Q & A: Outer Had a Great 2020. Here's Why its Founders Think 2021 Will Be Even Better

It turned out 2020 was the perfect breakout year for Outer, the Santa Monica-based direct-to-consumer outdoor furniture brand that first came to prominence after impressing Shark Tank judges in late 2019.

Consumers – forced to spend practically all their time at home last year – were eager to upgrade their patios, backyards and decks. And they did not want to venture into stores and talk to pushy salespeople when they could just as easily order online.


The company saw a 1000% increase in sales last year from 2019, when it was founded by Terry Lin, a product designer who made his name at Casper, IDEO and Pottery Barn, and Jiake Liu, an angel investor who was born and raised in China.

Outer announced Tuesday it has raised $10.5 million in Series A funding led by Sequoia Capital China that will be used to further expand its product line and open a thousand of what it calls "neighborhood showrooms" by the end of the year. Those are where satisfied customers open up their backyards to evangelize Outer furniture – putting a modern sharing economy twist on the multilevel marketing companies like Mary Kay that have been around since the 1960s. But there's a key difference: To avoid high pressure sales tactics, hosts are only compensated for their time, $50 a visit.

The Series A comes after a $4.3 million seed funding round in September led by Mucker Capital, which also participated in a 2018 $1.5 million seed round.

Lin and Liu responded to dot.LA's questions via email about why they think the brand has caught on, and how they plan to use the new capital to jumpstart growth even as stay-at-home orders lift.

What do you attribute the 1000% increase in sales to?

Since launching our inaugural product, the Outer Sofa, in May of 2019, we have been consistently getting raving reviews from our early customers. We were featured on Shark Tank at the end of 2019, which drummed up even more interest for our brand for 2020.

Our Neighborhood Showroom program has been integral to our growth. Hosts have been incredible brand partners and refer new customers to us every day. Knowing that we hit product-market fit and having found a few sustainable customer acquisition channels, we doubled down on growth in January 2020. Our growth curve became even more steep come April, when people started sheltering in place and finding sanctuary in their own outdoor spaces.

What has been the most popular product?

Our Pacific Gray five-Piece Outdoor Sofa has been hands down the most popular product due to its modularity, mattress-level comfort, camping-gear level ruggedness and our patented OuterShell integrated cushion cover.

How has the pandemic changed what people buy from you?

Our modular outdoor sofa collection has been the only product we offered until we released our 1188 eco outdoor rugs (1188 recycled plastic bottles went into each rug), which sold out in record time. As weather cooled in the last few months, we released our tailor-designed, all-weather cover collection that also sold out in less than two weeks.

Outer's popular five-piece outdoor sofa set retails for $5,850Courtesy of Outer

Do you worry that you won't be able to sustain this level of growth once the virus subsides and people are not spending as much time at home?

We actually foresee an even stronger year in 2021 for outdoor living. There has been a historic number of homes bought and sold in 2020 in the "Great Reshuffling." According to recent real estate market research, sales of million-dollar homes doubled, and all of those homes are waiting to be furnished with beautiful and functional outdoor furniture. Businesses, offices, and homes will continue to value open/outdoor spaces as people ease back into socializing safely. We are also exploring B2B opportunities as the travel industry bounces back, and hotels, restaurants, and other travel destinations are seeking durable outdoor furniture in droves.

This past year has been like nothing we've seen before and will shape our generation and future generations to come. While we don't have a crystal ball to tell us how we are going to maintain our growth, we believe that the world will not go back to the way it was.

For example, retail continues to transform to meet the needs of expectations of today's consumer. Companies are rethinking what the future of the workplace will be. Employees may never go back to the typical five 5 days in the office every week. The uncertainty has shown us how important it is to create a sanctuary at home - the one place that gives your family a sense of security.

Can you provide more context for what you plan to use the new capital for? What new products can we expect?

The new capital will be used for product development, team expansion and community building. What made us successful in the first place was the fact that our team spent well over a year designing and developing the first product down to the nuts, bolts and yarns of the fabrics. As we evolve from a single-product company to an outdoor lifestyle company with many more highly sought-out products like tables, loungers and chairs, we will continue to invest heavily into material research and product development in order to differentiate our offerings even more from everything else in the market. We will also tackle tangential products beyond furniture in order to make outdoor living even more comfortable, hassle-free and sustainable for all. We grew our team from ten in the beginning of 2020 to 30 by the end of the year, and the new funding will allow us to double or even triple our team again this year. We are hiring across the board.

How did Sequoia Capital China come to be the lead funder? (As opposed to a domestic firm?)

We were fortunate that we had an oversubscribed round with multiple competing term sheets. There are many reasons why we went with SCC, who has been behind the fastest growing consumer startups in the world. One specific reason is because our partner at SCC has deep domain expertise in furniture, global supply chain and international consumer markets. They are uniquely qualified to help us in product R&D and supply chain in the immediate term, paving the way for us to build a global outdoor living brand.

The Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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On this week's episode of the L.A. Venture podcast, Taj Eldridge talks about his newly-launched $250 million fund, Include Ventures aimed at Black and Brown founders and investors. The fund is part of VC Include, a platform that aims to accelerate investment into women, Black, Latinx, Indigenous and LGBTQ people.

"Some of the founders I talked to have said they don't want to get funding just because they're Black, said Taj. "And my thing is, well, I've seen the opposite side of it. I've seen not getting money because I'm Black. So, you know, right now, let's just move things forward."

Taj is passionate about reducing the wealth gap through Black and Brown ownership and continuing the work he does with Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), where he's the senior director for investment.

"Don't invest in clean tech just because it is a moralistic issue or its future-proofing," he said. "As we've seen in what's happening in Texas now with the grid and everything else, It's a public health issue. It's an economic issue. It's a social issue."

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A 24-year-old unemployed college graduate frustrated by the tedious process of finding his grandmother a vaccine appointment created a new site to make it easier.

Find My Vax LA translates appointment information to any language, searches for open slots by zip code and on Friday released a Twitter bot that alerts followers of availability.

Andrew Friedman was hit with the same idea software engineers across the country have chased since public officials started distributing the COVID-19 shot.

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Fifteen years after her death, science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler has joined an exclusive pantheon of space luminaries memorialized on Mars.

Today NASA announced that the Red Planet locale where its Perseverance rover touched down last month is called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of a Black author who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures.

"Butler's protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges," Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, said in a news release. "Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields."

Butler grew up poor in Pasadena and attended Pasadena City College, where she focused on writing. She published her first book in 1976 and broke into the mostly white, male dominated world of science fiction writing. In 1995, she was awarded a fellowship from the MacAurthur Foundation, She moved to the Seattle area in 1999, where she died unexpectedly in 2006 at the age of 58, after sustaining a head injury in a fall on a walkway outside her home in Lake Forest Park, Wash.

In his own tribute to Butler, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for space science, emphasized the connection to Southern California, the home of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Perseverance mission operations.

Octavia E. Butler

Science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler grew up in Pasadena and spent the last years of her life in the Seattle area. (Writers House Literary Agency / Courtesy Ching-Ming Cheung)

"I can think of no better person to mark this historic landing site than Octavia E. Butler, who not only grew up next door to JPL in Pasadena, but she also inspired millions with her visions of a science-based future," Zurbuchen said. "Her guiding principle, 'When using science, do so accurately,' is what the science team at NASA is all about. Her work continues to inspire today's scientists and engineers across the globe – all in the name of a bolder, more equitable future for all."

The official names of geographical features on other planets must be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but NASA has a tradition of giving its own names to off-world landing sites – for example, Tranquility Base, the place on the moon where Apollo 11 touched down in 1969.

The 1997 landing site for NASA's Pathfinder mission to Mars is known as Carl Sagan Memorial Station, in honor of the late astronomer and author of "Contact."

In 2004, NASA designated the landing sites for the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers as Challenger Memorial Station and Columbia Memorial Station, respectively. Those names honor space shuttle crews who lost their lives in 1986 and 2003.

The place where NASA's Curiosity rover touched down in 2012 is called Bradbury Landing, as a tribute to Ray Bradbury, the author of "The Martian Chronicles" and many other works of science fiction.

Perseverance has already begun to venture out from Butler Landing: In addition to announcing the landing site's name, members of the mission team shared imagery from the 1-ton, six-wheeled rover's first drive since its Feb. 18 touchdown.

Perseverance’s first drive on Mars

Thursday's traverse lasted about 33 minutes and put 21 feet (6.5 meters) on Perseverance's odometer. Color pictures sent back from Perseverance's hazard avoidance cameras show the tread marks left in Mars' red dirt as the rover took its first spin. Such imagery will be used to assess the dynamics of Perseverance's retro-rocket landing, which kicked up dust and exposed rock formations at Butler Landing.

"When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive," said Anais Zarifian, rover mobility testbed engineer at JPL. "This was our first chance to 'kick the tires' and take Perseverance out for a spin. The rover's six-wheel drive responded superbly. We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years."

The rover's software has already been updated to replace the program for landing with the program for surface operations. Mission controllers have also conducted procedures for deployment and checkout of Perseverance's RIMFAX, MOXIE and MEDA instruments, as well as its heavy-duty robotic arm.

"Tuesday's first test of the robotic arm was a big moment for us. That's the main tool the science team will use to do close-up examination of the geologic features of Jezero Crater, and then we'll drill and sample the ones they find the most interesting," said Robert Hogg, Perseverance's deputy mission manager. "When we got confirmation of the robotic arm flexing its muscles, including images of it working beautifully after its long trip to Mars – well, it made my day."

From its vantage point at Octavia E. Butler Landing, NASA's Perseverance rover can see a remnant of a fan-shaped deposit of sediments known as a delta (the raised area of dark brown rock in the middle ground) with its Mastcam-Z instrument. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU)

More than 7,000 raw images have been sent back to Earth and are available online in a gallery supported by Amazon Web Services. That stockpile is sure to grow as Perseverance ramps up full science observations.

The mission plan calls for the rover to make regular commutes of 650 feet (200 meters) or more to sites of scientific interest. "We're going to do some longer drives," Zarifian said. "This is really just the beginning."

The primary goal of the $2.7 billion Perseverance mission is to analyze the composition of Martian soil for traces of ancient life, and store up promising samples for return to Earth by later missions over the next decade.

This story first appeared on GeekWire.

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