Yardbird Disrupts the Flock

Local outdoor furniture company has a vision of a better way to do business.

If you haven’t purchased outdoor furniture lately, you may not be aware that the popularity of dining sets with round glass tables, umbrellas and four rocker-type chairs sporting poufy, flowered seat cushions is dwindling, if not already zero. “Not to be disrespectful,” the affable co-owner of Yardbird, young Jay Dillon, says to this interviewer with a sweet smile, “but your generation would have purchased those pieces. Today, people are looking for more of a chat-group set.” A modern outdoor furniture investment, he says, is more likely to be a deep-seated and cushioned sofa or loveseat, two chairs and a coffee table around which lounging, conversation and/or dining can be conducted.
A visit to outdoor furniture showrooms at Gabbert’s or HOM furniture will confirm this change in consumer tastes. What is it, then, that has the St. Louis Park based Yardbird disrupting the outdoor furniture industry? For that answer, we’ll need to spend a bit more time with Dillon.

“Going upstream”

Several years out of college, in 2010, Dillon was working an every-other-week nannying job in New York City.  At some point in the second half of his employment as childcare provider, Dillon also began working for his father, co-owner of Yardbird Bob Dillon, in the alternate weeks. In 2013 his father felt that if Dillon were going to join him in the family business—manufacturing representatives working with outdoor furniture companies to place their products in stores like Lowe’s, Target and Home Depot— now was the time.

“Once I joined him, I encouraged my dad to go ‘upstream,’” Dillon says. What was keeping them from producing their own furniture? “I decided to go to China to learn the business.” He spent a year doing so, alternating visits to Chinese factories and self-arranged apprenticeships in the states, like welding in New Hope, Minnesota. He also learned about powder coating, sewing and weaving rattan, a material traditionally constructed from thin stems of palm but more currently of extruded plastic resin. After a year of learning everything he could about manufacturing outdoor furniture, Dillon says, “We continued to sell to retailers but instead of representing other companies we had our own line.”

By this time, Dillon had quit the nannying position, married, and he and his new wife had moved to Hong Kong. He worked, full-time, in the factory where their furniture was made. Dillon’s first experience with sales of their outdoor furniture was a kind of pop-up shop in the Eden Prairie mall. “I brought over about $100,000 of inventory at cost. No one bought anything. It was a disaster. After two weeks in the mall, I pulled the plug. I posted the inventory on Craigslist and sold $100,000 worth of furniture within 3-1/2 weeks.”

“We’ve got something here,” Dillon and his father realized. A factory-to-consumer, online/retail sales model was born. They found the first spot for their unique business, now called Yardbird, in a corner of St. Louis Park. “I brought in 10-times the inventory in spring of 2017,” Dillon recalls. “We sold over 95 percent of it.”

A millennial model

The conventional business model for the sale of outdoor furniture, says Dillon, consists of several layers of merchandising, including: a factory (often overseas) and perhaps an overseas factory representative; a designer/importer, who designs and orders product and takes on the risk of purchasing and maintaining inventory; and finally a retailer, like Frontgate or Gabbert’s, who purchases from the importer and whose specialty is retail sale (and usually final assembly and delivery) of the furniture. At each level of production, of course, money is made: a set of furniture valued at $500 from the factory may end up costing many times that amount by the time the middle men and retailers make their profits.

A new sales model is already evident in other millennial-owned businesses, Dillon says. Warby Parker, for example, began selling glasses online; Bonobos started as a way to more directly buy men’s clothing. Casper Mattresses was one of the first mattress retailers to sell mattresses online. In all of these cases, prices came down because fewer business people made a profit along the way. Another way millennial-owned businesses keep costs down, Dillon says, is to reduce options. Casper, for example, sells only three styles of mattress, he says. At Yardbird, Dillon adds, “We offer only 8-10 different style furniture sets, and two Sunbrella fabric colors. We try to keep it simple for the consumer.”

Whereas customers may order and wait six weeks or more for outdoor furniture bought at standard retail outlets, Yardbird, with a warehouse in New Hope, Minn., and exclusive retail sales at its new home on Hwy. 7 in St. Louis Park, aims to deliver furniture to your home and set it up in your back yard within several days of purchase. Their price is about half of their competitors, says Dillon, because they’re not working through the standard sales model and because he has many of his own sourcing agents. “I’ve gone completely upstream,” he says. More control of factory production, independent relationships with sourcing agents, a combination of online and in-store sales, fewer and better choices, expedited shipping to your house: this is the millennial model to which Yardbird aspires.

An eye to the environment

Opportunities to represent even more millennial-oriented values appear to be on the horizon. For example, Yardbird is using recycled plastic (vs. virgin plastic) to make its wicker furniture and plans to increase the recycled material content in the future. Furthermore, although Yardbird furniture is shipped (in pieces) by container to the states, “We offset every container we bring over by planting 42 trees,” says Dillon. “We work with an environmental group that offers this to [U.S.] importers, planting trees to offset carbon emissions. And all of our packaging is made from 100 percent recycled material.”  

What's Your Mode?

Henry Schneider is a talented cinematographer and creative filmmaker. Dan Jagunich has worked in TV post-production, doing commercials for Gerber and Smirnoff, and music videos for Prince, The Replacements, Foo Fighters and Matchbox 20. “We have very complementary skills,” says Schneider. “I create the pieces, Dan melds them together to accent the story.” Their video production company, Mode, says Jagunich, “is the great handshake between us.”

One beneficiary of that handshake is Yardbird. When Schneider speaks of his affinity for working with nonprofits and small businesses it seems he has clients like Jay Dillon in mind. “Jay has a great vision,” says Schneider, one that has special value to Mode in its environmental conscience. “We like to work with clients that are doing something that contributes towards the greater good.” One thing Mode does well, he adds, is scaling projects to individual companies’ needs. Yardbird’s “start-up” budget was not a deterrent.

Last spring, Mode teamed up with Yardbird to produce a series of commercials starring garden guru Bobby Jensen; a year later, they are planning more commercials, and are helping them develop their brand image through animated graphics. Long-term, they plan to tell Yardbird’s story in film: that of a company in St. Louis Park called Yardbird, a small, progressive business trying to leave the world a cleaner place.