Any other business

Inspired by a trip to Richard Branson's island, Leesa beds down for international growth

9 min read

17 September 2015

Online luxury mattress firm Leesa is offering customers a new way to get a better night's sleep – and have money in the bank from the likes of Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine to go global.

They say never meet your heroes, but David Wolfe, founder of online luxury mattress provider Leesa, is quick to put that one to bed.

He has just returned from a week-long trip to Necker Island, the private retreat of Richard Branson, after Leesa was chosen as one of six fast-growing young businesses to meet the entrepreneurial legend in a performance-based competition run by ecommerce giant Shopify.

“I met Richard Branson!” exclaimed Wolfe now back in the US where he set up Leesa last year. “It was an extraordinary experience. To be in the same room as one of your career heroes was amazing. Almost everything he said was wise, irreverently wise. He was the entrepreneurial role model for my generation.”

Read more about Richard Branson:

That isn’t a slip of the tongue. Wolfe is no starry-eyed twenty-something entrepreneur.

He has built up a succession of successful consumer-led ventures in areas such as travel and TV since moving to the US from his native UK 21 years ago. It is perhaps why Leesa is as much about “purpose as profit”.

For every online mattress the company sells it plants a tree, and for every ten it sends a mattress to a charity such as a homeless shelter.

“I’m not a young entrepreneur trying to make a fortune. I’ve been financially fortunate and we want to make the world a better place. Our motto is ‘a better place to sleep is a pathway to a better life’,” he said.

The pathway to Leesa began in 2004 when Wolfe met mattress industry veteran Jamie Diamonstein to help him source memory foam mattress pads which he sold directly to consumers using newspaper advertising.

That venture never really took off but Wolfe kept dreaming about selling mattresses directly to consumers – when he could actually get down to sleep.

“Over the years that followed, I had trouble sleeping. My wife and I bought beds offering all sorts of benefits, from coils to memory foam – nothing worked,” he recalled. “Then at the end of 2013, completely by chance, I met Jamie again in a restaurant that I’d never been to before and have never been to again. We talked about whether shipping luxury mattresses in a box to people’s homes was feasible. So we began.”

Wolfe said Diamonstein has reinvented the sleep experience by simplifying the mattress and taking out all the stuff that has been added for years to justify higher prices. It’s also a universal feel rather than soft, medium or firm.

The company was launched last December and it has to date shipped 18,000 mattresses to US consumers and is set to make $30m in sales this year.

“The pace of growth has been phenomenal. We sold more mattresses in August than I thought we would do for the whole year,” he said. “Our reviews have been incredible and the model is working.”

Matt Hayes, Leesa’s head of marketing, explained further: “Consumers want to buy online but previously the mattress industry has not been consumer friendly. There have been marketing gimmicks and when you go into a showroom and you test out two or three mattresses you have some salesman peering over you. It’s not a fun experience so we are giving the modern millennial, the modern consumer what they need.”

Read on to find out about Leesa’s celebrity backers and the advice gems provided by Branson.

The business, which offers customers a huge 100-night free trial of a mattress, has primarily been self-funded but in July secured $9m of capital from private equity firm TitleCard Capital – which includes celebrity investors such as US chat show host Jimmy Kimmel and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine.

“We’re profitable so we haven’t touched that money yet. We’ll use it when we really need to seriously grow,” Wolfe said. “The celebrity involvement also gives us an opportunity to tap into it for marketing purposes. It would give us great influence if these celebrities talked about using our mattresses on their show or via social media.” Some of the cash will likely drive international expansion.

Leesa recently launched a UK office in Manchester with a manufacturing facility in Glossop. It is also eyeing up Canada and continental Europe as its next markets.

“Our growth strategy is based around local manufacturing. We will also transfer our social work abroad. I am currently talking to potential charity partners in the UK,” he said.

Read more about the world of online furniture:

Of course it already has international experience with Wolfe and Hayes trip to Necker.

Both men said they learned as much from other mentors on the island such as entrepreneurs Tim Ferriss, Marie Forleo, Seth Godin, and Daymond John than Branson.

So what nuggets did they take away?

“I learned about creating space for your employees, giving them autonomy and the room to make mistakes. With that they can do things they did not think they were capable of doing,” Hayes recalled.

Wolfe agreed: “I’m going to empower my team more and give them more resources.”

Regarding customers, Hayes said Leesa will look to use “early adopters” to promote its brand more in the future. “Early adopters are inherently trustful as they want to use new technology whereas the mass-market has much lower trust. We want the early guys to share the positives of our brand with the masses,” he explained.

It will also look to improve its customer experience and deepen its customer relationship.

“We’re going to improve our website and put more video content on there such as the charity work we are doing. That could help put us over the edge when customers are thinking of buying from us,” he said.

Another lesson from Daymond John resonated with Hayes. “He said operate your company like you are broke, as one of the biggest reasons for failure is over-funding. Don’t spend your cash frivolously.”

For Wolfe he learned more in that week than in his entire career. He added: “I have a love of learning. I’ve had it since I was young.”

And what of Branson’s golden advice?

“He talked about having humility, of giving back but never in a patronising way and to be a great leader and never speak ill of other people,” Wolfe said. “He talked about being David against Goliath and how focusing on the consumer and the product helped Virgin Atlantic against BA. He said break the rules, be fearless and don’t tie your staff up with red tape or unnecessary approvals.

“I met Richard Branson!”