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The centerpiece of the Need/Want office on Olive Street Downtown is a king-size mattress, bedecked in cream bedding and situated atop packing crates. At first glance, it’s easy to chalk the setup up to the idiosyncrasies of a young company. But no, the founders explain, it’s not for naps—it’s their newest product launch. And the bed’s place of honor starts to make sense as it becomes clear that, to them, their Smart Bedding line is much more than a few pieces of French stonewashed linen stitched together.
“Most people don’t understand the extent of what goes into the creation of a product,” says David Myers, chief design officer at Need/Want. He doesn’t just mean consumers, once upon a time, himself and the other two co-founders: CEO Marshall Haas and chief of products Jon Wheatley.
But a 16-day trip to Asia last fall allowed the trio to tour the Chinese production facility turning out their clever combination of sheet and duvet cover and to see exactly what goes into making design sketches come to life. Plus, being on the ground to monitor production shortens the time between identifying a problem, communicating it and finding a resolution—none of which are easy tasks given language barriers and time zone differences.
During the trip, the Need/Want team was also able to observe the manufacturing of Peel cellphone cases, one of the company’s mainstay products. Wheatley noted the meticulous molding and refining of the thin pieces of plastic. “I had no idea how much manual labor goes into making the phone case,” he says. “Seventy percent of it can’t be automated: It’s all skilled manual jobs.”
It was another lesson for the co-founders of Need/Want, who entered the product business with successful backgrounds in tech startups.
Magic Carpet Ride
Wheatley, from the south coast of England, sold his first business, an Adobe Flash gaming website he built as a teen, for $2,000. After that, he was hooked to tech’s entrepreneurial world. The Brit went on to create other companies, including DailyBooth, which he describes as “a selfie version of Instagram.” It sold to Airbnb in 2012.
Throughout his formative years in tech, he connected with others who shared similar interests: At 14, he met Myers, who was 12 at the time, in an online community. Despite living on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the two became friends. Myers, a New York native, was already a longtime tinkerer and digital builder and made his first sale—for $500—before turning 13. “David and I would always work on projects together, make stuff together, just have fun together,” Wheatley said. Myers would go on to eventually join Wheatley at DailyBooth, and after the company’s sale, he did contract website and app design work. He also worked at Lockitron, a company that makes door locks controlled by mobile phones, and Wheatley tinkered with the cell phone case that would eventually become Peel.
Haas, meanwhile, had started off working in architecture while in high school in Dallas, but he soon realized that it wasn’t the career for him. He eventually launched a business that really clicked: outsourcing architectural design to the Philippines from customers in the United States. Then, Haas took a break from school—even with an acceptance to a college in Silicon Valley—to work on Obsorb, his project management software startup. When he realized that the software wasn’t quite going to work, he scrapped the project and launched Peak, a team activity feed that shows who’s working on what. The startup led him to Chile for a startup funding grant and next to St. Louis for another via Arch Grants. Then, an acquisition by Metalab in Canada led him north of the border for a time, where he began thinking more about a certain idea for bedding that combined sheets and duvet covers.
“Most guys in tech won’t touch physical products with a 10-foot pole. It freaks them out,” Haas says. But when he picked up one of Wheatley’s Peels and contacted him on Twitter about it, conversations led to them striking a deal to work together on Smart Bedding—still never having met in person. They met for the first time in San Francisco when they filmed a promotional video and began talking about other projects on the trip. Eventually, Mod Notebooks came to fruition, and the three companies came under the umbrella of one: Need/Want.
Haas calls the company “a studio of experiments.” Wheatley chimes in: “I think of it as an extension of what we’ve all been doing for our whole careers: messing around and seeing what works and what doesn’t. But doing this by yourself is very tricky.” There’s a delicate balance between investors, profits, business costs and living expenses. Need/Want diversifies the risk across several kinds of products—and lets the co-founders test out a range of ideas.
“We’re comfortable with and good at coming up with the idea and bringing it to launch, marketing it, growing it and selling it,” Haas explains. “We are set up in a way to where, if something goes really well, we could either spin it out as its own company with its own management team totally separate from Need/Want—or, if somebody wants to buy it, it could be sold off.” Myers adds that the business model is intentionally flexible. Because, as they now know, things don’t always go perfectly.
Addressing The Knots
The Smart Bedding production run the co-founders observed in China last fall wasn’t their first. In 2013, the founders Kickstarted the concept and had 442 backers contributing more than $57,000 in just 30 days. Wheatley and Haas’ modest venture was off and running, and goods were scheduled to arrive on backers’ doorsteps within 90 days.
“Our timeline was so unbelievably, naively ambitious,” says Wheatley. “Everything had to go completely perfect. There wasn’t a one-day buffer.”
“Which, in hindsight, was mental,” Haas adds.
“Of course, we were like, ‘With all these moving pieces, something’s going to go wrong,’” says Wheatley. “And literally everything went wrong.”
“We were super, super green when it comes to manufacturing,” Haas says. “We thought it was as simple as getting your tech drawings to a manufacturer, getting funds together and ordering the product.”
“We were trusting to a fault,” Wheatley says.
The nightmare began when the run kept getting pushed back by the manufacturer for different reasons, says Haas. The initial production samples were fine—but then there were delays. Funds grew tight; there were lost and faulty products. They started to question the integrity of their manufacturer. They tried to convey accurate information to their backers, some of whom started to get impatient about their preorders, but they themselves didn’t always have a good gauge of the validity of information coming to them.
It took a year to get the first third of the production run. And that was actually the second shipment of the run: The first, after a very long chain of events, was chalked up by the manufacturer as “lost at sea.”
“There were literally 300 emails back and forth with the manufacturer,” says Haas, who says the debacle was “the hardest thing that we’ve ever been through,” especially when backers began to question the founders’ integrity. “It was just lie after lie after lie and broken promise after broken promise after broken promise. The reason why we didn’t move to another manufacturer is because all the funds were already tied up with this company. We thought they were never going to produce; we just lost all hope with them. We were always trying to get some of the money back from them. To this day we’ve never seen a dime returned. We lost more than $100,000.”
Other ventures helped keep Need/Want afloat through the dicey times. In March 2014, they launched Mod Notebooks, which scan, digitize and store notebooks in the cloud, followed in October by their line of Emoji Masks. But both Wheatley and Haas were personally invested in Smart Bedding—just as much emotionally as financially—and they wanted to make it right with customers. They had seen plenty of startups fail to follow through on their commitments. “We just so didn’t want to be that company,” Haas recalls.
And although it was “a horrible position to be in,” he says, the two never worried about their partnership. In fact, they took solace in the fact that they weren’t in a sinking boat alone: When things looked the dimmest, Myers reminded them it could be worse. At the beginning of January last year, he came from Silicon Valley to join Wheatley and Haas in St. Louis. Their decision to locate here was based, in part, on the cost of doing business. Cheaper rent and overhead are nothing to scoff at, whether you’re a tech startup or not.
With the money the other products were making, Need/Want was able to redesign Smart Bedding. The new version is made from higher-quality material—they switched to French linen—and they made a decision, partly a gesture of apology, not to up the price their original backers paid. Once the bedding arrived from Shenzhen in early January, the company shipped to its original backers January 25 and launched its online store. They’ve had more than $100,000 in sales since launch, while grabbing the attention of national media outlets like Mashable, Good Housekeeping, Elle and House Beautiful.
Throughout all of their challenges, the three twenty-somethings—Haas and Myers are 26; Wheatley is 28—have continued generating and evaluating new ideas. Like most innovations, their ideas are typically sparked by something they wish existed (hence the name of their company).
Case in point: Mod Notebooks, the concept born during Haas and Wheatley’s first meeting in San Francisco. They’re both avid notetakers—they carry around notebooks and pens and have used Evernote to store notes digitally, including its feature where you can save notes offline by snap- ping a photo of them. But they found it all a bit cumbersome: “We just talked about how tedious and awful it is to go page by page and take a picture manually,” says Haas. “The idea was, ‘What if there was a better way to take notes with pen and paper but also have access and storage of having them digitized and saved forever?’” Essentially, that’s what Mod Notebooks does: Customers use up the pages in their Mod Notebooks, send them in, and Need/Want scans, digitizes and uploads pages to the Mod app, Dropbox and Evernote for free.
On the other hand, they recognize that they don’t need to build everything from the ground up. Their “smart assistant technology” called Second, was something they acquired and improved upon.
Something they have built from the ground up is their staff: Their headcount is now at seven after the company’s newest hire, an engineer.
“We’ve publicly been known for really, really good design,” Haas says. “It was all David [Myers]. People as a whole have been surprised about how few resources we have.” There was a point when Need/Want had more successful companies than employees.
The company is growing in other ways as well: Their Olive Street office replaces a space at T-REX. Everyone pitches in, whether it’s fulfilling orders or taking out the trash. The co-founders have the camaraderie of longtime friends, often finishing each other’s sentences and infusing their conversations with banter.
“Jon and I joke that if we both were combined, we’d have one mediocre engineer,” says Myers.
“I think that’s overly generous,” quips Wheatley.
One thing they take very seriously is their ability to share ideas without judgment, even the ones that aren’t quite fully developed. “We have this thing called ‘rubber duckying,’ and we use it for everything,” Haas explains. Rubber ducky comes from a concept in programming. When there’s something you’re stuck trying to debug, the best thing you can do is talk to somebody and describe the problem out loud—or, lacking the person, a rubber duck makes an acceptable stand-in. Although in this case, the duck doesn’t actually exist. Instead, “We use it as a way to not be afraid to say something stupid,” says Haas. “You claim rubber ducky, and then you say your idea to the group. It’s like a safe zone. It’s a way to recognize, ‘Hey, what I’m about to say may be stupid, but it could also be brilliant, so don’t judge me.’ A lot of great ideas have come from that.”
They find something similar in the startup community in St. Louis, which is much more collaborative than what they’ve experienced elsewhere. “What’s exciting about being here, versus New York or San Francisco, is that you’re on the upswing of something, and you’re a part of it—rather than trying to break in,” says Haas. “St. Louis is the reason we exist and why we’re doing as well as we’re doing.”
Myers extends the support even further. “You’re building up a city together. It’s like St. Louis is its own startup,” he says. “Everyone wants St. Louis to do well—it’s much more about a group of people trying to make the city as a whole better, versus other places where you’re more out for yourself.”
That being said, the co-founders all agree they could live anywhere. Wheatley describes tech as a “nomad movement”: People with a laptop and Internet connection can work anywhere. But if you’re making a physical product, perhaps it helps psychologically to have a company home. And Need/Want has big plans: In the near future, the company is focused on growing both Peel and Smart Bedding. And maybe someday, once the orders have been fulfilled and the manufacturing process is proven and reliable, one of the co-founders will succumb to temptation and settle in for a nap in that revered bedding in the center of the office.
This article was published in EQ’s Spring 2016 print issue.