Jay Reno ’10 is changing the way people decorate their homes with a fresh, sustainable approach to the furniture business.
By Alexa Boschini ’10
Gone are the days of owning massive collections of DVDs and CDs, thanks to entertainment subscription services like Netflix and Spotify. Some consumers are decluttering their closets through companies like Rent the Runway, which offers designer clothing and accessory rentals. Others are forgoing vehicle ownership with the availability of ride services like Uber and Lyft. Particularly among young adults, ownership is dying out in favor of sharing, renting or subscribing to goods. But until recently, no such sustainable option existed for one of the more expensive assets in people’s lives — furniture.
Enter Jay Reno ’10 and Feather, a furniture subscription service that offers a flexible and sustainable alternative to ownership. According to the United States Census Bureau, young adults move more frequently than any other age group in the country. Reno himself has lived in six apartments in his eight years in New York. With each move, he faced the same issues: His furniture didn’t always physically fit within his new dwelling. His only options? Buy new furniture and either sell the old furniture or discard it.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, about 9.7 million tons of furniture end up in landfills every year. That statistic was unacceptable to Reno, a longtime sustainability advocate, and he set out to find a solution using his business savvy. If companies like Uber and Rent the Runway could change the way consumers view basic needs like transportation and clothing, why couldn’t he do the same for furniture? “I notice issues in the world, and I try to solve them through business,” Reno says. “There is a ton of disposable furniture out there. Most people who move frequently are buying ‘fast furniture,’ throwing it out each time they move and buying new stuff. I decided to solve that problem by building a more circular model for furniture.”
Founded in 2017 and available in four urban markets, Feather allows subscribers to pay a low monthly fee to rent their furniture. Most clients use the service for 12 to 24 months at a time. At livefeather.com, customers can choose from a wide variety of individual furnishings or curated room packages, which the company then delivers and assembles within a week. All monthly furniture payments go toward owning each item, so customers can ultimately buy the pieces if they want. Otherwise, they have the option to add, swap or return furniture as their tastes and needs change, whether they’re moving to a new place or just want redecorating. Furniture that clients return is refurbished and reused, finding new life away from the landfill.
In just two years, Feather has expanded rapidly. In May alone, the company announced three major milestones. It raised an additional $12 million in funding, led by Spark Capital. It unveiled a new subscription model in which nonmembers pay for services a la carte and members pay a monthly fee for an annual contract and additional services and benefits. And it expanded to Los Angeles and Orange County, California, following successful runs in New York and San Francisco. “People would rather vote with their dollars by using something that is a better alternative to ownership and isn’t harming the earth,” Reno says. “Feather is both convenient and much more sustainable than the current alternatives.”
Reno felt a strong connection to the natural world from a young age. He grew up playing outdoors and hiking in the mountains in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, which he describes as a small, woodsy town. But after living in the same area for his entire life, he wanted to experience college in a completely different environment. A recommendation from his high school guidance counselor led him to Elon, where he majored in business with a concentration in entrepreneurship. “I knew I wanted to build things from the ground up and solve big problems in the world,” Reno says.
Outside the classroom Reno played intramural sports and honed his leadership skills in the Student Government Association, where he served all four years of college, including as senior class president. His study abroad experience in Madrid stands out as a highlight from his time at Elon, he says, because it pushed him outside of his comfort zone and enabled him to learn through real world experiences.
“Elon did such a good job of allowing you to experience lots of parts of you, to learn about yourself and have nurturing support systems around you, so even if you did fail, you could feel comfortable trying different things,” Reno says. “What Elon helped teach through this engaged learning environment was the ability to see the real world before you were actually thrust into it. That’s super unique about Elon.” Reno remains actively involved with the university through his work on the President’s Young Leaders Council.
After graduating from Elon, Reno studied environmental policy at Harvard but dropped out after a semester. His professors emphasized that he and his classmates were unlikely to effect environmental change through policy in their lifetime, but their work would pave the way for future generations to solve those problems. Reno disagreed. “I felt there were ways you could achieve positive environmental outcomes faster than that,” he says. “I realized business was actually one of the best ways to do that.”
He ultimately obtained his master’s degree in climate and environmental sciences from Columbia University while pursuing his entrepreneurial interests. He launched a same-day grocery delivery company focused on local food resources, but the business shuttered after about two and a half years. “I think that failure really instilled in me a will to win and a drive,” Reno says. “I really wanted to build something and actually have it solve a big problem.”
Reno co-founded another company — an app dedicated to solving excess capacity at bars and restaurants in New York City — that was acquired in 2016. He shifted his focus to Feather in 2017. He recognized a trend toward people valuing experiences over products, and after his own frustrations with his multiple moves, he hypothesized that urban consumers would rather rent furniture than own it. He set out to test his theory with a simple one-man operation. He created a basic website, using e-commerce platform Shopify, and unpacked and assembled furniture orders in his apartment. He delivered them to people’s homes himself with a friend’s help.
He took a chance and cold-emailed the CEO of West Elm, the popular home and lifestyle brand owned by Williams-Sonoma, and pitched the Feather concept. That email led to a meeting that resulted in West Elm making some of its furniture available to rent through Feather. “You have to put yourself out there and take risks, but don’t spend your entire savings building something before it’s proven that it’s going to exist longer-term,” Reno says. “I built a test, put the test out in the world, talked to smart people in furniture who validated it, and customers started to use it.” Reno applied and was accepted into Y Combinator, a top startup accelerator that provides initial capital and resources to companies in the program, and the business began growing rapidly from there.
Today, Feather is a far cry from its modest early days operating out of Reno’s apartment. The company has raised $16 million in venture capital. Its headquarters in SoHo has 40 full-time employees and counting, plus dozens of people responsible for assembly and deliveries. Its clientele includes celebrities and businesses, not to mention thousands of average city dwellers looking for a convenient and eco-friendly way to furnish their homes. Next, Reno hopes to expand the business to more cities.
“The transformation from when we started to now is just mind-boggling,” Reno says. “We’re changing consumer behavior. That’s why we’ve raised so much venture capital and why the best investors are investing in us. You have to get people to do something completely differently, and if you can do that, you create a category-changing business.”