Ariel Kaye, Founder & CEO, Parachute
Interview by Laura Piety
A Rverie conversation with Ariel Kaye, Founder and CEO of bedding and lifestyle brand Parachute. Ariel moved from New York to Los Angeles to birth the business, quickly becoming a member of start-up accelerator, Launchpad LA, to springboard the process. I sat down with her in the Parachute office, a converted beach house on a quaint Venice walk street steps from the sand, to talk about how she built the fast-growing company, from finding investors to how she architected the brand story.
It would be great to hear the story behind how and why you started Parachute.
I lived in New York for ten years and while I was there I did a number of things, although I spent most of my time working in advertising doing big brand work. I fell in love with building brands. I love thinking about products and people, and worked mainly on the strategic creative side of an agency, doing a lot of focus groups and really thinking about consumers. What moves them? What motivates them? And how to connect to the two.
I also happened to have a lot of friends who were involved in, or founders of, start-ups. I found myself constantly inspired by them and also very curious about doing something that was an all encompassing journey. I love working hard. I love building things. It's very different when you're doing it for someone else versus for yourself.
Yes, I totally understand!
I saw all this passion and inspiration, and started realizing that when I wrapped up with my current agency role that my next move would either be to do something on my own, or to join a very early-stage company to be part of that growth process. But, I was really leaning towards doing my own thing and starting a business, which I did. It is the scariest, most risky roller-coaster ever, especially in the beginning stages - it's the best and worst every day! You're always juggling emotions, but it's something that I really wanted to take the plunge into.
I've been obsessed with interior design and home décor for as long as I can remember, and was spending a pretty decent amount of time helping friends decorate their apartments and going shopping with them. I put myself in the consumer’s place and started thinking, "Wait. I want to build a brand. I love the home space. How can I do something with those two passions?"
I also had the personal experience of going to places like Bed Bath & Beyond and similar department stores, trying to buy bedding for myself. It's a really confusing, frustrating experience and the product is pretty terrible! There are so many confusing marketing gimmicks and ways that brands get you to spend incrementally more money that doesn't actually equate to quality.
And lastly, to go full circle, I studied abroad in Italy. I lived there for about six months and traveled all over the country and just loved the quality of materials there; in the leather work, but also the textiles. The culture equates to true craftsmanship. While I was there I got to know quite a few Italian people and just loved the culture; and so as I embarked on the Parachute journey, there was no question that I wanted Italian manufacturing partners, and wanted bring to market an extremely high-quality experience for an accessible price.
How long has Parachute existed?
In my brain, about two years. As a brand where we’ve sold product, just a little over a year. We launched in January 2014. I was working on it by myself from February 2013 and I made our first hire a few weeks after we launched.
Did you go the route of raising investment money or does the business run on product revenue?
We did raise money. I left my job in New York in February, and embarked on this crazy trip all throughout Europe; meeting 15 factories and trying to find my manufacturing partner as the first step. I decided to move to Los Angeles to start the business. So I left New York, put together a pitch deck, and started meeting with investors. I raised a small amount from friends and family; and took a nice loan from my parents - which I'm proud to say I have since paid back! (Laughs). We did a small pre-sale test before we even had any product in hand; most of the sales were from friends and family and people that knew me directly.
I then ended up joining an accelerator in LA called Launchpad. That was the first bit of money that came in, and I ended up raising a seed round right after we launched. We started growing way faster than we could keep up with demand and I needed money to buy more product. It became an emergency because we launched and our projections, or at least what we thought we’d do the first month, we did in a weekend! It got out of control.
That sounds like a great problem to have!
It was the best problem to have, but it became a real issue. We couldn't keep up with demand and if we didn't have product to sell it meant people would get upset and turn their back on the brand.
What was the experience like going out to investors? I have friends that have said it’s both the most exhilarating and frustrating process. How did you find it?
I started to meet with investors quite frequently before we launched. That period of time was really hard as a first-time entrepreneur who didn’t have a track record, and I was trying to build an e-commerce company without a product sold. I was in a catch-22 situation, where investors were like, “I love you. I love your idea. I think what you’re doing is smart and I'd love to see what happens in three to four months or six months or a year, and then I could be interested in investing.”
But when you're in a place where you need money to get product to go to market, you just need someone to take a risk. That's one of the reasons I ended up joining an Accelerator, which ended up being more than just getting money for me; it was an amazing network of other entrepreneurs who also introduced me to the investors that I ended up raising money from once we had launched. We were working with six weeks of sales data, which was impressive as far as six weeks can go, but a lot of people could have - and did say - "That's not enough. Anyone can do well for six weeks. We'd like to see what happens over a longer period."
That is a tough situation to be in. And somewhat frustrating I imagine?
It was challenging. I mean, it's hard when you hear a lot of "Nos;" to keep that brave face and not get discouraged or take it personally. Also, unfortunately, a lot of investors will lead you along and give you a false sense of hope. They're trying to be nice and don't want to be too offensive, but sometimes you wish they would just be more direct, and save you that glimmer of hope, because it ends up hurting more. Raising money is a challenging process for most people.
It also took me many, many months before I really felt confident pitching my brand, owning a room and expressing what we were doing, why it mattered, and how it was going to be a successful business. When I think about some of my early meetings, it's cringe worthy. It takes time.
To hone that story.
How did you perfect that story so you were able to say, "This is the problem and this is how Parachute will solve it?” Also, talk a little bit about building the brand, marketing it, and reaching your audience.
I believe that I'm a storyteller as well, and I think that all good brands that really make it do so through story. I think people are really looking to connect with brands. Parachute is in an interesting industry that has a lot of different brands, but no one really owns the category. As I said before, there are a lot of confusing marketing gimmicks and people don't know where to go to buy bedding, and they end up at a department store and it's overwhelming.
I’m definitely one of those people, until now of course!
I was too. When I realized that none of my friends could give me any good advice about where to buy bedding, I saw that there was real opportunity to create a brand and tell a story.
You spend a third of your life in bed and your sleep experience really matters. It affects so much of your life: Your happiness, your health, your productivity. It's so important. I think that it's something that people have traditionally overlooked, but now there are key lifestyle trends towards wellness, focusing on what you eat, and how you sleep. I really felt that there was an opportunity to bring that whole feel into the brand, which I think is unique.
Building a brand is a process, and I think some people try to do it too fast and grow too big. Quality is the most important thing to us, and delivering a premium product at an accessible price by cutting out the middleman and going direct to consumer, while working directly with our manufacturers to create and develop an amazing product that goes straight to peoples' doorsteps. That allows us to do a lot in terms of price saving for our customers. We are focused on giving the customer a premium experience by simplifying everything. We try to keep things super easy to understand. We also try to bring our product to life through words, not just in pictures.
We made a lot of deliberate decisions as far as our design aesthetic, wanting to be gender neutral so that we could appeal to both men and women. Our brand and our product line is very neutral. We call it, "Luxury Bedding Basics," which fits with our different aesthetic styles as the color pallet is very accessible. We've tried to do things that are deliberate in the design to simplify and give people options.
We also don't sell anything packaged with the top sheet and we give people options to buy separates.
Which is great! I think it's such an odd thing to have a top sheet, whenever I'm lying in bed with one I feel like I’m being suffocated! I hate it.
I feel the same way! The look and feel of the brand takes a lot of time to build. Our bedding is packaged in the bedding itself. We’ve also tried to really think about the experience from the moment that someone enters our website all the way through to receiving the product. Customer service is really top of mind.
We've been really lucky that our brand has grown organically. We've had great success with a lot of awesome bloggers and press stories. People have written about us quite favorably without us having to throw ad banners in your face all the time. We've tried to take it slow and steady.
You give a mosquito net away for each Venice bedding set you sell. Can you talk about why that has become an important part of your brand and why you implemented that?
I grew up in a family where service and giving back was ingrained in us from a very young age. My mom does that for a living; she teaches teachers how to incorporate service in their curriculum and travels all over the world. I also admire what companies like TOMS do, and how they create meaningful partnerships. So, when I started the business there was no question that I wouldn't incorporate something of the sort into my brand. And we ended up partnering with Nothing But Nets, the United Nations organization.
At Parachute we pride ourselves on providing good sleep; but it's also really important to me that people have safe sleep. Every 60 seconds a child dies from malaria in Africa, something that is completely preventable in most cases, by the use of mosquito nets. It seemed like a partnership with Nothing But Nets was a really good fit and so we decided to do a ‘one for one’ model with our Venice set to help provide a safe sleep experience for kids there.
I think this type of model is also really easy for people to understand. Instead of doing a percentage of total sales, a customer buys one product and we give away one product. We also allow people to add an extra $10 at checkout to donate another net, and we’ve had people donate an extra $40-50 at point of sale to Nothing But Nets. We're really proud, at this point we've donated close to 2,000 nets.
Wow, that’s great.
It is really amazing. We try to talk about that partnership as much as possible. It helps that they're an organization doing the right things and that the money is going to the right places. It has been amazing to work with them and we're looking forward to doing more partnerships and potentially even sending bedding to Africa through them and other things down the line.
That’s such an exciting prospect, and also a great example to set to other brands.
You mentioned Launchpad and you said moved specifically to LA from New York to start the business. What do you think is unique about the LA ‘Silicon Beach’ community here?
Launchpad was really awesome because it introduced me to the LA start-up community in a way that was more powerful that just attending events here and there. When you're a part of an Accelerator program you’re really in the mix. I was with a group of ten other companies, a bunch of entrepreneurs who we were all working closely together.
When you're in the beginning stages of building a company, it's pretty unusual to stop working at any decent hour; I was working until 3:00-4:00 AM all the time. To be able to sit there with other people who were working that hard, and could keep you motivated and make it fun, was so important.
I also think the most amazing thing about moving back to LA, besides the great weather - which made my life a lot easier during stressful times - was the people here. It is a community that has a ton of mentors, investors, and other entrepreneurs ready to help you. They're really excited to see LA-based brands succeed. There isn't a competitive spirit; it's a very nurturing spirit. The amount of times that I've heard people say, “Any company that does well is a win for LA…” People really want to see you excel.
I've been blown away by the fact that I can email a friend and say, "Hey do you know anyone who does this? Or is really great at this?", and the next thing you know I have five people willing to talk, brainstorm, be supportive and offer their assistance in any way. That's something I am also always willing to do, because it really does help.
As I've gotten to know more people in the city, it is also really nice to have a community of people that are all at different stages in the process. I have friends that have raised a ton of money. I have friends that have had their companies be acquired. It's fun to be able to see where everyone is. It's inspiring and I feel like I was able to avoid so many mistakes just by having people give me a heads up: "Hey, by the way, think about it this way."
So yes, Launchpad was amazing for me to have as a home base, to really expand my network and learn from others. Starting a company can be very isolating and really lonely. Especially when you're totally in it before you launch anything publicly visible, and people are like, "Oh yeah, sure you work… What are you doing all day?" And you're like, "What do you mean what am I doing all day? What am I not doing?!”
Haha. Yes I totally understand that! Sometimes I think people presume I’m just sat in my kitchen, eating the contents of my fridge or watching TV.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly! So yes, it’s really awesome to have a community like that. LA's still kind of unique because I think that the community is still a lot smaller than New York and some of the other tech hubs. For us, too, being an e-commerce company that really focuses on creative content and brand-building means LA is a great place to be. There are so many creative people and so many interesting brands to partner with. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Ok so some more fun questions. What are your top tips for the perfect nights sleep, apart from sleeping in Parachute of course!
My biggest tip, which I have a very hard time following through with, is disconnecting from your phone. Get rid of the blue lights and put your phone outside your bedroom. Don't look at your computer in your bed. People say your bed should be used for the three S’s: Sleeping, being Sick and having Sex. I don't do a great job at it, the first thing I pick up in the morning is my phone, but there are times when I try to be diligent and it's amazing how it effects the quality of your sleep.
So, the first tip would be not having that visual distraction, it gets your brain going at the wrong time.
Secondly, taking a shower at night is something that really helps relax me; to wipe off the day and cleanse myself. The hot water is also very relaxing, so I try to take a hot shower every night even if it's just a 30-second rinse, to really transition.
Tea is also really good. I try not to eat too late because that can get your digestive system going and also keep you awake.
I also think meditating and some stretching are important. There's a lot of great yoga positions that are good for relaxing. Ten minutes of yoga and a 20-minute meditation, I mean, I'm zonked out after that; it's very hard to stay awake.
There's also an article on our blog that talks a lot about herbs and different things that are great for relaxation; obviously lavender for calm. There's a lot of essential oils and stuff that I definitely didn't believe in, but those things really work! Now that I've started to use them and have them on hand, it's amazing what a little bit of lavender oil can do to get you calmer and more relaxed.
Two last questions. From a design and décor point of view, what do you need to create the perfect bedroom?
Besides bedding, I'm big on lighting. I think that lights do everything for ambiance and experience. I have three light fixtures in my room that all create different environments. Color obviously does a lot; changing your duvet cover color can do a whole lot for your room. I also think that texture is really important. This year we’ll be introducing a lot of different textural additions for your bed. I think it's an easy way to update and change. I really enjoy playing with different throws, and having a cashmere on top of a quilt for example, create a great vibe and feel.
Finally, where do you hope the brand goes over the next few years?
We're really excited to continue to build our bedding category and our product assortment and really own that with fabrics and colors on top of bed and quilts. We’ll also be expanding into bath products next, which will be really fun. One of the things we're also excited about is building hotel collections, and we've just partnered with Hotel Covell in Los Feliz.
I haven't been there yet, but I hear it’s beautiful.
Yeah, it's great. They did an amazing job. That is the first hotel we've partnered with. We really love the idea of having people experience the brand by being in the brand.
So yes, that’s the plan for this year. We're really excited.
Yeah, me too! That was perfect.
Thank you for taking the time out.
Of course. That was fun.
For more information visit: http://www.parachutehome.com
All images courtesy of Parachute