Why We Built Spoken to Improve Online Furniture

Why We Built Spoken to Improve Online Furniture

We share our origin story, where Dane and MK first encountered the traps of buying furniture online, and why we built Spoken to improve online furniture shopping.


In fall of 2021, Dane moved to New York City with his girlfriend, MK. They were minimalists navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic in which their relationship began. They arrived to a small apartment – their first home together – with 6 Tupperware bins between them. 

They needed furniture. They found a quality bed frame for a steal on Facebook Marketplace. They ordered a sofa. Then MK found several pieces she liked on Urban Outfitters – a coffee table, two desks, two chairs, and a chic small bookcase. They paid ~$4,000 for all of it.

When the Urban Outfitters items arrived, Dane began assembling them. It was all straightforward until he noticed the coffee table was missing a screw. He and MK began researching online if they could order another when MK found something peculiar – a coffee table on Home Depot that looked exactly like the one they’d just received. Could it be?

Dane matched the manufacturer on the box to the manufacturer on Home Depot’s product page – both were Sauder. These were, indeed, the exact same table save one thing – Dane and MK had paid $320 at Urban Outfitters for each chair and the Home Depot price was $160 (the prices fluctuate). Oh, and Urban Outfitters called them by their own name. 

Then they found the bookcase, the coffee table, and the desks. They spent $2,000 across 6 items where – with the knowledge and some research – they could have saved nearly $1,000. In other words, they could have saved 50% on the 6 items, and 33% on the whole of their furniture purchases. This was a lot of money.

Few things anger Dane. Yet he couldn’t sleep that night. He couldn’t stop thinking about how he felt deceived – taken advantage of. How was he – or anyone else – supposed to know this? The items he now had in his home, rather than make him happy, inflamed him.

The next day, Dane disassembled and returned all 6 items. He carted each box across 3 New York City blocks. The exact same items arrived from Home Depot and Amazon a few days later. He built them. Moreover, now that he had felt like he had secured a great deal, he liked them.

The Lemon Problem and Hostile Incentives

I once had the opportunity to speak with the founder of Carmax. He told me that the way he and his business partner knew there was opportunity in selling used cars is that the used car buying experience, nearly universally, felt so bad. He was convinced it should not feel so bad. Then he built Carmax, and most used car lots in the U.S. went away.

If you’re too young to have navigated used cars without Carmax or Carvana, here is how it used to work: You walk onto a lot and meet a salesperson. His incentives are diametrically opposed to yours. He is more experienced than you and has more information than you. You don’t know what to trust. In economics, this is known as the lemon problem. But you don’t need to know what the problem is called to know it feels awful.

Buying furniture online today feels similar for similar reasons. When you open up your browser to buy furniture, you’re entering an arena with an array of incentives working against you. Right from the start, it's an uphill battle.

The first incentive is ad profit. It’s not just that the ads fill a lot of real estate in your visual field. (Though boy, do they.) It’s also that because ad sellers make money off of ads and not products, the more ads, the better. Even if there are two ads for the exact same thing. The ad sellers have no incentive to determine if two products are the same. They monetize your attention on both.

The result is that many sellers call the same product from the same manufacturer their own name and buy ads to try to get people to buy their product. Their profit justifies the ads. The bigger the brand, the more of a premium they can command, and the more they can pay for ads. West Elm can charge more than Urban Outfitters, who can charge more than Home Depot.

The second incentive is the online sellers’ profit. It’s not that the profit itself is bad. It’s simply that every seller is trying so damn hard to convert your attention to a sale. You enter a site to a marketing pop up that interrupts you. Everything about the site is driving you towards a purchase. It’s so difficult to simply browse. And in furniture shopping, where you aren’t certain of your preferences, browsing a lot of products is often precisely what you want to do.

This incentive has two more consequences. Sellers do everything in their power to make their products look good. Rightly so. Many of them are beginning to use CGI images. They don’t make it easy for you to find out identifying information (“universal product identifiers”) for fear you might buy elsewhere. They also need to manage their inventory and make the most of every sale. So their prices change a lot

The result of all of these incentives is enough friction to create a chaos that is difficult to describe. When navigating furniture sites on the open web, you have a hunch you’re seeing the same thing again. (You are!) Yet you can’t know for sure because the sellers all have different photos. 

All of this noise makes it much harder to evaluate the quality of the product. Is this a mid-priced product? Or a cheap one marked up to a mid-price? Is this really a good discount? Or was the “list” price wildly inflated? Expensive furniture and cheap furniture both have their place, but first you have to know how to know which is which.

As we spoke to more people buying furniture online, we realized they universally hated the experience. They simply couldn’t articulate why

Dreaming of a Simpler, Saner Way

I think what really pissed off Dane, who I know through our 20 years of friendship, is that he got caught up in these incentives during a vulnerable transition. Dane and MK were dreaming up their home for the first time together. Making a home is hard. Figuring out preference is hard. This is all scary, important work.

Yes, we can all protect ourselves. We can use Google’s image search for products and do our own primary research. But isn’t that wildly inefficient? In a modern day, once one of us has empowering knowledge, we can all instantaneously have the same empowering knowledge.

Thus we envisioned Spoken as a way to empower furniture shoppers in a new way. When looking for stuff online doesn’t feel like entering a used car lot of old, then you can do the hard work that matters – making your. In the meantime, when you feel confident you got a good deal, you feel better about the furniture itself.

I speak to users every week. Speaking for myself, the proudest I am of our site is when users talk about it feeling different. We believe furniture shopping should feel good, even if you can’t articulate why.


Geoff Abraham

Co-founder & President of Spoken

Geoff is the co-founder and President of Spoken. He is a Dad. He holds a BA from UT Austin (Plan II) and an MBA from Stanford. Geoff has built several successful businesses, including a bicycle taxi business in San Francisco which he ran for 10 years with his wife, Mimosa. He is an executive coach, and he actively invests in seed-stage startups via The Explorer Fund.

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