ALPINE — From the outside looking in, it may appear that Utah company Purple's meteoric rise — racing to $200 million in annual sales of their unique mattresses in 17 months — is an overnight sensation, but the Brothers Pearce, who founded the company together, have been cranking out innovations for decades.
Back in the late '80s, Tony, 61, and Terry, 68, left their jobs as civil engineers (Tony worked in aerospace, and Terry as a consultant) to devote themselves full time to work on adapting advanced materials technology for applications in the sporting goods market.
What followed were a string of successes, with innovations that ended up in products such as golf club heads and high-end bicycle spokes. Then they designed and built a super-lightweight carbon-fiber wheelchair.
While customers said they liked the chair, what they were really hoping for was a seat pad that helped elevate the comfort of being confined to sitting.
"People we met kept saying that their biggest need was cushioning to prevent pressure sores," Tony Pearce said.
That insight led to the development of a material that sounds like the brainchild of Philo T. Farnsworth and Willy Wonka.
"We came up with the first flowable foam, or floam as we called it," he said.
And that was the first step toward what would become a highly engineered gel product or hyper-elastic polymer with buckling columns.
"It's a combination of material that's soft and pliable, and a very specific geometry," explained Purple CEO Sam Bernards. "It’s engineered to collapse right before the line of discomfort for the human body. It’s designed to never be uncomfortable."
And that, as it turns out, was the perfect solution to providing comfort for people confined to their wheelchairs. Not only did the Pearce brothers accomplish what they were hoping for, Bernards said, but the resultant material provided something even more remarkable.
"Turns out that not only did this function to prevent compression sores entirely, but also went one step further: It helped heal sores that had already begun forming," he said.
Over the next nearly two decades, the material technology was licensed to numerous companies. JanSport put it in backpack shoulder straps. Nike used it to make outdoor boots more comfortable. And the ubiquitous blue gel in Dr. Scholl's products? You guessed it — straight from the lab of the Pearce brothers.
While the licensing of their material to various companies was turning out to be a very profitable endeavor, Bernards said the Pearce brothers decided in 2010 to take their ingenuity directly into the manufacturing realm. They began by adapting an injection molding machine to deal with their unique material and started producing their own seat cushions.
That new machine eventually led to the Mattress Max, a truck-size apparatus that is essentially nine of the seat cushion machines conjoined to produce the top — and most critical — layer of the Purple Mattress.
"From this work emerged the company we now know as Purple in January 2016," Bernards said.
Before launching the product that appears poised to take the $15-billion-a-year U.S. mattress market by storm, Tony and Terry Pearce realized their innovative design — and what makes it different — needed some explaining.
So the two engineer-cum-inventors and their small staff mind-melded with a Provo PR agency and crafted a marketing video that showed off their mattress' unique engineering in a vignette that also features a character widely known to be notoriously picky about just about everything — Goldilocks.
The has effort garnered 150 million views (so far), employing a test that includes Goldi dropping 300-pound pieces of plate glass with four uncooked eggs attached to the bottom on a Purple mattress. The marketing ploy worked to perfection but created a production challenge of gargantuan proportions for the young company.
"We thought the demand flow was, metaphorically, the size of a drinking straw, but we were scaling things to be more like a fire hose," Bernards said. "The reality, however, was the demand was more like a river, and we struggled to keep up with it."
At that early juncture, the mighty Mattress Max was capable of producing 20 to 30 mattresses a day. But the company needed thousands, so the Pearce brothers and their team figured out how to double it. Then they doubled it again. Then they doubled it two more times.
Today, they have two Maxes working 24 hours per day, six days a week. And there's two more machines due to come online at a new, 574,000-square-foot facility in Grantsville, adding to their original facility in Alpine.
While a building with 13 acres under roof is enormous, Purple is working to fill it up with both people and new products.
The company had a little more than 30 employees when Purple launched; now they have 655 — a number Bernards said could easily top 1,000 in the near term and could be headed for several thousand if current growth holds.
And in addition to the mattresses, five other products have been added to the Purple line, including a pillow (which earned $2.6 million in a Kickstarter funding campaign last fall), stretchy bamboo sheets (which have their own set of patents), a static bed platform, a remote-control adjustable bed platform, and a mattress cover.
Competition in the mattress realm is fierce. According to a recent Forbes article, online mattress retailers have only made single-digit inroads into a market dominated by traditional makers with widely recognized brands such as Sealy, Serta and Simmons.
However, newer manufacturers who use a direct-to-consumer model, as Purple does, have helped lay the groundwork for disrupting how people buy mattresses. Casper, Tuft & Needle and Leesa Sleep were all in the web-based mattress market well ahead of Purple, but Bernards says that a highly competitive field has been more a benefit than hindrance to the company's growth.
"We owe a debt of gratitude to these companies," Bernards said. "They helped create a mindset where it's OK to buy a bed online that you didn't lay on first or discuss with a salesperson."
Bernards said Purple's engineering (which has earned 16 patents) and use of materials — the structured hyper-elastic polymer is bonded to two different layers (and densities) of foam material — easily distinguishes the product from its competition. And at $999, they're very competitive in price points.
While buying a bed online is an option only being utilized by about 10 percent of purchasers, Bernards said a tide change has occurred in the past five years and many more people — perhaps as much as 40 percent — have acknowledged their willingness to buy a mattress sight unseen. And Purple helps ease those decisions by offering a 100-day return policy.
While the company continues its incredible arc — a deal has just been inked with brick-and-mortar company Mattress Firm that operates 3,600 stores — the Pearce brothers are running an in-house innovation factory that has dozens of new products in development, all of which will provide further comfort in their self-described expertise areas of sleeping, sitting and standing.
And their confidence in having a strategy to keep their momentum rising doesn't appear to be running low.
"We want to make sure that over 1 billion people have their lives improved because of Purple," Bernards said. "We’ve got the products to do it, we’ve got the team to get there, so we’re doing it."