Agency to Brand
Agency life is packed full of lessons and experiences you’ll take with you on every next step of your career. For this week’s podcast guest, those lessons helped him build a multi-million dollar brand that’s now a household name and has made a difference in wellness for thousands of people.
”How broad can we be while still maintaining that we are a science-backed sleep and wellness company?Mike GrilloCo-Founder/CEO of Gravity Blankets
Lessons from the Agency Side to the Brand Side with Mike Grillo, CEO and CO-Founder of Gravity Blankets
Mickey Cloud (00:00):
For this episode of Building While Flying, I wanted to quickly let our audience know about a Sasha Group offering which may be relevant to those of you that handle your own digital and social marketing. Store is a weekly delivery of insider knowledge and strategy straight from The Sash Group team and industry experts. We’re moving into our second year Store and we’re really excited to continue helping our community of entrepreneurs, startups, and small business to step up their social and digital marketing game. You can learn more about memberships at sashagroup.com/store. Now onto the episode.
Katie Hankinson (00:30):
Hi, I’m Katie Hankinson.
Mickey Cloud (00:31):
And I’m Mickey Cloud. And welcome to Building While Flying a Sasha Group podcast where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever changing skies. Mr. Mike Grillo, my man. Welcome to Building While Flying, thanks for being our guest today.
Mike Grillo (00:53):
Yeah, thanks for having me Mickey. Good to see you.
Mickey Cloud (00:55):
Good to see you. So Mike is the co-founder and CEO of Gravity Products who makes your favorite weighted blanket, the Gravity Blanket and other sleep wellness products that he recently exited to DTC network Win Brands Group, where he continues to run the business. So for the few who maybe aren’t familiar with Gravity Blankets, can you give us a quick overview of the brand and the company?
Mike Grillo (01:16):
Yeah. First of all, we should hire you to do podcast reads because that was really good. Yeah, now Gravity is famously known for its weighted blankets. So weighted blankets are known to sort of apply 10% of your body weight on top of you while you’re either resting or sleeping and that helps to reduce stress and improve sleep.
Mickey Cloud (01:38):
Awesome. So our story, full disclosure, started together back three fun years at VaynerMedia in 2011 to ’14 but we’ll probably touch a little bit on that. But I want to kind of fast forward to how you and the founding team at Gravity Blankets even found the idea to kind of launch a consumer facing weighted blanket. I know at the time you were part of a media company Futurism and it seemed like it was through audience insights on kind of your science of sleep content that kind of led to investigating that idea. So could you kind of give us that story?
Mike Grillo (02:11):
Yeah, for sure. After Vayner I bounced around a little bit at a couple of agencies and then really decided I wanted to get into publishing which is a weird thing to want to get into it. But I joined a digital publisher called Futurism as the COO there and one of the remits that I had was to build our revenue streams so anything that was non digital ad sales. And so we had seen what BuzzFeed was doing with Homesick Candles, which ironically is also owned by Win Brands in like a real full circle. Using their audience network to sell products, it allows you to do a little bit more than just affiliate marketing where they’re getting a cut of whatever they sell, you’re owning obviously much more margin but you’re also taking inventory risk. So we thought, all right, a lot of the content was around AI and blockchain and robotics and that wasn’t anything we’re going to be able to manufacture, but we did see a lot of interest in sleep and the science of sleep and the science of meditation and mindfulness and what that does to the brain.
Mike Grillo (03:17):
And so we started looking for like, what are low tech things we could build within that ecosystem. And so we came across weighted blankets which we had known, we’d heard of it tangentially, but there was a lot of interesting research about how they were used in clinical settings. So kids on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing disorders or adults with post-traumatic stress. And they were super clinical looking, they were basically relegated to OT offices but we bought a few on Etsy because it’s really the only place you could find them at the time. And we were like, these really work, they’re really powerful, but they’re certainly not anything you would want in your home having that on your couch. So the concept was to sort of repackage it, add some design elements to it and then build an actual brand around it. And then we kick-started it and leverage the media company sort of audience network to drive that initial pop.
Mickey Cloud (04:23):
Awesome. So talk a little bit about that design and product development process. And that’s probably not something you had done before.
Mike Grillo (04:32):
Done before. No. We worked with, I mean, well a lot of people in this space know him, this gentleman named John Fiorentino, He was a consultant for Futurism at the time and he had a bit of sourcing background. So we worked together to essentially, I think we sort of cobbled together the first one here in the city actually. He had worked in the Garment District to find the materials that he wanted to use. And so we built the prototype here in New York and then sort of tried to find a manufacturer overseas because obviously you can’t necessarily make, I mean, you can make things in the US, of course we want to believe that, but it is sort of cost prohibitive especially at scale. So we did venture to find some overseas manufacturers but we really didn’t have any sourcing in place until well after the kick-starter had already exploded.
Mike Grillo (05:27):
So that was sort of an interesting piece in that the concept was that we were going to sell maybe three, 400 units at most and we ended up getting 35,000 pre-sales in 80 countries so we then we had to go figure it out from there. So sourcing, now I’m really deep into it, but it’s a really interesting world. It’s still very much folks in there, I would say late 50s to maybe early 70s with decades long factory relationships in China. Folks that are not really, I would say, digitally savvy, they’re using email but a lot of its phone calls. And so it was just like a real trip and we bounced around between two or three manufacturers before we found the right one and now Gravity is really dialed in.
Mike Grillo (06:18):
We’ve got three redundant factories that we’re using and there’s a whole protocols in place and we have a real good sense of our unit economics. But at the time it was like, all right, we think we can make this for hopefully enough that’ll turn a profit, we didn’t really even have a final cost until the goods came. Honestly, there was a lot of luck at first too that we ended up making any money on it because we just sort of set this price that we thought people would pay before we even had any cost of goods. So it was a little bit backwards for sure.
Mickey Cloud (06:49):
Well, so you had that initial kind of rush of interest and it was like, all right, this is something we got to go do and grow it and scale it. So talk about the skills both hard and soft that you most kind of utilized from your agency experience. We kind of talked about you came from obviously working at Vayner but also you had PR experience. So what were some of those key things that you utilized and that really kind of worked for you at that phase?
Mike Grillo (07:16):
Yeah, I mean, that’s sort of why the project landed in my lap at Futurism is because I was really the only person that had any sort of brand experience. A lot of the folks were obviously either editorial folks from other publications or we had some engineering resources, but there was no one that had any sort of marketing acumen and so it was really just about the basics. To be honest, I took a lot of the branding cues from the work that Vayner was doing with GE because it was like Gravity science blah, blah, blah, so we used that for reference. I leveraged a lot of folks that I had met at Vayner to organize the first photo shoot. And then I stole a Cision login from my PR agency friends, a Cision for people that don’t know, is like a master database of every reporter at every publication.
Mike Grillo (08:07):
I made a media list and just started pitching and yeah, I tried to treat it like a big brand, right? I made a little brand pyramid with the reasons to… Yeah, I did the whole thing. And then as it began to scale, then you started to get back into the rhythm, right? We brought on a paid media consultant and this was sort of, not at the very beginning of Facebook ads but certainly in the glory days of Facebook ads, when you could spend a dollar and make 10, it’s certainly not the case anymore. But yeah, it was like a lot of those principles just started falling into place and then we built out a team and yeah, it just became like building at Vayner all over again.
Mike Grillo (08:50):
We quickly spun Gravity out from Futurism because it became its own very separate business and was frankly doing more revenue than the media business. And so we thought that it deserves its own P&L and we built out a team accordingly. But yeah, a lot of those principles were like, who’s the first hire that we’re going to make? How do we think about doing really high quality brand work but on a ball and on a budget, right? We used most of the kick-starter proceeds to finance the inventory buys so there wasn’t a ton of money to spend on marketing. So a lot of that scrappiness mixed with just sort of the brand fundamentals that you get at an agency.
Mickey Cloud (09:27):
Nice. So on the flip side, and you talked a little bit about sourcing already, but what were the things that were just completely new in product development and any of the operational kind of side that you had to learn kind of on the job?
Mike Grillo (09:41):
Yeah. Like fabrics. I mean, I’m still learning and I actually find textiles and fabric really interesting and been just sort of trying to learn more about it. But at the time I barely knew the difference between cotton and polyester and cleanse and the nap of a fabric. And just a lot of stuff that you just would have no idea unless you were into it. So a lot of that, a lot of information on how long things take. We’re used to things in the US or especially in digital media, you like want something done, you’re just going to like, all right, if it’s a week then you’re mad at the design team, but these are 90 day production times.
Mike Grillo (10:19):
And then every day when you’re working with China specifically that you don’t get something done, actually turns into a week because just the sleep schedules, right? So that was the craziest things, like how long things take, how precise you need to be when you’re working with… Frankly there’s big language barriers between like, I don’t speak Mandarin, obviously the factory folks are much better at English than I am at Mandarin. But you’re still seeing a language barrier, their email communications are different. And then all the way down to importing and dealing with duty and tariff and freight costs, it’s just a lot of stuff that you’ve never thought about before that takes to get a good from prototype to landed in the US.
Mickey Cloud (11:05):
They give you some empathy for some of your clients you used to work with.
Mike Grillo (11:11):
Yeah, I know, honestly, for sure.
Mickey Cloud (11:17):
I also wanted to-
Mike Grillo (11:17):
You know what it makes me think about? Every time Vayner had an idea like, oh, let’s make some changes to the product, then you’d always get this huge pushback and you never really understood why and now you’re like, yeah, that’s not happening.
Mickey Cloud (11:28):
I also kind of wanted to dig into kind of the decision tree and kind of matrix around how to grow a DTC first brand and how you kind of started to test the retail waters. I know from some of our previous personal conversations you’re a big believer in kind of in-store retail is ultimately necessary to scale a brand like Gravity Blankets and that brand shouldn’t necessarily think of themselves as DTC or retail only. So I guess what led you to that thinking and at what point should a DTC first brand start thinking about its wholesale and retail strategies?
Mike Grillo (12:01):
Yeah, it’s interesting. Mostly it was born out of frustration because I was getting so annoyed at how much time you have to put into, I mean, there’s annoyances across the board, right? Everything is annoying. But I was getting annoyed at how much energy it took to manage just a Facebook ad strategy, right? It’s very high touch, a lot of creative refreshes and of course that’s part of the business and I love that, but I was like, all right, screw this, this cannot be the only way to do this, right? There’s got to be other ways to drive volume. And then also as you’re seeing now it’s insane especially with the iOS 14 changes, you just cannot rely on that channel to drive growth anymore.
Mike Grillo (12:43):
And I think some of the direct to consumer brands that were there really early thinking like Warby Parker and Casper were able to do that. I was reading the other day that Facebook’s monthly ad revenue grew 50% but the monthly active users only grew like 6% or 7% so obviously there’s now an enormous cost barrier too there. So, all right, what else can we do? And I got a call from Sleep Number, was like the first retailer that called, and I was like, all right, this sounds like it’s a legit opportunity. I’d never really been into Sleep Number because, I don’t know, they’re not really super prevalent on the East Coast.
Mickey Cloud (13:19):
How many doors?
Mike Grillo (13:20):
Yeah. I think they’re maybe no more than a 100 doors to be honest with you. But they called, it was the first year we launched, in ’17, and they were like, we really want to be part of this way to trend, we’re not going to make it ourselves, can you ship me 500 pieces? And I was like, all right, that sounds easy. But when you’re dealing with retail you don’t just ship them 500 pieces, they write you this order via electronic data interface and if you don’t have the setup you can’t take the order and then the packing requirements and whatever. And so obviously we were weeks late on it, we got a ton of chargebacks because we didn’t pack it properly, whatever, whatever. But I was like, all right, this is good exposure and we started seeing people like, oh, we saw you in the Sleep Number store and then I was like, all right, I think there’s opportunity here.
Mike Grillo (14:05):
I think seeing, especially with a product like Gravity, it is such a tactile experience, you need to be able to pick it up. And that’s not true for every brand but I do believe in it very much for Gravity. So I found the buyer at Bloomingdale’s LinkedIn profile and I DM-ed them and I was like, are you interested in seeing my blanket? And she responded. And so they were the first ones that really took us in a meaningful way and rolled us out. I think we were in all doors at one point and then it just sort of took off from there. But I’m a big believer in just omnichannel everything, right? The same way we were, 10 years ago, making fun of people that were only in Macy’s, I’m feeling the same way now about folks that are only digital. People shop in a variety of ways, it’s a super complex consumer journey and you’ve got to be in all those places, Amazon, brick and mortar, direct to consumer, I think it’s all super meaningful.
Mickey Cloud (15:06):
So how many retailers are you guys in now?
Mike Grillo (15:10):
We’re all over the place. We’ve now got an evolved strategy where we’re a good, better, best approach. So we’ve got a value version of the brand that sits with target, we were in 900 doors last year. We’ve got our main line that sits in sort of your Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, where else are we? Indigo bookstores, which is a larger Canadian chain. And then we’ve got our higher end products that are really not suited for, not suited, but stuff that would be hard to sell at a profit at a big department store. So those are relegated to the online presence where we have more control of the margin. So we’re the good, better, best and we’re across any type of retailer you could think of, Gravity has some presence there.
Mickey Cloud (16:00):
Yeah. And do you want to talk about the product expansion and at what point did that become something that became a viable strategy to pursue?
Mike Grillo (16:10):
Yeah. Like the neurotic person I am, I got really paranoid early on that like, all right, this is a fab, this is going to be a Snuggie, I don’t want to be the Snuggie brand, right? So what else can we do really quickly to show that this is more than just a one product company? I am very passionate about the brand but it wasn’t going to be something that we were going to hang on to for 30 years and whatever, the goal was always to try to find a suitable home for this. And so we were engineering off that, right? And we knew that no one was going to buy a single product brand.
Mike Grillo (16:49):
So we’re like, all right, let’s think about what makes sense, what else can we do? Can we bring this weighted concept a little bit further? So we invented the weighted sleep mask, which was really just supposed to be an upsell, like something to just drive higher AOV and it ended up really blowing up. In that it was like an introduction to weighted therapy if you’ve never used anything weighted before, but at a really easy price point. And the big break there was we got interest from FabFitFun, which I’d never heard of.
Mickey Cloud (17:17):
Can’t believe that’s how Amy got hers.
Mike Grillo (17:20):
Yeah. It’s a mega, I mean, you could do huge business there, like they bought 600,000 pieces of the sleep mask in 2019. So they were like, all right, great, that’s a viable product, that can be its own thing. And then we came up with this weighted bathrobe so it’s a really nice premium bathroom but the collar is weighted and you can pull the weight out if you want. And so those are the three big products and then we started playing around with broader bedding because obviously when you’re sourcing bedding why not try your hand at a bunch of other stuff? And so we’ve experimented with, we have bamboo copper sheets, we’ve got memory foam hybrid cotton pillows.
Mike Grillo (18:03):
Those three main items are scaled, the other ones are sort of like, all right, let’s place an MOQ, a minimum order quantity and see what our audience… what they’ll actually buy from us. Because I think when you have a brand you tend to think like, all right, I can just sell anything but there are lines between like, all right, the customer no longer thinks of you as this type of a brand. So we’re just always trying to see how broad could we be while still maintaining that we are a science backed, sleep and wellness brand.
Mickey Cloud (18:34):
Yeah. So you mentioned that you were trying to find a home for this business eventually. You found a home earlier this year at Win Brand Groups. Could you talk a little bit about that process of finding the right partner to exit the business too and to kind of join?
Mike Grillo (18:51):
Yeah, it was really something. We decided we were going to go to market in March of last year. So, well, more than that, we started talking to i-banks in maybe November of ’19 and it takes a bit to get your book together and all that sort of stuff. So we’d in earnest started reaching out and maybe January, we closed out 2019 really strong. We’re not a mega hyper-growth company, I think 15 to 20% year-over-year and we’re very focused on trying to be profitable. I’m not going to lie and say we were returning huge profits but we were in the block every year. And so around, I would say January, February is when we started really going out to market and then of course the pandemic hit and we’re like, oh crap, do we stop? Do we keep going? There was a lot of different opinions on like, oh, now is the time to go, people still have money to spend, there’s still interest.
Mike Grillo (19:50):
And then the sales cycle last year was crazy like you’re going into May, June where we typically don’t actually see a lot of volume, people have a lot of stimulus checks and were spending especially on home goods and so we were seeing these really abnormal spikes in the business that were, I think, throwing investors off, like, all right, this is too volatile of a year to really get a look. And so we kept at it almost all year and frankly we’re ready to just sort of pack it in and buckle up for another 18 months. And Win came back in, in December of last year and really we sprinted through the end of the year to get it done. But we had talked to a few folks that were in, they were out, it was just a really tough year. It ultimately was a great year but it was just a really weird year to be shopping a business around.
Mickey Cloud (20:41):
So what was it about Win Brands that ultimately felt like the right home?
Mike Grillo (20:47):
Yeah, I think the concept was that we always wanted to be with someone that could bring the brand to the next level and I think for us that meant a real sales org. I mean, they have a bunch of things that are really good about the business, I think Kyle is very charming first and foremost, and they’re very well capitalized at this point. But I think beyond that, for me their e-comm business is doing well but Amazon business is growing the way it should, for me, we really needed to build out a sales team and really hit that wholesale business hard. I think when you’re a nascent brand, the first brand to really build a footprint in retail is the brand that’s going to win. And so it was really just me and a junior sales lead doing all of the sales at Gravity and I was like, this is not sustainable at all.
Mike Grillo (21:40):
I could sell but beyond selling in there’s selling through and that’s a whole nother skillset of account management and managing the markdowns and all that sort of stuff and that was just a real mess for me. So they have a full sales team that manages all three brands in house, they’ve got a lot of just shared infrastructure that frankly, it was just going to be really hard for us to attract and manage ourselves because now, especially with remote work, it is really, really hard to get really premium talent because you’re getting bigger brands just outbidding you everywhere. Like there’s a really great developer or whatever or a great designer in like Pennsylvania but a big New York firm is going to pay them like they’re living in New York so you’re getting outbid all the time. So having someone with the talent in house was really important as well.
Mickey Cloud (22:32):
Yeah. So what does your world look like now? Is it still just running the business? And I guess what’s kind of next?
Mike Grillo (22:41):
The cool part, I think, as I’m doing more of what I like to do as a brand lead. So, this is going to sound weird, I love brand for sure, I’m sort of not over it but I want to grow outside of the block and tackle of marketing, right? So now that there is a true marketing team, it allows me to do some of the stuff on the product dev side that I’m really passionate about and learning more on that side. And then also just getting excellent at retail, right? Not just brick and mortar retail but really understanding how these retailers are thinking about their e-comm business. Because we say people tend to think just your direct consumer site but frankly nordstrom.com did 50% of Nordstrom’s business last year, right? So understanding that, spending a lot more time on the logistics and operations front. So I’m almost doing all this stuff except for marketing now, not that I’m not doing marketing, but it allows me to just learn more of the stuff that I haven’t really spent enough time getting excellent at.
Mickey Cloud (23:45):
I saw in the Business Insider article that you were featured in a couple of weeks ago you mentioned, I left the agency world and I’m never going back, in a classic Mike Grillo kind of way. But I did want to ask you about that because it maybe ties into what you just said and that you’re in a state of kind of constantly wanting to learn about something new and right now that’s the retail and product development and logistics side. So is that kind of the approach?
Mike Grillo (24:19):
Yeah. I mean, by no means am I the best marketer in the entire world. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one aspect. Listen, I’m in product now, right? You’re not going to see me pivot to music or whatever, but I do want to get really well-rounded in that and I feel like you could go two routes. Like I could be like a CMO somewhere, that sounds fabulous till you find a brand that you can really shepherd, but really I want to drive a business, right? I want to get better at the financials, I want to get better at understanding how to source a product in a way that’s optimal quality but has excellent unit economics so that’s how I’m thinking about it. And I think that’s just me and how I want to grow my career, but there’s also folks that will want to go really, really deep and be the best marketer on the face of the earth. I just have a slightly different approach, I’d rather have a really holistic view of something than be a super, super expert in one particular acumen.
Mickey Cloud (25:23):
Yeah. So you also mentioned that and we’ve talked a little bit about just getting more involved in kind of the startup space in New York and kind of you’ve obviously been deep in it with Gravity but then you had an interest in it for a decade plus. So I guess what is the entrepreneurial ecosystem looking like from your point of view these days?
Mike Grillo (25:50):
It’s really interesting, I mean, I would say three or four years ago there was a ton of direct to consumer brands. Like if San Fran was a tech Mecca, New York was like the home of all your fav direct to consumer brands. That’s changing a little bit, for example, one of my friends is at runs Eight Sleep, they just moved to Miami. So you’re seeing a little bit of that shake out of New York, just given that people are now more open to living in different places. But marketing FinTech is still really big here. I’m an angel investor now in case you didn’t know, I’m an angel investor in this company called name changing Gourmet Growth. They’re like an alt funding source for direct consumer brands that are looking to scale outside of just digital so finance inventory for wholesale buys. So I think it’s super dynamic, it’s still very focused on consumer products, I would say and finance still to this day. And obviously you’ve got your big agencies are still here in a real meaningful way. So.
Mickey Cloud (27:00):
Yeah. We’ll kind of wrap things up. Last question, we love this building while flying kind of analogy because it speaks to the nimbleness and flexibility and foresight you kind of need to operate in business, but also because pilots are kind of renowned for that checklist, right? If like backs against the wall, something went wrong and they’ve got their kind of checklists and training that keeps them calm under pressure. So when you got to make a tough decision for the business, what’s that internal checklist or process for you?
Mike Grillo (27:28):
I always have someone near me. The personnel that we’ve built at Gravity is like, I have a number two that I trust implicitly and I can always bounce an idea off so for me, it’s like, who do I surround myself with, yes I’m going to be the ultimate decision maker but that I don’t feel like I’m making a decision on my own. So I think that’s always it for me is like, who’s the number two and do they have the skills that I don’t have? And so in this instance, and now I’m in a panic because he’s actually left of the business, unfortunately, but he’s at that company Gourmet Growth that I was telling you about. So my CFO Greg, he had comes from deep strategic finance accounting, just where I felt a little bit blind so I was always able to weigh what I know about brand and intuition and all that stuff with like, all right, what can the business sustain? And so having that person to me it’s like having a copilot, right? Like you would never fly solo, to bring the analogy back.
Mickey Cloud (28:29):
Brought it home. Well, thank you. Thanks Mike so much for sharing kind of your story and your learnings with our audience and-
Mike Grillo (28:36):
One take Mickey, we did it in one take.
Mickey Cloud (28:37):
… Yeah. And always great to catch up.
Katie Hankinson (28:42):
Well, now that we’ve finished that thoroughly interesting interview, we’re getting ready to land, but before we do Mickey and I caught up on some of the themes and topics that stuck out to us.
Mickey Cloud (28:51):
Yes, we liken this to the Post Game Show where we break down the key lessons we all can benefit from, including us here in Sasha Group. Here is the Sasha Sidebar.
Katie Hankinson (29:08):
Hey, Mickey, I loved the conversation with Grillo.
Mickey Cloud (29:12):
One of my favorite people.
Katie Hankinson (29:13):
But it kind of read to be this really well-formed case study of the whole tale of Gravity Blankets. It really was kind of like, we began here, we learned this, this changed and then we exited the here, we’re not quite exited but we’re now in this new place.
Mickey Cloud (29:33):
I think Mike would take that as high praise.
Katie Hankinson (29:38):
No, it was great. I also appreciated like he’s clearly an operations person, first, he’s a real operator in just how he expresses and talked through and the way that the puzzle pieces came together.
Mickey Cloud (29:51):
Katie Hankinson (29:53):
One thing just on the kind of the overall story of Gravity Blankets is it’s so often that when you hear people coming up with groundbreaking products, well, not so much products but new brands, everyone is obsessed with new invention and something from nowhere and I love the fact that this is actually finding something that’s been around quietly being super medical and kind of non-consumery and they brought new life to it by switching it into something as a well designed product.
Mickey Cloud (30:28):
Yeah. Well, I mean, yeah, the fact that it was like, this thing exists in the world, it exists in pediatrician offices or therapeutic spaces and it’s nothing you would ever have on your couch at home. What’s the version of this that you get to hang out in?
Katie Hankinson (30:47):
Yeah. Like breathe new life into stale old product, such a simple approach. Yeah. And so different, like a little refresher versus the other conversation that’s so prevalent right now in the world of Silicon Valley, which is about I’m going to disrupt this entire industry and turn taxes on their heads or to travel. This is just a nice little refresher of a really simple thing that’s very pointed, go.
Mickey Cloud (31:12):
Yeah. And it’s like I’m too tired to disrupt an industry, can we just kind of sit under this blanket? So Yeah.
Katie Hankinson (31:22):
And really happily go off to the races and make a great company around it. And then the other thing that I thought was cool is the way they’re building the portfolio. So they’ve kind of by happy accident in a way, seen this trend, bought into this product and it has taken off. And then they’ve been building out around this sentiment of weighted therapy sleep and testing into what they can and can’t credibly own. So I thought that was a smart way of building the portfolio incrementally around something. But from a brand perspective, being quite deliberate about not just being about that product feature of gravity and weight but actually broadening it so the brand is about science backed, sleep and wellness which gives them so much room in terms of how they can speak about their products and also just where they can push in terms of comms content, how to appeal to people and just have conversations at a different level, which is so important.
Mickey Cloud (32:20):
He kind of threw it away at the end there, right? It’s like, how far can we take this brand while still being a science-based sleep and wellness brand? And it’s like, well, okay, that’s your thing.
Katie Hankinson (32:28):
That’s the positioning.
Mickey Cloud (32:29):
Yeah. You’re a science-based sleep awareness brand, that says nothing about your products. And then it’s the weighted therapy, it’s a weighted blanket, it’s a weighted mask, it’s a robe, the product is going to come from that.
Katie Hankinson (32:42):
Yeah. You can sort of see them breaking into all the aspects of that. It sort of reminds me of, you know how engineers in the world of aeronautics borrow from nature? It’s that kind of thing. On another note, I thought it was really interesting how he was talking about back in the glory days of Facebook where a dollar would give you 10 and spend, and that really changing with the algorithm changes and the need as a result to have an omnichannel strategy. So important, obviously that you can play the game of arbitrage but only for so long and then you need to have your toe in other waters.
Mickey Cloud (33:23):
Yeah. And also just for him, knowing Mike, he had never built a retail strategy before but he found this really simple framework of right, good, better, best strategy. I mean, obviously first it was like, they got to break the FabFitFun. And then he was LinkedIn DM-ing buyers and putting deals and things like that. So he hustled to get some of those first things in, and now as they’re broadening the retail strategy, having this kind of just framework of good, better, best, and that the best is actually going to be housed on their own site available only online through their website and then values at target. Mainline is kind of at the upper end, the Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Apple Stores, those kind of things. Yeah.
Katie Hankinson (34:03):
That makes so much sense. And probably when you can control your margin by having it on your site then that’s where you have the one that’s going to cost you the most, makes kind of sense. Yeah. All in all a really fun conversation.
Mickey Cloud (34:19):
Yeah. Fascinating. Like you said, that kind of fascinating and case study.
Katie Hankinson (34:24):
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens now that they’ve got the firepower of Win and they can really start expanding from there.
Mickey Cloud (34:31):
So what should our question for the audience be?
Katie Hankinson (34:34):
So my question is a bit different than what we just talked about. And it is about one other thing he said towards the end of the conversation, which was around the hiring challenges right now. Mike mentioned that it’s really tough hiring, I can’t remember if he was talking about a developer, when you’ve got the Googles and the Amazons of this world paying New York salaries to people who are now remote and living in Pittsburgh or wherever. So my question I’d love to hear from our audience around what experiences are you having. Now, we’re coming out of this experience but more and more people are still remote with hiring and is there this challenge of kind of the brain drain to the big guys and how are you tackling that from a small business perspective?
Mickey Cloud (35:21):
Thanks for joining us gang and for Building While Flying with The Sasha Group today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight. If you’d like to hear more about how business owners and brands are navigating these times tune to the next episode. And if you’re so kind, please rate and review us, plus we’d love feedback. So let us know what you think, what you’d like us to dig into next on Building While Flying across brands, businesses, marketing and more.
Katie Hankinson (35:47):
Original music by Fulton Street Music Group.
Welcome to Building While Flying!
This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.
In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild; building the plane while flying.
Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.
Mike Grillo is the CEO and co-founder of Gravity Products, home to the world-famous Gravity Blanket.
He’s an advertising and marketing industry veteran who began his career in crisis communications before pivoting to social and digital media. In 2011, he became an early member of Gary Vaynerchuk’s eponymous agency, VaynerMedia. It’s through his time at Vayner that he developed his love of brand building and fostered his entrepreneurial spirit. After founding Gravity Blankets in 2017, Mike and his team sold the brand to the WIN Brands Group in 2021 for its next phase of growth.
In their conversation, Mike and Mickey dive into the birth of Gravity Blankets—from product design to a successful Kickstarter campaign to getting retail space in a large department store. They discuss branding on a budget and embracing the “scrappy” agency attitude to build a successful brand. Mike also discusses the balance of retail and DTC, stressing that people shop in different ways and the consumer journey is often complex. Lastly, Mike shares why WIN Brands Group felt like the perfect fit to acquire Gravity Blankets—and why that decision is so important.
Other in-flight topics:
- Transferable skills from agency to brand side
- Product design and production
- Retail vs DTC
- Importance of strong retail presence
- Branding a new product on a tight budget
- Product expansion and testing what your audience likes
- Finding the right partner to sell your brand