Jerry Lin ’07 majored in Economics with Honors and the Financial Economics sequence at CMC. Truth to tell, he lost a lot of sleep cramming for exams, but he’s made up for it with a new ecommerce business he recently launched – Helix Sleep – that deals in mattresses.
And so far, media buzz on his company (stories in Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Fortune and Fox News) is enough to keep anyone wide awake.
“We have been blown away by all the interest we’ve received for our personalized product,” Lin says. “Having been in the market for only a few weeks, we have already shipped Helix mattresses to over 35 states. What’s more interesting is that a majority of customers have been couples who are intrigued by our ability to designed a ‘split’ or ‘blended’ mattress, where we incorporate the objective characteristics and subjective preferences of two individuals into a mattress construction to provide a bed that makes two people happy!”
We caught up with Lin recently – a man in perpetual motion who scarcely has time for a nap -- and asked him some questions about his burgeoning business.
CMC: Tell me a bit about Helix Sleep; what gave you the idea to start this business?
Lin: Helix Sleep is a personalized ecommerce mattress brand that sells customized, premium mattresses online for a fraction of the retail price. My cofounders, Kristian and Adam, and I met each other at The Wharton School in Philadelphia while we were completing our MBAs. The three of us were passionate about entrepreneurship and found ourselves commiserating over a shared bad experience: while moving to Philadelphia for graduate school, we all had to buy new beds and the process was horrible. Kristian bought a cheap foam mattress from IKEA; Adam paid an embarrassing price for a mattress at a mattress store; and I bought a random foam mattress online that I ended up having to return. There was just no reason why buying a mattress had to be so unpleasant and taxing on the wallet. It seemed there was a way we could improve the entire customer experience if we could convince customers to buy a product that was traditionally bought at retail, online.
At Helix Sleep, we are solving three fundamental problems in the mattress industry: price (through our direct-to-consumer business model), confusing products (through our personalization technology, more explanation below), and customer experience (by obsessing everyday how we can make our customers happy). Adam, Kristian, and I started working on Helix Sleep in January 2014 and incorporated the startup into our Wharton MBA curriculum before we officially launched the business. It’s been very exciting and rewarding to see something you’ve worked on so hard and long finally come to life and impact consumers.
CMC: Are we correct in assuming you are strictly ecommerce and don’t sell mattresses out of brick-and-mortar stores?
Lin: That is correct. One of the core problems in the current mattress industry that we’re solving is inflated prices – customers are being charged extremely high prices for products that shouldn’t be costing thousands of dollars. If sold at retail, a Helix mattress would sell for over ~$2,000; however, since we are selling direct-to-consumers, a queen Helix mattress sells for $900. The industry is plagued by inflated prices because of all the middlemen in the value chain. You have the manufacturers who then sell to wholesalers who then sale to retailers. The retailers additionally have high overhead costs because of their store leases and expensive commission-based salesmen. At Helix Sleep, we cut the fat and sell direct from our manufacturer to customers through our online store, effectively passing more cost savings to the consumer. The only “retail” presence we have is a small showroom in at our NYC HQ where we fit individuals in person to their ideal bed constructions, but everything is still sold online. Please come by!
CMC: Why should consumers care about a custom-made mattress?
Lin: We are all individuals with different needs and wants. We customize the food and clothes we wear, why not our beds? Does it make sense to have a 300 lbs linebacker sleep on the same bed as a 120 lbs. gymnast? Absolutely not. Our personalization technology was developed in conjunction with a team of PhD researchers, who are some of the world’s leading experts in sleep science and biomechanics.
The ultimate goal of designing a sleeper’s ideal mattress construction is to keep the spine aligned during sleep while accommodating other preferences like temperature and feel. By achieving spinal alignment during rest, research has found that sleep quality, comfort, and back health are optimized. When an individual comes to our online store, they fill out a 1-2 min questionnaire where they provide a few answers about themselves and how they sleep (e.g. height, weight, feel preference, body shape, sleep position, etc.). We then take this amalgamation of objective and subjective inputs and design a mattress that optimizes a bed across four metrics: feel, support, point elasticity, and temperature (yes we can make a bed cooler or warmer!). Our fundamental belief is that you cannot simplify a mattress into just soft, medium, or firm. Rather, there’s a lot more going on.
We’re striving to create a more simplistic yet data-driven approach to a product category that was been traditionally purchased poorly. Laying on a bed for five minutes has no direct correlation with better sleep.
You can also buy a $10K mattress made of horse hair, but will it have the right level of support and point elasticity for a someone who sleeps on their side and has particularly broad shoulders? It’s time to sleep like yourself.
CMC: What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome when starting Helix Sleep?
Lin: In a startup environment, you are constantly forced to make decisions where you don’t have all the necessary information. Given our collective backgrounds and experiences, my cofounders and I find ourselves overanalyzing each situation at the expense of time. And what we’ve realized is that we need to have the trust in one another to make the best judgment and decision at the time because there are simply too many things that need to be accomplished in any given day. We will only learn by doing and pushing ourselves to make decisions despite ambiguity is something we’re continuing to improve as young entrepreneurs.
CMC: Did you ever think you’d start this kind of a business when you were a CMC student?
Lin: I never would have thought in a million years that I’d be in the mattress industry. That being said, I strongly believe my CMC education and the opportunities that I received after receiving my undergraduate degree, provided me the necessary skills, experiences, and network to build something from scratch, could have been applied in any industry. I was also extremely influenced and inspired by the tenacity of many CMC alumni who returned to campus and spoke about their experiences as entrepreneurs building organizations and products. Two that immediately come to mind were Peter Thum, who built Ethos, and Augie Nieto, who built Life Fitness.
CMC: What are your future plans for Helix Sleep?
Lin: At Helix Sleep, we want to become the #1 ecommerce mattress brand, grounded by our company ethos of providing personalized products. My cofounders and I are super excited about the different extensions we can take, such as personalized pillows, and the continual improvement we can make to our existing mattresses through statistics the more beds we sell. With more data, we can start to compare and evaluate different sleeper profiles across various different mattress constructions. We can see a world where mass personalization becomes the mainstay of how consumers think about the bedroom and eventually the connected home.
CMC: What did you learn at CMC that benefited you in starting Helix Sleep?
Lin: What I loved about the CMC curriculum was that it provided the perfect combination of both practice and theory. Supplementing the macro strategic frameworks I learned from Professors Janet Smith and Manfred Keil with the analytical skills from Professors Marc Massoud and Lisa Meulbroek provided me an excellent foundation for my first job out of college and especially now at Helix Sleep. My CMC education was particularly useful in the beginning when my two other co-founders and I were devising a profitable business model that could disrupt an antiquated industry, dominated by large incumbents.
I also learned a lot from having played on the golf team. Golf is unique in that it’s mostly an individual sport, but you’re still part of a team – much like being a co-founder. With two other co-founders and a small team, everybody’s contribution is extremely important and you have to have trust. It’s important that we all individually contribute, but recognize that at the end of the day, we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. The camaraderie and experiences I had playing on the CMC golf team really helped shape my perspective of teams and individuals especially in the context of a startup environment.
CMC: What is the best advice you ever received?
Lin: Be relentless. My father was a Taiwanese immigrant, who came to U.S. but spoke no English. Through his tenacity as an entrepreneur, he overcame all odds and built a manufacturing business that allowed my family to pursue a new life in a foreign country. If someone tells you no, you’re probably on to something – see it as an opportunity to find another way.
For more information on Helix Sleep, visit www.helixsleep.com.