Written by Doug O’Neill
Landing an interview with Luciano D'Angelo, co-founder of the Toronto-based startup Model Living, wasn’t easy. D’Angelo’s incredibly busy schedule, and likewise that of his partner, co-founder Jeff Ralphs, is simply an indication of how busy they’ve been since they established their modern furniture subscription service. Launched in late 2018, Model Living enables clients to subscribe to expertly-curated, modern residential furniture for a monthly fee with the option to renew, swap, buy, or return at anytime.
StartUp HERE Toronto caught up with D’Angelo while he was on a trip to San Francisco to explore additional investment opportunities for Model Living, which, he says, “has been growing rapidly as satisfied new home dwellers spread the word about the convenient service that shops, furnishes, delivers and assembles modern furniture for their urban condos, apartments and houses.”
Operating in start-up mode (“we don’t get a lot of sleep these days,” says D’Angelo) isn’t new to either entrepreneur. Both of them worked as account executives at the digital healthcare start-up League, which enabled both partners to learn a lot about start-ups, especially from their widely-respected mentor, League founder and CEO Michael Serbinis (who previously worked with tech guru Elon Musk).
“Jeff and I both studied at Queens University although he was two years ahead of me,” says D’Angelo. “Jeff graduated in 2014 and I finished university in 2016. We started working at League within two weeks of each other as the first sales hires on the team. That’s where we first talked about our desire to one day start our own business.”
The idea for a furniture service resulted from conversations they had about housing challenges in Toronto. Says D’Angelo: “At one point we were both in the process of moving and, like everyone else, were keenly aware of the high rents and homeownership costs – but also how super expensive it was just to move. On top of rent, for instance, people typically have to budget a few thousand bucks for furniture. Add to that the inconvenience of shopping and assembling it. Even if you cheap out and buy at budget prices, you still spend hours of your time furnishing a new home, even a small condo.”
Testing the market
Together they conceived the idea of “furniture by subscription,” which they tested out on Facebook Marketplace: “We posted a message that basically said, ‘We have this brand new furniture, but it turns out we’re not moving for another 12 months. Does anybody want to rent this sofa, lamp and coffee table for the next year for $100 per month?’ We were surprised. Not only did we get a paying customer right away but we also received a huge volume of responses and feedback from people who really liked the concept.”
The two partners then went out and bought the IKEA furniture they had described online, delivered and assembled it. “It was kind of magical for the first customers,” says D’Angelo. “They paid $100 and, within a couple days, their new home was furnished with the goods they liked and they didn’t have the hassle of shopping, purchasing, bringing it home or assembling it.”
Ralphs and D’Angelo initially pursued the business as a sideline (“our weekends were incredibly busy,” says D’Angelo) while continuing their full-time jobs at League, which they left in July 2018. “We realized the best approach was to jump into it full-time and not treat it as a part-time venture. That’d be my advice to anyone considering a start-up: give it your all rather than do it part-time. Just do it.” In their case, “giving their all” meant everything from building the web site, sourcing furniture outlets, handling finances and marketing themselves.
Model Living launched in October 2018 and has already doubled its revenue. Customers can take advantage of the interactive Style Quiz on the Model Living web site to choose from different contemporary room settings, choice of modern furniture and décor styles. They’ve recently added the option of a live consultation with a design-savvy décor expert to help clients make informed choices. “We decided to up our game by expanding our furniture catalogue and offering the services of a décor expert as that wasn't our expertise.”
Model Living’s main customers at the moment, says D’Angelo, are mostly in their 20s and 30s: “They’re ambitious urbanites who are looking to settle down but like the convenience of our service, as well as the option of changing their furniture when they move – and It seems this demographic moves every 18 months. When they do move to a bigger home or one with different room layouts, we pick up their furniture, and they get swap it for furniture more suitable to their new home, and as usual, we deliver and assemble it.”
Like all entrepreneurs in start-up mode the partners have their challenges. “Sometimes it seems we’re working 24 hours a day,” says D’Angelo. “Our major challenge at the moment is scaling the business. As it grows we want to maintain high levels of service and quality. We can’t, like in the early days, do all the running around ourselves on weekends. We also hope to expand into other urban centres, which is why we’re seeking new investment to make that happen.”
The partners are confident Model Living will continue to grow – just like furnishing a new home: piece by piece.
Photo credit Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real