Gravity, the self-described “weighted blanket for sleep, stress, and anxiety,” recently raised over $4.7 million on Kickstarter. Maybe the product’s developers meticulously orchestrated this awareness strategy, or maybe they just fell ass-backwards into it. It’s so well-done I’m inclined to believe it’s the former, but who knows?
What I do know is that every startup founder needs to get people aware of and excited about an idea that nobody’s ever heard of at first. To do that, you need to make some kind of a promise that your customers want you to keep.
Getting anyone to do anything is tough, of course. Yet Gravity got thousands of people to spend $200 on a heavy blanket, sight unseen. That’s crazy, but it’s not completely inexplicable, and the most likely explanation makes for a lesson every startup founder needs to learn.
I ask every founder that applies to Tacklebox, my startup accelerator, the same three questions. I look for founders with good answers to the first two questions and an exceptional answer to the third:
- Why you?
- Why now?
- Why at all?
For Gravity, let’s ignore question one; I don’t know if its supply chain is scalable, if the margins work, or even if the product does what it claims to (a few weeks ago the company notably scaled back one of its key health claims); that’s all founder-driven stuff better left to another discussion—like this one, if you’re interested. For the sake of building awareness, the “why you” part is irrelevant, but the the latter two questions are critical, and Gravity nails them.
Why now? Gravity couldn’t have existed a decade ago: No Kickstarter, no Gravity. Kickstarter empowers entrepreneurs to do what they do best—tell stories. Ten years ago, a weighted blanked would’ve lived at Brookstone, folded in a stack next to a couple of vibrating chairs, being decidedly uncool. For years weighted blanks have been prescribed to treat a number of medical conditions and disorders, but without crowdfunding, ordinary consumers wouldn’t have given one a second look.
How? Kickstarter has created a platform that gives life to products that need some level of education in order to take off. That’s set some new ground rules whereby as customers, we’ve entered into an agreement with entrepreneurs: You tell us your story in a short, well-produced video, and we’ll play our own mini game of Shark Tank. If you’re able to make a promise we want you to keep, we’ll fund you.
This automatically creates a measure of urgency, something entrepreneurs kill for. Customers are forced to make a decision—buy, or miss out. When the campaign is up, we no longer get the early adopter price. This feels distinctly different from a sale, so the brand isn’t diluted.
All of this allows founders to flex their empathy muscles. They get a chance to prove how well they understand their customers’ problems, and they get two to three minutes to do it. In this kind of environment storytellers win, and Gravity’s story clearly resonates right now. The reason it does is impossible to answer definitively, but the fact that it does goes straight to the heart of that third question . . .
Why at all? Answer: because a lot of people feel effin’ stressed right now.
Stress isn’t new. But whatever particular brand of 2017-minted stress might be in the air these days, it seems to play directly into Gravity’s strengths as a product. In its Kickstarter video, Gravy savvily frames “anxiety” as a national epidemic: “Forty million people suffer from prolonged anxiety,” we’re told. “That is 18% of the country.” Hearing that recently, a lot of people thought to themselves, “That’s me!”
It probably hasn’t hurt that newish brands like Casper, Parachute, Headspace, Brooklinen, and others have spent lots of time and money teaching consumers about the scientific benefits of stress-reduction and strategies to combat anxiety so that Gravity didn’t have to. In our current environment, Gravity didn’t even need to tell consumers where it thinks all that stress and anxiety might be coming from—just pointing out the supposed problem felt timely anyway.
And while I’m only a sample of one, I’ll bet that whichever way you lean politically, you didn’t consume anywhere near as much news 18 months ago as you do today. My humor and startup podcasts have been replaced by political podcasts. I’ve traded reading books or articles I enjoy for political articles that scare me. My WhatsApp group titled “Gmen,” which includes a bunch of high school buddies who for the last five years have talked about the Giants, is now 90% politics. No more Netflix binges or Westworld—I’ve got depressing, hour-long news shows to watch.
I bet I’m not alone. I bet you’ve made similar shifts in what you consume, too. And since we’re all busy, any shift in consumption habits that might’ve taken place would be a zero-sum game—out with relaxing, stimulating content; in with the chaos. So as bad as this may be for our mental states, it represents a change we’ve made all by ourselves. That’s potential gold for entrepreneurs.
Founders spend their lives trying (often unsuccessfully) to get people to make tiny changes in their existing behavior. If Gravity seems so compelling to so many people, it’s probably because the antidote it’s offering—basically, a security blanket for grownups—is such a simple, targeted solution. You don’t have to stop watching Last Week Tonight or book an appointment with a sleep therapist. That’s one powerful value proposition. “A heavy blanket might be the key to reducing my stress levels? And for just $200? Give me three.”
Early on, your product will only grow through word of mouth. Jonah Berger, the author of Contagious, taught us that 93% of product talk is face to face. This means you’ve got to arm your customers with a simple, differentiated value prop that they can remember and share with others—something they can clearly envision themselves benefiting from. And that’s why I think “magic beans” get a bad wrap.
Cynical as it sounds, magic beans are actually the goal, the Holy Grail of entrepreneurship. Your product really should do what it promises—don’t ever sell snake oil. But you want to know your customers well enough to solve their biggest problem without requiring them to poke a single toe outside their normal routines.
If I’m a farmer, I want to swap the ordinary beans I’m planting, which don’t grow, with magic beans that do. Done. It’s easier to get people to switch gyms than to start exercising. Meditation apps, yoga studios—they’re promising to remove my stress, but there’s a lot of effort on my part. They’re trying to change people’s behavior. I need to “start exercising,” in yoga’s case, literally.
Gravity is pitching me something much easier to get on board with. I can picture myself using the product immediately. I already have a blanket; I’ll just swap it out with this heavier one. I can picture myself lounging on my couch, relaxed, reading a book—or heading to sleep after a long, anxiety-packed day. No more stress. I’ve got 25 pounds of blanket taking care of that.
When just in case your BS meter wakes up, it’s soothed with the reassurance that Gravity has “studied the incredible science and medical research” to develop a blanket whose even weight distribution “increases serotonin and melatonin levels while decreasing cortisol levels.” As a customer that’s a promise you want Gravity to keep.
And it doesn’t just go for consumer products. If you’re pitching inventory management for restaurants or a hot-sauce subscription box or a mystery novel, you’ve got to have a clear, differentiated promise your customer wants you to keep. Straightforward but hard to pull off. The simple, bold solutions—whether or not they actually work—are always the most attractive.
A version of this article originally appeared on Medium and is adapted with permission.