A scant few months since launching, online design platform The Expert already has its first celebrity investor. Gwyneth Paltrow has joined a $3 million seed round of funding led by blue-chip venture capital firm Forerunner. Also on the cap table? Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg’s WndrCo, a handful of buzzy VC firms, and designer Brigette Romanek.
“I’ve always felt that access to great design—and those who create it—is too rare of a commodity,” said Paltrow in a statement. “It’s a game-changer for someone without the budget for a full-time designer to have this roster of talent on speed dial.” CEO and co-founder Leo Seigal says The Expert intends to spend the funding to grow its team and invest in marketing initiatives—though even with minimal ad spend, Seigal says bookings have already exceeded $1 million.
Since its official kickoff in February, the radically simple platform (The Expert connects clients with interior designers for a flat-fee consultation via Zoom, taking a 20 percent cut on the total) has been one of the buzzier subjects in the industry. Originally debuting with 70 designers, the site now has more than 100 pros to choose from and is adding new talent at a rapid clip—names that are very familiar to those who follow the trade. (Among the recent joiners: Ariel Ashe and Reinaldo Leandro, Leyden Lewis, Kara Mann, Jeffrey Alan Marks, Beth Webb, Cortney Bishop, Windsor Smith, Richard Shapiro and Billy Cotton.)
In an industry not known for its radical transparency, one of the platform’s unique aspects is the ability to publicly view the price elite designers place on an hour of their time. For example, 55 minutes with Robert Stilin will set clients back a platform-high of $2,500. Queer Eye star Bobby Berk is a comparative bargain at $1,000. Design firms with less name recognition command prices ranging around an average of $500, though no one on The Expert charges less than $300.
The Expert’s premise also subjects designers’ fees to raw supply-and-demand market economics in public (that is, if you’re following the prices closely, as this editor is). Some, like Leanne Ford and The Expert co-founder Jake Arnold, have raised their prices. Others have lowered them (Berk, for example, debuted with an asking price of $1,500). The shuffling, says Seigal, is the product of the market sorting itself out in the early days; going forward, the company will take a more active role in guiding designers to a strategic price. “We’ve gathered enough data at this stage to get a really good feel for what works for whom,” he says.
The next big challenge for Seigal and Arnold—and it is a big one—is working commerce into the platform. As part of their consultations on The Expert, designers often recommend product to their clients. Finding a way to earn a margin on those recommendations would provide an avenue for the company to scale beyond simply signing up another hundred high-profile designers (the supply there is fairly limited).
Getting into commerce will open up a whole host of challenges, ranging from the relatively antiquated e-commerce capabilities of many high-end brands to navigating the complexity of regional exclusivity agreements. However, Seigal and Arnold have already brought on high-profile designer Amber Lewis, no stranger to e-commerce success, as a partner to help develop that side of the business.
Seigal believes the potential for incorporating product sales into the business is huge if done thoughtfully. Silicon Valley seems to agree with him. “We’ve been thinking through new models for the interior design sector for years at Forerunner, observing room for improvement for the trade and consumers alike,” partner Nicole Johnson told TechCrunch. “Interior design is arguably the ultimate, best-suited source of home inspiration and commerce enablement for consumers, but the trade is a famously walled garden. The Expert solves for this.”
Homepage photo: Leo Seigal (left) and Jake Arnold, co-founders of The Expert | Courtesy of The Expert