The Furniture Hustlers of Silicon Valley
Brandi Susewitz touched the curved stitching on a pair of bright red Arne Jacobsen Egg Chairs and announced they were worth around $5,000 each. The chairs were in pristine condition, perched in the reception area of the software company Sitecore’s office in downtown San Francisco.
Trisha Murcia, Sitecore’s workplace manager, said she was likely the only person who ever sat on them. “It’s really sad,” she said. “They opened this office in 2018 and then Covid happened.”
Ms. Murcia led Ms. Susewitz around Sitecore’s office, pointing out bar stools that had never been used, 90-inch flat screens, shiny conference room tables and accent chairs from the retailer Blu Dot. The whiteboard walls, outfitted with markers and erasers, were spotless. And rows upon rows of 30-by-60-inch, height-adjustable Knoll desks with Herman Miller Aeron chairs sat collecting dust.
Ms. Susewitz measured and snapped photos, identifying designer brands and models. Her office furniture resale business, Reseat, would take all of it, she declared. “We can find a home for this,” she said. “We have time.”
Ms. Susewitz, who started Reseat in 2020, is one of an increasing number of behind-the-scenes specialists in the Bay Area who are carving out a piece of the great office furniture reshuffling. There are professional liquidators, Craigslist flippers and start-ups spouting buzzwords like “circular economy.” And a few guys with warehouses full of really nice chairs.
All of them are capitalizing on a wave of tech companies that are drastically shrinking their physical footprints in the wake of the pandemic-induced shift to remote work and the recent economic slowdown.
Nowhere is the furniture glut stronger than in San Francisco. Tech workers have been slowest to return to the office in the city, where commercial vacancy rates jumped to 28 percent last year, up from 4 percent in 2019, according to the real estate firm CBRE. Occupancy in San Francisco in late January was 4 percent below the average of the top 10 U.S. cities, according to the building security firm Kastle. And companies of all sizes, including PayPal, Block and Yelp, are giving up their expensive downtown headquarters or downsizing their office space.
Add to that the tech industry’s recent U-turn from optimistic hypergrowth to fear and penny pinching. That has led tech giants such as Google and Salesforce, along with smaller companies like DoorDash and Wish, to carry out widespread layoffs, cutting more than 88,000 workers in the Bay Area over the last year, according to Layoffs.fyi.
Some start-ups have abruptly gone under, including the flying car company Kittyhawk, the autonomous vehicle start-up Argo AI and the interior design start-up Modsy. Others have slashed spending, starting with their dusty, rarely used offices full of designer furniture.
Last month, Twitter held a public auction for some of its furniture, hawking dry erase boards, conference tables and a three-foot blue statue of its bird logo. The social media company, which is owned by Elon Musk, at one point stopped paying the rent on some of its office leases.
Martin Pichinson, a founder of Sherwood Partners, an advisory firm that helps restructure failing start-ups, said he was staffing up to handle increased demand. Today’s reckoning was not as severe as that of the dot-com bust in the early 2000s when dozens of tech companies collapsed, he said, but “everyone is acting as if businesses are falling apart.”
Layoffs in Big Tech
After a pandemic hiring spree, several tech companies are now pulling back.
- A Growing List: Alphabet, Microsoft and Zoom are among the latest tech giants to cut jobs amid concerns about an economic slowdown.
- Salesforce: The company said it would lay off 10 percent of its staff, a decision that seemed to go against the professed commitment of its co-founder and chief executive, Marc Benioff, to its workers.
- New Parents Hit Hard: At tech companies that spent recent years expanding paid parental leave, parents have felt the whiplash of mass layoffs in an especially visceral way.
- Tech’s Generational Divide: The recent cuts have been eye-opening to young workers. But to older employees who experienced the dot-com bust, it has hardly been a shock.
That’s led to a lot of expendable furniture, much of it hewing to a specific youthful aesthetic of Instagrammable bright colors and midcentury modern shapes. That look, complemented by plant walls of succulents and kombucha on tap, was a hallmark of the tech talent wars over the past two decades, telegraphing a company’s success and sophistication.
Then there’s the Aeron chairs. The $1,805 black roller-wheel desk chairs are a closely-watched barometer of tech excesses. Their sleek design makes them a work of art, according to the Museum of Modern Art. And in the tech industry, where workers are used to being pampered while chained to their desks, they are ubiquitous.
When internet companies imploded in 2000, liquidators filled their warehouses with the “dot-com thrones.” Now any whiff of empty Aerons piling up conjures memories of that slump and sets off fears that another is imminent.
The Bay Area’s Craigslist currently has gobs of the chairs for sale, photographed in warehouses, lined up in corners of conference rooms and wrapped in plastic outside a storage unit. Some are selling for as cheap as a few hundred bucks.
The listings are a reminder: Silicon Valley is a place of booms and busts, with enterprising hustlers who see nothing but opportunity, even in the rubble.
A trail of Dropbox furniture
For furniture specialists, it all starts with supplies from tech companies like Dropbox.
In 2019, the file storage company moved into its 735,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco. Its 15-year lease was the largest in the city’s history at the time. Dropbox’s old office was rented to other companies, and last year, a cache of furniture — futuristic-chic chairs, couches and tables — from that office made its way to a liquidator.
The inventory included several emerald green velvet Jean Royère-style Polar Bear chairs that cost roughly $10,000 to custom make in 2016, according to their maker, Classic Design LA.
Three of those chairs sold to Tenzin Norbu, a furniture reseller in Richmond, Calif., who paid around $1,000 for each. Mr. Norbu, 25, started buying and selling high-end furniture on online marketplaces early in the pandemic, when people were eager to redecorate the homes they were stuck inside and stymied by supply chain delays on furniture.
Since then, his business, called Enliven, has expanded to include a van, three employees, a 4,000-square-foot warehouse and annual revenue in the mid-six figures.
The tech talent wars, with companies competing to out-perk one another with the fanciest offices, were good for designer furniture. The retreat from that battle has been just as good for resellers.
Last year, Mr. Norbu scored some lounge chairs and couches from Fast, a payments start-up that collapsed in the spring. He also paid “tens of thousands” of dollars, he said, to fill a 20-foot truck of still-in-the-box furniture that WeWork, whose valuation had plummeted, had kept in storage since 2019. The trove included dining chairs, lamps, couches and a chunky red Bollo armchair by the Swedish designer Fogia.
On a recent tour of his warehouse, Mr. Norbu pointed out a pair of never-used felt poufs from a start-up, two glass coffee tables from Delta Air Lines, some gray lounge chairs that were “probably from Google” and plants from a venture capital firm.
Mr. Norbu aims to target more tech start-ups as his business expands. The companies are always acquiring or shedding furniture, since they tend to grow quickly and shut down abruptly. Many of his buyers also work in tech, he said, which means they could find themselves eating dinner at the very conference table they once gathered around for meetings.
Last year, Mr. Norbu sold one of the Polar Bear chairs that had been owned by Dropbox to a fellow furniture flipper, Nate Morgan, for $1,400. Mr. Morgan started trading furniture in the fall after he was laid off from a business development job at Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram. He said he quickly discovered the Bay Area contains “crazy pockets of massive amounts of furniture.”
Mr. Morgan’s business, Reclamation, recently worked with a wealthy tech entrepreneur who had bought a second San Francisco home to live in while his main home was being renovated. The entrepreneur furnished the 4,000-square-foot second home with new goods from Restoration Hardware. Nine months later, when the entrepreneur moved into his main home, Mr. Morgan bought all of the second home’s furniture for 10 percent of its retail price.
Mr. Morgan, 44, said the furniture business was a welcome shift from the 15 years he spent working in tech. “It feels really good to be building a local community business that’s tied to this geographic area,” he said.
Mr. Morgan later sold the Polar Bear chair that had been at Dropbox for a profit to an interior designer in Los Angeles, who then sold it to a client in the Hollywood Hills. From the liquidator, to Mr. Norbu, to Mr. Morgan, to the interior designer, each person in the chain made a little money.
Dropbox declined to comment. During the pandemic, the company shifted to remote work and made plans to sublet 80 percent of its headquarters. Takers have been slow; the company recently lowered its expected rate, pushed out its target for finding tenants by two years and recorded a $175 million charge on its real estate holdings in 2022.
Dropbox’s remaining space has been converted into what the company calls a “studio” instead of an “office,” designed for meetings and “touchdown spots,” or cafes and libraries for people to sit, chat and work briefly. There are no more desks.
‘It was a ghost town’
Ms. Susewitz, 49, has worked in office furniture since 1997, when she became a customer service representative at Lindsay-Ferrari, a Bay Area furniture dealer now known as One Workplace.
The furniture industry’s wastefulness always bugged her, she said, with companies discarding durable, commercial-grade items that were built to last decades every time they moved. Companies waited until the last minute to deal with the furniture, she said, increasing the odds it wound up in the trash.
In the late 1990s dot-com boom, Ms. Susewitz created a business plan to build an online marketplace for used office furniture. She abandoned it when eBay took off, thinking the company would eventually solve the problem. “But that never happened,” she said.
Over the next two decades, she worked in sales and business development, outfitting Bay Area businesses with goods from “the big five” of workplace furniture — Steelcase, MillerKnoll, Haworth, Allsteel and Teknion.
When the pandemic hit, Ms. Susewitz’s livelihood of new office furniture screeched to a halt. She watched with disgust as companies tossed out barely used desks and chairs.
“Perfectly good, brand-new furniture is just being carted off to landfills,” she said.
So she created Reseat to help businesses liquidate furniture. The company uses an inventory management system that tracks the items’ “life cycles” so it can quickly share the specifications for the furniture, making the goods easier to sell. Given enough time, sellers can expect 20 cents on the dollar for their furniture, she said. Reseat, which has 14 employees, has worked with more than 100 companies and sold more than eight million pounds of furniture.
“Our goal is to sell it standing,” Ms. Susewitz said. “Once it ends up in a warehouse, it loses value and ends up collecting dust.”
In December, Reseat was hired to liquidate more than 900 work stations, 96 office chairs, 40 work benches, 24 sofas and 84 file cabinets at an office in Santa Clara, Calif. Analog Devices, the semiconductor company that had moved out, hardly used the space during the pandemic. But Pure Storage, the data storage company moving in, didn’t want those pieces. Reseat had just four weeks to sell the items.
“It just ate me up inside,” Ms. Susewitz said. That she found buyers in time was “a miracle,” she added.
Pure Storage said it was reusing a “substantial” amount of Analog Devices’ furniture, including desk chairs and conference room items, but it planned to install its existing desks “to better suit how Pure employees work in a more open office environment.” An Analog Devices representative declined to comment.
Ms. Susewitz was excited about the furniture at Sitecore because the company had contacted Reseat months ahead of its move, setting it up to easily find a home for its goods. At Sitecore’s office, she showed off how to identify the size of an Aeron chair. Each one has a set of plastic bumps hidden on its back. Two bumps indicate the most common size, a “B.”
There were 16 size Bs around a wooden conference table that Sitecore had built using wood from a houseboat that was in Sausalito, Calif. In the center, a basin filled with Legos was flanked by the universal emblems of the pandemic: a bottle of Purell and a package of Clorox wipes.
Before the pandemic, Sitecore was expanding its space so rapidly that it had leased another half of a floor in its office tower. But “once the pandemic hit, it was a ghost town,” said Brad Hamilton, the company’s head of real estate and facilities.
Sitecore plans to downgrade to 30 desks from 170. “We’re paying an outrageous amount of money for a floor that nobody uses,” he said.
Toward the end of the office tour, Ms. Susewitz surveyed Sitecore’s empty kitchen area, outfitted with a Ping-Pong table, a Ms. Pac-Man machine and two curved, six-foot privacy coves. Ms. Susewitz said she would take everything, except for the plates and silverware.
One result of the furniture trading is a lot more people logging into Zoom meetings from very nice chairs — and not only in the Bay Area.
In January, Gilad Rom, a software engineer in Los Angeles, decided to upgrade his work station at home. He searched Craigslist and found a seller with 500 Aeron chairs — apparently acquired from a SiriusXM office that had shifted to remote work — in Culver City, Calif.
When he posted a picture of the chairs gathered in a room, their black foam arms intertwined, the reaction was explosive. Some people wanted to score their own cheap Aeron. Many more wanted to reminisce about what the empty chairs represented — corporate excess gone awry.
“I think it brought back a lot of memories,” Mr. Rom, 43, said. “Flashbacks from 2008 and 2000.”
The seller, a secondhand furniture shop called Wannasofa, was so overwhelmed with calls after Mr. Rom’s tweet that the store gave him a 25 percent discount. “Apparently I’m a chair influencer now,” he said.
The reaction also gave him an idea.
“Maybe I should build an app that helps people find cheap luxury furniture,” he said. “Maybe there’s something there.”