Nobody likes going to buy a mattress.

That simple statement was the driving concept behind online mattress-maker Casper, which launched in April 2014. The New York City company's co-founders, like basically everyone else, were frustrated by commissioned salespeople, weak return policies, and products that were seemingly indistinguishable from one another--except in price.

"You don't wake up on the day you're buying your new bed and say "Yay, let's go mattress shopping!" co-founder Neil Parikh told a crowd at the PSFK Conference in Manhattan Friday morning. "But people will wait in line for a new iPhone for hours and hours. So we asked ourselves, end to end, how can we make this an incredible experience that's like when you buy an iPhone?"

Although Casper faces intense competition from both startups and traditional retailers alike in the $14 billion mattress market, the company has serious traction and recently eclipsed $100 million in sales. Here's what Parikh says entrepreneurs need to do build a startup that upends its industry. 

1. Aim to create a product that's 10 times better than your competitors. 

Easier said than done, right? Casper approached this goal with the assumption that the product goes far beyond the thing your customers physically touch, so there are a number of ways in which you can exceed your competition: convenience, customer service, online experience, product quality.

Casper's 15-person design team spent two years creating its first pillow, scrapping hundreds of prototypes along the way (including one with 100 miniature pillows inside it), and the company has 25,000 people test its products in Casper Labs before launching. The free shipping and 100-day test run are far more customer friendly than the existing alternatives. And the app itself is fun and simple, as is its playful marketing. All those forces combine to build a brand that makes people want to forget the companies that came before it. 

2. Make people think about your industry in a new way. 

Casper started up at a time when plenty of publications and famous entrepreneurs were sounding off about the benefits of sleep. At that point, traditional mattress-makers talked about sleep in a very clinical way, highlighting things like spine alignment. Big furniture stores, on the other hand, displayed mattresses next to bedside tables and pillows, giving the impression that sleep is about decor. Casper took a more holistic approach--and lighter touch--on its website and app, focusing on the fact that getting a slightly better night's sleep will make your day that much better. The startup makes sure people think about sleep as a healthy practice--and then inserts itself right alongside the idea it just planted.

"There are very few things you can do that will dramatically change your life other than eating, sleeping, and exercising," Parikh says. "Whole Foods created a place for us to easily eat healthy. Nike reinvented everything about fitness. We thought of sleep as this last great remaining resource." (Note also how Parikh associates Casper with two other well-respected brands.) 

3. Think of your startup as two separate companies. 

Parish says Casper does two core things: it creates a physical product and then it creates the experience around it. To bolster that experience, the startup launched Van Winkle's, an online publication around the science and culture of sleep. Casper's subway ads feature creative, sometimes mischievous cartoons filled with sleep puns--and offer a discount code for subway riders' next mattress. And Parikh says Casper is the first mattress company to use animated TV commercials, which seems surprising given the inherent awkwardness of watching real people sleep.

Meanwhile, the other side of Casper doesn't just create products--it thinks about logistics, like how to fit a mattress into a box and ship it 3,000 miles across the country, as well as what kind of product lines would make sense for the company's future. 

4. Be humble. 

"A lot of companies go out with a bunch of bravado and say, 'We're the bomb. You should listen to us,'" Parikh says. "You've already created a barrier. People now want to question you and your integrity." Casper deliberately chose a squirrel as its unofficial mascot--"this odd creature that wants to explore the world"--and uses its advertising to brand itself as the upstart. "If you can be quirky and fun," says Parikh, "and realize that you kind of have to be a little bit vulnerable and let people discover it on their own, then people will have a lot more fun. They'll enjoy your brand a lot more. They'll want to interact with you."

Published on: May 13, 2016