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The young gun building a global furniture empire

Your Friday Entrepreneur Fix features Dean Ramler, the young go-getter who’s selling furniture to consumers in Australia and the UK via his wildly successful online venture Milan Direct.

Rewind back to 2006, and consumers weren’t buying furniture online – the idea of doing so probably hadn’t occurred to them either. Dean Ramler believed he could change this mentality though, so he teamed with long-time friend and fellow entrepreneur Ruslan Kogan to launch Milan Direct, one of the country’s very first online furniture businesses.

The idea for Milan Direct came when Ramler, who was born into a 60-year old family furniture business, was on a gap year in Europe. He saw designer furniture taking off in Milan and quickly realised no one had filled this niche in Australia. Upon returning to Australia, he met with Kogan, who’d just begun selling TVs online. The pair couldn’t see why what worked for televisions wouldn’t work for chairs, so they used Kogan’s direct to customer online-only business model to launch Milan Direct.

The rest is history: Milan Direct has gone from stocking just two chairs to over 1000 products and now sells more in a month than it did in its first year of business. Growth has tipped 100 percent year-on-year and the business has gone international – launching in the UK three years ago.

What does it take to build a humming online business? The young go-getter shares his secret to success with Dynamic Business.

You worked with Ruslan Kogan to get the business off the ground. What expertise did he bring to the business that you wouldn’t have had without him?

My partnership with Kogan is one of great synergy. We both bring unique and complimentary skill sets to the table. I have a strong background in the furniture industry, having been raised in a Melbourne-based family of furniture retailers that spans three generations. I live and breathe furniture – it is my absolute passion – and I also have a strong marketing background.

Kogan brings very different skills to the table: his passion lies in technology and he has a very strong skill set in business systems and processes, IT systems and anything related to the internet. Kogan is a pioneer of online retail in Australia and by combining our unique skills sets we were able to get Milan Direct up and running without too much trouble.

Do you see youth as a help or hindrance to an entrepreneur? Why?

I believe starting a business at a young age is a massive advantage. Kogan and I were 24 when we started Milan Direct, and we both lived at home with our parents. We had (and still do have) a belief that failure wasn’t an option, and at such a young age this meant we didn’t waste time dwelling on anything negative or on the ‘what ifs’. If we had failed, we would have learnt from the experience and quickly started our next venture.

But in the online world old age is definitely a hindrance. Some of our older competitors simply won’t get online, and I bet they wish they had grown up in the web 2.0 world.

What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about running your own business?

I find it most rewarding to overcome the daily challenges thrown our way. Business isn’t easy and there’s no guide book for how to deal with the various issues that are thrown up every day. I thrive on this problem solving aspect of business, to the point where I view business as a game. The way I see it, business is a game of who can provide the best value to customers. And whoever does this, wins!

Another aspect I love about the business is how we’ve built a really great team at Milan Direct, and that we keep adding jobs. You read every day about job losses, but we’re doing the opposite at Milan Direct. It’s also rewarding to see members of Milan Direct team skill up and grow alongside the company.

Are there any entrepreneurs you look up to?

My late Grandfather, Harry Lolek Ramler, because was the ultimate entrepreneur. Besides starting our family furniture business, Ramler Furniture, when he arrived in Australia in the 1950’s with nothing, he once told me a story about how he manually operated an ATM style ice cream machine as a child.

Picture an ice cream machine in a wall. Children would come up and put their coins in, and standing behind the wall my grandfather would take the coin and put an ice cream back through the hole. From the children’s perspective, this was a fantastic machine at work. From my grandfather’s point of view, he was servicing demand in an innovative manner during the toughest of times.

Milan Direct is an international business now, so what advice do you have for how best to deal with rapid growth?

Focus on the big picture, while paying attention to the smallest of details.

What’s the secret to building a successful online business?

You need to give your customers what they want, when they want it, at the best price. You need to provide in-demand products on your site, which customers can find quickly and easily, or they’ll lose interest and shop elsewhere. So – easy site navigation is imperative and any item should be able to be purchased within just a few clicks.

You must also focus on price. At Milan Direct, we control the entire supply chain to keep costs down, which means we run a very lean model. This allows us to have market-leading prices, which online customers demand.

You then need to back up great products and prices with even better service. At Milan Direct, we deliver service via phone support, live chat and 24/7 email support. We also engage in meaningful discussions with our customers and fans on our Facebook Page, Twitter and Pinterest. Social media is a powerful tool to receive instant feedback about what your customers like and don’t like. Do not ignore it!

What’s next for Milan Direct?

Our end goal for Milan Direct is to be a global leader in the online furniture market. We have a comprehensive global expansion plan for the next five years, and plan on continuing to grow in the Australian market.

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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