Terry Lin of Outer: How To Build an Ecommerce Vision and Community
Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower
“We didn't want to be another outdoor furniture company. We really wanted to focus on trying to solve problems that had otherwise not been solved.” — Terry Lin, Co-Founder and Chief Design Officer, Outer
The pandemic led to two different stories for companies: one of either hardship or accelerated growth.
Outer, fortunately, fell into the latter category. The premium outdoor furniture company experienced 1,000% growth during the pandemic. Its unique approach to customer engagement and Neighborhood Showroom initiative are largely responsible for these astounding numbers.
Outer’s origins date back to exactly June 30, 2017, at 9:55 p.m. Lin knows the exact date and time because it was his birthday.
That day, he received a cold message on LinkedIn from his future co-founder, Jiake Liu, that said he really liked Lin’s background and wanted to collaborate with him to create a company that would be “the Casper of outdoor furniture,” Lin says.
Liu’s message piqued Lin’s interest, so 11 minutes later, he responded to him. Five years later, they’ve built a furniture brand that has raised millions of dollars in funding and cultivated a thriving ecommerce community.
Finding the ‘Seinfeld Moment’
The idea for Outer emerged from Lin and Lui's thesis that "there has been very little innovation in outdoor furniture. Everyone just kind of copies everybody else," Lin says.
You could say Lin and Lui were the perfect pair to tackle this challenge. Lin previously designed furniture, and Liu's family owned a factory that manufactured outdoor furniture.
Lin, a fan of the sitcom "Seinfeld," says the duo initially focused on one question: What is the "Seinfeld" moment? This question was intended to help them identify a consumer pain point within the outdoor furniture industry that they could solve.
"In the beginning and the end of the TV show, [Jerry] Seinfeld, he always has a monologue, and he always starts by saying, 'Have you ever noticed? Why is it that?' And it's just really obvious things that happen in everyday life that are pain points," Lin says.
"If we can figure out what that is, then it's worthy of actually doing the 'how.' So that was a big reason why we started. We didn't want to be another outdoor furniture company. We really wanted to focus on trying to solve problems that had otherwise not been solved."
Launching Neighborhood Showrooms
Outer focuses on designing premium products that encourage outdoor living and are designed to last longer than your typical outdoor furniture you could buy online or at a big-box retailer.
But because its products are priced higher than its competition, it has focused on building social proof to attract customers and move them further down the funnel.
"When you think about the quadrant of people's trust and the price of things, there's low risk, low cost; high risk, high cost; low risk, high cost; and then the last, which is high risk, low cost," Lin says.
"We realized in that quadrant, we were targeting the high-risk, high-cost category. In doing so, how does a new company come out with a premium product and expect people to believe everything that we claim?"
The answer: Neighborhood Showroom, a unique concept where existing Outer customers open up their backyards and allow other potential customers to preview Outer's furniture. Outer launched Neighborhood Showroom amid the pandemic, and it allows potential customers to experience Outer's furniture in an authentic setting — and not the typical indoor showroom.
"The 'Seinfeld' moment of Neighborhood Showroom was, 'Why is it that when you're looking at outdoor furniture, you're looking in an indoor showroom?'" Lin says.
"The indoor showroom is climate-controlled, and the person that's trying to sell it to you probably doesn't own it. It probably hasn't seen sun, rain, or bird poop," Lin says. "So, how do you actually know that it works? That was our 'Seinfeld' moment of why we wanted to do it, which is, 'If you're going to buy outdoor furniture, why aren't you looking at it outside?'"
Incentivizing Customers To Participate
The obvious question: Why would anyone want to open their home to perfect strangers and essentially work on behalf of a new brand?
Lin and Liu discovered it wasn't just because they offered customers $50 to serve as showroom hosts. Their motivation was much deeper than that. Neighborhood Showrooms launched during the pandemic when people were craving human contact and connecting with others. Participating in the initiative allowed them to build a sense of community and engage with others around a shared interest.
In turn, it allowed potential Outer customers to connect with people who already owned the product and are experiencing it on a day-to-day basis — rather than a salesperson who is just trying to earn a commission.
Lin thinks this kind of ecommerce vision of community-based selling works so well because current customers don't actually need to let perfect strangers into their homes.
"For the most part, people have side gates, and you don't actually have to go through the home versus if you are trying to do some social proof with a mattress company and have them lay on your bed," he says.
"I've been calling it nano-influencers, which is an influencer that is part of your community and that knows something very, very, very specific. And just that idea of experts is important — and it goes all the way from an influencer of 10 to influencers of millions," Lin says.
Lin says there's a massive opportunity for brands to cultivate nano-influencers. They can engage customers in their sales process not just by solely focusing on brand promotion but by focusing on helping customers find the best solution to their unique pain points.