Xiaodi Zhang: Chief Product Officer, 1stdibs

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Xiaodi Zhang joined 1stdibs as the first product hire. Over the last six years, she has led the transformation of the luxury marketplace and helped grow the company from <50 people to >350 today. As CPO, Xiaodi manages the Product and Design organizations. Her responsibilities include oversight of the 1stdibs platform, including buyer and seller experiences. In addition, Xiaodi leads the annual strategy planning process and develops the right framework to manage and track company priorities. Along the way, she has built a team of nearly 30 rockstar product managers and designers.

Prior to 1stdibs, Xiaodi held leadership positions at Gilt and eBay. While at eBay, she spent five invaluable years in Shanghai, learning first hand the importance of grit, scale and competition.

How did you get into the industry?

I joined a fast growing tech company in Silicon Valley back in 2000 before everything came to a crashing halt two years later. Despite the crash, moving to Silicon Valley was the best decision I ever made. It opened up opportunities like eBay and Gilt, which ultimately led me to 1stdibs in 2011.

When our CEO, David Rosenblatt, approached me in 2011 to help him rebuild 1stdibs, I saw an opportunity to disrupt an industry that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. The luxury design and art market is a $300 billion market, and most of it is still offline.

Over the last six years, we have made tremendous strides to bring the luxury design and art market online, but there’s still a lot more to do!

Any emerging industry trends?

There’s still a clear line of demarcation between offline retail and e-commerce, but that’s not how people shop. We are developing innovative solutions to help bring the two experiences closer together for our industry. We want to build tools to help buyers purchase with confidence, whether that requires talking to the vendor, watching a video, seeing how the product might look in their home, or scheduling an appointment to see the product in person.

I am excited to see the line between offline and online blur over time. Ultimately, it should lead to an immersive experience where the benefits of online and offline can be combined to deliver a better overall experience to customers.

The trend towards democratization of design is also continuing to affect our industry. We are in a position to offer the world’s most comprehensive inventory along with price transparency in a market that has been traditionally opaque. There’s still a lot of inventory that is still strictly sold offline. As we bring more products online, it will help create access and transparency in the broader market.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

While ecommerce is one of the most mature categories in tech, it can still be a frustrating experience to shop online. Most ecommerce sites do a great job solving for shopping with intent. If you know exactly what you are looking for, it’s easy to go to Amazon, search for it, buy it, and get it in two days.

When purchasing a chandelier or a piece of art, it’s a different type of shopping experience. You want to discover something personal, unique, a statement piece that tells a story. How do we tell the story of Charlotte Perriand, her impact on modern design, and help you discovery her products? Creating that type of emotional connection online is not easy, but we are working on creating it every day.

In addition, online shoppers have been trained to expect a seamless shipping experience, but shipping a chandelier is exponentially more difficult than shipping a pair of shoes. We are investing heavily in our logistics services to ensure any item can be delivered to any destination. Over time, we want a chandelier to be delivered as seamlessly as a pair of shoes.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

We strive to be the world’s premier destination for luxury design and art for the home. Whether it’s a Gio Ponti lounge chair in Milan or a pendant light by an emerging maker in Brooklyn, we want you to be able to discover it on 1stdibs. Your purchase experience should be hassle free and seamless. More importantly, the experience should feel luxurious, personalized and tailored to your needs.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

We recently launched our site in the UK, and the early results are promising. Along that vein, geographic expansion will continue. We want the site to be easy to use whether you are in the US, Germany or China.

In addition, while our site has been predominantly known for vintage and antique, we are increasingly adding new and bespoke products to our inventory mix. The influx of this type of inventory introduces challenges in site design. My team is hard at work to create the best-in-class shopping experience for the ever-growing inventory on 1stdibs.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

One of the most critical decisions we made as an executive team was the decision to introduce e-commerce on 1stdibs. Before we introduced ecommerce, if you found a Fornasetti lamp on 1stdibs, you would have to arrange the purchase and delivery on your own. You can imagine how difficult that might be if the seller is not in the same city or even the same country. We set out to utilize technology to remove key points of friction, including payments, communication and shipping. It has been a long journey to create a seamless experience.

It took a full year just to re-architect the site and release an MVP (minimum viable product) version of e-commerce. Three months after launch, however, a buyer in San Francisco purchased a $100K chandelier from a seller in New York, sight unseen. It proved what we already knew, that technology can transform our industry and remove frictions for both sellers and customers.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

As an Internet company, we are predisposed to release updates often and fail fast. However, we quickly learned the “fail fast” approach that is so popular at other tech companies doesn’t work at 1stdibs. Our sellers found the pace of change disruptive and confusing. As small businesses, our sellers have limited time and don’t want to relearn our platform every time we release updates.

Based on that learning, we changed our planning and release strategy for sellers. In addition, we invested in the creation of a seller marketing function to help us plan our communication strategy months in advance. As a result, changes are clearly communicated to our community in advance and sellers are properly prepared.  

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

I am constantly astounded by the breadth of inventory on our site. We have become the primary destination of sourcing for interior designers and consumers looking for unique products. Our buyers refer to 1stdibs as their “source of inspiration”, “reference library” and “indispensible tool”.

We have customers from all over the world, and they can purchase a Nakashima table or Venini vase without leaving the comfort of their home. One customer in Beijing has discovered new brands she wouldn’t otherwise have access to in China. With a few simple clicks, she can not only discover amazing products, but also purchase them with ease.

We create access to the most amazing inventory in the world, and then we remove all the frictions in acquiring that product.

How do you motivate others?

I take time to get to know my team and each person’s unique drivers. Tackling complex problems motivates some, while creating elegant experiences motivates others. This understanding helps me align each person’s job with his or her motivations.

I have also learned that most people want to do impactful work. I spend a lot of time communicating the impact of everyone’s job, even when the work gets mundane. Not all projects are sexy, innovative or earthshattering all the time, but that doesn’t mean its not important. Making sure everyone understands the importance of his or her contribution is critical to creating a motivating work environment.

Career advice to those in your industry?

Don’t build your career based on someone else’s blueprint. Spend time to learn about yourself, your strengths, weaknesses, motivations and inspirations. Figure out what types of people and environment will bring out the best in you. Then make sure you are in that environment and surrounded by those who will ensure your success. Knowing what works for you will help you develop your own career path.