Warby of X

Warby Of X: Slumbr, Pillows Perfected?

Sleep should never be disrupted, unless it’s elevating the experience. The latter is what Slumbr, this week’s “Warby of X” business, sets out to do. According to Slumbr CEO Michelle Fishberg, “there is no one perfect pillow,” but the company wants to try to find the best one for its customers.

Fishberg founded the direct-to-consumer (D2C) company with Heather Rebuelta, launching the site in April 2016. Both were previously in tech and both wanted to get into the sleep wellness industry. They noticed that there was a focus on mattresses — but not on pillows. According to company research, 91 percent of Americans say a pillow is critical to their sleep, while 92 percent of those same people polled say a mattress is critical to sleeping. Since those numbers are so close, Rubuelta and Fishberg said they wanted to move the needle on, yes, sleep.

Unable to disclose the number of pillows sold, Slumbr matches one of its six pillows — ranging in price from $60 to $225 — to sleepers through its signature “Pillow Quiz.” Asking questions like what position you wake up in, who you sleep with and if you like a squishy or firm pillow, the quiz is based off of research that Rubuelta and Fishberg did over many months. Sleepers have 30 days to try out the pillow. If they’re unsatisfied, there’s a nominal return fee — “we can’t resell a used pillow” — but so far, very few have been returned.

Fishberg spoke with PYMNTS about what the D2C model is becoming, how the “Pillow Quiz” works and how the idea all started when her mother asked for a $100 hotel pillow for Mother’s Day.

PYMNTS: Clever name. Tell us, what is Slumbr?

MF: We would consider ourselves a sleep wellness brand. But essentially, people would know us because we try to make finding a comfy pillow simple and personal.

PYMNTS: How does the Slumbr model work?

MF: Essentially, we’re a direct-to-consumer, eCommerce brand. We focus on our pillow menu, which includes six premium pillows for different sleep types. We also have a number of online tools that help people find a pillow that works for them. One of the things that we do is we have a “Pillow Quiz.” Sleepers can go on our site, answer some questions and be guided toward a certain pillow best for them.

PYMNTS: How did Slumbr awaken, if you will?

MF: It was founded by myself and my cofounder, Heather Rubuelta. We’re both former tech professionals in Silicon Valley. We were the typical, working professionals: busy, lots of hours. We started some wellness practices to bring sanity back into our lives. So, we were doing yoga, meditation, and we realized that sleep was really important. The issue was that there weren’t a lot of companies out there addressing the sleep wellness aspect. A lot of companies do diet and fitness, but there weren’t any that were disrupting sleep. And so, we wanted to do something with sleep but also help people get better and get well. We were looking for ways to do that with a tangible product. Some people expected us to come out with a sleep tracker or a sleep app, given that we both worked in tech. But we decided not to and kept thinking about if there was something else that can make a difference in your sleep and ultimately move the needle there, but that no one has really touched. Kind of an unloved object? The “A Ha!” moment came around Mother’s Day when my mother asked for a $100 pillow after she stayed in some hotel. I kind of balked and said, “$100 for a pillow? That’s crazy!” I mean, I was spending $20 at my local Target. But I got her one as a gift and also bought one for myself and realized that the experience sleeping was elevated. Similar to when you stay at a fancy hotel. So, we then realized that people were spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, on a mattress. And there are some mattress disrupters in the market, but no one was focusing on the pillow. Interestingly, 91 percent of Americans will say that a pillow is really critical to their sleep, and that’s only 1 percent less than the people who would say that about a mattress. So, essentially, if a pillow costs you $50–$100 for a high-quality pillow, it can move the needle in terms of sleep as much as a mattress.

But the problem is: Most people don’t know how to pick the right pillow. They walk into a department store or mattress store, and there’s a wealth of options. They’re squishing pillows in plastic. They’re touching it to their head awkwardly. They’re standing up in the aisle. There’s just no guidance or education around what makes a great pillow. The reason is because most of the stores that sell them do not have that expertise.

So, for us, we felt that this was an opportunity to educate the market and elevate the category. I say that because most people use their pillow way too long and, when they do buy a new one, they’ll buy whatever is on sale, which is a typical practice. But what we’re trying to do is show people how much better their pillow can be, but it will take a little bit of time and extra money.

PYMNTS: So, $100 pillow for mom. But what do Slumbr pillows run for? 

MF: There is a range. We have a pillow menu of six pillows. They start at $60 for a down alternative and go up to $225 for our highest-end, luxurious goose down pillow. Our philosophy on pillows is that we’re cutting out the middle man, and we’re not trying to mark it up. Even our highest pillow, you’ll find a similar thing for more than $400. But at the same time, people need to get what they pay for in pillows, and we want to take a comfortable margin so we can grow and pay ourselves without gouging the customer.

PYMNTS: Let’s go back to the “Pillow Quiz.” What’s that about? 

MF: When we set out to find what makes a great pillow, we wanted to know what sleep specialists and doctors say. A lot of customers ask us that. And we talked to sleep specialists and consulted studies. It was really sparse. What they could tell us is that pillows are highly personal and subjective. It’s about finding what you like but keeping your neck in “neutral alignment,” which is to have your head not too far forward or too far back.

So, we went to test our pillows with consumers. What we ended up doing was pulling samples from a range of stores and types and qualities of pillows. We ruled out a bunch and curated it down to a bunch. Then, we tested them in sleepers’ homes. We were carting pillows around in trunks for a while. Having and understanding how a person sleeps, what their body type is and making correlations with our pillows with certain types of people that liked them, we were able to craft this Pillow Quiz and talk to consumers with copy that resonated and made sense.

We took all of that data from consumer testing. We created a set of questions and asked sleepers and then recommended pillows from there. The people who are the most satisfied are the people who also understand their subjective preferences from firm and fluffy to down or hypoallergenic. At the end of the day, it is to make it simpler to be guided to the right pillow. We also have a comparison chart for each pillow. We also have videos to show the feel.

PYMNTS: How much funding have you gotten so far? 

MF: We’ve just had friends and family. So, a small amount. Our approach has been to focus on the fundamentals of the business and being lean and mean.

PYMNTS: How do you see this direct-to-consumer model evolving? Is it sustainable?

MF: At the end of the day, it’s all around branding. This model of the “Warby of whatever” starts with eCommerce and direct-to-consumer. It’s just a different channel, but the aspirations of these brands is to build a valuable brand, and then, it makes sense to have product categories and experiences that you’re delivering — but also different channels. I think most eCommerce sites don’t intend to just be direct-to-consumer because it’s hard to grow that way.

PYMNTS: Any bumps to smooth out as a startup? 

MF: As a direct-to-consumer, it’s difficult because you don’t have the brand equity or distribution that comes with being a Target. Customer acquisition is super difficult. It’s not easy to build your brand.

One of our biggest challenges has been to get people to care about their pillow. Lululemon with yoga pants or Whole Foods with organic, these are brands that are at a premium that elevate the experience around what used to be a commodity product or what customers used to take for granted.

To explain to someone why they need to get rid of their two-year-old pillow and go online and spend more for a nicer pillow. While they’ll get a better experience, it’s difficult to direct them away from grabbing that $20 deal at the big store.

PYMNTS: Besides waking up with a Slumbr pillow, what’s the best part of the business?

MF: Every time a customer writes us and says, “I love my pillow.” To know that you are making a tangible difference in someone’s life and that they finally found that perfect pillow that has changed their sleep. Most people don’t usually care about pillows; it’s not that exciting. But when we can create emotion around something, that’s been the highlight.

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