Kontor, the New York City-based visual network for workplace design, most often referred to as “Houzz (houzz.com) for the office,” or an office photo porn site with pinterest (pinterest.com) features, announced last week that they will be shuttering their website this Friday.
The website start-up raised nearly $10 million in two rounds during 2015 and 2016, with the latest round closing this past May.
Among the investors participating in the second round were FF Angel, Founders Fund’s early stage investment vehicle, as well as Wellington Partners, Female Founders Fund and BBG Ventures. Kontor’s first round backers ($4.65 million) were Gilt Groupe and Business Insider founder Kevin Ryan and Venrock. Ryan is also co-founder and chairman of Kontor.
Anu Duggal from Female Founders Fund had been tracking the startup’s progress for well over a year before deciding to invest. “When we looked at the market, we saw that a lot of money was being spent in this category — hotels, restaurants, people renovating buildings — but when you think of the tools and platforms that cater to that demographic, there aren’t many,” Duggal added. “It’s a fairly wide open space and the skills and background of the founder that were a good match.”
Not a match
In an email message to users last week, the company said: “We will be sunsetting the Kontor website on September 23rd, and refunding all payments made by our Brand partners within the next 30 days.”
The company, which hasn’t commented further on the shutdown added that “Over the past two years, we’ve been approached numerous times by customers who sought a deeper level of engagement with the platform. This feedback helped us realize that there is an opportunity to participate in the design process more holistically. While our commitment to our initial vision remains unchanged, we believe we’ve found an alternative path that will enable us to provide a more impactful solution for the industry.”
The company didn’t provide any further details on what that “alternative path” is, leaving many site users with a deep skepticism about its future activity and business model.
From the beginning the company demonstrated a lack of understanding of what they refer to as the “Problem Space” in the tech industry. Problem Space refers to the entire range of components that exist in the process of finding a solution to a problem. This range starts with “defining the problem,” then proceeds to the intermediate stage of “identifying and testing possible solutions” and ends with the final stage of “choosing and implementing a solution”. Plus, it includes all of the smaller steps that exist between these identified stages.
Kontor never really defined the problem, if in fact one actually existed. Further, its founders, self-identified as a “group of design-minded tech entrepreneurs,” never spent even one minute in the contract furnishings industry or had any familiarity with any of its inherent quirks. Unlike the residential houzz.com, which they are often compared to, their founding idea, to provide an organized way of viewing eye candy for those who were into office design, was never going to be a big idea. It was never going to be a unicorn. In fact, as they no doubt discovered, the market was quite small.
Mia Lewin, a Stanford Business School graduate, was one of the Founders of KONTOR, Inc. and serves as its Chief Executive Officer. Ms. Lewin was previously Founder and Chief Executive Officer at design/story (now closed) and Head of Business Development at Zazzle (a premium and promotions trinket firm). She was also a Product Executive at eBay. Company co-founders also included Kevin Ryan (a founder of Gilt Groupe) and Tom Melcher, who was previously interim CMO at MongoDB and chairman of Zinch China, as well as EVP of CNET.
“The interior design industry has stayed very analog in the past,” Kontor founder and CEO Mia Lewin told the New York Business Journal this past May. “The [Series A] was definitely oversubscribed and a fast process,” Lewin added. “The goal was to expand our investor base. Right now we’re in a good position to wait and raise an additional round in 2017.”
As of last week, according to their website, brands paying to be part of Kontor.com included industry heavyweights like Knoll, Allsteel, Coalesse, Turnstone, Davis, HBF, Herman Miller, and Humanscale, among others.
Like many tech startups, Kontor had plenty of brain power, a seemingly unlimited supply of capital and what appeared to be (to them at least) a slow, tired industry ready for disruption, if not disintermediation. But no amount of tech chops or capital can overcome an idea with limited market potential.
Meanwhile, the contract industry itself will, no doubt, somehow soldier on, utilizing the many, many websites that already address much of what Kontor wanted to be. As perhaps testament (or warning), a post on twitter and some industry website, reporting on the shut down, solicited zero responses. Had anyone hear of them? A good question.