The new face of digital disruption

By Carmine Bruno
September 16, 2020

A new wave of disruption is on the horizon, but it involves less, not more, digitisation. Prioritising the user experience of interior designers online means shifting the balance of power away from intermediary platforms, writes Carmine Bruno, CEO of The Bruno Effect – a new kind of online marketplace for high-end furniture and antiques, launching in Spring 2021.

Two decades on from the dot-com boom, the internet has transformed the way we live and work. By challenging archaic processes, accelerating the pace of innovation and reinventing how we communicate, it has fuelled dramatic advancements in business and society, including critical areas like healthcare and science. Digital disruption, broadly speaking, has been a positive force, and nine times out of ten it serves its fundamental purpose: to create a better, more seamless user experience for everybody.

However, in recent years we have increasingly seen that the negative effects of digitisation can begin to outweigh the positives when its influence is overdone. The internet may have reduced physical barriers to doing business globally, but it has also depersonalised interactions and provided intermediary platforms with opportunities to introduce new kinds of user friction and divisions to fit their own commercial agenda.

In a recent study by Twilio, UK businesses said COVID-19 has sped up their digital transformation goals by an average of 5.3 years. As the CEO of an online marketplace, I will preach that from the rooftops. But let us not forget the pandemic has also illuminated the shortcomings of digitisation. The ability to engage in natural, genuine conversation is pivotal to the success of the interior design trade, and to do that we must find the right balance between embracing the internet and preserving the traditional values that have long underpinned our professional relationships. Moving forward shouldn’t mean abandoning everything that worked well in the past.

When I started in the world of antiques and design 15 years ago, I was repeatedly told the internet would have no role to play in selling high-end furniture, and interior designers would never embrace buying online. We proved that wrong, leading a first wave of digital disruption in the industry that validated the huge value of an online marketplace as a sourcing tool, eliminating geographic barriers to connect designers with the best dealers of antique, vintage and 21st century furniture.

But further digitisation proved too great a lure – only this time not to benefit designers, or indeed dealers. Before long, marketplaces were moving to an Amazon-like model to facilitate the transaction as well as the connection, thereby claiming a sizeable chunk of commission for themselves. Doing so means regulating communications to ensure purchases remain on the platform. In our relationships-fuelled industry, intermediary marketplaces effectively block designers from forming direct relationships with dealers.

I have witnessed first-hand the frustration caused to users when digitisation goes too far. Technology is the great enabler. But if its principal enablement is filling the pockets of vendors and intermediary platforms, and it is not only failing to improve user experience but actively adding more friction, then it is not serving a worthy purpose. As the shift towards online platforms continues to accelerate, it can be easy for businesses to forget a simple fact: digitisation is a means to achieve a goal, not a goal in itself.

Seven of the ten most valuable companies in the world, including Amazon and Chinese e-commerce marketplace Alibaba, make billions by acting as a powerful online intermediary between users, with enormous influence. Even the inventor of the World Wide Web himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is concerned, warning recently that the internet has “been compressed under the powerful weight” of a few dominant platforms. “This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers,” he continued, allowing the handful of platform players to “control” and “lock in their position by creating barriers”.

“Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them,” Sir Tim added, “and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.” To many, digitisation as a driver of less innovation will sound odd. It is the misconceptions that lead us to think this way that must be challenged. Disruption is a necessity to advancing our society and economy, but we can’t assume digitisation is always its prerequisite.

COVID-19 will act as a major reset for all sectors. I now see the emergence of a second wave of digital transformation in our industry, unpicking some of the technological barriers built between us in the last decade, reclaiming traditional values and regaining control of our relationships. A small step back from digitisation will in fact allow us to take a large stride forward in the user experience of interior designers in the digital age.

Carmine Bruno is the Founder and CEO of The Bruno Effect, a new antique, vintage and 21 century design marketplace launching in Spring 2021.