For our second Founders Interview, we sat down with Adel Zakout and Tom Mallory from Clippings. Clippings is the all-in-one platform for interior design projects, reimagining the way interior designers and architects work from inspiration to purchase to installation. This London and Sofia based team is leading an old fashioned industry through its own digital revolution.
C4 Ventures lead their series A round back in 2017 before US-based AVP joined the adventure in 2018 as part of a $15m series B. Today, Clippings has made its way into interior designers, architects and property developers’ daily workflows, bringing a huge amount of efficiency to their processes.
Read on to understand their story, how cutting a major part of your existing business can sometimes be your best decision and find out which Game of Thrones characters best define Adel and Tom.
Tell me how did you two first get together?
Tom: Adel was the first person I met at architecture school. He was this small guy sitting in the hallway, wearing baggy trousers and skateboard trainers… but I really didn’t want to be alone on my first day, so we started talking.
Adel: We immediately clicked ! We ended up sharing a flat together for four years and being work wives…
What were you doing when you decided to build your startup? How did it all start?
Adel: It was a passion project. In our last year of university, we created OpenBuildings, a Wikipedia for architecture, because information wasn’t there, we needed it and we felt like humanity needed it. We soon got a lot of traction. We had over 2 million downloads on iPhone (which was a lot in 2010) this led to us to winning the Intel startup of the year in Europe. As a result, we won a fully paid trip to the US and $20k.
Tom: It was great timing because we were running out of money to build the company and the cash injection really helped us to continue.
Adel: Tom was actually working at borough market on the South Bank at the weekend so that we could pay our developers’ salaries during the week ! … And so, we went to the US and we took a couple of VC meetings, it was a surreal experience because we left the US a week later with $2m committed to the business from one of the top tier firms in Silicon Valley… I expected to be an Architect. Tom expected to be a producer…
Tom: It was one of those forks in the road which we only really understood later on. In that moment our lives changed completely and got a lot more exciting.
Adel: Our passion project suddenly became a business. We started OpenBuildings to promote great design and tried to build a business around our community, aiming to become the marketplace for the construction industry. Ultimately it was probably too early and we had the wrong kind of traction.
Tom: Yes the timing was definitely an issue, ‘Prop Tech’ really only became a ‘thing’ a few years later but the experience of growing that business was invaluable to us. In closing down OpenBuildings we didn’t change our mission to promote great design, we just shifted focus from big buildings and the construction industry, toward interior projects.
Adel: We founded the original version of Clippings in 2013. It was a design brief builder: home owners could clip images, create a design brief and connect with designers.
Tom: Because we had a strong curation of products, we actually started to get a lot of interior designer reach out to purchase. We learned more about the procurement process and discovered an industry where technology could provide a ton of value.
Adel: It’s a huge opportunity for us, to be able to lead this disruption and help evolve an industry we are so passionate about.
You are a startup with an international organisation. You have offices in London and Sofia. How do you keep it all together?
Adel : Transparency, clear and constant communication about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it… Travelling frequently to Sofia although we’re based in London, having our CTO based in Sofia… There’s actually a lot we do and it’s been like that from the start.
Tom : We actually founded Clippings in Bulgaria, so both locations are equally important to us. We hold town hall meetings from both places and I’d expect we have this global approach, as we expand into new regions in the future.
What words would your team use to describe you?
Tom: Probably the old married couple.
Adel: Yeah, we’re constantly bickering…
Who would you be in Game of Thrones?
Adel: Tyrion, because he’s small and resistant.
Adel: Oh! It’s good, because Bronn works for Tyrion…
Tom: Yeah but only for money!! ;-)
In which way could you not have done it without the other?
Adel: I could do it without Tom. I mean I could have done it faster ;-)
Tom: Yeah same! I feel I could have done it faster too.
Adel: No but seriously, I think we balance each other out.
Tom: I help him being less Adel and Adel helps me being less Tom.
Can you tell us the main reason that so many people are eager to join you and your amazing team?
Adel: I think that’s mostly because they’re excited about the vision. They’re all in some ways connected to design, either directly through a personal experience, or indirectly through a family member, and it’s one of the few industries that technology hasn’t touched yet, so they are eager to get on board and make an impact…
Tom: Yes, to make an impact. When you have the opportunity to build something that is significant and impactful, in an industry that is there for the taking, I think that’s always exciting.
The startup journey is full of ups and downs. What was the hardest decision you had to make?
Tom: Four years ago, we decided to cut retailers from our business model and work directly with the brands because we didn’t want to be another middleman in the chain. We want to create real added value in the whole process.
Adel: Cutting retailers and going direct to brands was painful. We had to throw away our entire catalogue and overnight we went to almost zero revenues.
What motivates you to keep going when it’s really tough?
Adel: The first two rounds of funding were definitely tough; we didn’t know if we were going to be able to pay rent… I guess I keep going because I really want to win. I really want to leave a mark on this industry. However good or bad, I’ll give up last.
Tom: Second to last ;-) For me, it’s building something that I deeply care about. You need that to keep going through dark times.
Adel: Yes. A lot of people create a startup because they see a financial opportunity… But those who actually get through hard times are those who have something deeper driving them.
If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Adel: I think we’d build the software first, focus on trade users from day one instead of consumers. In terms of catalogue, I wouldn’t change anything.
Tom: I would have put more emphasis at the start on building strong relationships with the brands rather than building tech. Winning trust and building credibility in an industry takes time and that was a learning.
Adel: The big mistake we made in the early days was not putting enough money into the visible part. The original website was not as beautiful as it is today. It would have been easier to get people to sign up and go to brands with a beautiful design.
How has C4 Ventures helped you since the investment?
Adel: You have made some vital introductions which have had a huge impact on the business.
Tom: You also challenge us a lot, each in your own way, which is very positive. That external perspective on what we are doing is hugely valuable and helps us to see outside of the day to day.
Which other C4 Ventures company do you admire, if any?
Adel: Foursquare. I was really into it and I actually met some of my closest friends on Foursquare. I actually met my fiancé in a restaurant that I was the mayor of !
Easy questions now:
Who has the crazy ideas?
Tom: That’s me.
Who moans the most?
Adel: Tom! By far…
Tom: Rephrased, Adel is the optimist and I am the realist. It’s a good balance :D
Who’s the nicest and who’s the shark?
Tom: I think it’s pretty obvious! He’s the shark and I’m the nice guy.
Adel: Yeah, I’m the shark.
What’s your weirdest tradition?
Tom: Adel buys Tequila for the team every Friday, and then just leaves and says goodbye :-)
Adel: It makes everyone happy! That and also throwing paper napkins in the air.
Tom: This is a specific part of Clippings culture, the paper napkins tend to come out at every party. It’s a niche Bulgarian nightlife tradition — and one we seem to have adopted wholeheartedly. That way you can throw things at each other without getting hurt!