Brooklinen’s Founder On How She Disrupted An Industry And Successfully Pivoted Her Career
These days, most people are spending a bit more time at home, and in doing so, paying more attention to their surroundings. Personal sanctuaries have become much more of a focus, and consumers are narrowing in on the most personal place that exists within the home – the bed.
Vicki Fulop is ready to take on those customers. When a 2012 trip to Vegas had her sleeping in the most luxurious bedding she’s ever felt, she started hunting down ways to purchase her own sheets without paying exorbitant price tags. After encountering lots of dead ends during her search, she, along with her husband, set out on a journey to make luxury bedding accessible to the masses.
That’s how Brooklinen was born. Today, the Fulops remain fully immersed in every aspect of their business – from design to marketing and art direction. Their supply chain puts a focus on supporting small-scale entrepreneurs across the globe, and the company gives back to communities across the U.S. by donating all returns to Good360, a non profit that aims to keep usable goods out of landfills.
Forbes spoke with Vicki about her path to making Brooklinen the success it is today, her thoughts on imposter syndrome, and how she’s had to pivot her business during the pandemic.
Tell me about how you came up with the idea to create Brooklinen.
I started down a very traditional path. After college I went to law school. While there I kept thinking back to my childhood dream of working in fashion or design. In my second year I realized I didn’t have a passion for it. I wanted a more creative outlet and felt in my gut that I didn’t want to practice law. I stuck it out but in my third year, I started an internship at Tory Burch in their PR department. I loved being part of the visual storytelling process – even just being in their closet and sending products out for shoots. It wasn’t glamorous work but it was exciting.
From there I decided to officially not pursue law. I got a job at a beauty PR agency. I learned the basics of storytelling, even small things that came in handy later when we launched Brooklinen, like knowing photography worked best on a white background.
Around the same time, my husband was about to start business school. We decided to take a trip to Vegas, and our hotel room had really nice sheets. Rich and I had not been huge appreciators of sheets, but these were so soft, cool and really luxurious. We looked into buying them and were floored when we found out they were $800.
I thought we might be able to get them cheaper if we found the person who made them. Rich got deep into the forums on Reddit as we tried to find them directly through the manufacturer. What he actually found was a community of people who were unsuccessfully trying to find the same thing. We started to wonder why it was so hard. Why couldn’t we find sheets directly from the manufacturer? Brooklinen was born out of trying to solve that problem.
How did you even know where to start?
We really started educating ourselves, from the supply chain to how we could make a really good product that was affordable. A lot of those nice high end sheets have more of that added detail like embroidery and extra trim, but that wasn’t our style. We wanted something minimalist, which actually ended up making things more affordable.
We did the legwork for about two years, searching for partners, for factories. Rich made this his project all throughout business school. We spent those years googling everything, calling suppliers, finding small factories who were willing to make bedding for us. Most factories required giant pallets that we couldn’t afford. People thought it was crazy. Investors turned us away and we weren’t able to get funding. After being rejected by so many investors, we took the project to Kickstarter.
Did you have doubts about whether or not you could pull this off? How did you work through those?
We did have imposter syndrome, but I will say to everyone who has that – if you are smart and hardworking you can educate yourself in a category that you are passionate about even if you have no experience. In those early days, we hired a woman named Emily as our developer. She was a fashion buyer who had a mid-life career change. She took some coding classes and pretty much built our website. We were all learning as we built it. She still works with us today.
Kickstarter helped with our confidence because we needed to build a prototype, build inventory, build a website. When the idea caught on, we finally had proof of concept. We knew we had a beautiful product and we had secured a factory that was willing to do a small order with us.
We drove around in our car delivering prototypes to bloggers and media. We had created 60 sets of sheets that we drove around delivering to people. Most of them ended up really loving it.
We set our Kickstarter goal to $50,000. We wanted it to be high enough so that we could prove this was a viable concept. We got to that initial goal within the first week and raised $237,000 within 30 days.
How did you scale after that initial launch?
We were really rough at first. Rich helped code the first website. We put together a makeshift photoshoot and built a site on Shopify. We got a little more sophisticated as time went on. We learned about customs. Turns out if you’re a new importer your stuff gets held at customs for a long time. If you don’t have the right paperwork it delays things.
We learned about Facebook advertising. We brought in a consultant to help with that because we had no idea what we were doing. We invested in testing subway ads pretty early on. We took over the Bedford L train platform which didn’t give us a boost at first but we saw a little lift over time, likely after people saw the ad over and over again on their commute. We figured out better ways to measure. We had a specific code for those who purchased based on seeing our subway ad. That way we could track how people discovered us. We needed to know what was really working.
In the first year we really weren’t sure if this was going to work. We knew we needed to hit certain benchmarks if we were going to survive and be able to support ourselves on it. It was very up and down. We’d get a mention in the press, see a bump, and then things would decline. But it took a while to see that sustained growth. Once we started having double digit orders on a daily basis we were feeling pretty good.
Would you say you disrupted the bedding industry?
I would say we did. Casper launched the same day as our Kickstarter so the industry was definitely seeing a revolution. One of the reasons we couldn’t get funding at first was because people thought customers would need to physically feel the sheets in order to buy them. No one thought people could buy them online. With good storytelling and a good return policy, we were able to prove that people were definitely willing to shop for bedding online. This was six years ago. Now shopping for physical goods online feels much more commonplace. I won’t flatter myself too much, but I like to think we made really luxurious products much more accessible.
Where does the name Brooklinen come from? Is it an homage to your home in Brooklyn?
Because a friend of a friend at a party suggested it when we said we were starting a company and we were from Brooklyn. There’s not much more to it than that!
How has the current state of things changed your business model, if at all?
At the beginning of this we saw a dip because people probably got scared and didn’t want to spend money but now we’re seeing things increase a bit more. We had shipping delays during March and April while at the same time more people started investing in home goods and loungewear. We also saw a significant increase in customer inquiries in general, like changing one’s mind or color preference, lots of shipping address changes.
We were going to open several retail locations and now of course we can’t do that yet. But we were luckily able to keep our company running. We also carry a lot of inventory so we had less disruption than other companies. Our towels are manufactured in Turkey, some sheets are made in Portugal, some in Israel. We manufacture loungewear in Long Beach, California. The warehouses we work with are following social distancing guidelines very strictly so everything is shipping slower. We had to delay some launches because of shipping delays. But we’re very fortunate right now.
On a personal note, you’ve been working alongside your husband for years since he is your cofounder. Now that so many married couples are suddenly coworking in the same space, are there any tips you can offer to help people maintain a level of sanity and/or try to keep work/personal life separate?
No one has it all figured out, so people need to give themselves a break. Your place is going to be messier, there will be toys everywhere. It’s not ideal but you only have so much time in the day and probably want a little bit of rest at the end of it which means you’re not going to be able to clean. We set boundaries by not letting ourselves talk about work after 8 p.m. We had to create that boundary because otherwise it’d be nonstop. If possible, work out of different rooms – even if it’s the kitchen and the bathroom, just to give yourself some space.
Also, take walks together and apart. You need space for yourself and as a couple. Mentally set aside space for each other because you can’t go on a date anymore. You’re simulating that break even if it’s going for a walk or sitting down to dinner after bedtime. Get alone time if you can. Alternate putting the baby to bed. Work out a bit of a schedule if you can.
Any concluding words of wisdom to impart for those thinking about starting a new venture?
Start anywhere, start somewhere. You’re never going to have the perfect business plan so just start working on it. No one has everything figured out or has encountered every problem before so it’s just the willingness to attack it and solve it. There’s always a fire to put out, something to build or solve, so it can be scary. There are so many things you haven’t faced before that you’ll have to figure out. Just get started.
Photo Source: Brooklinen