This is a story of two best friends from college that quit their jobs as software developers in Silicon Valley to launch a mattress company. (You don’t hear that one everyday…)
JT Marino and Daehee Park, co-founders of Tuft & Needle, met in college. After graduation, they found themselves working for start-up companies in Silicon Valley. That is until they grew frustrated with their jobs.
“The start-up scene isn’t really what it seems. It’s not that Silicon Valley isn’t innovative – it is. But there are only a few companies actually doing the innovating and the rest, it seems, are chasing success and creating products that there isn’t a burning need for.”
Take Pinterest for example.
“When we were out in Silicon Valley, Pinterest was hot at the time. Hundreds of other companies were trying to be like Pinterest, but Pinterest had already solved the problem. All these other companies were just making nitty-gritty changes, but the core problem had been solved.”
That’s where JT and Daehee’s frustration stemmed from – companies solving problems that were not worth solving.
So here they are – two guys fed up with their jobs and ready to start something new. There was only one problem: they didn’t know what.
Enter mattresses. Come again?
Despite the unknown, one thing was clear: JT and Daehee knew they wanted to solve a problem they had experienced first hand. Call it fate, but JT happened to be in the market for a new mattress at the time.
“I had a nightmarish experience buying a mattress that I ended up hating. I realized the industry was super bad and the problem was rampant.”
I had a nightmarish experience buying a mattress that I ended up hating. I realized the industry was super bad and the problem was so rampant.
Problems like: how customers are treated, predatory sales tactics and brands that don’t talk to customers.
This experience raised the following questions for JT:
- Can you make a mattress people actually like?
- Can you get rid of the predatory and non-customer centric business practices?
It seemed JT and Daehee found their problem to solve. One that actually impacted people’s quality of life.
“That’s when we made our test site and got started on it.”
Learning to make a mattress when you have no idea how to make a mattress
Prior to launching Tuft and Needle, JT and Daehee had zero experience with mattresses – besides sleeping on them, of course.
“We were software guys and we understood product development – just, digital product development.”
So they started from scratch and set out to learn how to make a mattress. As it turned out, this task was very stressful and took a long time. Put into perspective: back then suppliers didn’t have websites, making them hard to track down.
“When we started, there weren’t a lot of mattress companies. There were a lot of mattress stores, but not many brands.”
Yet, JT persisted. On more than one occasion, he just showed up to the mattress manufacturing facilities unannounced to ask his questions. In some cases, he was kicked out.
“Once I found the mattress companies, they didn’t want to talk to me. It was a really tight-knit community and they didn’t want to be disrupted. A lot of the people that worked in the industry, whether with a brand, mattress factory or at the corporate level of a store, all knew each other and would only do business with each other.”
But eventually, they located a few small suppliers that shared their same vision of tackling the problems within the industry.
Building the Tuft & Needle brand
Before landing on the design we know as the Tuft & Needle today, there were roughly 175 to 200 prototypes. Despite, the many directions the company could have gone, JT and Daehee had always planned to launch a single model to start.
“We were told we were idiots for thinking that would work. In fact, we weren’t even sure if starting an online mattress company would even make sense.”
But within 15 minutes of launching their test site, Tuft & Needle made its first sale.
“I was sitting in a famous cafe in Palo Alto. June 2012. It’s full of a ton of people working on their computers. Daehee launched the first ad (for the site) from out of town and I launched the site from the cafe and we just waited to see what happened. He called me 15 minutes later and said, ‘We just made a sale!’ I literally jumped out of my seat and yelled ‘Jackpot!’ with my hand up in the air. I ran out and called my friends and family and that was the start. We officially launched in October 2012.”
“In the beginning, I called every single customer to ask for feedback. I’d take that feedback and go to the factory and say at the factory, ‘we need a new version.’ We were iterating a new version of the original Tuft & Needle mattress every week in the first six months.”
In the beginning, I called every single customer to ask for feedback. I’d take that feedback and go to the factory and say to the factory, ‘we need a new version’.
Even at its current size, Tuft & Needle still takes customer feedback very seriously. In fact, it was the feedback from customers that inspired them to launch their next mattress design.
Launching the Tuft & Needle Mint
Offering the new Mint model was a huge step for Tuft & Needle. “When we first launched, we did not think we would develop another mattress,” JT told us.
For JT and Daehee, building mattresses is all about striking the right balance between features and price. Naturally, it is impossible to include all the possible features people are looking for in a mattress to stay within a certain price point.
“We found there were customers looking for features that we decided not to include in the original Tuft & Needle mattress. When building the Mint, we identified (and included) features potential customers wanted that they couldn’t get from us.” Some of these features include added edge support, the addition of a transitional plush layer and an increased amount of graphite and gel for increased cooling and breathability.
The Mint launched over Black Friday weekend in 2017 as a test. Because they didn’t know what to expect, they only made 500. They sold 6,000 in three days.
The Tuft & Needle difference
“Of the emerging online brands, [Tuft & Needle] was one of the first to open real stores.”
Opening retail stores was always Plan A for Tuft & Needle.
“A mattress is an experiential product. Many people want to experience this in a store.”
Yes, it’s true – rolling around on a mattress for a couple minutes does not give you an accurate sense of what it’s like to sleep on it for a full night. In fact, it takes 2-3 weeks for your body to adjust to a new mattress. But it’s still a big investment! And Tuft & Needle understand: people want to try their mattresses it out.
“Our goal is to not upset people. We want to be the company we wish existed when we were shopping for a mattress,” JT shares.
Our goal is to not upset people. We want to be the company we wish existed when we were shopping for a mattress
In everything they do, Tuft & Needle wants to be fair to the customer.
“[As a company], we give more back to the customer by spending less on marketing and elsewhere. Spending less shares the value with our customers to keep prices lower. It’s challenging because some people think a lower price means cheaper and that’s not the case. We do it because we think that’s what’s fair.”
Something else unique to Tuft & Needle is that they are in the business of designing the raw materials in their mattress. They worked with chemists and engineers to design their patented T&N Adaptive® foam.
“Over time, mattresses lose function. A typical memory foam will lose its firmness up to 30% over 10 years. We have engineered our mattress so that it loses only 5% of firmness in 10 years. Down the road, we want the mattress to feel just as it did after a few weeks of purchasing.”
So where did the name Tuft & Needle come from?
As it turns out, in the early days of the company, JT’s neighbor was a master upholster.
“I asked her if she knew how to make a mattress and if she could teach me. She said yes. So I went to her workshop in the Palo Alto high school and she told me if I wanted to make a mattress, I needed to start from the beginning.
She taught me how to cut and sew the casing, how to layer the cotton and wool on the inside. And the final step was to create tuft. You use a long needle called the tufting needle. She told me this isn’t how you make mattresses today, but it’s good to know how it used to be so you have more context on why things work.
When we sat down to come up with the name, we wanted something that articulated our attention to detail and craftsmanship. We thought the words ‘tuft and needle’ spoke to that – and at the same time, it was timeless.
We wish it was easier to say. But it’s memorable!”
Tuft & Needle currently operates three brick and mortar stores out west. You can also shop their beds in select Lowe’s Home Improvement stores or online at tuftandneedle.com.
For more information on Tuft & Needle mattresses, read our reviews of the Original Tuft & Needle and the Tuft & Needle Mint Mattress.
Get to Know JT
Mattress JT sleeps on
A prototype variation of the Mint. “I typically like to sleep on what my customers sleep on, but I will swap out for new versions to test them out.”
JT’s number one tip for buying a mattress
“Skip the mattress stores and go with an online company where you can return it if you don’t like it.”
What JT hopes his mattress accomplishes for customers
“We want them to have the best sleep of their lives and to have that experience the whole time they own the mattress – even past their warranty. We want to exceed our customer’s expectations and be their brand. So when they are ready for a new mattress they buy from us again.”
What he loves most about running his own sleep company
“Seeing customer feedback is my favorite thing. But also knowing I can go in and change something that makes an improvement for our customers on any given day.”