All Commentary
Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mattresses Keep Getting Better, Thanks to the Market

We once slept on the hard ground. Now we face unlimited mattress choices, and they keep improving.


Let’s say you have the top selling item in its class on Amazon. But you also have a sense that competitors are breathing down your neck. What do you do?

Every night when I lie down on it, I’m conscious that in most all of human history, humans slept on the hard ground.Changing your product fundamentally is extremely risky. What if the bottom falls out of your sales? You risk wiping out your whole referral network. And yet, you see two factors: there are others making stuff that is pretty darn great, and you are seeing a persistent problem with customer returns, all with the same complaint. If you don’t change, you take a great risk, maybe not today but in a year or two.

This is exactly what happened to Tuft and Needle mattresses. Below I explain.

Disclosure: I’m a fanatic for this mattress. I have stickers on my laptop. I wear a Tuft and Needle tee shirt. I even have a Tuft and Needle bowtie. I’ve personally sold probably a dozen of their mattresses to friends, just because I can’t stop talking about it. Some good friends of mine bought theirs on their smartphone during dinner, just to shut me up.

The New World of Mattresses

To me, this product is to mattresses what the iPhone is to communication technology. It’s the newest, coolest, most-perfect-yet mattress in world history. You can only buy it online, from their store or from Amazon. It comes in a fairly small box – so small that you are sure it can’t be a mattress. When you open it and cut open the shrink wrap, you have a birthing-like experience, as it draws in air and becomes the real thing.

Every night when I lie down on it, I’m conscious that in most all of human history, humans slept on the hard ground. Anything could crawl on us: scorpions, bugs, snakes, varmints of all sorts. It was probably dangerous but there were no better options.

Finally we used our extra animal skins, but still dealt with creepy crawly things. We eventually learned to sew sacks and stuff them with leaves and bean shucks, but surely bugs still bit us all night. Later we used cotton and that was lumpy, and it sank in the middle, but it was awesome by comparison.

Finally, by the late 19th century, we found out about springs. And gradually, over time, anyone, everyone, could buy one.

And with springs and coils, we got stuck. Oh sure, there was the waterbed in the 1970s, but that was dumb. Moving to the 21st century, we learned about foam, and ever better foams. Initially they slept too hot, and that was only 10 years ago. But we’ve improved to the point that this is no longer true. And foam has marvelous advantages for shipping and distribution. Today, there are dozens of companies competing for this market: Tuft and Needle, Casper, YogaBed, LumaSleep, WinkBed, Saatva, Leesa, Helix, and Endy.

All of this is amazing because it’s starting to shut down what I consider the great mattress racket. You go into the store determined to just get something. You are prepared to spend $500 but the salesman says that there is no such thing, that you have to spend at least $800, but that too is kind of lame and you really should spend $1,000, and yet if you really want a solid sleep without health problems, you should spend $1,500, unless you believe in yourself and think you are worth the really great thing for $3,000, or $4,000, or even $8,000, and so it goes until you are bled dry.

We’ve replaced scorpions and snakes with venomous salesmen. (I know about this, in part, because I used to work for a mattress seller.)

All this is changed. Now mattresses online are priced flat and low. They ship in days. The results are spectacular in most all cases. The returns are great: sometimes they guarantee 100 days of sleep and offer to pick up the mattress if you don’t like it.

So You Want a Firm Mattress?

A great entrepreneur has to think about the next thing, and take huge risk to make it come into existence.But back to Tuft and Needle. As you can see, this company faces fierce competition for its number one spot. How could it improve? It noted that the number one complaint was that the mattress was too firm. This was a selling point for me, but not enough customers agreed with me.

The company knew that it needed a softer mattress. Of course they could add options for softer and firmer mattresses but the company was convinced that having just one mattress was key to their branding. It removes complications for consumers. (There are other companies in this space that gamify options, which is fun but…complicated.)

But how to get a softer bed without changing what people love? You could just change one layer of foam, but so long as you are doing that, what else could be done?

Here is where things get incredible. Instead of just changing one thing, Tuft and Needle went back to the drawing board, blew up its main and successful product, and tried something extraordinary. It moved from three layers to two, which uses less glue and improves circulation. It started making its own foam because it could not assure the standards of quality from using so many different suppliers. It lessened the hardness of the bed from about an 8 on a 10-point scale (10 being hardest) to a 6. Then it released.

We only think we want a firm mattress, but actually what we want is a good sleep.Once they started shipping, they noticed exactly what they had hoped would happen: future returns. Customer satisfaction was high.

Now, for my part, I had an old version and highly recommended this to my friends. So I was stunned to hear of the change. Why are they throwing away their best feature? But people who bought this version love it too.

Essentially, the market had spoken.

My Own Theory

Then it got me thinking. I believe that I like a firm mattress. But why do I believe that actually? Probably from childhood experiences. I used to have a soft version and kept preferring harder and harder. What was I trying to achieve with this firm mattress? Maybe it was not firmness as such but perhaps some other feature, like stability or support or immobility.

The only way to achieve these things on a spring mattress is to make the surface ever harder until your body is the only moving part on the mattress. But now, with new innovations in foam, the stability issue was no longer an issue. On these mattresses, you can put a glass of wine next to you and flip around and not spill it.

And so now, you can actually perhaps luxuriate a bit more in a softer surface.

In other words, we only think we want a firm mattress, but actually what we want is a good sleep. The company took the risk in believing that it knew better than our own stated preferences. The decision was a winning one. It turned out to be the right thing!

I’m in awe of such management decisions. But it just shows you that no matter how ahead you are in the data, a great entrepreneur has to think about the next thing. He has to imagine a future of ever-better products that serve us all in ever-better ways.

The history of mattresses proves the point. Whenever you are tempted to think that life is not so grand, that you are just not living well, think of that poor medieval peasant sleeping on sacks of beans with bugs crawling all over him all night: bite bite bite.

We now have another way. As you count sheep, don’t forget to count your blessings.