Interview: Bearaby Founder Kathrin Hamm On Sleep As The Next Wellness Frontier
Once a niche medical item, Bearaby is evolving weighted bedding for a new generation of sleep-deprived and anxious consumers
Stories of professional success have traditionally been associated with hard work and often, stress and lack of sleep. The rise of wellness, however, has some consumers prioritizing their physical health before all else, and often going to great lengths to improve it.
Sleep has become an increasingly important priority, says Kathrin Hamm, the founder of weighted blanket and bedding brand Bearaby. Beyond sleep trackers and supplements to aid with relaxation and falling asleep, Hamm believes there is a low-tech solution to issues like anxiety and insomnia. Bearaby takes an existing concept—weighted bedding, previously associated with medical usage—and given it a very millennial makeover, featuring a direct-to-consumer sales model and sustainable materials.
PSFK spoke to Hamm about how she turned a personal journey with relaxation and sleep into inspiration for a brand, and how her commitment to environmental and consumer responsibility extends throughout her business.
PSFK: What are some overall trends you've noticed in wellness as a category?
Kathrin Hamm: There are actually two major trends that I want to touch upon. The first one is, obviously, sleeping. I think it's become a pretty big topic, and also a priority, and people are more conscious about sleeping well.
There's just generally more awareness, and also research around the benefits of sleeping, as well as the negative consequences. What happens when we're losing out on sleep? Weight gain, anxiety, lack of so‑called mental health.
I think in the workplace, in the past, there was always the connotation that successful people receive only four to six hours of sleep per night. Then, they're super productive during the rest of the day. Now CEOs and influencers are coming out and saying, “Well, actually you cannot be a productivity machine when you're not sleeping well.”
I think there's more general culture awareness towards sleep. There are already plenty of direct-to-consumer mattress brands out there, and now many sleep tracking companies popping up as well. I think also in the space where Bearaby fits, we can actually expand on that sleep trend by offering a solution for consumers who are looking for a simple, effective and natural way to sleep better.
There’s obviously been a recent increase in consumer interest in wellness. Why do you think that's happened? Why do you think wellness has become more important, and why are people turning away from the always-on hustle?
I think it's more about the authenticity and the self‑care aspect. People are just becoming much more open about the struggles that they're having.
That's been this trend I think for many years on Instagram where you see perfect pictures and glossy life. What I've seen, especially now in the influencer community that I'm following, is that people are getting more and more honest. You see actually people not wearing makeup and that more and more people are sharing they didn't have a good day. It’s OK to take time. It's OK to be slow, you don't always have to go fast. I think it's just a natural counter-movement to that fast-paced and high‑performance culture.
What inspired you to create Bearaby? Where were you coming from when you started the brand?
When I actually created the brand, I was a normal working professional. I had moved within three years to three different countries. I was moving from Washington to Dubai to Mumbai. I was working for the World Bank. I was traveling in more than 26 countries.
I was on the road every week. As I got older, it took me longer to fall asleep. I often woke up multiple times at night. In the morning, I often just felt I hadn't slept at all. I was literally just looking for a natural sleep solution. I didn't want to take any pills.
I came across weighted blankets and I ordered one. It was a day when I had just came back from a long flight from Bangladesh. Then I decided to road test the new blanket on a Saturday afternoon for a nap. I literally woke up four hours later and I felt super rested.
At that point I was so excited that I thought, “OK, I found the solution to all my sleepless nights and it has come to an end.” Then I just woke up that same day in the middle of the night again, all sweaty and uncomfortable with this bulky blanket that slipped off the bed multiple times.
The concept has been around for more than 40 years, so I thought somebody have started something with weighted blankets. It turned out that actually nobody did. There was, in fact, no product innovation when it comes to design and materials. The products were actually the same as when they were invented 40 years ago.
When the journey started, I wanted to set out to create weighted bedding. Then I realized pretty quickly that when you have an idea to solve your own problems, there's a good chance that you have solved someone else's problems, too.
Who do you think of as your target consumer?
Originally, weighted blankets have been born out of a medical usage. I would say even trapped in that medical nation. Only people in the medical circle have known about it. Naturally, it's a health‑conscious consumer and people who are looking to sleep better. What I'm trying to do with Bearaby is find a way to expand the circle and make it accessible—going beyond that medical needs to everyone who's health conscious, looking for better night's sleep.
For example, we had a customer who told me that she has a traditional weighted blanket at home. She was hiding it every time a visitor came to her home because of their medical look and because it wasn't a pretty blanket. Now, with the new napper, I wanted to create something that looked as good as it felt, and expanding it to look like a regular consumer product, making it accessible to everyone. It becomes a regular part for a regular and healthy sleep routine.
Do you consider Bearaby to be a wellness brand, a home brand or a lifestyle brand? It sits at a really interesting intersection here.
To be honest, it actually doesn't fully fall into any of these categories. What we're trying to aspire to do is to create a new category on its own with weighted bedding, which actually hasn't been there before because nobody has branched out beyond the weighted blanket.
The most closely associated would be a lifestyle brand. As a lifestyle brand, you want to inspire, you want to motivate and you want to actually be part of the consumer's life.
That's what we're trying to do, going beyond just selling a blanket but actually building a habit about sleep and making weighted sleep part of the routine of care.
How do you plan to do consumer education around weighted bedding? It's been around for a while, but I think the average consumer might not understand exactly all the uses for it.
Being a direct-to-consumer brand, the majority of the education is happening on our website. We've been dedicating a whole section where we actually explain the science behind it, trying to take that beyond medical lingo, trying to break it down in very simple terms.
The second thing is the customization effect that we're trying to bring in. There's still this question about what is the right weight to be effective? We customized and developed a sleep quiz that takes the customer through a couple of questions and then recommends them exactly what is the right weight and also what is the right size for them.
That gets especially important, as we are the first ones who have weighted bedding that can be shared for two people, so there are different weights incorporated into one comforter, making sure that everyone gets the right medical benefits through the right weight as part of that quiz.
Another thing that we're doing is every Bearaby that gets shipped has a habit planner, a physical planner, in the box. With this, we want to guide the consumer on a 21‑day journey in how to learn to sleep under weight.
It's a step‑by‑step guide that we developed together with sleep scientists, because in fact you need to build a habit for at least 21 days. It's a guide where you learn adapting to the product, handing the product and helping the customer for 21 days to stick to their sleep routine.
Last but not least is social media, which is important for us, because it's one of our main channels where people communicate with us. We're trying to incorporate topics in the conversation about how does it work, what is weighed bedding in the first place, but we also address issues such as mental health and sleep.
We're trying to answer every email and also every comment we're getting on social media, really listening to the customer so we can also react and be agile when we hear something from people.
For example, this week, the new Pantone color of the year 2019 came out. In being direct to consumer, we're able, if our customers want to see the Napper in that color, to do that and turn it around pretty quickly, so they can get that product within the next three months.
Could you expand on any other advantages that being direct‑to‑consumer gives you as a business?
I think having the contact directly with the consumer and being through the website, for example, through social media, we can communicate directly and we can flexibly react to consumers' questions and demands.
Obviously, also, we can cut out the middlemen, so we are flexible and agile when it comes to supply chain and creating the product. What I already mentioned, if we hear something new, we can quickly turn around with new colors within a very short time frame.
Also, the whole brand has been born through crowdfunding. The core of our brand is personalization, and offering different weights was born from a direct feedback loop from the customer.
We can engage with the customer. We hear that feedback and then we can act on it pretty quickly, and building, frankly, that community around it.
Do you see any trends happening in terms of the direct‑to‑consumer retail landscape in general? Do you think DTC is just the way that retail's going to be in the future?
I think it's actually a big shift. I think also, as a result, you see more and more customers turning to smaller companies that are thoughtful about their product and that are more flexible and closer to their customers.
It's more of a movement: You're buying fewer things but better things, and you're more conscious in how you're buying and having a seamless process which direct‑to‑consumer can offer.
The customization of the product and sustainability emphasis is actually coming from smaller companies because of this flexibility that we have—we can move faster.
I think it's something that's here to stay. You can be a creative brand without having that typical brick‑and‑mortar outlet.
Could you speak to the materials that you use at Bearaby and, as a business owner, your commitment to sustainability or using ethically manufactured products?
For our weighted comforter, we use a fabric that's called Tencel. It's a eucalyptus natural fiber that uses 10 times less water than cotton to be cultivated, so it's one of the most sustainable fabrics. With the Napper, we're using organic cotton and eliminating any artificial plastic or filling materials that other blankets have.
Then what was also important for me was the packaging, because usually you get a lot of plastic. When we ship our products, we have stripped out any additional materials and it's completely free of any plastic. We're wrapping our products in a biodegradable bag. It's actually there to be kept as a storage bag in the household. It's a stylish bag that's made out of 20 recycled plastic bottles. You can use it for anything.
You have a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness,—could you speak to that a little bit and the value it adds to your brand?
We partnered with NAMI, which is the National Alliance for Mental Illness. Specifically, we partnered with their helpline. For every Bearaby product that is purchased on our website, we sponsor one hour of helpline.
It’s a free service that provides information, referrals and just general support for people living with mental health issues, but also their family members and caregivers. What was important for me are actually two messages: One, that weighted blankets are great and they're shown to have a positive effect on helping with mental health and with anxiety. It's just a great self‑care and calming tool. But I also wanted to send the message that weighted blankets should not replace getting proper medical help.
Second, it's a positive message against stigma that still surrounds mental health. I want our community to know that it's OK to pick up the phone and get help. As a brand, we have the responsibility to build awareness and educate our consumers around these issues.