Brooklinen’s Story to Inspire Founders on the Art of Grasping Market Niche

When Rich and Vicki Fulop founded Brooklinen in 2014, their state's goal was to create "comfortable sheets that didn't cost an arm and a leg."
Vicki Fulop at the Entrepreneur meetup event
Source: IVY
By | 9 mind read

A successful business that is giving everyone access to those hotel sheets feels, all started out as a honeymoon vacation. Rich Fulop and Vicki Fulop started Brooklinen after falling in love with the material but of course, it was the price of most people’s rent. So, they are taking on a mission to provide top quality product but with responsible manufacturing, renewable energy use and a sustainable supply chain. Which is a fascinating journey worth telling!

Flashback to Discover What Had Led to the ‘Aha’ Moment?

At 31, the Fulops came up an idea for Brooklinen after trying to buy a set of sheets they love from a hotel, which happened to cost about $800 way out of their budget. Move along, they discovered a huge amount of folks who faced the same dilemma, while on their search online for alternatives. They realized that there are only two decision to make when it comes to bedding: low-quality and cheap or high-quality and pricey. Quickly the Fulops recognized many inefficiencies and extreme markups in the industry, and that it was ripe for disruption. Then the couples wondered why no one had created a better alternative – and that was kind of the first aha moment of them.

“We were 20-something Millennials who had our own apartment, and no one was making cool and chic bedsheets that were both awesome quality and affordable,” says Rich, who is also CEO of Brooklinen. “We knew there were enough people out there looking for the same thing.”

However, at the time, starting a company was nowhere near Vicki’s radar – Brooklinen’s co-founders. She had recently graduated from law school, decided to pursue a more creative field, and ultimately landed at a beauty PR agency, where she was working to become the best publicist, she could be.

Vicki shared It was simultaneously overwhelming, exciting, and enriching. And expose her to much of what would come to help her launch a successful brand later on – everything from the importance of photography-friendly packaging to how timing impacts a launch to storytelling.

Both began drafting out their startup plan with a harsh amount of research. Fast-forward a year later, two major things happened. They finalized their product, and Vicki let go from her PR agency to really focus on Brooklinen. Following, the Fulops through connections pitch the idea with investors at New York University Stern School of Business, yet their idea was not taken seriously. However, that is not all, to prove more than just a point the Fulops decided to launch a Kickstarter in 2014, with an initial ask of only $50,00 and ended up received $237,000 in preorders. From which point their business grows beyond their wildest hopes.

Step by Step How Did the Fulops Break into the Industry So Successfully?

After asked themselves what they wanted in their ideal product and reverse engineered it. The couple also has their own Kickstarter project as a proof concept which showed that there is a market for what they are trying to do, there are customers out there in need of such products.

Brooklinen banner in New York subway
Source: Brooklinen

And of course, Fulop shares after all it was not an overnight success – it was a ton of cold-calling, asking for introductions, studying up on textiles, and persisting in working towards making their products despite many obstacles either the lack of financing or infrastructure, to break into this industry.

Foremost anything, let us talk about their core product – the trigger of all. Started from the bottom, founders always have that image of what the products need to be for it to be successful, but they have no experience making such product – which is the most daunting step ever. Then with no experience or relative connection how did they figure it out?

Rich Fulop comes clean, that both of them had just zero experiences in this. They all came from very different fields. Husband still struggled in business school when the company was launched and before that he worked on sports. Wife went to law school and worked in public relations. The only resource they have there was their instinct of brand and trend early adopters – to have a good taste and see through the clutter.

On the early days, they do not even think about the company at scale but the only focus there was to optimize towards what they wanted the sheets to feel like – crisp and cool­ and lightweight, soft and no synthetics or polyester. So, the couple knew all the attributes that they had to engineer to get the ideal product. So there comes the silver bullet – the hero product of them.

However, before that success is a whole backbreaker process of incremental learning. The first thing the Fulops did was straightforward went to Barnes and Noble to get a stack of textile books to really understand how things are woven and what makes a fabric feel like the way it does, what make some unique and different?

Which is the foundation that has boosted up their confident as the same time paved the business. These primary knowledges within the textile industry smoothen their communication with factories and manufacturers – helps partners take them more seriously and lessen the possibility of getting scammed. In brief, if you want something out of anybody, knows it roughly by yourself first – get smart on that space, since you are going to run it one way or another!

Vicki Fulop collaborate with her cofounder
Source: Brooklinen

And last, listening to customers, either existing or potential, has guided the company throughout. The couple shared the fact that customer feedback helps inform what they have offered and where to go next has also been extremely instrumental in Brooklinen’s success. Even though it hard to believe, but especially in the early days, a lot of the company success was really due to word of mouth.

As the couple make their way through the industry, learned by themselves all the ins and outs of the business. So where are the ugly, the roadblocks along the way?

The Fulops said it is the one story they remember most. When they had their first big shipment of inventory, the only they have there was a tiny, rented studio on Greenpoint. And as the truck arrived, they were utterly unprepared – no trollies, loading docks, manpower. Rich just ended up finding a few people at the construction site on the street and paid them to come help bring it all up the new office.

Challenging Walks It Takes to Disrupt Market as a Real Deal Company

Done with the ideas and products, now let us talk business. For it is a big gap between releasing a product and building a company. So, how did they manage to keep it all together?

They took it step by step, the couple said they were not thinking too far ahead, firstly, just small goals – check points to make sure that you are moving in the right direction. If you are thinking about a billion dollars from the get-go, and with so much that happens in between which you do not have the time to calculate for dreaming such big number, you might not even get there. Don’t be way ahead!

The founders remember back at that stage, as the sheets are ready to go, they have nothing left to move it around – literally they have no money at all. They are stuck to get it out there to reach consumers, Rich admits they do not even know how to marketing at all – or even planning to spend money marketing, he thinks just with the press and Kickstarter, it is good to go. And that is a fascinating story!

As a seasoned PR agent, Vicki eventually made her way out of it, she sent samples to media just with handwritten notes that said, hey, here is what we are doing – she told them the story how they found it, and the value she is bringing – in brief, Vicki askes the press to wrote about them, not the sheets, but about what they are trying to do. And somehow, the idea really took off, they got a lot of coverage with that.

Brooklinens product shipped to customers
Source: Ashley K

However, the note here is that they did not go the traditional way, not the home-decor, magazines, or bedding blogs. But the audience the couple are aiming was the business ones – the same of who they are, the creatives. With Vogue, Fast Company, Forbes, the Fulops expect to reach customers through their stories and hardships not just vague promotion.

And there comes, the early adopters from Kickstarter – who are really important to the Brooklinen, said the Fulops. It was one thousand seven hundred and three people that backed the idea.

After ended up blowing the $50,000 goal to a quarter million dollars of sales in the first 30 days. Of course, there will be big moves following for the company to take off. So, are there preparation prior to Kickstarter? Were they ready for this type of reaction?

The answer is yes, as Rich had taken a lot of entrepreneurship classes back then, he got the hang of how to set up a company and how important that is from the get-go. So, they already had all the legal paperwork – everything set up. To Rich it is quite late for founders to deal with such problem only after they saw the business becomes serious. That is the stuff you need to take over ahead of time because things might get overwhelmed really fast.

It reaches the point when it was way beyond what the Fulops thought it would be. There was a lot of orders and they did not have a process, so just ended up packing orders by themselves.

Brooklinen Defines Its Rivals, and the Core Value Plays at an Advantage

Vicki Fulop in a meetup talk with female entrepreneurs
Source: The Wing

It is clearly important for a brand to know its competitors and it should be defined from the very early days. Rich shared he found there are companies that have mimicked the company model or tried to replicate its products, but that is not the competition he is seeing. He is aiming at many strong players who hold most of the market share. Those are big box stores where customers are predisposed to purchasing these products. So, the advantage of Brooklinen here is the direct-to-consumer relationship from the manufacturer, between the distributor and website or customer services. Directly at all ends, so the feedback loop is easy to process and tight enough to put out really good product market fit.

Meanwhile, at the department store the entire process to serve up a product is really long and complicated, expensive, not to mention the person who make the product is not the one that is getting the feedback on. There are many middlemen when you have wholesalers and distributors, retailers and then going all out the supply chain, that it is hard to iterate on that and to really get it right. So, because Brooklinen is small and agile, it is actually an advantage to cruise under the radar.

Brooklinen website homepage
Courtesy: Brooklinen

And because they are serving a product that is already there at any Americans’ homes, the market opportunity is there, so it is all about getting the right message, you would easily get in front of people.

Last but not least, what is the Fulops advice to other founders who has been trying to raise fund for months and it is not working out? When is it time to stop and try to figure out if it is a fundable business?

Two to four months is way too short – it takes more time than that. To Rich and his wife, in their first two years, they were really pounding the pavement and networking as hard as possible. With only a thousand dollars to make it work and hope that thing worked out, they were trying to earn much trust. However, this is no uncommon. Like Nike and Walmart, they did the same thing, going around gaining trust and collecting investment – which is a common struggle, a healthy one. He believes even the best companies in the world do not have all kinds of funding from day one and just blasted through money. That is not how it works and is not the best way for growing!

It is those early days without money is where you learn most. As every single penny counts and you know how to be really in control and be really responsible, which then really served you well because that is how the company take off in the first place, today success is all due to the time of those first years where they had trained themselves to be really careful.

The Bottom Lines

Just raised $50 million earlier 2020, Brooklinen founded in 2015 has not showed signs of a cooling down business. The Fulops has made their best decision to bring up business with their significant other. Booming overnight but not a success overnight, the couple’s journey is a worth sharing one for ideas that seems difficult to take off.

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