Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Baloo Living is asleep and wellness company launched from Bali in 2018. Our signature product is a weighted blanket, an incredible tool for calming the nervous system with gentle pressure, similar to the way being hugged or held makes us feel naturally comforted. These blankets have been used for decades by therapists and are only now going mainstream as people discover just how powerful they can be for improving sleep and soothing anxiety--without the use of medication.
It’s exciting to be bringing a product to market that does so much good and only beginning to reach critical mass. The market for weighted blankets is exploding - currently, on Amazon, there are millions of dollars in sales monthly, and we know that e-commerce generally represents 10% of retail sales in the US. We reached six figures in our third month, and seven figures after our first holiday season before even a year has passed! Baloo took off like crazy, partly because we stand for the highest product quality, customer service, and thoughtful design.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2017 I quit my job in marketing and publishing in New York City and booked a one-way flight to Bali. I was completely burned out and confused about the direction of my life. I’d been working so hard, yet felt unfulfilled. In the process of leaving every familiar security behind, I came to understand that I’d been looking for wholeness through external validation. In the first weeks without a title, company, or convenient identity, I felt completely naked. Over the course of weeks that then became months, I softened my external cover and started to discover what life could be like when there’s nothing to prove, nothing to justify, and no one to impress; the experience of being enough, satisfied and happy, just because, was the greatest and most beautiful discovery!
I came back to New York City feeling so good and got smacked in the face with reverse culture shock. I tried to go back to life as I’d known it, but I had changed so much, I could never go back to working in an office for someone else. I’d spent almost all of my savings and had just a few thousand dollars left, but made the difficult decision to choose the path of uncertainty and risk, and go back to Bali with no income, with the intention of launching a business that I could run remotely and independently. In Bali, I met so many people running businesses while traveling, and I knew the secret to learning was to be surrounded by a community of kind people who could teach me.
Back in Bali, I quickly went through an online course to launch a brand through Amazon FBA. Through product research, I discovered weighted blankets, and less than a week later, booked a flight to visit with suppliers and pick up samples. The moment I tried my sample weighted blanket for the first time, everything changed--I fell in love with the surprising, deeply relaxing sensation that crept in. At that moment, this business went from a project to a passion; the miracle of our bodies to self regulate and heal when given a nurturing environment is amazing to me.
Know that no one knows what they’re doing, especially gurus.
Baloo Living is a product company standing for respect for the body’s wisdom and gentle self-care and comfort. I was inspired to share the experience I had of reconnecting with myself by escaping to Bali with the rest of the world who can’t take the time to travel but can take a few minutes for quiet time with a Baloo blanket to find stillness and peace within.
At my home office in Ubud, Bali, Spring 2019
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Right away, I knew that I could improve on the products being offered in the market. The blankets I saw were either made of synthetic materials or low-quality cotton. Baloo is made using a very soft, premium cotton that feels luxurious as soon as you take it out of the box. It’s heavy but super breathable and cool, so it can be used all year round because good sleep should not be seasonal!
Baloo also uses a lower profile batting because the thinner the blanket, the more finely the glass microbeads inside contour the body, giving a more immediate, grounding feel. We also eliminated plastic from our packaging, and we only use materials certified by the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, which means free of chemicals, clean and safe. Finally, we include a small gift--a link to Tibetan and crystal bowl recordings, which have been shown to help the mind and body relax.
Despite the best product design, our first order hit some snags. The inspection report came back with a failing grade, just one week before the Chinese New Year. Factories close for the entire month, so I had to pause the shipment and wait before I could visit the factory personally to inspect the order. We sorted through each piece and eliminated almost twenty percent of the pieces that were damaged. The experience taught me to know the production process very well, and also gave me peace of mind to know that each blanket we shipped was perfect.
Since then, I’ve found a new manufacturing partner who is incredible to work with. The prices are higher but the facility is sparkling clean, the management team is excellent, and I can sleep at night knowing our products meet the highest standards.
This is a photo of my sister Kimberly and a friend tying ribbons around our product inserts at a coworking space in Ubud, Bali. I hand-carried the inserts to the factory, where we inserted them as we inspected each blanket:
Describe the process of launching the business.
I launched Baloo through Amazon initially. We shot beautiful photography at a villa in Bali and optimized the listing for the best keywords. The first order came within a day, and I can’t describe the joy at seeing it! Soon, we were selling three to six weighted blankets a day, and I didn’t think I could stand it--it was beyond my wildest dreams to have a product that someone would exchange money for!
The first person who contacted us for a return made me so sad; I was in Bali, and I arranged for a courier to pick the box up from the woman’s apartment building in Manhattan and deliver it to my sister’s for safekeeping. The courier cost $40! It’s so funny looking back, but I feel a personal connection to each customer, and want people to be well taken care of.
For the first few months, sales were made only on Amazon, but as the holidays neared, I reached out to a PR firm to help us with placements in gift guides. PR takes a couple of months at least, as the editors need time to learn about your brand and work it into their editorial calendars. Fortunately, we got an unexpected piece of the press just at the end of November when New York Magazine’s The Strategist named us the “Best weighted blanket to gift” - in just two days our website, balooliving.com, was flooded with orders and we completely sold out of our entire Q4 stock.
It’s hard enough to believe in yourself when you’re doing something for the first time, so do yourself a favor and put people around you who can believe in you, when you don’t.
We had hundreds of people emailing us to be put on the waiting list, and at this point, I was the only person doing customer service! I called my mom and asked her if she could stop what she was doing and help me respond to emails. She worked with me for the entire month of December and we started to take pre-orders for January delivery.
Now, my mom is a permanent member of our customer service team and answers our phones to help customers decide which blankets to order. Her background is in mental health and counseling and she’s a certified life coach, so I couldn’t imagine anyone better prepared to take care of our customers.
Now that we are a year and a half in business, we have received a number of accolades and high profile reviews, and the press is one of the main drivers of our website sales. We also invest in organic SEO, Google shopping ads and paid search. Our channels have shifted so that Amazon represents a bit under half of our sales with the rest from our website and select partners like Macy’s, Verishop, and The Grommet.
Baloo’s operations and fulfillment team - Sean Zhang, Hasimew Jallow, Nancy Grojean, Elizabeth Grojean, Benjo Bote
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I believe it’s a combination of touchpoints that help us build and maintain a relationship with customers. The unboxing experience, which is the moment of the first impression with our physical product, can’t be overemphasized. That’s why we made the move to pack our blankets in a reusable cotton dust bag, and tie the product inserts with a ribbon. So much care has gone into the product and the brand, that we do everything we can to deliver that experience to the customer.
Email and social media are the other ways we stay in touch. While we take a restrained approach to discounts and promotions, we do offer discounts at key gifting times, and we find that once someone has tried the blanket, they want to share it with friends and family members, so it makes a natural gift. So while it’s not a consumable product, we do see anywhere from 15-20% of our customers are returning customers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I’m committed to running a lean and bootstrapped company. It makes things harder in some ways but also keeps us creative. In addition to our original weighted blanket, we now offer a smaller size (the Mini Baloo), duvet covers, and French linen pillowcases. We are launching a new product right before Black Friday that I can’t yet reveal, and turning on global shipping, which will help us gauge interest in markets outside the United States.
One of our greatest opportunities lies in the heart and story of our brand, so we will be looking for new ways to share that, and connect with people on an emotional level; through Facebook ads and organic content, plus videos on-site and in email.
I have several product ideas that I’m so excited to launch and will plan for next year. These will help us build a stronger foundation as a brand that stands for comfort and self-care. We’re also looking for ways to grow our giveback to our nonprofit partners: the Pajama Program, which gives children and their caregivers’ tools for building reassuring bedtime routines; and Carbonfund.org Foundation, to offset our carbon footprint. We're also looking to do more for the environment through corporate givebacks, such as giving a percentage of our sales to the Rainforest Alliance, which we did for a time.
After spending a couple of years in Bali, I’m really excited to be back in New York City and meeting so many inspiring entrepreneurs and creative people. I’m challenged every day and can’t wait to see what happens next!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Be thoughtful about engaging consultants or agencies. I’ve made the mistake of rushing forward into contracts with a person or team because I’m impatient and want things to move forward, but it’s far more efficient to take the time to make sure the person or company is the right fit.
But, hire experts! It will quickly reach the point when you cannot take the time to learn everything yourself and cheap freelancers can also waste time. When you bring someone on who is a true expert, make sure they’re open to explaining their thought process or methods with you, so you can learn from them while they support your project.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our website is built on Shopify and we’ve just launched with Shopify Fulfillment Network to the warehouse and fulfill orders from the East Coast. I’m excited to see how the faster shipping speeds to the East Coast improve our conversion rates.
Border Guru is a great service that our west coast fulfillment center uses to calculate duties and shipping at checkout for international orders. This means the customer isn’t surprised with a customs bill upon delivery.
I use FreeeUp to find high-quality freelance help which comes vetted (unlike Upwork). I also hear that Jobrack.eu is quite good but I have not yet used it, it’s primarily for sourcing technical talent from Eastern Europe.
Our team communicates throughout the day on Slack, our headquarters is in New York, and we have team members in San Diego, Denver, North Carolina, Barcelona, New Jersey, and Austin, so we try to have video calls every two weeks to connect and share updates as a team.
Brexhas helped us manage our cash flow, allowing us to borrow cash for 60 days with no fees or interest.
Transferwise has made it easy to send money without paying wire fees.
We use Klaviyo for email because it is powerful segmenting lists and creating user journeys.
Orderly Emails is an app that saved us a lot of time, it allows you to synch the design of your Shopify store’s automatic emails all at once, versus updating each template.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Power vs. Force by Sir. David R. Hawkins examines human behavior and the fundamental access to the truthfulness or falsehood of any statement or supposed fact. This, I find most interesting in honing the ability to read situations and my own motivations and decisions, as I try to move forward with integrity and awareness.
I’m a big fan of Dr. Joe Dispenza, and most recently read Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, which helps me expand my thinking outside my familiar bounds.
I love Shopify’s podcast, Shopify Masters, which hosts a wide variety of e-commerce business owners with different business models, goals, and strategies. I learn something from each episode, no matter the guest’s background.
I find belonging to groups and attending events to be extremely valuable for building and growing a supportive network. I recommend AMZ Innovate in New York City each September for Amazon sellers, and Digital Marketing Skill Share (DMSS) in Bali each October for diverse digital marketing tactics. I’m a member of Dynamite Circle, which is for all digital entrepreneurs, not only product-based businesses, and I participate with the NYC Fair Trade Coalition to stay abreast of innovations in sustainability, textiles, and sourcing.
I always recommend getting involved with groups or organizations in your space, either in person or online; one small insight or learning can pay off exponentially against the time or money invested.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Know that no one knows what they’re doing, especially gurus. Each person’s business is unique and comes as a result of timing, effort, circumstances and luck, and the future is always changing. I suggest educating yourself as much as possible, be it through webinars, books, courses, or any other resource, but take action quickly, even in small ways, to make the jump from conceptual thinking to practical application. You will learn SO much through doing, and even a small step might feel irrationally scary at the time, especially if you’re challenging your self-imposed limits or ideas about what you “should” do or beliefs about the “way things are done.”
The BEST piece of advice I took was to list a product for sale on Amazon that was a small test product. The process of creating a barcode, labeling the product, shipping it to FBA, writing the listing, and then actually selling the product gave me confidence. Even if I lost money, the experience of taking each step was well worth it. In the end, I found something that made $300 a month, which was a huge victory!
Last but not least, find people who understand and support what you’re trying to do. It’s hard enough to believe in yourself when you’re doing something for the first time, so do yourself a favor and put people around you who can believe in you, when you don’t.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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