The Interior Innovator by Christina Libuda | 8th March, 2019 | Offices
The incredible story of a girl from the German countryside who became a super-successful businesswoman – almost overnight. Meet Delia Fischer, whose bold business idea to sell furniture online turned the start-up Westwing into a publicly listed company with one million customers in eleven countries.
Relaxed, Delia Fischer leans back onto the velvet sofa. She stretches out out her legs and her cell phone disappears into the gap between the cushions. Judging by the fluffy carpet, the glass coffee table, the scented candles and the indirect lighting, we could be in the 34-year-old’s living room at home. If it weren’t for all the people darting past the glass door in the hallway, reminding us that we are in her office in Munich’s industrial zone. The dullness of the surroundings remains outside the office windows.
Delia Fischer, founder of the Westwing online interior design and furniture shop, makes her living by creating cozy surroundings. She founded her start-up seven years ago and today beautifies the homes of roughly one million customers a year. In her former job as an editor at Elle magazine she had noticed that there were great online fashion retailers, but none for interior design items or furniture. At least none she liked, or any that would offer style advice. “Even though when you’re furnishing a place, that’s exactly when you need help: Which colors look best? What is the right size carpet? Those were questions that no one was answering.” The idea was born.
Westwing was not Fischer’s only business idea, but it was the one she really believed in. If implemented correctly, she calculated, it would revolutionize shopping for furniture and furnishings. However, thinking big is one thing, acting on it another. Up to that point, the 27-year-old had never taken any great risks. She grew up rather sheltered in a village in Bavaria near the small town of Nördlingen, and would jump on a bike to go visit her relatives. Everyone in the village knew each other by name and Fischer has never lived abroad. After graduating from school, she moved to Munich, where she resides to this day. Certainty and order are important to her – values exemplified by her parents. Surprisingly, it was her mother Johanna who ultimately encouraged her to go head with her idea. “She asked me what I had to lose, and I realized the answer was: nothing.”
“If you have an idea you really believe in, it’s always worth taking a chance on it.”
Fischer was young, single and debt-free. She was also certain she could go back to journalism if her start-up failed. Within two weeks, she had quit her job. You have to move fast with something like this. In late February 2011, an acquaintance, Stefan Smalla, came on board as cofounder. Smalla had experence developing social networks, had worked for a Berlin-based start-up and had been an executive at one of the world’s largest management consultancies. His knowledge of the industry paid off: By March 2011 the two had secured the necessary financing from a venture capital fund in Munich. In May, they hired their first employees and opened up shop. “As my father was helping us move into the office, he worriedly told my mom that we had overextended ourselves, that the space was far too big,” Fischer fondly recalls. But at a staff meeting in July, by which time the company had 20 employees (most of whom still work for Westwing), the conference room was already too small. Several months later, in the pre-Christmas season, Westwing was inundated with orders. All the employees – once again joined by Fischer’s dad – helped out in the warehouse so as to be able to fill all the orders. “That was the first time I realized that the company could get really big.”
In just a few months, Fischer became a successful entrepreneur. Westwing kept expanding around the world, but the fast growth of the company brought with it a number of problems. Some offices, for example in India, were forced to close because the market was not yet ready for her business. Each country also required its own logistics center and warehouses. It was a stressful time for Fischer. Since then, she has, however, grown a thick entrepreneurial skin, which she says is necessary in order not to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown all the time. The latter would be undesirable, given Westwing’s current size: the online retailer is now active in eleven European countries, employs 1,200 people (550 of whom are based in Munich) and has annual sales of 220 million euros. In October 2018 Westwing was floated on the stock exchange, which generated €132 million. Westwing is no longer just an online retailer, but the ultimate e-commerce platform for furniture and interior design articles. So Delia Fischer has made it! She wears shoes by Christian Dior, a golden Rolex on her wrist and openly admits that beauty and fashion are important in her life, which doesn’t make her any less competent, of course. But in the beginning, she had difficuly getting people to take her seriously. When she shared her business idea at a start-up event in 2011, she was told: “Oh honey, don’t even try that.” Unbeknownst to the men dispensing this advice, Fischer had already secured her first round of financing. “Comments like that used to upset me and I considered dressing less fashionably or wearing less make-up,” Fisher says. But she remained true to herself.
The percentage of women in management positions at Westwing is higher than the average at similar companies. “Not because we favor women, but because we focus on expertise.” Women just have to put themselves forward more often, she says. Fischer herself no longer finds this hard. The Westwing website lists her as the company’s founder, which her four male cofounders do not seem to mind. A sign on her desk reads: “Girl Boss.” It is a term she finds a bit trite, but explains: “It means that being feminine and the boss is not a contradiction.”
Fischer describes her leadership style as friendly, almost a bit too personal. Everyone is on a first-name basis, there are no rigid hierarchies. WhatsApp is the preferred means of communication and the boss gives feedback using emojis. In any case, the atmosphere in the Munich headquarters feels like it is just a few friends getting together to do some work. This is no great surprise, as many have moved here for the job from abroad – that creates camaraderie. The employees come from 40 countries and are mostly in their early 30s. The company language is English. Delia Fischer headhunts her employees from around the world and is responsible for the creative direction of the company. She decides on the look of the website and which products it features. To satisfy the tastes of her international customers, she is supported by some 100 scouts who seek out new trends and small labels in the countries where Westwing operates. “That’s how even a small label from Provence making table linen finds its way to us.”
Fischer is never offline. Even in bed she scrolls through her Instagram feed looking for new interior design trends. “There is no separation between work and leisure, it’s all interlinked.” Despite being one of Europe’s top experts on interior design, she spends very little time at home. She cannot even remember the last time she watched a movie. “But that’s the way I like it,” she says.