A few years ago, Patrick Roche was working for an architectural firm in Manhattan and running a side hustle in bubble-ball soccer, a game during which players wear giant bubble suits and bump into each other, as he explained. That was fun. But his day job was stressful and exhausting. He wasn’t sleeping well.
Mr. Roche wanted out of architecture, but bubble ball, he reckoned, was maybe not the most sustainable future. He had been reading self-help books on entrepreneurship and they all said the same thing: Just start something.
Meanwhile, he was trying different remedies for his sleeplessness: meditation, reducing caffeine, exercise. The one he liked best was a weighted blanket — essentially, a really, really heavy comforter, freighted with glass or plastic beads, heretofore used most often to soothe autistic children and others with sensory processing disorders. Could selling them be the beginning of a business?
Mr. Roche, 32, found a generic version on Alibaba, the Chinese online marketplace and customized it for a design-forward buyer by sheathing it in a gray cotton duvet cover. He named his creation and his new company, rocabi (pronounced “rock-a-bye”).
By June of 2017 he had an online shingle, some basic Google ads and a place on Amazon. By 2018, rocabi was selling thousands for $199 and had branched out, just before Christmas, with a new item: the Boyfriend Blanket, made from shearling and denim, to mimic the look of a cozy jean jacket.
Mr. Roche is hardly alone in his heavy-bedding endeavor. Weight may be the new thread count, as he and other newly minted makers of therapeutic comforters hope to turn the bedroom into a quasi-medical space, the latest iteration in the commodification of sleep. If the last chapter was largely about data and devices (sleep tracking, mostly), this one is all about the bed itself.
About the same time Mr. Roche was having his aha moment, Kathrin Hamm, a German economist, was working at the World Bank, covering the Middle East from Dubai and traveling across multiple time zones. Like Mr. Roche, she was having trouble sleeping, and she, too, tried a weighted blanket as a remedy, an experience which also jolted her own inner entrepreneur. Could she make it more attractive, and not so hot? She raised close to $250,000 on Kickstarter and began selling the Sleeper, a crisp white duvet made from eucalyptus and weighted with sand, for $199. It sold so well she quit her job. Her friends thought she had lost her mind.
“I come from a small town in Germany,” said Ms. Hamm, who is 36. “They knew I was an economist working for the World Bank. Now I’m trying to sell blankets on the internet. Something must be wrong.”
Many of the new bedroom entrepreneurs are hoping to best the success of the Gravity Blanket, whose own Kickstarter campaign raised more than $4.7 million a couple of years ago. By the end of last year, sales of that fuzzy throw ($249) had reached $18 million, and Time magazine had named it one of the best inventions of 2018.
With an ersatz-looking plush cover that recalls airline blankets, the Gravity Blanket has begged for competition. Late last year, Holden & Hay, a Colorado company that sells Merino wool bedding for babies and dogs, launched its own Kickstarter campaign to make “eco-conscious” weighted blankets printed with Native American motifs and stuffed with shredded “mom jeans.” And Ms. Hamm, whose company is named Bearaby (a neologism designed to evoke a bear hug and a lullaby, she said) now also sells the adorable, 20-pound Napper, a chunky knit throw in six colors ($249) that carries its weight in its yarn and would be right at home in a stylishly hygge setting.
Heavy bedding and other compression items have resonated, metaphorically and psychologically, as transitional objects for a population under stress. People on Twitter have been lobbing weighted blanket jokes, like a poster who wondered if he or she could make a cheaper version by pouring concrete in a comforter and lighting it on fire. Last April, the maker of the ThunderShirt, a swaddling vest made for anxious dogs, mocked up a web page offering a ThunderShirt for humans with fake testimonials. The company’s call center was flooded with inquiries. “It was for April 1,” said one operator last week with studied patience. An Australian company has designed greeting cards for lovers that proclaim, “You are my favorite weighted blanket.”
(It was late last year that the weighted blanket went from being an easy punch line to a woke parody, when a writer for the Atlantic wondered if the marketing of a product designed as a coping device for autistic people was appropriation. This generated all manner of retorts, the best of which came from a writer at Slate who is herself autistic.)
Enter the Sleep Pod, a gray spandex cocoon ($110). Its inventor, Matt Mundt, 28, has a background in mechanical engineering and a resume that includes product development for Apple. He has long been a poor sleeper, he said recently, and when he gazed upon the sleep space, as entrepreneurs like to say, and saw that it was heavy with weighted blankets, he was moved to innovate.
“I’m 6-foot-3 and I couldn’t bear them,” Mr. Mundt said. “I was overheating, my arms and legs were sticking out, the blankets were falling off the bed and it was just a mess. I have five patents. I knew I could do something better.” His solution was to make an 8-ounce pod from an elastic fabric that mimics, he said, the pressure of a weighted blanket but without the ballast, typically 10 percent of one’s body weight (most companies sell three versions, 15-, 20- and 25-pounders). It also solves the partner problem: each of you can sleep in his or her own pod as Mr. Mundt and his wife, Angie, do.
The Sleep Pod was not a success in my own household: “Get it off now!” said my panicked roommate, kicking frantically. I thought it was perfectly cozy, if not particularly snug. This made it bearable, for my own sleep purposes, but perhaps not therapeutic, from a pressure standpoint. And deep pressure is the main ingredient in a weighted blanket, which may raise serotonin and melatonin levels, say the makers, citing various studies, and in turn reduce anxiety. Just maybe.
When she was a child, Temple Grandin liked to crawl under the sofa cushions and have her sister lie on top. She hated human touch, but the sensation of being squashed under the pillows soothed her. At 18, she built her first “squeeze machine,” a large, viselike device made from plywood, foam padding and even a bit of fake fur. She used it to quell her own anxiety and also acclimate herself to the touch of other creatures. Dr. Grandin, the autistic professor of animal science made famous by Oliver Sacks for her stress-reducing innovations for handling livestock, notes on her website that after a while, her cat no longer ran away from her. “I had to be comforted myself before I could give comfort to the cat,” she writes.
One frigid afternoon when the Polar Vortex was in town, I dragged the Boyfriend Blanket onto the sofa, furry side up. I put myself and the cat on top, and wrestled the Napper into place over my shins. (Ms. Hamm, who had worked with a sleep scientist in her development process, said that he had suggested knee-level forays to get used to the weight.) Thus encumbered, the cat and I passed out.
Penelope Green is a reporter for Styles. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times — an early iteration of Styles — and a story editor at the Times magazine. @greenpnyt • Facebook
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