Traditional Home Trailblazer
Photo: James Weber
Innovation is not waving a magic wand and creating something out of thin air. It’s piecing together existing things in a new and creative way—evolution, not revolution.
No one knows this better than Michael Bruno, the trailblazing co-founder of the website 1stdibs. These days, it’s one the premier places on the Internet to buy high-end design, decor, jewelry, fashion, and fine art, attracting two million visits to the site every month, and hosting almost $1 billion in transactions last year.
We’re now used to the idea of the Internet being a place for the highest-end transactions. But back in 1998, the commercial Internet was still very, very new. Bruno was an extremely successful real estate broker in San Francisco, selling houses to the young barons of the first tech boom. Bruno says, “I started thinking: I don’t want to be a guy selling houses, I want to be one of them buying them. How do I do that? I’ve got to get a dot-com.”
Not just any dot-com, but one that was about the finest objects, the same ones that would eventually fill those San Francisco mansions after being sourced by a decorator. Even in the idea stage, the future site was taking shape within savvy parameters.
“I love old stuff, I love old houses,” says Bruno, a native of Larchmont, New York, who studied business at San Diego State University. “EBay had just gone public, but it was more about tchotchkes. I wanted to do something that was about the better stuff. I thought 1stdibs was a good name because it meant one of a kind, and people want it, it’s desirable.”
Great idea, but how to make it happen? Move to Paris, of course, in the opposite direction of most start-ups, but toward some of the world’s most beautiful antiques. The trailblazer doesn’t go in the same direction as the herd.
“Everyone I told that to said, ‘You’re moving from San Francisco to Paris to start an Internet business? Good luck with that,’ ” Bruno recalls with a chuckle. But he needed a new environment for his new idea, and he needed an underserved market, one where the sellers and buyers could have new access to each other.
Perhaps also counterintuitive for an Internet business, the early history of 1stdibs is about old-fashioned shoe leather salesmanship and face-to-face contact—not exactly the methods they tell you about at Stanford Business School.
Bruno faced considerable skepticism from the Parisian dealers, known for their conservatism. His plan wouldn’t have worked without a forceful personality. From the beginning, it was pretty much impossible to say no to him. And if you did, he likely wouldn’t hear it. Once he gets talking, he spins a golden web.
Bruno walked the aisles of the Paris flea markets to meet people and to find out what they were selling, and whom they were selling it to—charming them all the while. Turns out the best stuff was all going to the United States.
It was also going to Bruno, who was living in a bare Paris apartment. “I had no furniture, so we started taking photographs of things I wanted to buy,” says Bruno, who was posting them as the site’s early content. “Over those six months I was the only customer.” But the sales, and seeing their items online, got the dealers talking and engendered good will.
2001 - 1stdibs launches in Paris, where Bruno was living at the time. (His apartment is shown above.) The inspiration for the site struck him while he was browsing treasures at the historic Marché aux Puces. He envisioned a website that would make such items available to collectors worldwide. By year’s end, 1stdibs posts 100 new items per week.
Bruno did another thing that went against the prevailing philosophy of the Internet—instead of making things as broad and accessible as possible, exclusivity was the site’s engine. When Bruno initially told the Paris dealers he was doing a big website for all the Americans to shop, they weren’t that interested. But when he reshaped his idea as an exclusive site only for interior designers….voilà! They started signing on.
Bruno saw right away that the multiple listing service idea that he knew so well from real estate—more than one seller occupying the same space—could work for the kind of high-end items he would feature on 1stdibs. After a successful launch in Paris, he expanded to New York when he bought a house in the Hamptons in 2003.
2003 - America gets 1stdibs. The site expands to the U.S. with dealers from New York City and the Hamptons, where Bruno keeps a home (seen in 2010, above). The next year would see expansion to Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.
Careful vetting through real-world contact and a commitment to exclusivity again ensured the site’s reputation. “The only way I was comfortable with it was to go visit the dealers in person and make sure I’ve seen their store, I’ve seen their merchandise, I know they’re legit,” he says. “So then we went city by city all over the world.”
Today, 1stdibs hums with a glossy mix of merchandise—and the editorial content in its magazine, another realm where Bruno planted a flag before seemingly every commerce site was doing it. And typically for an innovator, Bruno has given up running the site day to day (though he is still the largest shareholder of the company) to focus on an entirely new project. ”I like creating new things,” he says. “Something that hasn’t been done already, and that’s where it’s exciting for me.”
The new new thing is a mobile app called Housepad, again inspired by Bruno’s love of houses and the domestic life. The just-launched app is a communication tool for family members as well as anyone who works in or on a house. It’s a central information hub for secure messages, photographs, supply lists—no more wondering what’s needed, how something is supposed to look or what tasks need doing. If used correctly, it could create a nag-free zone at home.
“Basically the creation of it came about by acquiring this house,” Bruno says, referring to his historic Georgian-style mansion in Tuxedo Park, New York, a striking illustration of his good taste. “It’s large, and I wanted it to be easy to manage. The app is designed to help your life at home be more beautiful. So we created a private closed-loop network where a family can communicate.”
In particular, Bruno sees Housepad as invaluable for interior designers and their clients, since everyone knows that rooms don’t always remain looking just-decorated once they have been lived in for a while.
It’s likely that once he gets Housepad up and running, Bruno’s thoughts will fix on some new bright idea—trailblazers are never happy treading water. If you ask him what he’s good at, it’s reflecting on what’s coming next in the domestic sphere, something he has mastered now several times over in as many careers—real estate, the chicest corner of the Internet, and now mobile apps. As he puts it, “I really try to see the future.”
Written by Ted Loos