Deirdre McGettrick can't quit pinpoint where she fell in love with the business of interior design.
Perhaps it was the hours spent as a child cutting up the Argos catalogue to create lavish “dream rooms".
Or it could have been helping her father run his drapery shop below her home in the remote country town of Ballymote in the west of Ireland.
Today, the 33-year-old runs Ufurnish, a business she founded with her now husband Ray Wright after the couple were left frustrated by the process of buying furniture for their home.
Having spent a decade working in various corporate finance roles in the likes of HSBC and BNP Paribas, she now is aiming to build the world’s largest search engine for home furniture and furnishings.
“Furniture was not historically purchased online,” says the former City banker from the spare bedroom of her apartment over a video call.
“Holidays were probably the first, then insurance, which was then followed by the likes of ASOS and Farfetch. But furniture has been a laggard and it’s only really coming into its own right now.”
Britain’s furniture market is worth around £11.9bn, according to figures from Globaldata. Where once, the shift to ecommerce had largely ignored the sector it is now accounting for almost a third of all sales, with adoption growing heavily as a result of the pandemic.
Seeds of an idea
When trying to furnish her home, McGettrick found that there was no one site to go to view all furniture and furnishings, or offer cheaper alternatives to brand names that exceeded a budget.
Ufurnish acts as an “aggregator”, bringing in pieces of furniture from retailers across the country. The site does not host the sale, instead linking people onto the retailer to complete their purchase. Despite only fully-launching the site in July, it has added 120 retailers to the site, including the likes of John Lewis, Made, and Wayfair.
McGettrick compares her offering to a furniture equivalent of home-hunting site Rightmove.
“I compared it to Skyscanner a lot because people understood it, but if you think of Skyscanner, it might not be the perfect analogy because that’s just based on cost,” she says.
“If you think of Rightmove and houses, nobody goes out to buy the cheapest three-bed semi-detached house, because it’s probably crap and rat infested.”
The Ufurnish founder believes peoples’ desire to pay more for better furniture is what will differentiate it. Indeed, many others have already bought into her dream. The company has raised £1.8m in seed funding to date through angel investors and will look to raise a further £5m this year.
Pat McCann, the founder and chief executive of Dalata Hotel Group, Michael Holland and Craig Wislon, the founders of data firm Financial Express, and Anthony Ward, the founder of Armajaro Holdings are already among its backers.
McGettrick’s gilt-edge investors have also been complemented with some high-profile hires. Toni Wood, former chief marketing officer of FTSE-listed DFS, has joined as CMO. Elsewhere David Marshall, formerly of Bookatable and Lastminute.com, has joined as the company’s chief technology officer.
Ufurnish has added a host of big names to the site, some of whom include big name casualties like Debenhams and Laura Ashley.
“Obviously the last year has been a game-changer for the whole retail space,” the Trinity College Dublin graduate says.
“In particular for furniture because a lot of the retailers are struggling to adapt if they’ve got a lot of stores and all of a sudden footfall is non-existent.”
For McGettrick, the pandemic has been a “tailwind”. She prides the business on the quality of traffic generated for other retailers.
She says that if someone comes to Made or John Lewis’ site from Ufurnish they will have done their due diligence and are ready to buy.
While the business is UK-centric for now, both McGettrick and Wright have designs on mimicking Jeff Bezos in the furniture industry.
“We actually have ambitions to be the world’s largest search and discovery engine for home furniture and furnishings,” she says.
“We can see a number of markets that do not have a solution like this in existence and we would love to provide it to those markets.”
McGettrick admits those ambitions are more long term and not for 2021 but states that there is “definitely appetite” to move beyond the UK.
To start her business, the Sligo native had to leave behind a role as a vice president of leverage and acquisition finance at HSBC. While there she agreed high-yield bonds for the likes of Ocado, House of Fraser, and Premier Foods.
“I really, really enjoyed my job in investment banking, it wasn’t like I hated it and was looking to leave,” she says, adding that leaving behind the salary and pension was particularly painful.
“I suppose one thing about my personality is that you always want more, and once you feel like you can do something I want the next challenge.”
That “you can do anything” attitude owes its origin to McGettrick’s mother, Carmel, who encouraged her to break the mould growing up.
“It’s not the typical path,” she says of her route from a draper's assistant to a tech chief executive.
“When you look at these start-up business, where people have grown up and where they’ve done to school, I don’t fit any of that typical mould, probably even down to gender.”
McGettrick says that none of her path from rural town, to corporate banking, to founding a tech startup was “conventional”.
After 100 years in business the McGettricks’ drapery shop in Ballymote is unlikely to survive once her father Martin retires.
“People don’t shop in small villages in Ireland any more, instead they go into big towns or shop online,” she ruefully admits.
That said the McGettrick link with furniture is now taking on a new meaning that will reach far beyond the borders of Ballymote.