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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Los Angeles is home to around 5,000 startups, the majority of which are in their young, formative years.
Which of those thousands are poised for a breakout in 2021? We asked dozens of L.A.'s top VCs to weigh in. We wanted to know which companies they would have invested in if they could go back and do it all over again.
Yesterday, our investors picked their favorite Series-A or later startups, and not surprisingly there was more consensus, with familiar names like PopShop Live and Scopely leading the way.
But the most lucrative returns come from identifying companies in their infancy, as recent blockbuster IPOs vividly demonstrate. For instance, Sequoia's $600,000 seed check to Airbnb in 2009 accounted for 70% of its shares in the company and helped it get into competitive later rounds. When the vacation rental service went public last month, Sequoia's stake was worth $4.8 billion.
What will be the next breakout? The complete list is below and is ranked in random order except for the first three, which stood out by virtue of getting multiple votes: Pipe enables companies with recurring revenues to tap into their deferred cash flows with an instant cash advance. Clash App, Inc., is a TikTok alternative launched by a former employee of the social network in August. And XCLAIM allows bankruptcy claims to be digitally traded.
Pipe provides financial services to help cloud service companies tap into their deferred cash flows, allowing them to continue growing without taking on debt or giving up ownership. For subscription-based businesses, this makes it "as if all of your customers converted to annual plans overnight," according to the company.
Founded by Harry Hurst, Josh Mangel and Zain Allarakhia, the company raised $66 million of seed funding earlier this year in a deal led by Craft Ventures and Fin Venture Capital.
Created by former Vine-r Brendon McNerney and entrepreneur and marketing expert P.J. Leimgruber, Clash App is a short form video platform similar to TikTok, but without built-in sound libraries. It's geared toward empowering creators with innovative monetization options and inclusive communities.
XCLAIM has created an electronic platform where bankruptcy claims that take a notoriously long time to process can be digitally traded. Founded in 2018 by Matthew Sedigh, who has operated in the corporate restructuring field for more than a decade, the company says "rather than wait years for the bankruptcy court process to issue payment distributions, creditors can now access immediate liquidity by selling their claim to interested buyers." Earlier this year, it raised a $4 million seed round led from Luma Launch, First Round Capital and Freestyle Capital.
Freck Beauty manufactures beauty products intended to make the user feel seen. Remi Brixton, the company's chief executive officer, founded the startup in 2015 when she was in search of a freckle makeup product. When she couldn't find one, she launched her own, the FRECK OG. The East Los Angeles-based company raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding in a deal led by KarpReilly and Stage 1 Fund earlier this year.
The Skills wants to be the master class on sports and life. The Los Angeles-based startup launched two months ago and offers classes from gold medal Olympians — including swimmer Michael Phelps and volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings — and Grand Slam tennis Champion Maria Sharapova. In December, it closed a $5 million seed round backed by Boston-based Will Ventures, Global Founders Capital, 8VC, Maveron, Hack VC and Correlation VC.
Founded by Shaun Cooley, former chief technology officer of Cisco's Internet-of-Things (IoT) and Industries division, Mapped provides IoT services in El Segundo.
The company raised $3 million of seed funding in a deal led by Greycroft earlier this year, putting its pre-money valuation at $9 million.
Created in 2016 by Geoffrey Michener, Dataplor indexes micro-businesses in Mexico (and will soon be expanding to other countries in Central and South America) and sells the data to larger companies.The company relies on contractors in those countries to collect the information from local businesses. It raised $4 million from ff Venture Capital, Quest Venture Partners and Space Capital earlier this year and expects to use it to expand into more Latin American countries.
Launched by serial entrepreneur Joe Bayen, Grow Credit helps customers improve their credit score by providing credit for subscription services like Netflix and Spotify. Their MasterCard can help consumers with thin or damaged credit scores and the small line of credit can be upgraded for a fee. The company closed a $2 million seed round earlier this year with participation from Mucker Labs.
The two-year-old Santa Monica-based company has seen business boom during the pandemic as retail stores shut down and online orders surged. The direct-to-consumer outdoor furniture brand uses backyards as showrooms and raised $4.3 million in a seed round earlier this year led by Mucker Capital. Founded by Jake Liu and Terry Lin, a former designer at Pottery Barn, Outer aims to appeal to Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn shoppers.
A livestreaming reseller of collectibles like FunkoPop vinyl figurines, Pokémon cards and sports cards, WhatNot taps into a growing retail trend and promises that the collectibles are verified, much like sneaker reseller GOAT.
The startup secured $4 million in seed funding this month from Scribble Ventures, Wonder Ventures, Operator Partners, Y Combinator, Liquid 2 Ventures, Twenty Two Ventures and other investors. The company plans to use the funds to expand into video games, comics books, designer toys and vintage fashion.
Fourthwall is the developer of an internet platform that helps content creators launch fully-branded websites focused on interacting with fans. Their website tag phrase is "Make a living doing what you love," which is complemented by their model, which provides creators 100% ownership of their website and brand.
Founded by Walker Williams and Will Baumann, the company has raised $4 million to date, from investors Defy Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Initialized Capital Management.
Shop LatinX calls itself the "leading beauty, fashion, and lifestyle ecommerce designed by and made for Latinas." The brainchild of two Los-Angeles-based Latinas, Brittany Chavez and Raquel Garcia launched their website before Black Friday in 2016. It features more than 200 brands.
Founded by former SpaceX software engineer Karan Talati and Neal Sarraf, First Resonance promises to ease the workflow for manufactures with software intended to provide greater visibility into production and test product development lifecycle. The company raised $1.75 million of seed funding last year from Wavemaker Partners, Stage Venture Partners and PLG Ventures, among clothes.
Vurbl offers curated, one-stop-shop of what it calls the best audio on the internet, which can include podcasts but also goes well beyond that from religious sermons to court arguments. The new platform founded by CEO Audra Gold is being built with the $1.3 million pre-seed round Vurbl closed in September led by AlphaEdison with participation from Halogen Ventures and Ten13.
Former Disney executive Chris Williams founded the studio that produces family-focused content from YouTube stars. This year it launched clock.work, an advertising agency designed to help major brands reach kids. Investors include Viacom, Greycroft, Third Wave Digital and United Talent Agency, along with strategic angels including Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Landau.
The app allows renters to see and share apartments that will soon be available before they're listed — reducing the time properties sit vacant and potentially heating up competition among apartment hunters. It launched earlier this year. The company has $2.8 million in seed funding led by David Sacks' Craft Ventures along with Abstract VC, Wonder Ventures and angel investor Spencer Rascoff, co-founder of Zillow and dot.LA.
The audio-based social platform promises to be the spot for "live, supportive, feel good conversations—just like hopping on the phone with a friend when you need it most." It lets people start a conversation around any topic or join by listening. Quilt raised an undisclosed amount of venture funding from Freestyle Capital in 2019.
Founded by Abhi Nayar, Chris Garwood and Igor Licthmann, Tonebase provides high-level music education online. Yale School of Music alumnus Garwood and Lichtman told their alma mater that it built with the idea that it was "a way for people everywhere to learn from the very best musicians around the world — individuals who, due to their busy performing and teaching careers, are traditionally accessible to only a select few." The company has raised an undisclosed amount from Launch fund, e.ventures and other undisclosed last May.
Launched in 2013 by Jeff Su, Yu-Han Chang and Rajiv Maheswaran, Second Spectrum already has deals with the NBA and English Premier League. This year it scored another one with Major League Soccer to use its optical tracking system to evaluate and analyze performance.
Second Spectrum puts their tracking cameras inside the stadium. Machine learning and AI-powered analytics provide detailed data that helps coaches and others better understand the game from player speed and deceleration to shot velocity in near real time. That technology can also be used on broadcast platforms to give fans more insight. The company raised about $20 million backed by CAA Ventures, Raine Ventures and The Chernin Group in 2018.
Founded by CEO Taylor Nieman, Shaun Merritt and Brandon Dietz, Toucan is a Chrome browser extension that lets people learn a new language. It scans websites you visit and translates some words into the language you want to learn. The Santa Monica-based company most recently raised a $3 million round backed by GSV Ventures, Amplifyher Ventures, and Wonder Ventures, among others.
Created by former SpaceX engineers, Serve Automation aims to change the way foods get delivered. It has secured $7 million in a seed round and is operating in stealth mode.
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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I don't quite remember why I passed on investing in Jiake Liu's company, Outer. But I do know why I had him on this week's episode of "Office Hours."
Liu has all sorts of qualities I admire in founders: He's dedicated, smart, experienced and he's had some high-quality "failure" that taught him big lessons about how to lead and run a business.
Running businesses was something Liu started doing as a teenager, largely by solving business problems for his family. That hands on experience gave him a fundamental understanding of how to run a successful enterprise. It also fed his entrepreneurial thirst and ultimately led to his cofounding and leading Outer, an outdoor furniture and lifestyle company.
Hear some hard-earned lessons from Liu about startups, his "Shark Tank" pitch day experience and how he maintains investor relationships even if they pass on investing — like with me.
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