Missy and Scott Tannen met during their junior year at Vanderbilt University in 1997. It was a blind date, set up by their friends, to attend a Commodores football game. Scott, who never missed the players run through the tunnel and onto the field before the game, had to wait outside the stadium until halftime for a woman he never met before. When Missy finally showed up, Scott's annoyance immediately went away. They got married in April 2001, and now live in Chatham, New Jersey with their three daughters.

Nearly two decades after that first date, Missy and Scott co-founded Boll & Branch, the first fair trade-certified organic bedding company in the U.S. The company made close to $1.75 million in sales in its first year, and counts Bill Clinton and Shakira among its customers.

The idea first came to the couple in 2013, when they were renovating the master bedroom in their home. Missy wanted to get a new bedspread, sheets, duvet covers, and pillowcases, so they started shopping.

"I was the average consumer and I came home frustrated and confused about why bedding was so expensive and why it was so difficult to find out where the sheets were made and if it was organic cotton or not," Missy tells Inc. They found out that higher thread count usually has nothing to do with quality and that "Egyptian cotton" is actually the name of a plant species grown in Pakistan and China. 

During that time, Scott was looking to start a new business. He had co-founded Funtank--a company that, among other properties, owned popular online gaming site CandyStand.com--in 2007 and sold it to Publishers Clearing House for millions three years later. He wanted to start an e-commerce site, but was looking for the right product. After the couple's trouble finding affordable, yet socially-conscious bedding, he knew he had found it--organic luxury sheets, made by well-paid and well-treated workers for a reasonable price.

Organic or bust

Cotton, as a crop, has an ugly history, from its reliance on slave labor in the U.S. to modern-day inhumane practices in countries like China, Pakistan, and India. "Cotton is hand-picked by farmers who have small, three-acre plots of land. Cotton is susceptible to bugs and infestations and the farmers apply pesticides by hand, which is why life expectancy of a farmer is around 35. All these chemicals then go into soil and drinking water," Scott says.

Boll & Branch, Scott and Missy decided, would sell only 100 percent organic cotton sheets and blankets. To find all organic cotton, the duo partnered with Chetna Organic, a co-op that organizes small farms and helps them transition into sustainable, certified-organic farms. 

Since launching in January 2014, Boll & Branch has purchased more than 200,000 pounds of organic cotton from well over a hundred small, family-run farms in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, India. When a farm goes organic, the farmers can lose business because few buyers care if their cotton is organic and don't want to pay more for it. To ensure the financial security of the farmers they do business with, Boll & Branch buys 100 percent of their cotton, paying 15 to 20 percent more (according to fair trade-established prices) than it would for non-organic.

The startup works with two factories in Calcutta, where a total of 250 mill workers make their sheets and throw blankets. Boll & Branch's policies diverge considerably from those of its competitors: It does not allow child labor; pays the workers fair wages; supplies medical insurance for all workers' family members; provides food and transportation; and caps shift times at eight hours.

"The home textile industry is sad. There are a lot of ethical issues in terms of labor, horrible conditions for children and parents, right through manufacturing conditions in factories," Missy says. "We decided to go all organic because what it means for the farmers and their families."

Being married to your co-founder.

For some, being married to your co-founder would be a disaster. But for Scott and Missy, it's a great match of two people with different skills. Scott handles the business and marketing end, while Missy heads up product design and packaging.

"We have different strengths and weaknesses and no one knows those strengths and weaknesses better than a husband-and-wife team," Missy says. It's hard to keep work and life separate, but that can actually be an opportunity, she adds. "The lines between work and life are blurred. It's all intertwined. We'll talk about the business over dinner but it's not a negative--our kids are watching us build a startup and learning how to focus your passion."

The close proximity to your co-founder is often a good thing, agrees Scott. " My co-founder is 10 feet away from me, tucking the kids into bed, so it takes a lot of discipline not to bring up business. But other times, when I'm working too late she will stop me."

First year in business.  

Boll & Branch has only 15 full-time employees, split between the headquarters in New Jersey and a distribution warehouse in Los Angeles. The couple believes that they have been able to stay small because they are married; they represent the entire executive team. The decision to remain solely an e-commerce business has also kept the team lean and the price for customers low. The only way they'd break into brick-and mortar retail is if "the sign above the store says Boll & Branch," Scott says.

A year into the venture, the Tannens are planning to expand their offerings. Missy is currently designing a new line of products, bathroom linens and a line of baby blankets and sheets for the crib. They will also supply a few hotels and spas with their textiles, though for the most part they will continue to focus on the socially-conscious consumer. 

The year's sales were "bonkers," as the couple described it. They sold around 7,500 sets of sheets and 4,000 throw blankets, and sold out of their inventory four times. Looking back to their one-year anniversary on Jan. 21, Scott and Missy recall that they had just finished reviewing the year's sales, when they read articles about their company in the The Los Angeles Times andThe Wall Street Journal.

"We looked at each other, working poolside in Florida on our laptops, and we realized it is going to work," Scott says. "A startup is an extension of your life, so when we have these highlights, we share them. We also share the downsides and keep each other sane."

Published on: Feb 14, 2015