UBC MBA alum targets urban professionals with home furniture subscription service

Posted 2023-03-31

Chang Li is the co-founder and CEO of Plenish, a business that provides stylish home furniture for customers to lease on a monthly basis. The UBC Master of Business Administration (MBA’17) alum is applying the entrepreneurial skills he learned at the UBC Sauder School of Business to shake up the retail world by offering an alternative to costly furniture ownership.

Plenish targets a specific consumer segment: urban professionals who want well-built furniture and excellent customer service at affordable prices plus the ability to trade in and acquire new pieces as their needs change. It’s a tall order, but through its online furniture gallery and monthly subscription service, Plenish is attracting a loyal customer base.

A single sofa costs about $60 a month while a two-bedroom condo can be furnished for about $300 a month. The furniture can be bought out or returned for something new at the end of the lease. The best part? Plenish offers white-glove delivery and assembly service free of charge.


Answering the needs of a more mobile generation

Li left China for Canada in 2007 and over the last 15 years, he’s moved 10 times for university studies, work, and other lifestyle changes. He always dreaded moving day; not just the back-breaking work of lifting sofas, dressers, and beds, but also the hassle of trying to find new homes for unwanted furniture. Too often, the only option was the landfill.

From this negative experience grew the idea for a business that would solve this dilemma for millennials like him. His business would offer flexibility, choice, and affordability.

Plenish co-founder and COO Stephanie Huen is a UBC Bachelor of Arts alum

Li teamed up with fellow UBC alum Stephanie Huen and in 2021 they launched Plenish in two markets: Vancouver and Toronto. In less than three years, they have furnished hundreds of households and attracted corporate clients such as real estate firm QuadReal, which leases furniture packages for its condominiums.

“What we’re building is a life-centric platform that supports people as their lives change – from moving places for school or work to getting a pet or starting a family,” says Li, who lives in Vancouver.

“We’re not trying to pump as many products to market as possible – that’s not our business model. We want to build long-term relationships and be first responders to meet our customers’ evolving needs.”


Chang Li sitting on one of Plenish’s most popular sofas, the Annex.


Starting with sustainability   

Plenish clientele not only enjoy the freedom of furniture leasing, they also get to partner with a company that values environmental sustainability. As Li explains, the lifespan of Plenish furniture is extended through periodic re-upholstering and re-manufacturing.

“When a customer returns a sofa to us, we refurbish it before leasing it again. So that sofa will serve multiple households, not just one or two.”

Plenish also works with furniture manufacturers to design furniture that uses sustainable materials and fabrics durable enough to stand the test of time.

“Our sustainability goals and our profitability goals go hand-in-hand,” says Li. “Using high-quality materials pays off because it extends the life of the furniture and generates revenue for us longer. And our customers value our high sustainability standards, creating a value proposition for them.”


Lessons learned at school

Back in 2015, Li entered the UBC MBA program carrying a dream of becoming an entrepreneur. He signed up for venture building programs at Creative Destruction Lab and entrepreneurship@UBC and seized every opportunity to learn from professors, students, start-up founders, and tech industry experts.

“My MBA was a gamechanger,” recalls Li. “It allowed me to expand my network and it taught me how to build a successful business. I learned the importance of having a strong business model, testing the market, and really understanding your customers. I also learned what mistakes to avoid.” 

- Chang Li


Long after graduation, Li remains connected to the UBC Sauder community. “My classmates are still my friends. I don’t recognize them as MBA classmates anymore, they’re just my friends. Those friends and some of my professors helped me a lot in building Plenish.”


Anticipating new lifestyle trends     

Plenish keeps its stock current by doing a design refresh every couple of years. The company will soon launch a high-performance collection featuring ultra-durable and easy-to-clean fabrics suitable for pets and children. According to Li, the key to winning market share is anticipating customers’ needs.

“We have to be good at predicting what’s next for our customers, so we look at key data points, such as where people are moving, why they get certain products and how they want the products placed in their homes. We revise our product-to-market solution with that data to ensure our features and services give our customers exactly what they want.”


According to Chang Li, customers appreciate the flexibility of trialing a piece of furniture in their home to see if it meets their needs.


Encouraging students to join Canada’s start-up community

Building a company requires long hours, patience and resilience, but Li is living the life he dreamed of. Although he took a cautious approach to launching Plenish – working for three years after graduation to save money and round out his business skills – his advice to students thinking about entrepreneurship is just go for it.

“I always tell students, don’t wait for your business idea to be perfect, just start building and evolving the idea and bringing it to people early to get feedback,” advises Li. “The ‘doing’ part is so important. It’s how you get ahead.”