Industry: Lifestyle & Consumer
Social entrepreneur Steve Van Diest is offering opportunity to underserved communities and turning a profit, one plush pillow at a time.
"Our story is profound because of our manufacturing," says Van Diest, president and co-owner of V&R Naturals.
Van Diest didn't go back to school for his MBA until he was in his late thirties. And after a 14-year career in the nonprofit sector, his academic interests concerned social and civic entrepreneurship.
Nonprofits, Van Diest had noticed, do great things, but they consume a lot of resources, too. "I wanted to start a business that would produce resources and help communities and people along the way," says Van Diest.
In 2008, Van Diest was working as a community developer when he got an interesting request from the owner of Urban Mattress, a mattress store with franchises nationwide. "He wanted me to come in and create a nonprofit DNA for the company," Van Diest recalls.
Six months later, Van Diest and his business partner -- Ethan Rietema -- had not only brought nonprofit values to Urban Mattress, they'd also opened their own Urban Mattress franchise in Denver, and had another storefront underway.
Business was good, but Van Diest was growing increasingly frustrated with the manufacturers that supplied his store's pillows. Specialty pillows, it turned out, weren't exactly a lucrative upsell.
Most consumers, Van Diest explains, don't know if a pillow is going to fit until they've tried it out at home. "It was like Goldilocks," he says, adding, "The pillows were too firm or too soft, too high or too low."
Customers returned unsatisfactory pillows on a regular basis, and Van Diest and Rietema were eating the costs. "We couldn't resell [used pillows]. We had to toss them," Van Diest explains.
In 2013, Van Diest and Rietema spent two days perusing the Las Vegas Market. "Everybody was hawking a pillow, but we didn't like any of them," Van Diest recalls.
When he shared his gripes with his wife, Christine, she countered, "Why don't you and Ethan just start a pillow company then?"
And that's exactly what the two entrepreneurs did. With a measly $1,000 capital investment, Van Diest and Rietema started playing around with pillow designs in their Urban Mattress warehouse in Denver.
A few of those designs turned out pretty good -- good enough that Van Diest decided to test them in his mattress stores. Van Diest hired his sons to fill organic cotton covers sewn by a seamstress in California. "They grabbed some friends, and all of them worked their tails off," he recalls.
A V&R Naturals pillow requires more fill than the competition. With the goal of making a pillow consumers wouldn't return, Van Diest created a zip-up cover design that allows buyers to adjust the height and density of their pillow themselves, removing or adding filling as needed.
"We overfill our pillows to the point of them being too large," Van Diest explains, estimating that individual units are overfilled by a pound. "Most people," Van Diest continues, "will take two to four handfuls [of filling] out, but some will buy more filling on our website."
It costs more to manufacture a V&R Naturals pillow, but the result is a perfect-fit headrest customers won't need to return -- one that's devoid of harmful chemicals and petroleum foam, too.
"We didn't want to use fake foams or recycled materials from China," Van Diest says, adding, "When you're spending a third of your life sleeping, what's closest to your head should be as natural as possible."
V&R Naturals pillow covers are made with an organic blend of cotton, spandex, and polyester. (One hundred percent organic cotton, Van Diest explains, feels like burlap.) The majority of Van Diest's cases are filled with natural latex noodles and kapok silk, a "fine and messy material that's really healthy and breathable," says Van Diest.
Another clever eco touch: Rather than package V&R Naturals pillows in a throwaway box or plastic bag -- the industry norm -- Van Diest's products come in reusable laundry bags.
Van Diest launched V&R Naturals with three pillows sold exclusively at his Urban Mattress stores. Before long, a few other Urban Mattress locations were carrying the product. "We were outgrowing our space, and we had a volume high school students couldn't keep up with," says Van Diest.
In 2015, he moved manufacturing out of his mattress warehouse and into Mile High WorkShop, a Colorado-based manufacturer and job training nonprofit that employs members of the community facing barriers to work, including addictions, homelessness, and incarceration.
Mile High WorkShop offers full cut-and-sew services; today, V&R Naturals sources linens from Canada, and all manufacturing, packaging, and fulfillment is done at the Mile High WorkShop facility in Aurora.
By 2016, pillows were selling so well at Urban Mattress stores that Van Diest was ready to expand; his product has been picked up by forty-plus stores spanning six companies from New York to Arizona.
Pricing is an issue with specialty pillows. To accommodate a broader range of consumers, Van Diest released pillows that retail at $79 and $89. They're made with tencel fiber and a blend of latex and recycled polyurethane "to give those who couldn't afford our higher price point a highly customizable pillow," Van Diest says. The entrepreneur has also added a curved pillow to his collection, which includes six unique items.
Challenges: In the sleep world, pillows are an oversaturated channel, Van Diest says. His company's biggest hurdle, then, has been forging retail relationships in the industry. "I know local mattress stores through my smaller networks. Now it's about scaling our business to get to the next level of sales," he says.
Opportunities: "Our culture just doesn't hire a felon or an addict," Van Diest says. By growing his pillow company and continuing to partner with Mile High WorkShop, Van Diest has an opportunity to send more people into the workforce. "As more people find out about our pillow, more lives are being changed in Denver," adds Van Diest.
Needs: Somebody who can help V&R Naturals increase its distribution channels. "We're looking to hire a branding or PR person," Van Diest says, adding, "That's outside of my skill set."