How I Launched A Direct To Consumer Bed Pillow Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Tracey Wallace, professionally a content marketer and SEO expert who has now launched a direct-to-consumer bed pillow business, Doris Sleep.
I’ve been researching, writing on, and analyzing the ecommerce industry for a decade, which is just crazy to even say! Time really does fly when you’re having fun. After all that research, all the online courses, and talks at industry trade shows, it was about time that I took my own advice and started something up!
So, I did! Now, I sell bed pillows that are made 100% in the US with 100% recycled plastic bottle fill. Both of those points are super important to me.
Made in the US is not a nod to agreement with any anti-globalism movement. Instead, it’s a recognition that we have manufacturers here in the US that are plain just kicking butt and providing great, reliable, well-paid jobs to folks not in the tech-coastal cities.
I’m a big believer in equal opportunity for all and I don’t think that where you decide to live or raise a family should strip you of putting food (and hopefully a lot of it!) on the table. All any of us wants is to provide and to feel valuable with the very little time we have alive. Manufacturers help us do that! In fact, here are a few key stats on US manufacturers:
- Taken alone, manufacturing in the United States would be the 9th largest economy in the world.
- For every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, another $1.89 is added to the economy.
- There are currently 12.75 million manufacturing workers in the United States, accounting for 8.6% of the workforce.
- Manufacturing has seen a nearly 2X the productivity increases over the last two decades than other economic sectors. Durable goods manufacturers have seen even greater growth, almost 3X labor productivity over that time frame.
- Manufacturers in the United States perform more than three-quarters of all private-sector research and development (R&D) in the nation, driving more innovation than any other sector.
Now, what you manufacture matters, too. With bed pillows, there are three main types of pillows: foam, down, and virgin polyester. All three really suck, for lack of a better word, for both the consumer and environment.
Foam, first of all, is highly flammable. That means it is incredibly dangerous to produce for factory workers (and puts their lives at high risk) and it means that foam products must be sprayed with chemical flame retardants before being sold to the public. So, your foam mattress? Full of chemicals. Your foam bed pillow? Full of chemicals. For the environment, foam never goes away – so that isn’t great.
Now in the comfy department, foam is great for support, but geez, does it get hot! And it isn’t what you would call “cozy.” You can’t machine-wash it either.
Down pillows are made from down –– which are feathers from animals. I’m a vegan, so that is just plain and simple not a process for me. Plus, if you have allergies, these pillows will give them to ya. And, depending on the pillow case you use or buy, the down will poke through and give you lots of fun pricks on your face. And these pillows are the most expensive, typically beginning at $100 on the low end.
Virgin polyester is made from virgin (i.e. never used) plastics, which contributes to the overall plastic problem around the world. I don’t need to go in depth on that issue. Unfortunately, virgin polyester is hypoallergenic, is machine-washable, and gives you all the benefits of down (i.e. cooler and cozier) without the animal issues. And, these are some of the cheapest on the market!
Knowing what I do about virgin polyester pillows, I decided to find a manufacturer who could get me the virgin polyester feel (i.e. the down feel) without the high price tag and the terrible everything else. That is what landed me on recycled plastic bottle fill. Every pound of pillow fiber diverts 14 plastic bottles from landfills here in the US. So, you are helping to clean the environment, and getting a luxury sleeping experience. Win-win!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’m lucky in that my family owns a cotton and bed pillow manufacturing company. My grandfather started in in 1956, and today it is run by my aunts and my mom. Soon, my brother and cousins will take it over. It’s the business that has given me everything in my life –– a nice house, a college education, family who could take off when needed to be there for important events.
Not all days will be winners in the beginning, but you are building something. You are breathing life into something. That takes time. That takes focus. That takes work. Give it everything you have!
My grandfather was raised in a shack in north Dallas, and after WWII, decided he needed to do something to provide for himself and his family now and for the future. And that’s exactly what he did. I’m incredibly grateful to him. He was my favorite person, and is still a mentor in how I navigate this life.
That said, around my 30th birthday, my mom sent me a picture of me and him from the early 90s –– one I had never seen before.
That was weird, because we moved into his house when he passed, and I grew up there. So, I’ve seen just about all of it. Anyway, it was a good kick in the pants and felt like a little push from him to say, “I’m watching. Let’s do this!” That was what really got the idea and the process off the ground.
And then, accidentally, I launched the store in December and messaged my family. My mom called crying: “You launched on the day grandpa died 19 years ago! This is him giving his blessing!”
That might be weird to most folks, but my family doesn’t think death is a bad thing –– it’s a natural part of life and those you lose are still with you. So, launching on that day and not realizing its importance until later was a real big moment in terms of building something he’d be proud of –– and recognizing him throughout the entire process.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I’ve been sleeping on these pillows my entire life. I didn’t need to design or prototype them.
My family’s manufacturing company is a no-foam plant, for all the reasons described above, so that’s a big win. I did test out different fill types and weights, which got me to the 3 I offer today.
Look for other channels and opportunities. Cost of customer acquisition is so high on Facebook and Google right now. What else could you be doing to start small, grow an audience and loyalty, and win customers without the high price tag?
My brother was a huge help in that. My whole family likes different fill types, so there is no real standard. And because they sell B2B, businesses can request whatever they want.
Beyond the pillow itself, there was a lot to think through design and branding-wise. I look at brands like Andie Swim, Hubble, and Rothy’s as brands doing great work with beautiful and simplistic design.
Those were a few of the sites I used as inspiration. Beyond that, I built out a 6-page document highlighting the history of the brand and ideas, competitors in the space, target audience (including brands that audience likes), and more.
I handed that off to the design firm (I worked with Arctic Leaf) and they built out a website design based on that document.
It included a table of contents which had:
- Basics (brand name and URL)
- Why this brand? Why now?
- Benefits of the product
- Target customer values
- Competition, broken down by well-known DNVBs (like Casper or Parachute), well-known more legacy brands (like West Elm and Crate & Barrel), smaller folks going hard on PPC, and other eco or sustainable pillow competitors.
- The brand goal and vision, including specifically why no foam.
- Brand look & Feel, which was mostly a list of sites of I liked like Clare.com, Hubble Contacts, etc.
- Phase 1, which included all products and SKUs, site build out/messaging framework (I provided all copy prior to design), and launch plan which included details about content marketing & SEO, affiliate work, influencer marketing, and paid social advertising.
- Phase 1, which included where the brand was heading, a road map if you will.
They said it was the most comprehensive business plan they’ve seen!
So, I worked on that throughout Thanksgiving when I was home with the family. Testing pillows, getting everyone’s opinions and then saying OK. I’m launching with these!
Describe the process of launching the business.
The process of launching a business is so much harder in practice than in theory. And I would know! I research, wrote on it, educated folks about it and more for 10 years. And still, I overspend on Facebook Ads (by $500, which is no small amount when you are self-funded and only a month or two in!). I forget to make sure my advertised coupon code is turned on for folks to use! I am still figuring out affiliate marketing.
It is hard work, y’all, and I am even more amazed and in admiration of all the folks who have already done this and continue to decide to do it. It is not an easy path. I’m even more struck by how hard this must have been in the late 1950s when my grandfather did it without any of the modern conveniences or tools. I don’t know if I would have had that resilience. So, that thought keeps me going on hard days! Keep it up. One step at a time. That’s the mantra.
In terms of financing, I’m 100% self-funded. I have already had a few investors inquire, but I want to stay self-funded for as long as I can. That gives me more control to grow as I need and make the right decisions for Doris –- not the best ones for the board or the investors.
I ended up spending about $10,000 on the entire launch –– much of that to the site design. I figured that if I could get a site designed incredibly well, that I could make everything else work. And that’s partially true! The design definitely leaves an impression on folks who think we are a much bigger company than we are.
But, if I could do it again, I’d build out on WordPress rather than BigCommerce -- or Shopify for that matter -- and plug BigCommerce in (They have a WordPress app). That’s because I can control more on the WordPress side. With a super customized ecommerce platform website, there is so much I have to reach out to the developer’s to help me do –– and their time isn’t cheap. On WordPress, I can work with developers to make sure that everything is easy to update or change based on what they build in. Perhaps this is just my own comfort level with WrodPress since its’ the tool I’ve been using for a decade.
That said, BigCommerce’s new widgets API is promising. I’m working with an agency now to build off of that so I can customize everything in the future -- very similar to how it might work on WordPress.
Overall, that spend isn’t so bad, I hear, but definitely not cheap. I was also paying for a wedding at the time. And a house. I lost my mind at the end of 2018! These days, I’m just working up to be able to be in the green. We haven’t passed that point just yet between advertising and inventory – but we’re close!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
To attract customers, recommendations from others has been the highest converting. I don’t do too much to enable this. Honestly, pillows are something folks struggle with –– to find one they like, that is cozy but firm, that doesn’t have zippers –– whatever it is.
People are very particular about their pillows. And they should be! You spend a large amount of your life on a pillow! I have reviews set up 14 days after the order, and it’s so fun to wake up with new 5 star reviews. We’ve only had 1 return so far, and 1 exchange. The return was because the pillow wasn’t “firm,” and they suggested I market it more as “thick,” which I decided to do.
That and organic traffic. For organic traffic, there are a few strategies here. First, I’ve written a few blog posts on the Doris site.
This Pillows Materials blog post has been the most successful, which I expected. It’s super educational, includes a quiz, and has easy graphics to help folks make the right decision.
This one highlighting lifestyle benefits is great, but I really need to focus on continuing the series. It didn’t get nearly the traction the first blog post did –– which has me focusing a bit less on interviews with folks right now, and more on writing educational content around pillows, fill material, and sleeping habits.
Beyond that, I need backlinks. So, I’m beginning to write on home goods blogs and lifestyle blogs about pillow material, sleep cycles, whatever I can. It’s key that I get as many backlinks from relevant websites as I possibly can. What has been the most successful so far in at least getting the email address of a PR person or someone who runs a blog at these organizations is, surprisingly to me!, Facebook Messenger. That was a tip an SEO friend told me, and it works! Pitch them on FB Messenger, and most often, you’ll get an email address.
Now, you just have to properly pitch the org!
I’m lucky, though, because I have written so much content in my career that I have *tons* of links already from tech websites. That has gotten Doris to page 2 on nearly every keyword or query. Now, I need related backlinks so Google can push me to Page 1.
Facebook Ads aren’t really working for me. Plus, to my understanding, you need to have a larger budget to test a bunch of different things to figure out what does work, and I’m not there right now.
I landed a feature in The Hustle, which drove great traffic and sales.
I’m working on hiring a part-time PR person to help me pitch. I’m a writer by trade, so I can take the writing of pieces on as needed. I’m launching a blog series and kickstarting organic activities –– which means paying for graphic design. And I have already launched a partnership with an Austin-based brand (Highway Robery) which also has sustainable sourcing and creating roots. Partnerships like these help me get in front of new audiences in an organic way, plus it gets me tos of social photos and I get to split the cost with the other brand.
In terms of retaining customers, that is something I need to work on. A pillow is something people buy maybe once every 5 years – though technically you should every 2 years. Eventually, I’ll expand my line so upsell to other goods, but right now, I just want to get the pillows under people’s heads and start collecting feedback and reviews! It’s one thing for me to have loved these my entire life, but I need other people to, too!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I’m doing all right today. Sales have slowed down since launch – when I had more time and was on vacation from my full time job. But I have a lot of things in the works to drive more traffic. I’m getting great reviews from folks I know and don’t. Have only had 1 return and 1 exchange, and am honestly counting myself pretty lucky. People love these things. Now, I just need to get the word out!
I was profitable in December, netting about $2,500 in my first month, and then was a bit under in January (by about $500 –– i.e. I accidentally overspent on Facebook). February will be under as well because of all the testing I’m doing –– but it’s worth it. I need to find what works and keep driving traffic. I’m looking to be consistently profitable come this summer.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Yes, that all the news about traditional advertising being the best bet right now are accurate. I’m looking into direct mail, have printed out fliers for apartment buildings and am even considering a billboard on I-10. It’s $1,000 for 4 weeks.
You could spend that on Facebook in a second and get nothing! My biggest advice is to look for other channels and opportunities. Cost of customer acquisition is so high on Facebook and Google right now. What else could you be doing to start small, grow an audience and loyalty, and win customers without the high price tag? Plus, think through social images. A billboard on I-10 isn’t just for awareness. It’s also a great social media photo and campaign. That matters.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use BigCommerce for my site because it has so much already built in –– coupons, customer groups (I’m expanding in to wholesale and B2B, and on BigCommerce, I can do all of that on one site), etc. By the end of this year, I’m looking to move the site to WordPress and use BigCommerce’s WordPress plugin. I’m more comfortable with WordPress and content and SEO are a big part of my strategy.
I also use Klaviyo, LeadDyno, Stamped.io for reviews, and Sales & Orders for Facebook Ads integration. That’s about it!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Anything 2PM or Lean Luxe produces, I read. Also, I’m at a natural advantage here because I’ve been running the BigCommerce blog for so long, know the editors over at Shopify, and download all ecommerce white papers – including everything from the analysts. There is so much info out there. Digest it!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
It’s hard. You aren’t alone in thinking that. It’s also incredibly exciting. Balance is key here. And perspective. Not all days will be winners in the beginning, but you are building something. You are breathing life into something. That takes time. That takes focus. That takes work. Give it everything you have!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am not, but am always looking for connections and help and ideas! Even just folks to commiserate with or celebrate with!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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