Sandrine Zhang Ferron is the co-founder and CEO of Vinterior. Sandrine left investment banking to start Vinterior in 2015 after struggling to find affordable design furniture to style her new home. She wanted to move away from mass-produced flat packs and didn't trust sellers on generalist marketplaces which are flooded with poor quality fakes. Endless trips to independent sellers across London was inspiring but too time-consuming. So, the idea of Vinterior was born - an online marketplace that would make it easier for people like her (and not only interior designers or antique experts) to find beautiful vintage furniture all in one place.
From a financial engineering and sales background, Sandrine learned how to code at Makers Academy to build the Vinterior platform and understand more about the technologies that would offer shoppers the best experience when buying and selling furniture online.
Born in China and raised in France, Sandrine has been a Londoner for more than 10 years. She loves Scandinavian design, hiking and trying new food.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today? Growing up in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, my parents learned through hardship what it takes to succeed. When they arrived in France as first-generation immigrants in the 90s, they had to work multiple jobs to make a living despite my father having a PhD in engineering. As a consequence, they invested heavily in my education and set high expectations for me, constantly encouraging me to strive for excellence.
Although I found it intense at the time, I am now grateful to my parents for bringing me up the way they did as it taught me that hard work pays off. I strongly believe that with effort, persistence, and curiosity for learning, anything is possible. Because of that conviction, it was an easy decision for me to quit my job in finance and undertake a three month coding bootcamp in order to pursue my vision for Vinterior. Although I didn’t know anything about tech or the furniture industry, I knew that I would learn on the job and figure it out.
How has your previous experience aided your tenure at Vinterior? As a sales at a brokerage firm, I developed a thick skin cold-calling hundreds of assets managers and private bankers. Thanks to this experience, I was not apprehensive outreaching to furniture dealers and interior designers to discuss Vinterior before the site was even launched.
My sales experience also taught me that a sales pitch should not be about telling a customer how good YOUR product/company/solution is. Instead, a more beneficial approach is to 1) listen to the customer and understand their pain points, 2) then propose a solution tailored to their needs. We try to take this customer-centric approach for every business and product development decision we take at Vinterior.
As a financial engineer, I had to go through a lot of data and build excel models to support investment recommendations. At a fast-growing, early stage startup, being able to process and analyse large sets of data in order to take informed, data-driven decisions is key, and expected from investors. From my financial and analytical training, not only am I comfortable building a financial plan, reports and dashboards, I actually love diving into data and navigating between endless spreadsheets!
What have been the highlights and challenges during time at Vinterior? A big challenge for me was starting Vinterior as a solo founder. It was difficult managing everything on my own (tech, marketing, sales, accounting, legal), especially when sales started coming in. To hire, I needed money, and it’s well documented that investors are usually reluctant to fund solo founders. When my friend Leslie quit her job as a management consultant and decided to join Vinterior full-time as co-founder and COO, I couldn’t be more pleased. With Leslie, I found a co-founder whom I trust 100%, that I respect intellectually and personally and who possess experiences and skills that are complementary to mine. Most importantly, we know each other very well and are not afraid to tell each other the hard truth, which means that we are able to resolve our disagreements without drama.
A highlight was our recent all-hands off-site in Mallorca, during which we had intense debates about our culture and mission. It was great to realise that despite our diverse backgrounds and roles, the whole team is very much aligned in terms of values and goals. Working alongside people who share the same values makes working long hours and dealing with stressful situation more enjoyable, because everyone in the team is doing their best to contribute to the company’s mission.
Every time a seller or a customer shares a good feedback is a highlight for the team. By telling us that they value our service, our customers remind us that we are building something useful and making an impact on the furniture industry and people’s lives.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry? Believe in yourself and be ambitious! From personal experience, I know that female entrepreneurs sometimes take a more conservative approach when setting objectives and fundraising as we want to deliver on our promises.
Last year, I had an interesting conversation with a female VC who told me that while male founders are the most bullish and can confidently sell the unicorn dream to investors, female founders are often the ones who actually reach their targets and outperform in their portfolio. After our discussion, I reviewed my financial plan with a more bullish view and ended up multiplying our 12-month sales target by 3. We eventually reached the target we had initially set after only 3 months; it was clearly not ambitious enough!
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date? People make or break a business. While it’s important to attract the right talent, it’s equally important to have a growth mindset and continuously develop this talent during their time at the company.
How do you maintain a work/life balance? My husband and I have both demanding jobs but we try to find time to cook and have dinner at home together at least twice a week. We also like to go hiking on the weekend to get some fresh air. Also, a regular yoga practice helps me unwind and recharge.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace? There are not enough women in leadership roles, which is especially accentuated in tech and finance. The limited number of female role models might restrict young girls and women’s ambition and the belief that they can be successful in any sector, regardless of their gender.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? As a first-time founder, talking to seasoned entrepreneurs and investors helped me a lot. Being a Seedcamp company that also went through the Google Campus Residency program, we have access to an incredible network of operators and investors who are always willing to help and share their experience with us.
Catching up with other founders on a regular basis is always a good reminder that all startups go through ups and downs and that whatever issues we may be facing at a time are not unique to us and can resolved.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why? Michelle Obama is an inspiring leader I admire. She’s strong, smart and cool at the same time. She’s passionate about helping young girls access education and employment and is a great speaker. And with that Carpool Karaoke, she’s definitely the most badass First Lady of the US ever!
What do you want Vinterior to accomplish in the next year? We’ve grown very fast over the past 12 months and I am looking forward to continuing to expand our product range and access new markets in the next year.
As we add new talent to the team, I want us to maintain a strong company culture. Many of our sellers and customers tell us that dealing with a friendly and approachable team is a highlight of their experience with Vinterior. Our goal is to maintain this approachability and commitment to deliver excellent service as we scale up.