The tech industry is filled with tales of university friendships that led to billion-dollar businesses. But for Niraj Shah and his partner Steve Conine, theirs is a union that brought furniture to the tech world and beyond. In 2002, the duo founded CSN Stores and its affiliated website, racksandstands.com, selling home and office goods from a spare bedroom in Boston. Almost 20 years later, that company is now called Wayfair, the focus-group-approved name for what is now the leading online retailer of furniture and home goods, with a market value in excess of $30 billion.
Shah, who has served as company CEO since the beginning, believes that the online shopping craze fueled by the coronavirus pandemic is here to stay, and he’s got good reason to think so. His company has a tight grip on the online furniture trade — a staggering 33 percent of the market. For Shah and his partner, their path to glory began with an immediate connection as freshmen at Cornell University.
Before the 21st century, entrepreneurship was a concept that evoked images of small shops and economics textbooks. But when Shah attended Cornell in pursuit of an engineering degree, he saw an opportunity to connect with dorm mate Conine in the university’s sole entrepreneurship course (the university now offers more than 300). The business plan they created would ultimately lead them to their fortune. After getting their feet wet with niche e-commerce in its early stages, the two leveraged their combination of business savvy and quantitative thinking to create a web retail platform that was superior to upstart competitors. With Conine focused on the technical aspects of the company, Shah has successfully held the reins of the business side of things, and both have become billionaires — an impressive leap from their origins in Ithaca.
Shah has received accolades for Wayfair’s success, including being named a “Best Kept Secret” on the Fortune Forty Over Forty list in 2013. His acumen has even been recognized by the greater financial world; he recently served as a member of the board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S. He also sits on the Cornell Tech Council with Mike Bloomberg and Eric Schmidt, among others, keeping a strong connection to the university. He has earned the respect and reputation to predict a continued boom for e-commerce, and he hopes that Wayfair will lead the way.