How Cult Mattress Company Casper Plans To Get You Into Bed

The New York-based mattress company is using science, design thinking, and whimsy to make sleep products worth talking about.

How Cult Mattress Company Casper Plans To Get You Into Bed
[Illustration: Ellen Porteus]

Last summer, Casper—the New York–based mattress company that aims, as its founders say, to become the Nike of sleep—introduced a surprising new product. It was only Casper’s fourth major launch, after its high-tech foam mattress (which debuted in 2014) and extra-breathable sheets and pillow (2015), but it differed from those products in a major way. This one, it turned out, wasn’t meant for humans.

The Casper Dog Mattress, which sells for $125, promises “to create a sleep environment that caters to canines’ natural behaviors.” An R&D team spent 11 months conducting dog sleep studies, consulting with canine psychologists and churning through more than 100 prototypes. “Which is a crazy idea,” admits Neil Parikh, one of Casper’s five cofounders and its COO. “It’s a dog bed!” The mattress (“Designed for top dogs, by top dogs”) is selling briskly. But that’s only part of the value. As Parikh puts it, it’s an opportunity “to [show] people how we think—to remind them that, ‘Hey, here is a cool group of people that thinks in an interesting way.’ ”

Video: Casper’s Mission To Redefine Your Bedroom

If you’re going to convince consumers that sleep is a pursuit as worthy of obsession as exercise or eating, you have to approach things differently. Three years after launching the original one-model-sleeps-all bed-in-a-box, Casper is combining science, design thinking, branding, and a winking sense of humor to redefine the humble mattress and its accoutrements into lifestyle statements. And its hundreds of thousands of customers are proving that being well-rested is finally getting its due. The company, which pulled in an estimated $200 million–plus in 2016 revenue (double the previous year’s), has begun expanding internationally, entering Canada, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the U.K., with more countries soon to follow. “We’ve set up the infrastructure so within a couple months we can turn on a new geography,” says Parikh. “We’ve got, like, a SWAT team that can go in [and be] operational within eight to 10 weeks.”

To an outside observer, such excitement for selling mattresses—a single model at that—might seem curious. But as their foray into dog beds demonstrates, Casper’s founders are on a different mission. “When we talk about becoming a lifestyle brand,” says Luke Sherwin, another cofounder and the chief creative officer, “it really is about the idea that whatever question you have about sleep, Casper will have an answer.”

Casper gets its whimsy—and relentless drive—from its founders. Parikh, 27, dropped out of medical school, horrifying his physician parents (especially his sleep-doctor dad), to pursue sweet mattress-sales dreams with a group of guys he describes as his closest friends. Sherwin, 28, and chief technology officer Gabriel Flateman, 26, attended Brown University with Parikh. (When Sherwin describes fostering a company culture, he tends toward words like dialectically.) Chief product officer Jeff Chapin, 40, spent a decade at Ideo, where he designed toilets, car seats, and mattresses, the latter for one of the major players. And CEO Philip Krim, 33, first saw opportunity in mattresses as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin, where he sold them, among other products, via an early e-commerce startup he ran out of his dorm room. None of the five has kids, all are hyperarticulate and chatty, and their social and professional lives are completely intertwined. “Where we got lucky was that we found people we really enjoyed working with,” says Parikh. “People will hear us yelling in a room and looking like we’re gonna throw shit at each other, but that’s because it’s a part of our DNA that we debate everything.”

When Casper launched in 2014, the founders’ confidence in the idea was based on several core insights. One, of course, is that buying a mattress is typically an awful consumer experience. Another is that the vast margins (often 100% or more) that the major manufacturers bake in created an opportunity for a nimble new player. And then there were a whole series of fundamental assumptions about consumer behavior that the company cheerfully upended, from the idea that people want a mattress designed for their specific sleep style to the perception that word-of-mouth sales would be impossible to generate because nobody talks about their mattress (a notion that was shattered by an immediate boom in viral unboxing videos). “Maybe [the videos were] a function of the fact that they like our brand, or the unboxing experience is exciting,” says Parikh, referring to the way the mattress, which comes compressed into a surprisingly tiny roll, unfurls and expands in a dramatic fashion. “But the fact that people actually want to talk about sleep is pretty interesting.”

That last idea became a kind of umbrella insight—that sleep is becoming a thing, a major lifestyle component, with a new cohort of evangelists proselytizing that the key to productivity and overall health stems from maximizing the quality of our slumber. (It’s a belief that has found adherents in everyone from users of sleep-tracking apps to Arianna Huffington.) That thinking runs through all of Casper’s subsequent products. Its sheets, for example, challenge the assumption that higher thread count equals higher quality. From both human testing and material-science research, Chapin’s team concluded that densely woven sheets don’t allow for cooling airflow, making the microclimate under the covers uncomfortably hot and humid. “The mattress, sheets, and pillow are fundamentally very simple things, so the science around the materials is really critical for how well they work,” says Chapin. “We’ve gotten really good at understanding things like pressure distribution and heat and moisture management.” Chapin and friends are now building out an R&D lab in San Francisco, which will allow for rapid prototyping and even in-house sleep-study bedrooms. Each space can be adjusted to mimic any possible sleep environment in terms of temperature, humidity, and other parameters. “It’s sick,” says Parikh. “[We’re] gonna be able to prototype something, then watch people actually sleeping on it, while our team is at work upstairs.”

The art is how Casper has prioritized this science while cultivating its playful image. If Wes Anderson made a movie about a mattress company, it would probably look a lot like Casper—and not just because they’ve conducted sleep studies with dogs. It’s also about the way the marketing is built around meme-y blue-and-white cartoons designed to get people—even if they’re years away from needing new bedding—thinking about the brand. Or the company’s tastefully cheeky nods to the way the mattress, via its springy latex layer, can enhance “indoor sports.”

Casper has maintained this puckishness as it moves into physical retail. It’s a dramatic shift for the company, opening it up to more traditional customers who might not feel comfortable making a major purchase online. (A queen-size mattress costs $950.) The company’s showrooms, currently in New York, Los Angeles, and London, feature elements one would never find in a Mattress King, including trompe l’oeil paintings of furniture and secret napping spaces in back. In addition, Casper struck a major partnership with the furniture retailer West Elm, which allows customers to check out the mattresses in person at more than 90 stores across North America. (West Elm, for its part, gets a welcome frisson of Casper’s millennial-friendly vibe.) “We went full force with Casper,” says Nancy Tsuei, West Elm’s senior VP of merchandising. “We’ve given them significant real estate in our stores, online marketing, home-page marketing, and space in our catalog, which goes out to millions of homes.”

Parikh won’t say specifically where else he’s trying to bring the Casper sleep experience, but allows that it includes pretty much anywhere you might find yourself snoozing: in hotel beds, on cruise ships, on airplanes. “We’re in the final legs of probably closing some stuff [with an airline],” he says. “How do you turn a pseudo-average experience of sleeping on a plane into something awesome? Usually that’s going to involve: How do we make the seats better? How do we think about eye masks, duvets, pillows?”

What Parikh finds most exciting about Casper going mainstream is that it gives him and his buddies the chance to test their own foundational assumptions. “When we first started the business, the demographic we thought we were going to hit was millennials,” he says. But hundreds of thousands of customers later, Parikh and company found their beds appealing to a much wider group of users: “I mean, people who are 65 who live in Nebraska also need mattresses,” he says. And if not them, their dogs.

This article is part of our coverage of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017.

About the author

Jonathan Ringen is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He contributes regularly to Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Details, and Billboard.