mergers & acquisitions | Nov 9, 2023 |
Staging company Vesta acquires Fernish and Feather

A few years ago, a small class of startups sprung up, all looking to solve the same problem: Too many people were throwing away too much furniture—especially nomadic young people, who were leaving dumpsters full of Ikea in their wake. Maybe furniture ownership itself was the problem, reasoned the entrepreneurs behind companies like Feather, Fernish, ZZ Driggs, Oliver Spaces and others. Collectively, they raised tens of millions in venture capital to bring a digitally savvy, stylishly branded approach to the idea of renting furniture and home decor to restless, upwardly mobile millennials. In the process, they gave the business model itself a rebrand: “Rental furniture” became “subscription furniture.”

A variety of factors soon stymied the movement’s momentum. As the federal reserve began to raise interest rates to combat inflation—ending what commentators are calling the Zero Interest Rate Policy era—the flood of VC money began to dry up across all sectors, and entrepreneurship in subscription furniture ground to a halt. The end of the Covid boom was painful for these brands too; one of the bigger startups, Feather, quietly paused operations toward the end of 2022. It became fair to wonder: Was subscription furniture a busted flush?

Julian Buckner is betting no. The founder and CEO of Los Angeles–based luxury staging company Vesta has just announced the acquisition of both Feather and its former chief competitor, Fernish. From a consumer standpoint, both brands will continue to run as separate entities, but internally both will operate as part of what Buckner has called Showroom. He declined to peg a value on either transaction.

“For years I’ve admired Feather and Fernish and the platforms they were building,” Buckner tells Business of Home. “These are fantastic brands, and have these amazing customer bases who love the product—they’re really scratching an itch that people need. All of the trends are going in their direction: a highly mobile society, a shifting preference toward e-commerce, the importance of circularity.”

Fernish’s co-founder and CEO Michael Barlow will remain on in the new business, as will COO Kristin Toth. Feather founder Jay Reno is not involved with the new group. Team members of both Fernish and Feather have carried over to the new business, though both companies have been pared down in the acquisition.

According to Buckner, the problem that companies like Fernish and Feather ran into was not that consumers didn’t want what they were offering. Instead, their issue was more about timing and volume: “Subscription furniture companies all have really high fixed costs—to set up a warehouse, acquire inventory and run a logistics operation. It’s what I call a black hole of money,” he says. “To achieve escape velocity and become profitable, you need either a big margin or a lot of volume.”

Feather never quite got to the necessary volume, and was in the position of having to look for more funding just as investor sentiment was turning sour, forcing a closure late last year. (Buckner bought the business shortly thereafter.) Fernish was not acquired in distress, but the same mechanics—a need to raise capital in a difficult market—led to an eventual deal earlier this year.

Buckner’s bet is that by plugging both brands into the logistics business that Vesta already operates, both can take advantage of existing infrastructure. For example, a truck carrying furniture for a Vesta staging project on the Upper East Side can make a quick pit stop to drop off a dresser and desk for a Fernish client on the Lower East Side, saving money on each job. Both Fernish and Feather, Buckner says, are now profitable.

Vesta itself is a bootstrapped company, and Buckner says that no outside capital was raised to fund the acquisitions. But despite an absence of venture money in the business, Buckner clearly has venture-scale ambitions for the company. Started as a luxury staging business in 2016, Vesta had grown to roughly 160 employees—now, after these two acquisitions, it tops 200.

But Buckner’s goal is not to create an enormous home staging brand. He sees staging as an entrée into other business lines. “There’s this pain point in a lot of home brands, which is a really high customer acquisition cost: You’re trying to get someone immediately after they buy a home, which is a very ephemeral moment and difficult to target,” he says.

Brick-and-mortar retailers struggle with rent and the logistical costs of a physical footprint. Online-only brands pay a kind of digital rent to Google, and operate at the whims of the Instagram algorithm. By contrast, Bucker argues that home staging companies are literally paid to bring furniture in front of qualified buyers and arrange it beautifully.

That unique twist of the staging business—a negative customer acquisition cost—is the central engine behind Buckner’s plans to grow Vesta. In recent years, he’s launched an interior design service he says employs 30 designers, and rolled out a furniture collection that Vesta sells online, direct to consumers.

Feather and Fernish will be entry-level brands into the comprehensive experience he’s looking to build—a way to capture an upwardly mobile young audience. Once they age out of the “moving every 15 months” phase and buy a house, his hope is that they’ll use Vesta designers to outfit it with Vesta product. And once it’s time to sell the starter home, well, Vesta has a staging business too.

“We can take these great brands and put them on top of the platform that we’ve invested in and offer customers a full life cycle,” says Buckner. “Starting from when they’re graduating from college and getting their first investment banking internship in New York to when they sell their first company and buy a Malibu beach house. We have brands and companies and business lines that can serve as a resource—for lack of a better term—from cradle to grave.”

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