The rise and fall of furniture startup Poppin

All 71 employees at Poppin’s New York City office and showroom at 16 Madison Square West will be let go, according to a required notice filed with the state Department of Labor. Representatives from Poppin did not respond to requests for comment.

Poppin launched in 2012. By early 2013, co-founder and CEO Randy Nicolau told Forbes that the company’s products were resonating in both the consumer and corporate markets.

“The consumer market has already driven thousands of transactions for us in our first three months since launch,” he said, “and the corporate market has driven five to six figure orders.” In 2017, Crain’s named the company to its Fast 50 list and in 2019 to its Best Places to Work list.

Bright and shiny

It was a bubbly time for New York City consumer tech. Warby Parker and Gilt Groupe had paved the way for tech-enabled e-commerce businesses that built charismatic branding and direct-to-consumer sales that kept prices lower. The next generation, including Blue Apron, Boxed and Zola all launched around the same time as Poppin.

Rounds of financing followed. New York venture capital firms who put money behind Poppin included David Tisch’s Box Group, Christopher Burch’s Burch Creative Capital and First Round Capital. All told, the firm raised about $75 million in venture capital before its sale.

Poppin sells modern-looking office furniture, including sitting and standing desks, chairs and desktop organization like paper trays and pen holders. Colors veer away from white, gray and black and into hues like “millennial pink.”  The office market typically operates through a maze of dealers, so the fact that anyone—a startup, a 200-person firm, a freelancer—could order a $450 desk online was refreshing.

Post-pandemic slowdown

Though Poppin sold to both individual consumers and businesses, the Covid work-from-home era proved to be an obstacle, and in November 2020, just as Americans were wondering if they’d inhabit their home offices for the long term, Indiana furniture firm Kimball International bought Poppin for $175 million.

The acquisition came on the heels of slowing growth, according to numbers shared by Kimball. Between 2014 and 2019, the company had 40% annual compound growth in revenue. But for the first nine months of 2020, Poppin’s sales declined to $44 million, according to Kimball, which is publicly traded. (Revenue figures were not shared for earlier years, when Poppin was private.)

Kimball CEO Kristie Juster planned to use the acquisition to enhance the company’s own e-commerce business, accelerate its work-from-home offerings and expand Poppin’s sales with Kimball’s international dealer network.

Under the terms of the sale, Nicolau would keep operating Poppin as a separate business unit from New York.

“This partnership with Kimball International is an important step toward accelerating our growth and enabling us to further our position as a one-stop solution for inspiring workplaces with well-designed fast and flexible commercial-grade furnishings,” Nicolau said at the time. “Kimball International shares our view of the future of work, which we see as comprised of traditional office environments, satellite offices and work-from-home.”

Things did not go as planned. Kimball wrote down about $70 million of the investment in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

At the time, Poppin had 100 employees and five showrooms, which later increased to eight.

Then, this June, HNI Corporation bought Kimball for about $504 million in cash and stock and appears to have immediately looked to shed Poppin.

“Once closed,” HNI’s Lorenger said, the sale “will unmask the strength of Kimball International’s core business.”

That wasn’t to knock Poppin or its stylish, colorful approach to the office though.

“It’s got a good brand, Lorenger added. “It’s doing its thing.”

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