When we sat down with Nicola Thompson, the former CEO of MADE.com, for our latest Three Things podcast episode, the conversation was always going to be one of exploration and discovery. In November of 2022, MADE.com, once a titan of the online furniture world, unfortunately went into administration, leaving many of us questioning how such a promising company could fail.

In her first public conversation since MADE’s downfall, Nicola provided us with an unprecedented insight into the company’s final days, but the true gold in this episode was not so much the MADE story; it was the lessons Nicola learned as the CEO in the crucible of a corporate crisis, which we will explore in this article.

If you want to know more about the MADE.com story, including how Nicola coped with such a tumultuous situation, we highly recommend you listen to the podcast episode, which you can find on Spotify, Apple, or various other platforms.

Stepping up to the plate

Nicola Thompson’s status as an astute businesswoman is undeniable. She has, after all, excelled in various high-pressure roles throughout her career, and the fact she was hired as MADE.com’s COO in 2019 came as no surprise. But what struck us the most during our conversation was Nicola’s extraordinary character, of which bravery plays an integral part.

Nicola Thompson CV crop

Nicola Thompson’s CV Highlights//

2022 // CEO – MADE.com

2019-2022 // COO – MADE.com

2014-2019 // Various – ASOS

2012-2014 // Commercial Director – Atterley Road

2008-2012 // Various – WHISTLES

2002-2008 // E-comm and Core Merchandising – TOPSHOP/TOPMAN

Dark clouds loomed over MADE even before Nicola was made interim CEO in February 2022. The cost of freight had risen sharply during the pandemic, putting a startlingly large dent in MADE’s financials. “It used to be $1400 to move a shipping container from the Far East to Europe and the UK”, Nicola explained, “but at its peak, it rose to almost $15,000.” To put that into perspective, freight historically accounted for 3% of MADE’s net revenue, but that figure had skyrocketed to a staggering 20% the month before Nicola took over. “Just to stand still in terms of our cash position, we needed to drive about four times as many orders”, she added.  

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This would be a colossal problem for any company, but to make matters worse, the world was then thrust into severe geopolitical instability by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was clear, then, that this was no ordinary storm MADE was headed towards, but a cyclone of hardship and uncertainty.

These factors were enough to discourage anyone from the permanent CEO role at MADE, but Nicola’s extraordinary courage and distinct sense of duty compelled her to take on the mantle of leading the company into the eye of the tempest, come what may. “I asked myself what would happen if I said no”, she shared, “what position would that leave the business in? And I knew I had to throw myself forward.”

Trials and tribulation

The onset of the Ukraine war posed a myriad of challenges for businesses across the globe, but the most prominent at MADE was the almighty plunge in consumer demand. “We knew we had to form a rapid transformation plan to change the fundamentals of the business’ economics”, Nicola declared, “and within two months of me becoming CEO, we’d taken that plan to the board.”

Renegotiating warehouse leases, staff cuts, and a complete overhaul of the supply chain coalesced into a strategy capable of saving MADE, but it required the two most precious commodities for a business in crisis.

“By mid-July, an understanding had crystallised that, whilst we absolutely could get our plan in place, it would take time, and that meant we would need some extra cash”, Nicola admitted. This endeavour should have been relatively straightforward. After all, that’s what scale-ups do; they excel in raising capital, and MADE’s credentials were more than enough to convince investors to open their wallets.

However, the winds of chance and fate conspired against MADE once more, and eliminated any hope it had of raising additional capital. “We had gone out publicly and said we needed to raise between 50 and 70 million pounds”, Nicola remembered. “But, as we moved through the summer, two things happened that made that very difficult.”

The first was the Queen’s passing, and whilst you may ask what that had to do with the fortunes of an online furniture store, the numbers don’t lie. “It was another shock in terms of consumer sentiment”, Nicola clarified, “which meant that demand took yet another wobble. And the second thing that happened – which was probably more meaningful – was the mini budget.”

Whilst the Conservatives’ budget was by no means the cause of MADE’s woes, it undoubtedly struck the finishing blow. Against all the odds, Nicola had managed to keep MADE in the ring, but this heavyweight of the furniture world, now battered, bruised, and exhausted, could stand no more. As the Chancellor delivered his speech on the 23rd of September, confidence in the markets drained completely, and the hope and belief that had burned so brightly at MADE against the approaching darkness was extinguished.

Rolling with the punches

So, how did Nicola manage to cope through such a testing course of events? Even the most experienced of CEOs would concede that the circumstances that led to MADE’s demise were insurmountable, and with such a high level of public exposure, it must have taken a Herculean effort on Nicola’s part to keep moving forward.

“When you’re in that situation”, she began, “I think you need to practise some form of radical acceptance, otherwise it’s almost too excruciating to bear.” The adrenaline that such a challenging context elicits is useful, according to Nicola, but isn’t a sustainable force for weathering the storm. Instead, she underscored the importance of leading with grace, underpinned by compassion and resilience, in the face of adversity.

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“It’s a really deep internal battle that you go through every morning”, she explained, “and I felt like the best way to get through it was to just throw myself forward. I didn’t know why I was in that situation, with those particular circumstances at that particular time, but I knew I’d look back on it as one of the most valuable experiences of my life. And I thought if I could behave with dignity, grace, and composure along the way, I would take great comfort in that.”

And that’s precisely what Nicola did, relentlessly plugging away at what she could control, and trying her best not to worry about the things she couldn’t. “You’re working on an extremely short time frame of things that sit within your control. It’s a constant process of asking what the best decision you can make is in the next 24 hours, the five best in the next two days, and the ten best in the next week”, she shared.

Unravelling the stoicism

Despite her courageousness and composure during the battle for MADE’s survival, Nicola admitted she is not immune to feelings of despair and self-doubt. “Don’t get me wrong”, she said, “I have struggled. It hasn’t been easy, and the worst of it comes when you have time to reflect. But having done the job in some of the toughest circumstances, I’d say you have a choice in how lonely you make the role, and I really believe that.”

Nicola’s unvarnished honesty in sharing her journey through MADE’s turbulent end gives us not just an insight into her extraordinary character, but also invaluable lessons for any leader facing adversity. She illustrates the quintessence of leadership, not in times of success and growth, but during the sternest trials, which is often when we learn the most about ourselves.

Even in its failure, MADE, under Nicola’s stewardship, serves testament to the fact that businesses are composed of people, that they are susceptible to forces beyond their control, and that sometimes, even the most valiant efforts are not enough to prevail over happenstance.

Three Things

While MADE.com may have shut its doors, Nicola’s story and the lessons derived from it will endure, inspiring current and future business leaders in their own unique journeys. So, to round off our conversation, we asked Nicola for Three Things – three pieces of actionable advice she learned from her experience – that you can implement in your business, today:

number 1

Think about how you can create value today and tomorrow.

“What you do in your business today should take up 80% of the time you spend strategising”, Nicola began. “So that’s optimisation of what you’re doing now and improving it, but I think 20% of your time should be spent thinking about how that will change in the future because things will change around you. If you aren’t thinking about it now, then someone else is going to build that future instead.”

number 2

Encourage a culture of respectful challenge.

“Build a culture where people feel comfortable challenging each other so you can have those difficult conversations, face to face”, Nicola advised. “It’s better to be stabbed in the front than in the back and, certainly around the exec table at MADE, we tried very hard to have those difficult conversations with each other.” This makes sure everyone is on the same page and avoids latent feelings of frustration, but also ensures you make the best decisions by considering multiple perspectives.

number 3

Don’t be afraid to change your leadership style.

“My natural leadership style is to be quite democratic and collaborative”, Nicola claimed, “but that doesn’t suit a highly distressed business, so I learned that I need to be comfortable switching styles to ensure effectiveness in reaching decisions.”


We are eternally grateful to Nicola for agreeing to chat with us on our Three Things podcast. Her experience as MADE CEO serves as a well of learning and direction for other business leaders, and how she conducted herself a beacon of inspiration for us all.

If you can’t quite work out how to deal with a challenge facing your business, apply to All Together today for up to five hours of pro bono mentoring from a leading CEO, every year.