How This Site Became the Go-To Marketplace for Rare and Antique Goods

How This Site Became the Go-To Marketplace for Rare and Antique Goods
Image credit: Courtesy of 1STDIBS
At 1stdibs headquarters in Manhattan, a 19th-century Italian plaster bust and Mark Shaw photograph for Dior, circa 1954, decorate a mahogany credenza in the manner of T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings.
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This story appears in the August 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

There are treasures everywhere you look. Rare things. Exquisite things. Gloriously, decadently opulent things. Over here is a George III fireplace mantel complete with Siena marble frieze, produced circa 1670. Over there is a one-of-a-kind Italian crystal chandelier designed by the celebrated glassmaker Giulio Salviati and manufactured in Murano during the latter half of the 19th century. And be sure to take a look at Berthe Morisot’s 1894 oil painting Jeune Fille au Manteau Vert, created by the pioneering French impressionist at the peak of her fame.

These lust-worthy objects are not in a museum, mega-mansion or royal palace. They’re not in an auction house catalog, either—and they’re definitely not on eBay. They’re all available for purchase on 1stdibs, the digital marketplace that is revolutionizing how antiques and luxury goods are bought and sold.

Launched in 2001 as a virtual-world counterpart to the historic Marché aux Puces, the sprawling flea markets that take place each weekend across Paris, 1stdibs has evolved into the premier online shopping destination for interior designers and private collectors across the planet, aggregating furniture, fine art and other treasures from the most trusted and respected dealers in the business—dealers who were effectively blocked from doing business on the web until 1stdibs removed the logistical pain points that had been holding them back.

1STDIBS CEO David Rosenblatt.
Image Credit: 1STDIBS

“My theory is that every single industry will be completely redefined by the internet,” says CEO David Rosenblatt. “The world of design—and art, in particular—has yet to go through that transformation, and this is the company that will offer that opportunity. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to buy any of the products we sell, you had to live in a city that had the right sellers, and you were limited to the products they sold. Our dealers now have access to a global audience who are buying 24/7, and our buyers have access to a global supply that is also available all the time.”

New York-based 1stdibs has items for every budget. That Salviati chandelier? It’ll set you back a cool $1 million. But if it’s Murano glass you crave, there’s a pear-shaped paperweight selling for just $75, and furniture and other items at nearly every price point. In recent years the company has made room for new categories like vintage jewelry and fashion, as well as contemporary goods from top designers like Tom Dixon.

1stdibs is extending its geographic horizons, too. Four years ago, the site operated exclusively in North America, the U.K. and France. Now it spans 17 markets worldwide. Rosenblatt credits the changes to a sharp spike in traffic: When he took over in late 2011, 1stdibs averaged fewer than 1 million site visitors per month; now it welcomes more than 3 million. While U.S. buyers once generated 95 percent of all transactions, international shoppers now drive between 30 and 35 percent of transactions monthly.

Rosenblatt has also implemented a series of technological enhancements and new buyer and seller tools, recently introducing a mobile app for Apple’s iOS. In addition, 1stdibs is taking steps to increase its accessibility to an even wider customer demographic, creating content to educate consumers on the history and impact of the products its dealers offer.

The investment is paying off. Chicago retailer Antiques on Old Plank Road joined the dealer network in 2006, and owner Richard Buxbaum credits 90 percent of his sales to 1stdibs and the store’s own website. He says that as of May 2015, his store had completed more than 3,500 direct sales via 1stdibs, corresponding to at least $10 million in merchandise value.

“1stdibs changed the whole industry,” Buxbaum says. “I don’t know how you can be in this business today without them.”

Image Credit: Gio Ponti and Piero Fornasetti

The Manhattan headquarters of 1stdibs is a real-world extension of the company’s digital aesthetics, mirroring the website’s distinctive color palette of black and white with gold accents. The lobby’s custom striped Italian marble floor leads to an open space balancing staffer workstations with an eclectic mix of midcentury tables, couches and chairs, many sourced from 1stdibs dealers. Highlights include a pair of yellow Eames rockers and a striking chess-set coffee table inspired by the work of acclaimed designer Milo Baughman.

“We marry the world of design and the internet, and the office is a physical manifestation of that,” Rosenblatt says. “The idea was to achieve an aesthetic that blended the best of the internet sensibility, as well as the style that we’re most known for.”

That signature style is a reflection of 1stdibs’ exacting curatorial philosophy. The company does not allow consumers to sell on its site and carefully vets all dealer partners, employing a team of specialists and experts to evaluate prospective sellers on a range of criteria, including industry reputation, financial stability and overall quality of products.

“We have a very long wait list—hundreds of dealers long—who have applied to list on the marketplace, but who we believe are not yet ready to do so,” Rosenblatt says. “Part of the brand promise we offer to the consumers and interior designers who rely on the site to source product is that they don’t need to worry about authenticity or the quality of the items that we sell, because we’ve done that work for them.”

In its original incarnation, 1stdibs operated as a lead-generation business, leveraging a Craigslist-like advertising model that charged dealers a largely fixed amount per month in exchange for the right to list a designated number of items. Under Rosenblatt’s watch, in mid-2013 1stdibs adopted an end-to-end e-commerce model, with all communications between buyers and sellers, as well as an increasingly large percentage of transactions, unfolding on its platform. (Buyers may also email, call or visit a dealer’s own website or brick-and-mortar store to purchase items offered on 1stdibs.)

1stdibs now boasts three sources of revenue. It charges dealers a subscription price in exchange for the right to sell on its site. Dealers may also pay on a per-item basis to list and promote their wares. And if a transaction takes place via 1stdibs, the firm claims a commission as well as a credit card processing fee. Rosenblatt declines to divulge fee and commission details but says that since the e-commerce features launched two years ago, 1stdibs is selling more than $100 million of products online on an annual basis.

“Every source of [dealer] friction can be made cheaper and better by the internet,” Rosenblatt says. “The most obvious one is shipping. We can do global deals with shipping carriers and allow our dealers and consumers to benefit. We can negotiate better rates because we’re representing a much larger base of buyers and sellers. And in terms of the process itself, we can be the party that deals with the shipper and the carrier and handles all the logistics involved. If you put all that together, you end up with a service that’s cheaper because of the rates, and faster and better because of the service levels we’re able to offer by virtue of the fact that we’re aggregating such large supply and such large demand.”

Rosenblatt credits the more than 2,000 dealers on the 1stdibs network for shaping the diversity and scope of the site’s inventory. 1stdibs is strictly a marketplace, he stresses—the dealers and galleries scouring flea markets, estate sales and long-abandoned farmhouses for family heirlooms and hidden gems are the ones responsible for establishing the site as a design trendsetter and tastemaker.

“That is the secret sauce and differentiator of this business,” he says. “Our job is simply to provide a platform for them to market those products to buyers.”

Rosenblatt notes that the average shipping distance between a 1stdibs buyer and seller exceeds 2,000 miles. “Our goal,” he says, “is to match the right product with the right buyer, and because we sell one-of-a-kind items, the right buyer and right seller could be many thousands of miles apart. Only the internet has the ability to make that connection.”

Interior designer Jay Jeffers, founder of San Francisco-based Jeffers Design Group and author of the 2014 book Collected Cool: The Art of Bold, Stylish Interiors, says 1stdibs has transformed the way he and his peers shop for the antiques and collectibles that fill their clients’ homes. In years past, Jeffers and his team were limited to items sold by local dealers or discovered in the course of their travels—in some cases, he even squired clients on shopping trips to New York or Europe in search of grails. No more.

Paul McCobb’s Planner Group chairs surround a Warren Platner table in a break room. A 1957 photograph by Mark Shaw hangs above the Danish rosewood sofa.
Image Credit: 1STDIBS

“It’s a more efficient process now, because my designers and I can sit at a desk and travel the world. As a result, instead of going on a shopping trip with one client, you’re online shopping for several clients at the same time,” Jeffers says. “The beauty for me is that I can create a more robust, interesting finished project because I have access to all these beautiful pieces. It makes my work better, which in turn brings me more clients.”

Items marketed on 1stdibs are accompanied by photos and detailed descriptions: dimensions, materials and production techniques; place and date of origin; and information on the creator or manufacturer. Some even include text documenting who previously owned the piece and where it was housed. The information is intended to help customers know precisely what they’re buying, of course, but also to make 1stdibs—and the world of design as a whole—more accessible to shoppers on the outside looking in.

“The difference between the average consumer and the average interior designer mostly lies in the area of education,” Rosenblatt says. “Interior designers know a lot about this market, and they can recognize the differences between different furniture and designers. They understand what to look for when they buy a product. Consumers tend to be less educated, obviously. We now write profiles of individual furniture creators, so that when a consumer sees a Prouvé, they understand the difference between that and something they can buy from a big-box retailer.”

Rosenblatt is no design lifer. Soon after earning his MBA at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business in 1997, he joined digital advertising startup DoubleClick, rocketing through the ranks to become president in 2000. When DoubleClick transitioned from public to private in 2004, Rosenblatt shifted to CEO, engineering the company’s $3.2 billion sale to Google, consummated in early 2008. He spent a year at Google as president of display advertising before exiting, joining the boards at Twitter and IAC. The Rosenblatts were in the process of renovating their NYC apartment in 2011 when venture firm Benchmark Capital reached out to gauge his interest in taking the reins at 1stdibs.

“I’d heard of the brand, but I didn’t really understand exactly what the company did,” Rosenblatt admits. “The first person I called was my interior designer and asked him if he’d heard of 1stdibs. He said, ‘Have I heard of it? Fifty percent of your apartment is sourced from this company!’”

Benchmark Capital, which led 1stdibs’ $60 million Series A financing round, brought on Rosenblatt to replace longtime CEO Michael Bruno, the real estate broker who had founded 1stdibs a decade earlier.

The transition “was very much the plan and intention when the Series A investment happened. It was all part and parcel of Michael’s decision to transform the business from a small proprietorship into something with the potential to be massive,” says Benchmark general partner Matt Cohler. “I give [Bruno] an enormous amount of credit for recognizing that that opportunity existed, and that to get there, it was going to take building out the company to the next level.” (Bruno remains a 1stdibs shareholder. In 2013 he launched HousePad, a to-do app for mobile devices. Attempts to interview him for this article were unsuccessful.)

Commode by Gio Ponti.
Image Credit: Mallett New York

Rosenblatt took over in November 2011. “What attracted me to the business was the same thing that attracted me to the internet as a career, which is that the internet allows for the opportunity to define and redefine industries,” he explains. “What I saw in 1stdibs was the opportunity to create a marketplace that, rather than being U.S.-specific, was global, and rather than being limited to vintage and antique furniture could expand to support all forms of design.”

During Rosenblatt’s first year, 1stdibs acquired U.K. antiques portal Online Galleries, thereby tripling its European dealer community; by the end of 2013 its network encompassed retailers in Italy, Spain, Denmark, Germany and Austria. 1stdibs has since added Australia and has set its sights on the lucrative Asian market, buoyed by a $15 million investment from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group that brings total venture financing in the marketplace to $117 million.

1stdibs is also courting new dealers and customers by ramping up its marketing outreach. Since 2006, it has published Introspective, a weekly digital magazine covering interior design, fashion and art, now augmented by a blog and social media efforts. (Earlier this year, the firm eclipsed 100,000 Instagram followers.) 1stdibs sponsors international design fairs like the Winter Antiques Show, TEFAF and PAD London and Paris—events that are catnip to its target demographic. At this spring’s MiArt, held in Milan in advance of the Salone del Mobile contemporary furniture fair, 1stdibs partnered with design magazine Cabana to host a physical pop-up store.

“1stdibs is about design and being passionate about beautiful things, and making sure that goes through every touchpoint of our brand is something we’re still evolving as we grow,” says CMO Adam Karp. “To me, that’s what makes the brand: Wherever you look, touch and feel, there’s a consistency that says, ‘1stdibs is the world’s destination when I want to shop for design.’”

The company continues to extend its brand beyond the desktop. In February, it rolled out an app enabling consumers to search and browse items, message dealers, negotiate prices and complete purchases from their iPhone. Users can also swipe through curated product collections assembled by 1stdibs staff experts, identify retailers within their immediate geographic area, and save and share favorite items, dealers and styles.

“We wanted to give [consumers] a sense of the breadth of inventory, but also the ability to quickly discover new items,” says Xiaodi Zhang, 1stdibs’ chief product officer, who led development of the app. “Mobile devices can give us a tool to deliver more personalized and targeted information to you, like notifications when a dealer you favorited has published new items.”

Forty percent of traffic now originates via mobile devices, Rosenblatt says. Zhang adds that they are exploring other technologies to help users find precisely what they’re looking for, such as image-recognition software, as well as contextual applications to help them determine how the item might look in their home.

It’s all part of Rosenblatt’s ambition to vault 1stdibs into the upper echelon of the fine and decorative art market—a segment dominated by venerable auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s—by mapping the future of the industry instead of remaining stuck in its past. The incumbents have largely ignored the digital opportunity so far; Christie’s sold a record $8.4 billion of art in 2014, but online sales contributed just $35 million of that total.

Design books on George Nelson’s 1950s Omni wall unit provide inspiration in the office.
Image Credit: 1STDIBS

“This is a $350 billion international market, and [Christie’s and Sotheby’s] are the largest participants today. They have business models that are optimized for the very, very high end of the market, in a way that’s almost exclusively non-digital and offline,” Rosenblatt says. “We believe we’re evolving a business model—both in terms of economics and how we aggregate products and deliver them to customers—that’s native to the internet and much better suited to how people actually buy and sell online.”

He knows firsthand how 1stdibs improves the collector experience. He recently attended a decorative art auction, and as each item went up for bid, he searched 1stdibs for matches.

“On average, for each of those items, we offered a minimum of five and, in some cases, 15 different versions of the same item, equally authentic,” Rosenblatt says. “Some were in Europe, some were in the U.S. Some were priced higher, some were priced lower. Some were restored, some weren’t. Each item could be negotiated by the buyer or bought at a fixed price. All of them could be bought on the buyer’s own schedule. It’s just a better way to buy.”

Going Upmarket in A Downturn

You don’t have to be an established luxury brand like Cartier or Gucci to flourish in a difficult economic climate. 1stdibs’ success proves you can build a luxury brand from scratch, even in a recession. Founded in 2001, the online antiques and fine art marketplace has grown dramatically since the turn of the decade, nurturing an increasingly global dealer network that sells more than $100 million of products online each year and welcomes more than 3 million website visitors each month.

“The answer to how you build a luxury brand through an economic downturn is no different than how other fantastic brands have held their value, like an Hermès or something like that,” says 1stdibs CEO David Rosenblatt. “It all boils down to having a great product supported by great service. If you have that, not only are you able to weather downturns, but in many senses you benefit from them.”

In the case of 1stdibs, that means offering customers one-of-a-kind objets d’art, handcrafted furniture and other treasures likely to retain their value or even increase in value over time, as opposed to inferior, mass-market substitutes. “Rather than being a purchase, it’s easy to consider them an investment,” Rosenblatt explains of his company’s wares. “And when you make investments during periods of economic weakness, they tend to have a higher return than optimizing for price and buying items that may be less expensive at the moment but are also worth next to nothing in the future. High-quality, well-crafted items appreciate over time. They don’t depreciate.” 

1stdibs has also benefited from consumers’ growing appreciation for design as well as demand for products that express their personalities to the world at large—lessons for all brands, luxury or otherwise, to consider.

“My own sense is that this has to be a reaction to the Industrial Revolution,” Rosenblatt says. “Prior to that, everything was artisanally produced. Then we went into this period where very few things were artisanally produced, which meant they all looked the same and tended to be of lower quality and didn’t retain their value over time. We all benefit from mass production. But we also have a desire to express our individuality through the things we buy and the things we live with, in and around.” 

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