In recent years e-commerce has been booming at light-speed in China. Shoppers have quickly become familiar with online wonderlands like Taobao that suck you in as you start looking for an air purifier, only to lose track of time browsing design replicas and smartphones until finally you shut down your laptop as exhausted as if you had spent a whole day in a crowded mall.
That's not at all what Natasia Guo had in mind when she launched her online shopping platform Nuandao. Of Taiwanese descent but born and raised in San Francisco, Guo ultimately moved to China, and in 2011 co-founded what is today the leading e-commerce site for creative objects from socks to turntables. We recently caught up with the entrepreneur at her loft in Beijing to learn more about the origin of Nuandao.
How did you decide to move to China and start your adventure in design-oriented e-commerce?
My first time to China I was 18, in my first year of college and really attracted to history and culture. I came as a college student a couple of times and studied art history with a focus on Chinese studies, and I was really into contemporary museums and culture. Then I got a scholarship from the Chinese government to pursue higher education here. I moved over and dropped out after my first year. It was supposed to be a three-year Masters in art but I was eager to work and have a different experience than simple education.
Before Nuandao was born, I used to work in event marketing in Shanghai. A lot of my colleagues at the time were creatives. They had corporate jobs while they were working on their own projects. I felt that there was a need for them to have an outlet to sell and promote their creativity, something different than Taobao. At the beginning Nuandao wasn't about e-commerce at all—I was just thinking "how do we create something that can host really great content, something like Pinterest or Etsy?" At first it was a blog—I used to write randomly about designers and creative people that I met and tried to understand their needs a little bit more. It was early 2011 and then it took, like, eight months for us to think over the business until we launched the e-commerce site.
"Nuandao" means "warm island"—how does the name reflect the essence of your project?
We went through so many ideas to find a name and we finally got to the idea of an island: it is kind of a representation of oneself for designers. They often can be very isolated or "cold" and so we wanted to create a community that was warm and supportive. I think in a few ways Nuandao has been like a community, a social project. The interface itself is very interactive and consumers can connect directly with designers and get in touch with us.
How do you choose the products you sell online?
Initially, when we started, our team was very small, so I handpicked pretty much all of our partners based on their design philosophy, the uniqueness of the product and craftsmanship. Now we have a curation team of about eight people who manage different types of products, so we have weekly editorial meetings to set our themes.
We have people who each focus on vintage, apparel, accessories and homeware. Sustainability is another of our channels and we work with some eco-designers from Shanghai. Among our upcoming themes, we have one called "Nuandao at night", which is for a higher-end older crowd: alcohol, adult toys, and bath products. We also have "Nuandao essentials", really simple and elegant towels together with homeware. We started in quite a niche style, but now we are trying to expand product categories so we can become like an alternative Ikea. We want to meet basic needs of Chinese consumers but we also want to offer interesting and rare things to them. I think most of young consumers under 35 are seeking brands that don't necessarily have an international name but are still rather different, special and unique.
How has Nuandao evolved and what's next?
Since we launched the website, about a year ago, we started doing monthly pop-up stores. Initially we did very small bars and spaces, now we have a series that happens every month called "Wine and Design", and lately we partnered with organizations like Beijing Design Week and many others to do bigger creative markets and popup stores.
Images by Alessandro De Toni and courtesy of Nuandao