Nov 04 2020

Outer: the customer's garden as a showroom

As a start-up you need ideas to roll up the market from behind, like the young US company Outer for example. Outer sells and distributes its sustainable outdoor furniture exclusively in its online shop. At the same time the start-up recruits its customers as brand ambassadors to make their own gardens and balconies available as showrooms for the brand. In our interview, co-founders Terry Lin and Jiake Liu explain how they use the shared economy movement for their marketing approach.

With the launch of your brand Outer you wanted to reinvent the approach to outdoor furniture. What, in your opinion, needed to be improved in the outdoor furniture segment? 

Terry Lin: There aren’t many brands on the market right now that solely focus on outdoor living, particularly no one was making luxury, sustainable pieces that were built to last. Our goal for Outer was to reimagine the entire outdoor living experience through the way consumers discover, shop and live their lives outside.

We found there were three main areas that needed room for improvement: protection, comfort, and sustainability/durability. Firstly, our patent pending OuterShell was designed to eliminate the issue of external elements affecting cushions. The OuterShell cover is an integrated cover that quickly rolls out and over the cushions and the design makes it easy to quickly protect or transport the cushions after use. 

Secondly, we created a beautiful piece of furniture that was durable, yet comfortable to make everyday life more pleasant. The cushions are made out of multi-layer foam, the same kind typically found in premium mattresses.

Lastly, the Outer Sofa is made from more than 99 recycled plastic bottles and is fully recyclable. The custom performance is also stain-, fade- and mold-resistant. The hand-woven wicker is wrapped around a powder-coated alloy frame for superior strength and durability.

The legs are also cast using rustproof stainless steel, which will stand up to wind, rain, heat and snow, so we can ensure this product will withstand all types of weather.   

By founding Outer, you have chosen a digital path from the very beginning. Part of your concept are Neighborhood Showrooms. What is the idea behind it and how does your customers accept your approach? 

Jiake Lui: Neighborhood Showrooms is a new approach to classic showrooms that allow for Outer customers to showcase their furniture in their own environment. Essentially, after purchasing an Outer sofa, consumers can apply to be host at their home.  Once approved, their home is listed on liveouter.com/showrooms and potential customers are able to book an appointment.

Due to COVID-19, however, we have pivoted to offering virtual showroom tours rather than in-person, which allows for consumers to book appointments at any of our showrooms around the US and see the Outer sofa in different settings and climates.  

Terry Lin: Our customers greatly enjoy our approach to Neighborhood Showrooms because it not only allows for potential customers to see and feel the product in-person but builds a strong community of Outer supporters.

Outer promotes conscious design with carefully crafted sustainably-minded products. Every piece is made from eco-friendly materials and relies on sustainable supply chains to reduce the brand’s eco footprint and further efforts in becoming a carbon-neutral business. © Outer

Furniture is a product that customers want to try before they buy it. When Outer was founded, however, you bet completely on the E-commerce card. Sure, you wanted to "open" showrooms across America through the Neighborhood Showroom Program, but it was clear from the start that the program would take time. Weren't you afraid that potential customers would slip through your fingers because they had no chance to test your product? 

Jiake Lui:  We believe in the success of our product, so our only fear was similar to most entrepreneurs: how will consumers learn about us? Once that was accomplished, we were confident that consumers would love the look, comfort, ease, and eco-friendly aspects just as much as we do.

Additionally, the great thing about Neighborhood Showroom (unlike traditional retail) is that we can open a location anywhere across America in the blink of an eye.  

A second aspect of Outer is sustainability. Your products are made to be fully recyclable. How did you get the idea? How long did it take to develop sustainable furniture? 

Terry Lin: We live in a culture of planned obsolescence. Many products are designed without thinking about longevity. According to scientists, plastics are going to outweigh the fish in our oceans by 2050, which is not a statistic that we want to contribute to.

It took us a year to develop the design and select the right materials. We did research and looked to the international recycling codes to determine which materials would be the most suitable for the outdoors and were also commonly recycled by your local waste management company. We realized that no outdoor fabrics on the market met our sustainability requirements.

Therefore, our fabrics are made with a solution-dyed Olefin (Polypropylene) that has all of the performance characteristics of your premium outdoor fabrics, but also has the added feature of being easy to recycle.  

You have founded your company via a funding model. With over 40 investors, you have been able to develop a successful business model in the last two years. How did you find your investors? Do you have a tip for other young founders?  

Jiake Lui: We are fortunate to have been surrounded by some amazing startup founders and investors who immediately saw our vision and decided to back us fairly early on. I have the benefit of this being my second startup, so it was a little easier to fundraise compared to starting my first company.

My tip for first time founders who have limited access to investors is to first reach out to other startup founders who you think might find your business interesting. If they like you and your idea, an introduction to their investor is the natural next step. 

 

At the moment Outer is revolutionizing the North American market. You are already represented with showrooms in over twelve states. What are your expansion plans for the coming years? Will Outer also be in Europe at some point?  

Jiake Lui: Europe is the second largest outdoor furniture market in the world, so we are definitely interested in Europe, and are looking for partners there to learn more about the market. For the time being, we are very focused on the U.S. market, and our immediate goal is to expand our Neighborhood Showroom network to over 1,000 locations in the U.S.  

And one last question: One of your investors is Patrick Schwarzenegger. Is he a Showroom Host, too?  

Jiake Lui: Come to our Neighborhood Showroom website to find out. ;)  

From left to right: Outer was founded by Jiake Liu and Terry Lin in 2019. The two first gained visibility when they debuted the company on Shark Tank. © Outer

Terry Lin, Co-Founder and Chief Design Officer of Outer . Prior to launching Outer, Terry’s experience encompasses the full spectrum of retail and product development. From his work on design strategy at IDEO in addition to his position as the former head furniture designer at Pottery Barn, Terry’s collective experience across the different categories of retail coupled with his experience in design and product development gives him a unique perspective on all fronts of the retail industry. Terry holds a B.F.A in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and currently lives with his family in San Francisco. 

Jiake Liu, Co-Founder and CEO of Outer. Jiake is a serial entrepreneur with a knack for reviving antiquated industries. After immigrating to the U.S. from China, Jiake earned a degree in computer engineering and founded ProspectWise, a venture-backed startup on a mission to empower main street small businesses with new technology. Jiake has also successfully transformed his family's furniture factory by building and operating its e-commerce business. 

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