Affable Webinar Series - Scaling a D2C Brand with Personalization at Heart

Rachel Smith
Communications Executive
November 25, 2021
min read
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Read Susana's journey of starting Pluto Pillow, getting featured on Shark Tank, how she navigated her way through creating a niche, customizable business, and how she managed to scale it to where it is now.  

Susana is the Co-Founder and CEO of Pluto Pillow. Pluto Pillow is the first and only brand that makes pillows according to the specific needs of the users. 

Do you remember any anecdotes of how the first few customers came about and how they found out about  Pluto Pillow?

In the beginning, we were working on the website for quite a while. I remember how proud I was of it, and how great the questionnaire flow was. We went live with it, and there were no visitors for two weeks.

I remember when our first sale came through, I thought it was just another notification from Shopify. But it was someone that we did not know who lives in Texas. His name is Aldren. We still keep in touch, we just talked last week, that is how close we are to a lot of our customers. He has purchased not only our Pluto Pillows but also our new products. He's one of the people with whom we test out new products and materials. 

How did you scale that to the first 10,000 pillows? 

Yeah, let's also talk about how we got to the first 10,000 customers. It was very slow-paced, we made a lot of mistakes in terms of launching. We didn't have a lot of money for Facebook ads, or Instagram ads. So we relied heavily on the press, and we do even to this day. So when we weren't getting sales, in the beginning, I just started putting a sheet together of every reporter or writer who ever talked about a direct-to-consumer brand, sleep brand, brands with any customization and I would send in a cold email pitch to them. 

That was how we got some of our initial press. I remember the first one was, Business Insider then Fast Company, followed by Forbes and Entrepreneur, those were great wins. And that happened within the first three to four months because of just me constantly stalking and pitching to these writers about our process. And that was how we got our initial customers; it wasn't through ads but the press. 

You did not go to the Shark Tank the first time you were invited and then went in for the next season. How did you approach it?

Yeah. I think it was February 2019. So a couple of months after we launched, we got a note from the casting producer of the show, who read an article on our company. At that time, my co-founder and I were still handling all aspects of the business like creating the pillows, labeling, boxing it up, customer service emails, I just answered at all hours of the day, creating ads, reaching out to press. We did not feel like we had the bandwidth for a national TV presence. Also, I do not watch TV often. So I was not very sure about the show and whether it was the direction we wanted for the company. So we said no, the first time around.

What went through your mind when you found out Shark Tank was featuring Pluto Pillow? How did it affect the business?

We filmed in August 2020 and it did not air until ten months later. So in May, It had been quite a long time. I was watching with my family and my team at home. Sometimes one week before you air is when they tell you. It was all hands on deck from the first moment, it aired on the East Coast and we saw increasing orders. And even though we made sure to take a moment to celebrate, it was go time on Monday. We were sold out and back-ordered six weeks after that first weekend. 

How would you define competition for Pluto Pillow when you operate in such a niche personalized space?

This is actually where my co-founder and I disagree a little bit. He thinks that we created this category where we still have to educate customers on why custom is best for you. Whereas I would say that when someone is looking for a pillow, we want them to consider us, which means we are competing with all the mattress brands that have pillows. What we do agree on is that we exist in this unique space, where this is a product that everyone needs but we have a patented and proprietary process where we custom-create for you.

So while it is a niche, it is also easy to understand if you dislike your pillow or want to see if you can improve your sleep through an essential product. So I think for most brands and products, I would say the solution is to remove choices, keep things simple. But the other direction that we are betting on for this particular product is to let us learn what people want, make it for them, and offer a level of customization that is unprecedented and address the common pain points in a more precise way.

 How did the COVID pandemic affect Pluto Pillow and how did you manage the supply chain issues during that period?

At the beginning of COVID, our warehouse had to shut down for over two months. We didn't know when we could start again. So when that first hit, we started emailing everybody who had pending orders that we were going to refund them but some folks immediately wrote back saying, 'No what are you doing? I need what I already ordered' so we switched to an opt-out cancellation email. We were also very transparent on our website about even an indefinite delay once, especially when we were at a place where we knew it would be shut down for a while. Being transparent everywhere helped a lot and saved a lot of orders. That being said, we still struggled. We had a lot of cancellations in the early days when COVID first hit, understandably so.

As we struggled hard, early summer, this year we had a hard time keeping up with demand and because of that experience, we just knew that the holidays would be rough this year. So we went above and beyond ordering two times, three times more components much earlier and more than usual, and we moved into a bigger space. And we're now pre-set for the holidays, we will probably be one of the brands that will be set up for a good holiday season, we'll deliver things on time, people can get last-minute gifts with us. Shout out to our investors for giving us the resources for doing so.

Do you think Shark Tank acted as an influencer marketing campaign for you? How can you go about acquiring influencers on Tik Tok and Instagram? 

I never thought our Shark Tank experience could act as influencer marketing. We had customers coming out mentioning us on Twitter and other social channels, saying that we were going to air and they are our true influencers because they purchased the product. They talk about it and create hype when they like it. We had many content creators reach out and this is also where Affable shines for us because we need a space where we can seamlessly see the TikTok influencers, who their audience exactly are, what they've shared before, and with what companies they've worked. This also gives us one place where we can send out products, gifts, discount codes, etc.

I think that influencer marketing will continue to be impactful even as the channel changes. For me, there's something about seeing someone you like genuinely talk about a product and service. It's worth noting that the authenticity and brand fit they're representing is important. Therefore, if they don't speak genuinely, it doesn't work out.

You can listen to the entire conversation with Susana here

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