Online mattress is the hottest e-commerce category these days, and here is yet another one delivering venture-scale growth without venture capital. Tuft & Needle CEO JT Marino shares his story.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.