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Outdoor furniture startup Outer wants to turn your backyard into a showroom

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Combining comfortable, stylish, and utilitarian products with a savvy marketing program

Outer’s outdoor sofa is the latest direct-to-consumer brand attempting to shake up a stagnant industry.

The sharing economy has allowed you to monetize your home (Airbnb) and your car (Uber and Lyft). Why not monetize your yard?

A new entrant to the direct-to-consumer marketplace, outdoor furniture startup Outer wants to put a sharing economy spin on the retail showroom. By offering owners of the company’s new outdoor sofa a chance to become hosts and show off their backyards—and get paid doing it—they hope to provide a more realistic, compelling picture of its product. Potential buyers can check the site, make an appointment, and see how an Outer sofa looks in an actual backyard.

“The concept of opening up your home to strangers isn’t new,” says Jiake Liu, one of the co-founders. “Airbnb has made it common to have strangers in your space. Casper would have problems turning a bedroom into a showroom. But the backyard is a public/private place, a place of gathering.”

Outer hopes that combining a comfortable, stylish, and utilitarian product with a savvier and more social marketing program will help it catch on with consumers.

Crowdsourced showrooms are just one of the ways that Outer seeks to shake up the $9 billion-a-year market for outdoor furniture in the United States. Based in a Santa Monica, California, condo-turned-office sporting a rooftop deck that doubles as a showroom, the Silicon Beach startup hits many of the same notes as other direct-to-consumer brands. They seek to cut out the middleman and disrupt an industry that has been stagnant for years, first introducing a single product that’s been rethought and perfected (they took seven months to develop the perfect waterproof fabric for seat cushions).

But at the same time, Liu and his co-founder Terry Lin, have a larger vision. For one, they’re intimately involved in manufacturing, since Liu’s family owns the factory in China making the furniture. They’re also hoping their retail model makes it easier to sell to Middle America and find a place for Outer sofas in decks, patios, and lawns across the country.

“I don’t want to build a company that just serves the two coasts,” says Liu. “My ambition is to scale this in a way that we can sell to people in towns of 500 people.”

Potential buyers can book an appointment with an Outer host, and browse not in a showroom, but in a backyard.

Outer will start by selling two modular pieces, an armless chair for $800 and a corner piece with one arm for $850 (two corners and a chair link up to make a sofa). Liu says they offer “Restoration Hardware quality at West Elm prices.”

Sitting on an Outer chair on the rooftop above the company’s office, I found it much more comfortable than many other outdoor sofas, with better support. The memory foam cushion has its own waterproof cover, connected by a zipper, that slides between the frame and seat during use. It’s meant to be quick to use: The cushion can be covered and uncovered easily, without the need to store it in a separate container during inclement weather. Lin, who previously designed products for Casper Sleep and spent nearly a decade as head of furniture design for Pottery Barn, said the goal was to make uncovering and covering as easy as an outdoor grill.

“How do you make it as stylish as indoor furniture, as comfortable as a mattress, and as durable as camping equipment?” he says.

Outer hopes that combining a comfortable, stylish, and utilitarian product with a savvier and more social marketing program will help it catch on with consumers. So far, there are only a handful of approved hosts in the Neighborhood Showroom program, all within the Los Angeles area, but that will ramp up quickly. More than 500 applicants, who need to go through stringent background checks—Liu says they use the same services as Airbnb and Uber—expressed interest in the program.

Details still need to be ironed out, but Liu predicts that hosts, who set their own schedules, can earn anywhere from $200 to $2,000 a month, based on their location and how many potential buyers schedule a visit. Ideally, this method of incentivizing not only gives Outer a larger variety of images and media showing their products in different settings, but also offers more encouragement for buyers to become brand evangelists.

Outer enters the market in time to capture many different trends. The indoor-outdoor living concept has only become more popular in recent years; 91 percent of single-family homes in 2017 had outdoor living space, and Trulia recently found that American yards, and outdoor space, are growing. Meanwhile, the company also has its sights set on China. While Chinese consumers don’t have the same desire for outdoor furniture due to denser, more urbanized housing and high levels of air pollution in many areas, according to Liu, he sees that changing in the next 10 to 15 years.