John-Thomas Marino | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

John-Thomas Marino


Tuft & Needle pioneered a single-mattress design that can be ordered online and shipped for free to consumers, compressed into a small box and delivered within a few days. The mattresses are designed and built in the U.S. with domestically sourced materials. Currently, T&N has two brick-and-mortar stores, one in Phoenix and one in San Francisco. 

The Mistake: 

I had recently gotten married and went shopping for a mattress. This was a problem because I never bought a mattress before. I had always received hand-me-downs or my parents would get it for me.  

The shopping experience was a nightmare — going into a big room that was filled with mattresses and trying to figure out what was the right one for me and what were the makes and models.  

We finally decided on a $3,500 mattress, ordered it and it took almost three weeks to get. I used wedding money to invest in this mattress. When we finally got it, we didn't like it and going through the return process was also a nightmare. We ended up just deciding to keep it.   

The whole idea of Tuft & Needle was to start a company that would solve a problem. My co-founder and I had worked together on a past startup in Palo Alto, that wasn't started around a problem. It was just based on an idea, rather than a problem that you intimately know and have experience with yourself. It was just, "Oh, that sounds cool. Let's build that."  

It fizzled long after we had left. That's really how we started.

We took a legal pad and wrote a hate list.

The Lesson:   

After sharing [my mattress] story with my co-founder — my co-founder had some similar experiences- — we took a legal pad and wrote a hate list. We wrote down everything we hated about shopping for a mattress and everything we hated about a mattress itself, and the list was so long that we figured if we could just solve half of those, maybe we would have something.  

We took my mattress and broke it apart to figure out what were the components, what were the costs, where are they made, to see if this was something we could even afford to do. We discovered that the $3,500 mattress that I bought is actually manufactured for between $300 and $350. So it's marked up almost 10 times.  

That was jaw-dropping, confirming that I had made a mistake. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know how mattresses were made or alternative ways of buying one. That's what set the tone.  

Everything we are doing is to solve that problem, a problem that people care about. We've solved about everything that was on that original list. Now it's gone beyond that. Now it's about an engineering team, a design team, everything we do internally and all of the new problems we are discovering. It's creating more hate lists and solving more and more of those issues. 

Follow John-Thomas Marino on Twitter at @johnmarino.

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