Disrupting the office furniture industry
Meet the access economy startup that is making the billion dollar office furniture industry stop and pay attention.
It is a beautiful morning in Copenhagen, and I have just arrived at OMNI’s showroom to meet with the CEO, Yuan Nielsen. The office is located in an old chocolate factory from the 1920s on Prags Blvd, home to a hip urban neighborhood comprised of recording studios, craftsman workshops, and high-end creative startups.
I take the clunky freight elevator to the showroom, which is located on the top floor, stretching the entire building, where I find Yuan making coffee for us in the kitchen.
The space is designed with a distinctive blend of handpicked industrial design pieces and classic midcentury Danish furniture, making you feel very much at home, while also letting you know that this isn’t just any startup office.
This is the home of OMNI, a company on a mission to offer luxurious office furniture on subscription, or on a “FaaS” (Furniture as a Service) platform, but as Yuan explains, OMNI’s vision goes far beyond just selling chairs and tables:
Yuan: When OMNI was first conceptualized, I was still in San Francisco, where I had lived and worked in the tech industry for over 6 years. Here, companies had started to look differently upon talent retention, corporate culture, and work environments, inspired by the new generation of professionals.
There is much data to support how future generations will think, behave, and consume in a different way than today, how values are changing, and how we are very passionate about putting energy and effort into work that will be impactful.
We won’t settle for cubicle-like workspaces, defined by the old rules of industrial economics, where principles like LEAN had made office spaces resemble factory product lines that don’t exactly spark creativity. But still, investing in better work environments for employees, who spend their best days and years grinding away at work, is still cautioned by a misplaced logic of cost-cutting that actually stifles productivity.
Your desks and chairs will be used 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, totaling 1,920 hours annually, yet many companies still won’t invest $900 on an elevation desk that has been shown to boost productivity. While Americans on average spend $9,000 on cars that are used only 600 hours a year, many find office furniture prices steep, while others completely forget to factor in this cost when projecting company investments altogether.
“Furniture needs to do more than be practical, it needs to be part of the story of how the future of work will be”, she concludes.
As Yuan takes me on a tour through the showroom, she dives into the problem that OMNI faced at its founding. Changing a company’s workspace usually demands a lot of capital, but helping them to acquire cheaper low-quality furniture would just perpetuate the careless buy/discard mentality, which was not exactly inspiring to the team.
OMNI needed to develop a much smarter solution, one that could keep high-quality designer furniture in circulation to be used and reused, and thus, craftsmanship and sustainability became imbued at the company’s very foundation.
Yuan: If you know that, let’s say a sofa, will have a lifespan of 10–12 years instead of just 4 years, and it will change hands multiple times rather than just one, thereby yielding a higher lifetime value, then you can start to upgrade some of its fundamentals, such as its construction and materials, which in turn will increase our appreciation of the product.
We have all felt the impact that our surroundings can have on our mood and our well-being. We are all highly influenced by our environment, which helps to define our perception of the world as well as our own state of being.
OMNI’s vision is to make “ideal states” more readily available to the new generation of entrepreneurs, who want to build their own companies and define their own work culture. For us, it's less about work-life balance than work-life integration.
When building and scaling a business, you operate in a stressful and unpredictable environment, which can make it difficult to plan and budget on a steady basis. It often comes down to the chicken-or-egg problem in terms of investing in a better office space, and this is where OMNI comes in.
To help entrepreneurs get access to high-quality designer furniture, Yuan and her team decided to start in Copenhagen due to the extensive heritage that Scandinavians have in furniture design and production.
Here, they built a unique network of designers and furniture makers, whose products are offered through OMNI’s online platform, allowing customers or users to subscribe to the furniture, rather than buying it up front. This lowers the entry barrier significantly and breaks with existing buy/discard consumption patterns.
OMNI allows even the smallest of startups to build their unique office universe with furniture and design pieces that would normally be out of their price range. Companies can use their furniture for a period of time, and when they scale or need to move to a new office, the furniture can be exchanged or returned back to OMNI, where it will be refurbished and prepared for a new happy user. This concept turns acquisition and ownership of office furniture completely upside down.
Yuan: I’ve spent the vast part of my career building and scaling digital products, and now I am working in a very material world. This dualism of the material and immaterial has been immensely inspiring to me; merging the tactile world of wood and metal with virtual bytes and bits, conceptualizing a way in which furniture can be offered on subscription, just like software or SaaS products.
We sit down in a striking mid-century Danish sofa, which has been masterfully reupholstered in bright yellow wool fabric, and Yuan explains how a company’s culture can be expressed through its choice of furniture and how introducing unique things, like vintage furniture, can bring out personality and soul in a space.
When I ask Yuan where the company is headed, she explains how this idea of rethinking ownership, both at home and at work, is a major driver behind the business:
Yuan: By redefining the development and consumption of material things in terms of quality, accessibility, and state of being, we may usher in a new era in which experience-focused products will dominate our purchase patterns. It enables our furniture and our environment to upgrade with us, which is what modern professionals need far more than getting stuck with the expensive and stagnant way of furnishing today.
The big opportunity here is first and foremost to open more people up to the mindset of rethinking their environment and then help them curate the different chapters and themes of their lives, as they grow and evolve. We believe that a company like OMNI can break with the norm and become the state-of-being company for modern entrepreneurs, just like Herman Miller was a workspace-defining company for our parents.