Seungjae Lee, a former chemical and electrical engineer, turned his passion for interior design into content sharing platform oHouse. Now, the startup is one of Korea’s largest lifestyle apps at a valuation of approximately $1.6 billion.
The inspiration behind Korea’s largest lifestyle and decorating platform struck during a “day of destiny” for oHouse founder and CEO Seungjae Lee, who was visiting a friend’s home when he fell in love with interior design.
“I had looked at many architecture photos on Pinterest, and felt that beautiful houses were only possible in the Western world,” Lee says from the oHouse office in Seoul, during a video interview with Forbes. “When I visited [my friend’s] house, I realized it was possible in Korea … I thought that these kinds of places could make people’s lives better.”
Lee, 34, launched oHouse in 2014 after graduating with a degree in chemical and electrical engineering from Seoul National University. It began as a community to share interior design ideas, evoking the wonder he felt when exploring his friend’s well-designed rooms. The app is now one of the most popular on the Korean internet, with over 20 million downloads – almost half of Korea’s total population – and 10 million monthly active users across the app and website, according to oHouse’s parent company Bucketplace.
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In early May, oHouse closed a $182 million series D round, bringing the total amount of funding in the company to $261.2 million. With the fresh capital, the startup confirmed its valuation of approximately $1.6 billion to Forbes – making it the latest Korean company to gain unicorn status after RIDI, a webcomic platform, completed a $99.4 million funding round in March.
Investors in oHouse’s latest round include Korea Development Bank, billionaire Park Hyeon-joo’s Mirae Asset Capital, SoftBank Ventures Asia, the venture arm of Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group, and Singaporean state-owned investor Temasek Holdings’ Vertex Growth.
“oHouse is not only transforming the home furnishing industry but also reshaping the e-commerce customer experience,” says JP Lee, CEO of SoftBank Ventures Asia, in a statement about the latest funding.
Through the app, oHouse users browse photos of other users’ designs for inspiration and purchase items similar to those in the photos. The startup claims that a furniture item is purchased through their platform every seven seconds, driving annualized gross merchandise volume to a record $1.7 billion in 2021.
In Korea, where half of the population lives in the capital city of Seoul, interior design requires creativity for small and often expensive apartments. In Seoul, studio apartments are often less than 215 square feet (20 square meters), according to a local media report from 2021.
Additionally, as the pandemic required many employees to work from home – Korea’s quarantine and virus prevention measures ranked among the strictest in the world, with the country only opening to foreign tourists last month – living spaces were reconsidered, and often redesigned.
“We believe that some of the behaviors that we’ve learned during the pandemic, like spending more time indoors, working from home and making personal spaces more comfortable … are here to stay,” says Young Jee, oHouse’s head of finance, a Wharton MBA grad and former principal at Korean billionaire Bom Kim’s e-commerce giant Coupang.
As customers may not always look to upgrade furniture, oHouse emphasizes its “content-based community” of design ideas, along with its lifestyle segment covering sales of smaller goods, from curtains to lightbulbs. The platform also offers services like home remodeling, moving, installation and repair. oHouse says it will improve its logistics infrastructure for delivery services.
“If we wanted to expand into a whole new area, like food, which we’re experimenting with already … we’re not just showing you, say, bread, we’re showing you a table,” Jee says. “We’re not going to expand into different categories and services just on the basis of how big that market is, it’s what our users are asking for.”
The self-described “lifestyle superapp” is eyeing global expansion, starting with Southeast Asia, the United States and Western Europe – the company’s English-language website states it will be available in the U.S. by this summer. In November, oHouse acquired Singaporean online furniture platform Hipvan, marking the Korean company’s first stride in Southeast Asia.
Beyond growing into new markets, oHouse plans to incorporate machine learning and augmented reality (AR) functionality into its platform, which will enable users to “imagine” how furniture looks in their apartment before purchasing new items. Growing AR capabilities have seen new applications in furniture retail and interior design, as well as real estate. InSpace, an AR company led by Forbes 30 under 30 honoree Justin Liang, developed a platform for real estate professionals to host 3D digital replicas of their buildings online.
No matter how big oHouse becomes, with moving companies and even food delivery services, Lee still believes its values from that “day of destiny” are intact.
“Why we’re doing this has always been the same … to make people’s lives better,” Lee says.