Is there a bubble for half-baked startup ideas?
Yes. Yes, there is. Need evidence? A quick Google scan reveals a laundry list of business strategies that follow the same formulaic pitch construction, like:
Sometimes, that sort of derivative language is useful for quickly understanding what a company is about. Most of the time it is not. One recent example is Novosbed, a five-year-old company that introduced itself in my Fast Company inbox as the "the Warby Parker of mattresses."
If that marketing terminology does not make sense to you, intelligible human, rest assured you aren't alone: Mattresses are a big, bulky pain-in-the-ass. Eyeglasses are small. One product fits conveniently into a mailbox; the other does not.
I was still curious! Maybe ordering from the Warby Parker of mattresses--a description so clumsy-sounding, so lacking in self-awareness that it didn't sound real--could make for an interesting story. (To be fair, it's not even the first mattress company to lay claim to that title.) So, after a short email exchange with a very nice and wonderful Novosbed rep, I arranged to have one of the company’s queen-sized memory foam mattresses (the “Aria”; $999) shipped to my tiny Brooklyn apartment, which I share with my girlfriend. This was the goal: To try the mattress out for the 120-day trial period, repackage it, send it back to Novosbed, and maybe try another mattress on for size--indeed, the same way you'd try a box of Warby Parker frames, only to discover that you are not, in fact, as attractive as the perfectly cheekboned eyewear models on Warby Parker's website.
Or at least that was the original plan. Things did not unfold that way.
A day later, I came home from the office to a four-foot-tall cardboard box standing outside my door. At first I thought, "Hmmm, that's not the size of a mattress," observant writing professional that I am. The package was deceptively heavy, as if it contained a dead body, or something extremely dense, like a teeny tiny black hole. I had to penguin walk it into my apartment.
Once I opened the box, I realized that the queen mattress inside was vacuum packed and hermetically sealed like a giant Fruit Roll-Up. After wrestling with its contents, the instructions said to let the Aria re-inflate on its own naturally. I unraveled its plastic wrapper and went into the other room to take a nap.
A half-hour later, I came back to this:
Remember those colorful capsules that ballooned into dinosaur shapes when you place them in water? This was just like that, without the water. Except it was an enormous bed that suddenly took up three-fourths of my living room.
How Novosbed Got Its Start
Novosbed was founded in 2009 by Sam Prochazka, who considers himself something of a “mattress connoisseur.” As in many creation stories, he found himself frustrated with the process of shopping for beds at brick-and-mortar retailers. “I slept on a foam mattress because of a back condition in my late teens,” Prochazka told Fast Company over the phone. “One day I went into a local mattress store, and got a coffee-breath pitch from a salesperson who tried to bamboozle me. The bed I had tried to buy for $200 a decade earlier, they were trying to sell me for $3,000!”
So he quit his job in the pharmaceutical industry, and, with the help of siblings Andrew and Helenka (and $40,000), Prochazka started Novosbed. The company's goal was noble: to sell quality mattresses without the traditional brick-and-mortar markup or the annoying hassle of salespeople. A clearly defined mission that, in fact, did serve a greater good.
Users have 120 days to try each Novosbed mattress out, which they can order in varying sizes and degrees of firmness. The foam--which we'll get to in a bit--is sourced from a reputable memory foam supplier in North Carolina. The young company is doing pretty well for itself, too: Prochazka projects Novosbed to make $4.5 million in profit this year.
Our conversation was going fine until I told Prochazka my intentions. “I’m going to return the thing after the 120-day trial period,” I said, with a chuckle. I asked him if the process was going to suck?
“Well," Prochazka trailed off. His voice dropped an octave. “What we do with the return pickup is we hire local movers, and then we donate it to a local charity... There’s absolutely no way to get it back in the box.”
I paused. Well, this got awkward. “Uh, isn’t that terrible for the environment? And expensive for you guys?”
Prochazka declined to share financial information about its losses on each donated mattress, but he did say the company's return rate is low: around 3%. (Maybe that's because it's such a pain to send it back?)
Once we hung up, I realized my oversight: that nobody in their right mind would want to sleep on a used mattress. Sleepy's, for example, charges a $150 disposal fee for exchanged mattresses, with a maximum of one exchange per customer. Novosbed has no hard cap on how many beds you can try, but then again its beds (even the $999 Aria, the mattress I ordered) are generally not as expensive as the ones at big entrenched mattress companies.
In any case, the fact remained: I was sleeping on a thousand-dollar mattress that I couldn't return, and threatened to do dastardly things to my carbon footprint. What to do?
The Bed Itself
The mattress was a dream to sleep on, especially for someone who has spent his entire adult life sleeping on Ikea furniture. It was firm, in a quality way. My girlfriend and I slept like rosy little cherubs on clouds that first night--if said clouds featured space-age technology to contour to the exact specifications of our spinal columns. Small wonder the Aria racks up A+ marks from mattress reviewers.
This promotional photo taken from Novosbed.com just about sums up our satisfaction:
Oh, and did I mention that the bed costs $999? Because that thought crossed my mind several times a day.
Prochazka says that's a steal, particularly when you compare it to its monolithic mattress competition. His beds are more or less on par with the bigwigs in terms of quality. “More than half the market is controlled by two companies,” said Prochazka. “Between Tempur-Pedic and Simmons/Serta, it's a $9 billion industry in the U.S. and Canada.”
My girlfriend and I felt weird about getting rid if it. We couldn't let this beautiful, comfortable thing collect bedbugs in a donation pile somewhere, could we? That said, I never imagined that I would end up spending a few hundred dollars out of my own pocket for a post. We live in Brooklyn! I work in publishing! A thousand dollars is a lot of money! (Full disclosure: Novosbed tried to offer us the Aria on the house, but
we I politely declined, because journalism, I guess.)
Maybe the Novosbed team was actually onto something by calling itself the Warby Parker of mattresses. Prochazka knows that people like me would rather not go through hassle of returning a gigantic 90-pound piece of memory foam: dragging it out of their bedroom, and scheduling a pickup with movers. Maybe Novosbed--a company that knows a thing or two about comfort--knows the exact level of exertion most feeble-minded humans are willing to put themselves through when purchasing large and unwieldy pieces of bedroom furniture.
So, because my back feels amazing, and partly because it was really frikkin' heavy, but mostly because my girlfriend essentially chained herself to it and says there's no way in hell we're giving it away, we're going to buy this mattress. The Aria costs $999. You can buy one here.
[Image courtesy of NovosBed]