W Power 2024

Work, sleep, repeat: The Sleep Company & the right doze

The Sleep Company is disrupting a cluttered mattress and comfort solutions market with its science-led approach. Although it has grown rapidly, it now needs to post a profit

Rajiv Singh
Published: May 7, 2024 04:18:25 PM IST
Updated: May 7, 2024 04:57:51 PM IST

(L-R) Harshil Salot and Priyanka Salot, co-founders, The Sleep Company (L-R) Harshil Salot and Priyanka Salot, co-founders, The Sleep Company

Laundry, diapers, babies, and climax… that’s how Priyanka Salot’s story arc transpired during eight years of her stint at P&G. “I started with Ariel. Then they gave me Pampers. And then I got pregnant,” smiles the engineer who was born in a nondescript town in the Ganganagar district of Rajasthan, where she lived for her first 10 years. In 1994, her family relocated to Chandigarh, and the young girl toiled to transition from a Hindi medium to an English school seamlessly, and eventually got her prized catch when she made it to an engineering college in Delhi. Then came the climax. 

In fact, Salot’s story has always begun after a climax. Sample this. The year she graduated from IIM Calcutta, 2009, the corporate world had already nosedived into a severe recession. Bereft of ample options, the young management graduate started her career with JP Morgan Chase, and after a brief stint, joined Frost & Sullivan in Singapore. A few months later, she realised that she was not cut out for consulting and investment banking roles.

The realisation, though, didn’t happen for the first time. A few years ago, during her undergraduate years in engineering, the young woman—she was influenced by two books: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson—was gripped with the same sense of déjà vu. “I realised that I didn’t want to be in a technical field,” recalls Salot. “I didn’t want to be an engineer.” Then why engineering? “What do toppers in schools usually do? It’s either engineering or medical,” she reckons. “That’s how engineering happened for me.” The college years made the young woman discover her love for managerial things, she figured out that the IIMs were the best place in the country to study management, and made it a mission to crack the entrance exam.  

Back in Singapore, Salot was forced to put on her thinking cap, or shoes. Thanks to Shoe Dog, the young professional had another bout of self-discovery. “I’d tell men and women in their mid-twenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling,” underlined Phil Knight in his memoir. “Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it.” After the first few months into her professional stints, Salot was scouting for her elusive calling. This time, she didn’t have to ‘seek’ hard as her flatmates guided her to her calling. “They used to work at P&G, and I was fascinated with what they were doing,” she recalls. Infatuated with the job description, Salot started behaving like an obsessed lover and reached out to the marketing head of P&G for a role.

There was none. Reason? “They didn’t have a policy of lateral hire,” recalls Salot, who persisted with her efforts and was finally rewarded. “I came back from Singapore, joined P&G in Mumbai, and found my love for consumer brands,” she recalls. She started with Ariel, worked on the detergent brand for over four and a half years, and then was made India head of Pampers. “And then I got pregnant,” she says, taking us back to the climax year of her professional life. Salot explains. “I always had an itch to start something of my own,” she confesses, adding that she didn’t dare to take the plunge. The reason was obvious. “I was earning big money. A salary of over Rs 1 crore was indeed big money.” Big money does, she lets on, inhibit you from taking risks. Salot was in her bubble of comfort.

Her pregnancy, though, pushed her out of her comfort zone. Salot went back to work after just five months of her maternity leave, and found something amiss in her life. “I was no longer enjoying my job,” she recalls. Salot’s harrowing experience of countless sleepless nights after giving birth to a baby made her realise that there was a big opportunity in the business of sleep and comfort: Mattresses. Coming back from the maternity break made her see the futility of doing something that she was no longer enjoying.

Ironically, the world around her failed to grasp the tug-of-war that Salot was dealing with. “What do you mean you are not enjoying,” asked one of her colleagues. “You know it’s a dream role for anybody in P&G. You are getting the biggest category—fabric care business—and you want to give it away,” she tried to inject some sense of realism into Salot’s wonderland, which was now being influenced by the biography of Steve Jobs. “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful... that's what matters to me,” the founder of Apple underlined in the book penned by Walter Isaacson.

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Salot too wanted to do something wonderful. “What is that you want to be remembered for,” she asked herself. “What is the legacy you want to leave behind?” Days of introspection paid off when she quit P&G in May 2018, spent the next one-and-a-half years giving shape to her fledgling venture, and rolled out The Sleep Company in October 2019. And true to her track record of encountering climax, the pandemic came calling after six months.

But before we get to the Covid episode, let’s rewind to May 2018 when Salot resigned from P&G.

A lot happened over the next six months, and Salot lost sleep for a battery of reasons. First, there were not enough believers in her dream of building a high-quality mattress which was backed by science. Sceptics kept questioning her business idea. “What do you want to load your mattress with? A mattress is a mattress. It will look the same,” they pointed out. Salot, however, saw a clear gap in the cluttered market. Yes, there were brands, but most of them were products that mimicked the attributes of a brand and sold like hotcakes because of low cost. “I can name 10 brands that were launched at that time. All were getting produced at the same factory, all had different packaging and all were playing price warriors,” she recalls.

The second set of cynics popped up after a year or so. Salot started the venture with her husband, joined hands with AK Tripathi, a former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientist, to work on a high-tech product, and had little to show after months of intense R&D. “I encountered the lowest moments in my life during the R&D phase,” she recalls. “We did over 1,000 experiments. All failed.” 

The failures plunged her into a valley of self-doubt. “Did I make the right move to quit my job,” she started posing hard-hitting questions to herself. “It has been more than a year, and nothing has worked out. What if nothing works out at all even after a few more months?” A spate of rejections by venture capitalists during pre-series A fundraise added to her woes and uneasiness.

Fast forward to Covid. Salot yet again experienced a climax moment, this time as an entrepreneur.

Ecommerce marketplace players Amazon and Flipkart got the license to sell mattresses under the ‘essentials’ category, and Salot started working with hospitals in terms of widening appeal for her products, and the patented SmartGRID technology started finding buyers. Over four years after the first Covid lockdown, The Sleep Company has started giving sleepless nights to its rivals.

Have a look at the numbers. The operating revenue zoomed from Rs 74.05 lakh in FY20 to Rs 127.14 crore in FY23. Twelve months later, the numbers leapfrog to Rs 400 crore in FY24. “By the fourth quarter of this year, we will be profitable,” claims Salot, who has made The Sleep Company transform from a mattress brand to a sleep and comfort tech solutions company that has a wide range of products such as sofa, pillows, cushions, bedding, and office chairs. “We will reach Rs 1,000 crore in two to three years,” she adds.

Salot’s co-founder chips in to highlight the tech prowess of the brand. While the patented SmartGRID technology provides exceptional support and comfort, the offline experience centres offer a ‘Sleep Lab’, which allows customers to explore the mattress. “Through omnichannel marketing, we highlight SmartGRID's advantages like pressure relief and temperature regulation,” says Harshil Salot, co-founder of The Sleep Company. “Our tech gives us an edge in the competitive sleep market,” he says, adding that the company plans to launch 150 stores and expand its footprint to 50 cities by the end of this year.

The backers are delighted with the performance. When Fireside Ventures invested in The Sleep Company in 2021, points out Dipanjan Basu, co-founder and partner at the venture fund, the excitement centred around the co-founders’ innovative approach in the comfort tech space, and how they were leveraging SmartGRID technology with their disruptive omnichannel strategy. “Today, the company stands out as one of India's fastest growing and most disruptive consumer brands,” he claims. “We see enormous potential for TSC to democratise their SmartGRID technology and drive global disruption.”

The challenge, though, would be to simultaneously grow both the engines: Revenue and profit. Another big ask would be to stay away from mistakes. Take, for instance, the move to have enough headcount. “There were times when we didn't hire enough people at the right time. Fireside taught us to hire before time,” says Salot, adding that the founders must always invest in the right kind of people.

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Another mistake was to shun a long-term approach and pluck the low-hanging fruit. Quite early in the journey, the co-founders couldn’t resist the temptation to play the ‘trending’ game. One of the ecommerce marketplace players nudged the rookie founders to launch a bed. “Bed kaafi bik raha hai. Launch kar do [beds are selling a lot; launch one],” was the feedback. And a plain vanilla wooden bed was launched. “It was a mistake. We discontinued in four months,” she recalls.

The mistake, though, strengthened the resolve to stay away from products or categories where tech can’t be used to alleviate comfort. “We are on a mission to make people sleep, and sit better,” she signs off.