They make lofty claims of ‘engineering’ mattresses simply made from two or three layers of cheap polyurethane foam, just as other mattress brands have already been doing for over a decade, and they hilariously compare their petrochemical based, non-sustainable, anti-green mattresses to Elon Musk’s Tesla — and they actually say it with a straight face.
However, what you may not be aware of is what an absolute racket the whole thing is. The overwhelming majority of these startups are actually dishonest marketing companies masquerading as mattress manufacturers. The end goal? Taking as much of your hard-earned money as possible while delivering to you as little as humanly possible in exchange. This is how fortunes are made, industries ruined.
This is tech’s attempt of a hostile takeover of the mattress industry, and they’re laughing all the way to the bank.
Part 1 – The Racket
Here’s the deep, dark secret of the “e-bed” fad — almost none of the founders have ever worked a day in their life in the mattress industry. There are now over 180 of these “burrito bed” companies proliferating across the internet like a virus, all silly carbon copies of each other, and very few of them have their own production facilities or factories.
But how is that possible?
The racket in a nutshell — they simply partner with outside foam manufacturers who slap a few pieces of cheap polyurethane foam together like a hamburger, vacuum compress the bed, roll-pack it in a shippable box like a burrito, and off to the consumer they go. This, they claim, is “revolutionary.” A revolutionary way to take advantage of the buying public, indeed, but certainly not a revolution of arguably the most important piece of furniture in the home. Devolution is a more accurate word.
Now, the unfortunate truth of the mattress industry is that mattresses have been devolving for quite some time. I’ve been in the mattress industry since the year 2000 and have seen virtually all of these changes first hand. The industry’s been afflicted by a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality for years, a major problem recently exasperated by the influx of tech and marketing companies who are hell bent on winning that race. Disturbingly, many offer only the absolute bare minimum required to create a usable surface while preaching to the world that they’ve created the Tesla of mattresses.
How did this happen?
Part 2 – The Ingredients
Contrary to the narrative put forth in the media in recent years, this isn’t the first time the mattress industry has been disrupted. To understand how this mess came to fruition, we have to go back in time a bit to the mid 90’s when memory foam (also known as visco-elastic foam) became commercially available to the public.
Originally developed by NASA for use in airplane seats, it was never actually intended to be slept on. It was designed to help absorb G-force during takeoff and in landing. Eventually a Swedish company acquired the formula and further developed it for use in sleep products. Tempur-pedic was the first company to bring this “space age, revolutionary, miracle” foam to the USA, disrupting the traditional approach to mattress making.
See, prior to Tempur-pedic’s arrival, mattress construction involved a lot of people along the production chain, each building and assembling them from the ground up. Actually at one point in the distant past, mattresses were entirely hand made. Imagine that!
For example, box-springs beneath the mattress were hand-tied by specialists creating a comfortable and stable foundation for the mattress, sort of like shocks on a car. The mattress itself contained elaborate innerspring systems that gave correct spinal support which each coil conforming independently to the curves of the body. The uppermost layers often contained carefully cultivated healthy, sustainable materials such as temperature regulating wool and cotton and were hand-tufted by skilled craftsmen. Yes, it was time consuming. But the finished product was superlative. As a result, it wasn’t uncommon for a bed to last 20, 30 even up to 50 years. (Note: There are still some manufacturers making beds in the traditional, responsible way.)
Part 3 – The De-Evolution
As it turns out, mattresses lasting so long created a problem for some brands. Manufacturers eventually realized it curbed sales, so over time they began systematically stripping various components away which built in a type of manufactured obsolescence and shortened the buying cycle (this meant people had to replace their mattresses more frequently). Many mattresses today have been so severely stripped down that you’re lucky to get 3 years out of them before they start looking as if a 6-ton elephant had been sleeping on it. This is by design.
The introduction of Tempur-pedic revealed a new way of cutting costs and boosting profit margins to the mattress industry. Since much of foam production is mass produced by machines and there were no moving parts inside of a Tempur-pedic, production costs were significantly reduced and production time decreased. In 1997 dollars, a queen size Tempur-pedic mattress retailed for around $1399. Prices would only increase over the next decade to the point where Tempur-pedic beds are often the most expensive mattresses in a typical mattress store.
For an industry endlessly engaged in a perpetual race to the bottom and constantly trying to figure out ways to give you less while charging you the same, offering a mattress at the time made purely from two layers of foam was a literal dream come true. Eventually, foam producers were able to reverse engineer Tempur-pedic’s proprietary formula, and generic “memory foam” appeared on the market, albeit not *exactly* the same as Tempur-pedic’s, but fairly close.
Enticed by the prospect of mattresses that circumvented the traditional craftsmanship process involving pesky human beings that required salaries, health benefits and contributions to 401k’s, eventually all of the other brands started adding their own spring-free mattresses made from nothing but cheap synthetic foams to their lineup and retailers put them on their floors.
By doing so, they unknowingly rolled out the red carpet for the new “e-bed” fad years in advance. They themselves created fertile ground for a hostile takeover. The seeds had been planted, but it would take some time for them to materialize.
They had to get the next step sorted out…
Part 4 – The Machine
Since spring-free mattresses made from just a couple of layers of foam had become an accepted approach to mattress making, it was inevitable that entrepreneurs would want to take this a step further. (Remember winning the race to the bottom at all costs.) Since this type of mattress is made from nothing but foam and typically no inner-springs or natural materials to worry about, several companies realized that it might be possible to shrink or ‘vacuum compress’ this type of bed so that it could fit into a box. This meant that consumers could bypass shopping for a bed in a store and could simply order one online. The customer unpacks the mattress, cuts open the plastic, and the compressed burrito bed inhales air again and inflates to its original shape.
One of several companies exploring this approach was a company called Bed in a Box, who began working on a proprietary ‘roll packing’ machine in 2006. And in 2007, they shipped their first ‘bed in a box’ to a consumer, a full 8 years before Casper amusingly made Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2015 list. It seemed as if Bed in a Box held the lead in the race to the bottom until new challengers appeared on the scene.
In 2010, Saatva began offering an actual innerspring mattress through their online store. While their bed isn’t delivered in a box, it also isn’t made by Saatva. That’s because Saatva isn’t a mattress manufacturer, they’re a marketing company pretending to be one. It’s actually made by a company called Pleasant Mattress. None of the Saatva founders have any experience in the mattress industry.
Tuft & Needle, another burrito bed brand, was started by a couple of guys who’ve never worked a day in their lives in the mattress industry either. They apparently started a mattress company because they “had a bad experience” throwing their money away on an overpriced memory foam mattress. After a failed attempt at bringing a Japanese style futon to the marketplace, they realized how dirt cheap it was to produce an all foam bed, and decided to offer a 5-inch thick foam mattress instead, which eventually “grew” into a whopping 10-inch foam mattress. Despite the fact that their bed doesn’t have a real ‘tuft’ in it and takes minutes to produce, they didn’t change their name. The illusion of some sort of craftsmanship helps dupe their customers.
Part 5 – The Plague
In 2014, along came Casper, started on a whim by a few bored guys in New York who also never worked a day in their lives in the brick & mortar mattress industry. Armed with substantial investments from venture capital companies who were somehow convinced that what Casper was doing was actually unique, they’ve managed to grow through dirty tactics such as silencing critics while secretly acquiring and funding a fake mattress review site in order to give favorable reviews of their own burrito bed. Corrupt is an understatement.
Within months of Casper’s launch, a marketing company called BrandJourney saw just how much money Casper would be able to siphon off of the American public and decided to get in on the game as well with their own mattress startup called Leesa. Surprise surprise, the BrandJourney founders never worked in the mattress industry either. Their bed is a softer, mushier version of Casper.
Yogabed, one of the few e-bed companies started by mattress industry veterans, launched their company in January of 2015. Disappointingly, it’s a lame carbon copy of everything else out there in “e-bed” land. I expect more from industry veterans.
After Saatva, Tuft & Needle, Casper, Leesa and Yogabed, over 180 more carbon copy e-bed companies crawled out of the gutter within just a few years to join the race to the bottom, and here we are.
There are now more options online than there ever has been in any mattress store and with profit margins that dwarf those seen in brick & mortar. Margins are so sky high that they simply don’t care about refunds.
Part 6 – The Future Is In Your Hands
Time will tell how if the FTC decides to deal with this truly unbelievable mess. Obviously greater transparency is desperately needed. For example, unless an “e-bed” company can clearly demonstrate and provide evidence that they manufacture beds in their own factories, a disclosure on their company websites and advertisements stating that the e-bed company in question is a marketing company and in fact, not an actual mattress manufacturer is essential information for consumers. People have the right to know who is a real manufacturer and who is a marketing company.
Duped by deceptive journalism by publications that are compensated via affiliate commissions, celebrity endorsements, hired mercenaries, online troll armies dispatched to discredit critics and cultivating favorable reviews from websites that they own and fund, consumers are the biggest losers in all this.
It’s a shame too, because a mattress is arguably the most important piece of furniture in your home. Too bad it’s been devalued into such a cheap, disposable commodity by both the old rule mattress behemoths as well as the recent proliferation of profiteers and charlatans who’ve never spent a day in their life in the mattress industry.
It’s time consumers be made aware of the wildly unethical “e-bed” companies and demand the necessary disclosures on all of their marketing materials.