Timing Is Everything — An Interview with Peter Chambers of Sleepbox
Peter Chambers is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Sleepbox, a modularsolution for private and relaxing sleep experiences in public spaces. He develops strategies, structure, and processes for lasting business development and organizational development. Peter’s current focus is on creating the best partnerships with Sleepbox franchisees. Peter has worked in industries ranging from medical device manufacturing to financial services and new product development for a leading robotics company. For over 10 years, Peter has worked to create high-performing teams to solve difficult problems and accomplish complex goals.
At first glance, it may appear that Peter Chambers joining Sleepbox was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. But in reality, it was much more than that. Peter spent years in the startup space, cultivating relationships as he went until he found the perfect fit at the perfect time.
As he has continued on his journey with Sleepbox, the importance of timing has only grown more apparent.
An idea and validation
Sleepbox’s story begins 5 years before Peter came on board, in another country, on another continent.
“Sleepbox started in 2011 when my partner Mikhail, who was an architect in Russia, started this company. He and our other co-founder got stuck in an airport in France overnight. They saw people laid out all over the floor. They decided to design this product that could solve that problem.”
With that motivation, the two built Sleepbox as a means for travelers to catch some extra sleep or take time to relax amid their busy schedules. They quickly had one installed in the Moscow airport. It was about the time the idea of sleeping pods was first taking off and Sleepbox ended up on several national news channels in the U.S.
From there, they contracted two hotels of Sleepboxes, one in Moscow and one in Stockholm, Sweden. Their success gave validation to the product.
“The operator in Stockholm was able to double the number of beds that were in their hotel, right in the center of the city. They were running Sleepboxes at almost 100% occupancy from Thursday — Sunday. You couldn’t find a Sleepbox in this place for 3 months out. When you could, they were going for $180 a night.”
A new path
Despite the early success, the economy in Russia took a downturn, prompting Mikhail to move on from his architecture business and attend MIT for grad school in Boston in 2015. That’s where Peter first met Mikhail in early 2016.
“I ran into Mikhail at this event in Kendall Square. We met and he sent me the pitch deck of what Sleepbox was and I was really intrigued by it.”
Peter was doing business development consulting for companies with physical products at the time and his skill set proved to be a perfect match for Sleepbox. Peter recognizes the “chance meeting” would not have come without him investing himself in the startup community.
“There is a whole scene in the city of people who are looking for technical co-founders, people that have crazy ideas. I spent two years running in and talking to all of those people. You could say maybe it’s just that we bumped into each other, but it’s also about actively being involved to make those opportunities come to life, which speaks to the strength of the network in the startup community in Boston.”
Finding encouragement in failure
Peter wasted no time getting to work with the team. He was very familiar with the startup accelerator scene from his consulting work, prompting Sleepbox to apply to Y Combinator — the most sought-after accelerator in the country — in a little over a week’s time.
“We didn’t really know what the business plan was. We started on March 13th and March 24th was the day that Y Combinator applications were due. We said, ‘Sure, let’s apply.’ It’s a great way of figuring out your business plan, having to answer all of those questions. So we go into this, making all these assumptions, and people challenged them. We got positive feedback. YC sent us an email saying we were in the top 10% of the application pool. As far as early-stage validation, after only about a week, that was awesome.”
Encouraged by the feedback they received, the group applied to another accelerator program, this time locally-run MassChallenge.
“Right after that was MassChallenge, end of April, but it was the same thing. We got into the second round, and then it fell apart. We were still too early, the hardest part being that we didn’t have any sales.”
The timing wasn’t quite right. They were simply a bit too early.
“That was the story that persisted for a while. Until we had one installed…”
Getting the product on the shelf
The team knew they needed to get their product installed in the U.S. to gain traction, and that is where they shifted their attention.
“We started working in March, finished manufacturing in October, and installed the first Sleepbox in February. It was installed in Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville. It’s this awesome little community. There is a coworking space right next door to them, called Canopy City. You have a brewery, the coworking spaces, the makerspace, all right there. It’s this whole lifestyle community area.”
The benefits to having that first install were immediate.
“People could see it and they could use it. There is gravitas about it. The first time I saw it, I was impressed. You walk up and it’s there… It’s nothing like what you’d expect until you actually see it… Having one out in the world was really impressive.”
And luckily for the team, it wasn’t just the people that saw it in person that got the chance to be introduced to Sleepbox.
“We got picked up in the news, then we were on TV. All of a sudden, I would find myself talking and they’d ask if they saw me on TV. People remembered it after that. They were reacting positively. That gives you another boost like ‘maybe we can keep this thing going for a little bit longer.’”
Building on the momentum
With all the progress they had made, the group reapplied to MassChallenge in 2017. This time, the timing was right.
They were accepted, beginning the program in June 2017. The program has helped them change up their strategy to increase Sleepbox’s potential by orders of magnitude.
When Peter first came on board, Sleepbox was primarily interested in selling a few units at a time to startups or forward-thinking companies.
“All of last year, up until MassChallenge started, we thought we were going to start this company by selling pods into offices as furniture, as a health and wellness concept. We had this whole leasing structure set up where people would pay $500 or $600/month and it would be this trendy perk for employees.
Our thinking was, selling into an office maybe we can get it onto a quarterly sales cycle as opposed to airports where it might take years to close something like that. Or a hotel where we’re trying to convince people to invest millions of dollars. Turns out we were wrong with all of those assumptions.”
Selling to individual companies proved harder than they originally thought and the upside of selling many units at once to a hotel or airport became clearer as they went.
“Instead of doing half a million in revenue we’re going to sell to hotels and airports. We’ve already got this validation from airports…and for the buildout of hotels, it can reduce the time for a build from years to months or weeks.”
It is amazing to see how far the group has come in a little over a year’s time. The company has industry partnerships, interest from investors, a growing team, and a plan in place to move forward quickly.
“We’ve created a lot of partnerships along the way… We’re looking to bring on business development and real estate talent and looking to find operators in our 10 target cities. We’re looking to open 3 locations over the next year, both hotels and airports.”
Too early can be just right
Seeing where they are now, the importance of getting that first product out there in the U.S. cannot be understated for Sleepbox, even if they were far from completely satisfied with how it came out.
“You want to get it in front of people. Our first unit isn’t what we’re going to be installing in hotels. It’s not the end product. But it’s like Reid Hoffman said, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
It speaks to the idea that there will never be the perfect time to hit “go.” Sometimes you just need to make a move, even if you’re not ready.
Or, as Pete puts it for Sleepbox, “Try to ship something. Try to make it happen… If you shipped it and you’re not embarrassed, then you shipped it too late.”
We thank Peter for sharing his story with us and all of you. Do us a favor and share it with your people. It helps us keep the lights on.