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Bootstrapping to $100M+ from Arizona: JT Marino, CEO of Tuft & Needle (Part 1)

Posted on Friday, Sep 15th 2017

Online mattress is the hottest e-commerce category these days, and here is yet another one delivering venture scale growth without venture capital.

Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?

JT Marino: I was born in Phoenix, but I grew up in Pennsylvania. I went to Penn State. That’s where I met my co-founder, Daehee Park. From there, my career took me to Silicon Valley working for several startups. That’s where my co-founder and I stuck together. We were at a company at Palo Alto and we decided that we wanted to build something of our own. Based on our previous experience with startups, we wanted to do it a different way.

We wanted to avoid raising capital. We wanted to avoid software. We wanted to try something totally different and focus it around a problem that we understood and that we had personal experience with. That’s essentially my background. I’m a software engineer and designer focusing on product development.

Sramana Mitra: What kind of company in Silicon Valley did you work for?

JT Marino: It was a high-tech software startup devolping web and mobile applications. It raised a significant amount of money, but it wasn’t necessarily a name you might recognize. My background was primarily product development within software.

Sramana Mitra: You decided to move to Arizona because?

JT Marino: We wanted to build this company in a sustainable way. A company that was profitable from the beginning and didn’t need capital investments. That meant we had to get very scrappy which included cutting our own costs, hiring in a less competitive environment, and being able to reduce our rent.

Later on, as we ended up incorporating in Phoenix, we learned more and more that there’s a lot of upside here that we didn’t even realize. There’s an enormously large pool of talent that comes out of Phoenix and goes to Silicon Valley. We had this pool we could recruit from. Another is that the attitudes of people in Phoenix are more in line with our attitude and culture as a company.

Sramana Mitra: Tell me the founding story. How did you zero in on the idea of what kind of a business you were going to build?

JT Marino: We wanted to start a company together. We had talked about it in college.

Sramana Mitra: How many people are we talking about?

JT Marino: It was just me and my best friend. We wanted to start something on our own. We actually had an idea. The idea came from an experience I personally had. I had to go shopping for a mattress. Suffice it to say, it was the worst shopping experience of my life. It was very confusing. This idea kept coming back to us. As we poked around, we realized that it wasn’t just me who’s experiencing this.

We asked people what their experience has been. What we did next was we wrote down every single thing that we had experienced as a problem using the mattress. We took this and wrote at the top, “The Hate List.” We took that list and built a test website. This was in June of 2012. Based on our list, we essentially described what the mattress would be like. It was the whole thesis.

We got a photo stock image of a mattress and launched the site. We took out a Google Ad. 15 minutes later, we made a sale. We didn’t have a product. That sale didn’t complete, but there was an attempt at processing the transaction. That was our signal that we were onto something.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Bootstrapping to $100M+ from Arizona: JT Marino, CEO of Tuft & Needle
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