By Srianthi Perera
John-Thomas Marino had a bad mattress-shopping experience five years ago.
“It was worse than shopping for a used car. My co-founder and I decided – this was in Silicon Valley – to build a mattress company: to cut out the middle man, to cut out the gimmicks, to reimagine the mattress as sleep,” he said.
The result is Tuft and Needle, which opened a store in Gilbert’s Heritage District recently.
Its other retail locations are in Phoenix, Scottsdale and San Francisco.
Founded in 2012, the Phoenix-based company offers just one style of mattress comprising its unique Adaptive Foam designed for people of all shapes, sizes and sleeping styles. The mattress, made in the U.S., is compressed into a small box and shipped free of charge to the customer’s door. When the box is opened, the mattress unfurls and expands.
The company has also developed its own specialized bed frame, linen and pillow.
The mattress comes with a 100-night sleep trial, free returns and a 10-year warranty.
“Ninety-seven percent of people keep and love it,” said Marino, whose background in computer science and mathematics came in handy to lead the company’s product and software development.
Marino and his co-founder, Daehee Park, invested $6,000 of their own funds to start the company. They didn’t seek investors or loans.
They sold their first test mattress online within a matter of minutes.
“It has been growing and crazy ever since,” said Marino, who lives in Phoenix.
The company now employs 150 people, has three offices and manufactures and ships from five states. It did $100 million in sales last year.
The company brands itself as leading the revolution against the current industry. The mattress industry as a whole hasn’t been innovated, Marino said. “And it hasn’t been putting customers first,” resulting in very high mark-ups, commissioned sales and gimmicks such as “going out of business” sales.
“Our idea was, why do you need a store with a hundred mattresses in it to find a good mattress? It is possible to make one and it works for a lot of people – that was the theory,” he said.
At Tuft & Needle, staff is available to answer questions and provide information; pushy salespeople are not part of the equation.
Pushiness is also unnecessary when products sell themselves. A case in point is the one-size-fits-all pillow, which is a success as well.
Arizona State University fiber arts graduate Sarah Grindle leads the bedding line. She is credited with developing “honest sheets.”
Like the mattress industry, linen has become confusing to the customer, Grindle said. Thread counts, fancy materials and inconsistent fits are some of the gimmicks that distract from poor quality and justify high pricing.
Grindle visited many factories and saw low-quality fiber, which was cheap to obtain, and high thread-count products.
“They slept on mid-range thread-count and high-quality fiber,” she said.
Grindle scoured availability of quality cotton and honed in on Supima cotton grown in the U.S. Southwest. The sheets are woven in a mill belonging to a fifth-generation family in South Carolina.
“Some of the best things about it are it’s super strong, durable, makes really strong cloth and is really smooth and soft,” Grindle said. “It’s certified as being extra-long staple fiber.”
With products as popular as they are, lines form outside the stores during weekends.
“On Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., it’s insane,” Marino said. “We’ve so much traffic in one week; it’s honestly more than a typical mattress store gets in an entire year. That’s really a testament to the problems that are in this industry.”
A suitable spot was difficult to find in Gilbert, so the store, at about 1,200 square feet, is comparatively tiny. But it makes up for the size by offering foot traffic, which is a novelty to the business because it deems its other stores as a destination.
Marino said his decision to establish the company in the Valley and not in Los Angeles or in Silicon Valley paid off not only because of the lower startup costs.
As they began the company, they saw that the talent has been critical, as well.
“People are not thinking about working for a startup for a few years and jumping to the next one. They lead a more balanced lifestyle,” he said. “And we are building this company to last a long time.”
Marino also credits the help from the entrepreneur community and customers who have been sharing their story.
“In one of these bigger cities, we would have been lost in the noise. People here fully embraced it,” he said.