I’d ring up my Dad who had his own business and ask for his advice on things like forecasting… I mean, I had my own interior design business but that involved things like bookkeeping… Money comes in, money goes out, all the receipts go to the accountant…
SC.SD. And they sort it?
SB. Exactly! This is a whole different ball game but it’s been an absolutely awesome experience! And then I got the ‘record contract’! At every stage, I kept using that X Factor analogy! I’d say, “oooh, I’m at Boot Camp… ooo, I’m at the judges houses!” But then finally I got the record contract!
SC.SD. Haha! I love that! How soon into the process did you realise they’d bought into the idea? Or was it a case of, until you got that ‘record contract’, you wouldn’t let yourself hope that they were going to invest?
SB. I remember when I came back for my second meeting last July, I was going away for a long weekend afterwards… I just sat on the sunbed all weekend thinking, ‘I want this so badly! I can’t deal with how badly I want this!’ And I didn’t hear from them for a few days. You know when you fancy someone and you just keep checking your phone?!
SC.SD. ‘Calm down Fi, he’ll think you’re desperate!’
SB. Exactly! Even though we had a number of customers at that stage and our initial projects, I was aware of this whole other world that could take it to the next level so I was meeting more companies like Forward Partners but also some high net worth angel investors.
At one stage I went to pitch to a room of twelve Sheiks too who looked absolutely bored to death! There was a massive clock on the wall and there was a tech guy sitting at the front who would just tap the clock when you had thirty seconds left!
SC.SD. Stories like that are what put a lot of women off I think because that sounds so intimidating …
SB. Absolutely! Once you get investment, it actually gets easier though! Suddenly you’ve got people that believe in you and who can give you execution support and of course you’ve got capital to work with…
SC.SD. Let’s talk about when you got the deal! What changed for the business?
SB. Basically you get given a ‘term sheet’ which outlines the terms of the contract and it’s got this lovely page at the front that’s signed by everyone at Forward Partners saying, “we only take on board one in every five hundred and we think you’re amazing!” I’m honestly going to frame it and put up in my loo one day!
Naively though, I thought that because I’d just been through so much learning, that would be it but then I was introduced to all of the legal stuff which is a whole different ball game. It’s like buying a house for the first time, there is a lot to take in.
SC.SD. That’s the thing though isn’t it? On paper it sounds like such a daunting prospect but you’ve succeeded and come out the other side. It’s a case of doing the homework and groundwork, isn’t it?
SB. Absolutely and you can teach yourself anything! The reason I love She can. She did. is because I just want to empower women to think that they can do this! There’s this quote I’ve heard, that says, ‘anxiety is linked to your past and fear is linked to your future.’ You just need to give yourself thirty minutes and think okay, ‘I’m going to research this’ or, ‘I’m going to make that phone call…’
SC.SD. And it really does just boil down to that doesn’t it?
SB. Yes! Before I’d even jumped into a business plan or competitor research, I just thought really simply, ‘who do I know that can help me? What girls do I know with a tech background? Do I know a lawyer?’ I just got on the phone, I emailed people, I went for coffees with people and I just mined their brains! But also, I wanted to know early on if people thought the idea was strong!
SC.SD. Well you kind of need to know that don’t you?!
SB. Absolutely! And I’ve seen a lot of guys do this, they spend weeks forecasting for their business not to work! I think you’ve got to be open to accept feedback and I found that people are way more willing to help than you might think!
SC.SD. Let’s talk about the logistics behind the scenes… how did you get the interior designers on board?
SB. Well I had about 7000 Instagram followers from my interior design business so I posted an ad on there and it got a great response but I’d built up a network in my six years as an interior designer too. I put together a two page PDF on why RoomLab is so great, why you should work for us, why we want to build a community… and just emailed everyone saying, ‘it’s going to be great!’
We got such a great response! I always thought I would have to advertise for the designers and clients but to date, it hasn’t happened.
SC.SD. I trust that you vet the designers first?
SB. Yes and I think that’s actually what differentiates us from our competitors – we now only take 3 out of 10 applicants. The designers receive a large portion of the fee and so they’re well paid, whilst enjoying creative work in an environment where they’re supported.
I’ve got a few designers in my books that’ve been recommended to me by my old tutor at Chelsea College of Art where I studied too, who are her best students. I go through every single candidate… We’ve got twenty two designers at the moment but we want one hundred by the end of the year.
SC.SD. Wow! And it’s on a freelance basis so you avoid things like line management etc…?
SB. Yes, they very much work for themselves. They’re responsible for their taxes etc… but in the spirit of supporting them, we give them a comprehensive handbook which is really visual saying, ‘this is how it works for you, this is what you need to do next, use this program to send through share options’… it’s got a huge suppliers directory in it too so at every stage of the process, they’ve got guidance. We’re also available on the phone and via email around the clock should they need advice.
SC.SD. Let’s move on to competition. It was obviously bound to happen given that the idea is such a good one but what does it feel like knowing there are rival companies out there?
SB. When I first started researching, there was nothing out there that matched the business on the scale that I wanted to launch. But now there are a few other e-designers who have since secured investment and scaled up too. In terms of how I feel about them though, I’ve got a great mentor and she said: “don’t spend too much time looking sideways, just look forward!”
SC.SD. Very wise! What about low points? Have you had any days since launching RoomLab where you’ve seriously questioned why you started this?
SB. Hmmm… I think you have days where you feel poorly or you have a big birthday and you reassess things but I’ve always had an ethos where I look at the risks at the beginning, I calculate those risks, and if I decide to go for something, I really go for it!
Everybody has days where they don’t feel great but then I think, ‘you don’t hear Oprah or Obama complain!’ They never say they’ve had a bad day so what gives me the right to say I’m having such a terrible day today!? I really believe in the power of your thoughts and the power of what you say, so I haven’t necessarily had days where I’ve thought, ‘I can’t do this’ but of course I’ve had days where I’m a bit more introverted. It’s just a case of remembering that tomorrow will always be better.
At the end of the day it’s a rollercoaster and if you go into business thinking that it’ll be one big vertical line upwards, then you’re wrong! It’s swings and roundabouts… when you can accept something for what it is you learn to park it there and move on.
SC.SD. What about days that have made it all worth it?
SB. In the first week of December, I remember coming here, signing the contract and just as I was leaving they gave me a bottle of champagne… I got home after work that night, I put Annie Mac dance anthems on and celebrated! I was so happy!
The day we launched the website was amazing too because we got four customers straightaway and even calls from my parents saying, “I can’t believe you’ve done that” which meant a lot! I remember sending a text to a friend saying, ‘I love, love, love my job!’ … And I get to bring Chops too which helps!
Chopper is Suzann’s adorable terrier who sat on her lap quietly throughout the entire interview…
SC.SD. Did you have to negotiate that? “I come with the dog!”
SB. Yes! I negotiated that quite early on but they’d already committed a lot of time to me by then so I was quite confident that they’d say, “yes!”
SC.SD. Who do you turn to for support when you need it?
SB. Someone said to me a few years ago, “you’ve got three anchors in your life: your health, your work, and your relationship and you can only ever function well if you’ve got one anchor up.” So in other words, if you’re working really, really hard your health and relationship have to be great.
I was in a really fortunate position that I’ve got a husband who has supported me from day one. I believe in this business but he believes in it way more than me! He wants daily updates and even though sometimes he can be quite critical, it’s what I need because he’ll give me honest feedback.
He’s totally supported me and I would not in any way have been able to have done this without him. My parents have also been amazing too.
SC.SD. It’s so important to know who your support network is before going into business I think…
SB. Definitely! They help you grow. Of course you do get people that say, “this is going to be really difficult, being a female founder is difficult, you have so many competitors” etc… but you know what I’ve learnt? It comes down to their insecurities! It’s nothing to do with you so I’m not going to take their baggage!
SC.SD. Absolutely! How did the six years being self-employed as an interior designer differ from the past year being self-employed with RoomLab?
SB. I was on a big learning curve then too but they were more creative! I was learning about fabrics, I was learning about furniture, I was learning about architecture… Then I came to this side and like I said, it’s a tech enabled business but it’s also about other people. What do my designers want? What do my customers want? And its customers – it’s plural – whereas before I was working with two or three customers a year. Suddenly I had to wear lots of different hats and I was managing a lot of people!
SC.SD. Do you ever miss the days where it was just you and your designs and you didn’t have all the added pressure that comes with managing teams and the tech side of things?
SB. That’s a good question! I always wanted this to be a global success story so although I do miss the early days of my interior consultancy, this journey just feels right and where I’m meant to be. I wanted this to be much bigger, I know RoomLab can be a household name.
SC.SD. I have no doubt that it will! Talk to me about the charitable side of your business…
SB. When I first started this, people used to ask me, “are you not scared?” and I had a lot of women come up to me and say, “I wish I could do something like this; I’d never be able to do it” etc… There are so many women out there who have so much potential but they don’t have the confidence. So I was determined to use RoomLab to help where possible . At the moment I’m working with local high schools to mentor teenage girls; they come into the office to talk to me and I advise them on being more confident and tackling the issues that they’re facing.
I’m also talking at a few high schools soon which I’m a little nervous about… but it’ll be fine!
SC.SD. Public speaking or speaking to that age group?!
SB. A bit of both! It’s basically to just empower young women that they can do it! Stop being scared because you know what? Guys aren’t scared! I’m just so passionate about it! I also want to bring in a social entrepreneurship angle for all our designers and source ethical products.
SC.SD. Yes to everything you’ve just said! Do you have a favourite quote?
SB. Yes! “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels!”
SC.SD. Love, love, love that one!
SB. It’s so true though because everyone talks about Fred Astaire but this is what happens to a lot of women! We don’t just run businesses, we have so much other stuff going on, whether we have kids or not and even though we’re in 2018, it shouldn’t be but it’s still harder! There are just so many balls to juggle all the time so I think we do need a bit more recognition!
SC.SD. On that note then, what’s your advice for any woman who is currently sat there reading this wanting to set up her own business?
SB. I would give them the advice that I took. Do your initial research, be honest with yourself, and if you don’t know what you want to do yet, cast your net wide. What do I like to do? I really like being outside, I really like baking… whatever it might be and then work out who you know that can help you. There’s so much support from organisations and from the people you know already. Just ask for help and then jump! Just do it!
SC.SD. It doesn’t mean anything unless you jump!
SB. Totally! There’s such a good quote that says, “come to the edge! I can’t, I’ll fall. Come to the edge. I can’t, I’m afraid. Come to the edge. So he did and he jumped and he flew.” If you don’t go, you don’t know and I never want to be the person that says, “I wish I’d done that.”
SC.SD. What does success look like to you and can you see yourself doing this forever?
SB. As I said, making RoomLab a household name is the most important thing for me. But more than that it’s about a sense of achievement and feeling like you’ve created something. I’d like to have a sense of balance in my life too though, that’s incredibly important.
SC.SD. Absolutely! Last question then, what have you learnt about yourself since launching this business?
SB. That I’m more fearless than I thought I was and that I need to give myself a break! It’s all part of the process. Give yourself a break; you’re doing everything that you can! I feel like now, if I decided tomorrow that I wanted to learn Italian, I know I could. It’s just given me that ‘can do’ attitude. It’s been such an amazing journey and I’m just so, so grateful for it.
It’s no wonder to me why Forward Partners put their trust in Suzann because innovative and much-needed idea that underscores RoomLab aside, she’s a woman you instantly can’t help but like.
Walking away from a successful business you’ve built up over six years, to focus on an idea that requires extensive funding and hard work; is an undertaking that would overwhelm a number of people I’m sure, but Suzann Bozorgi is a woman unafraid of a challenge.
Having stumbled upon an idea that she’s passionate about and acted fast – as all the best entrepreneurs do – with a ‘can do’ mentality, she approaches each stage of RoomLab’s development with the determination to conquer it. By keeping her customers and designers at the forefront of her mind and asking herself at each stage whether she would want to work for her company as well, her business model has been designed to empower its users; an ethos further enhanced by her mentoring and charity work too.
Resilient, ambitious and courageous by nature with that girl-next-door charm that puts you at ease in an instant (not to mention the refreshing ability to not take herself too seriously as she goes!); she’s every bit the kind of boss I want to be one day and I could not sing her praises more!