Co-Founders of Outer, Terry Lin and Jiake Liu, seem to have thought of everything. From a quality product and an innovative sales model to $4.3 million in seed funding and an episode on Shark Tank, the outdoor furniture company is ready for take-off. The Pro Landscaper team talked with Jiake Liu about the new generation of outdoor furniture that’s shaking up the industry.
Why did you want to create outdoor furniture?
I grew up in the South in Huntsville, Alabama. Even when it’s really cold, we hang out outside. Outdoor living is a way of life. But I’ve noticed some of the challenges of outdoor furniture and have seen that nobody is really solving the problem.
So what are some of the problems with existing outdoor furniture?
I’ve noticed that a lot of outdoor furniture is broken. In the cheaper patio furniture from big-box retailers and mass-market websites, the material is very low quality. Even with name-brand retailers that might be $10,000 for an outdoor sofa, you’re still dealing with maintenance issues. And they’re not eco-friendly because you have to use a lot of synthetic materials. It’s coincidental that I have relatives who have a patio furniture factory who have done some e-commerce with Wayfair and Amazon. They have a good business, but customers complain about the same thing: outdoor furniture is hard to take care of. Cushions are moldy. They’re wet and dirty. And they’re hard to replace.
How did you get started on your own?
In 2017, I met my co-founder Terry Lin. I’m an engineer, but Terry has worked for the mattress brand Casper and was the lead furniture designer for Pottery Barn. He had the same observations and saw the same opportunity but really had the knowledge of the market.
What qualities were important to you in the end product?
We wanted something soft, durable and eco-friendly. We call that the golden triangle. We couldn’t compromise on any of those. We really look up to Patagonia and their 1 percent for the planet project. We want to be part of that. From the very get-go the environment was extremely important. We both have young families and want to leave the world a better place for the next generation. We’ve taken the longer and harder route to fully understand the material and all the details. And as a result, our cushions are 100 percent recyclable. Thirty percent of our sofas come from ocean plastic bottles. And we use about 100 plastic bottles per chair.
You also have a clever way of protecting the furniture from the weather. Can you talk about that?
It doesn’t matter if you buy the $1,000 set or the $20,000 set, outdoor cushions face the same problem. We call it the wet bottom issue. We weren’t happy with a rain cover that takes two people to try and stretch and fit. And nobody wants to carry the cushions like pizza boxes in and out of the house every time they want to use them. With Outer, you can use one hand to open up the outer shell and close it right up with a handle. Because we’ve taken away the hassle, most of our customers are using the furniture every day. It’s their favorite place to spend the day. Their outdoor space has truly become an extension of their home.
Tell us about your experience on the TV show “Shark Tank.”
We launched in May last year, and we were on Shark Tank in November. One of the editors saw us on Instagram and invited us to audition. It was pure luck and really life-changing in a personal way. The acceptance rate is extremely low; I think they have 45,000 each year who audition. We were just one of 80 companies who made it to airing. We had a big viewing party and our web traffic spiked. Our Google analytics looked like a shark fin.
How did you come up with the idea of Neighborhood Commerce?
We were a young company. We didn’t have a lot of money to build a showroom or a brick-and-mortar. We needed a good way to demonstrate our product where customers could touch and feel it. As a computer engineer myself, I love to solve these problems with technology. I’ve been an Airbnb host, and the community aspect is so great. So I thought why not just use a backyard. Customers set up an appointment through the website, and we run background checks on all the hosts. Right now we have hosts in 120 locations. They are real customers who bought the product. They are compensated a little bit, but they do it because they love sharing the product. They enjoy meeting their neighbors. Our customers don’t have to go to a stuffy showroom and talk to a pushy salesperson. They just go to someone’s back yard. We’re on track to build 1,000 showrooms across the country in 12 months.
Do you offer an incentive for professionals in the industry?
We are a direct-to-consumer product, but we do offer a 15 percent discount and some other incentives for landscape architects, interior designers, and contractors.
Do you have advice for other entrepreneurs or other professionals with a big idea?
Whatever problem you are solving, you have to be passionate about sticking with it. Making money is just one of many things that drive you to get through the challenges. I would also say talk to others going through the same thing. So many people helped me when I moved from Huntsville to LA with no expectations for anything in return. And I want to pay it forward.
What are your plans for the future?
We want to continue to grow our outdoor furniture line and invest in more product innovation. We will soon release our new outdoor rug called 1188. It’s made with 1,188 plastic bottles. They’re the most beautiful outdoor rugs. We are super excited.