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Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Colin McIntosh of Sheets & Giggles Is Helping To Change Our World

Philanthropy — Sheets & Giggles regularly contributes to causes and charities that our team and community care about, and those donations are a core part of our business model. In April 2020, S&G donated $40,000 in cash to the Colorado COVID-19 Relief Fund started by Jared Polis and Mile High United Way, which represented 20% of our revenue for 30 whole days.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin McIntosh.

Colin McIntosh, Sheets & Giggles’ 30-year-old Founder & CEO, has an unexpected background for a bedding entrepreneur. After graduating from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, he started his career at the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, where he “thought he had it all figured out,” until only five months later when he was promptly fired from his first job. Tackling a few other ventures along the way, Colin wanted to do something more.

Believing that a sustainable business model was just as important as a sustainability mission, Colin outlined his criteria for his “perfect business” — an eco-friendly, high-quality physical product in a massive industry with overpriced, outdated options mostly sold at brick and mortar retailers. And most importantly: it had to be something where everyone else in the industry was “boring” so he could stand out from the crowd and “zig where everyone else was zagging.”

Then came Denver-based sustainable bedding brand, Sheets & Giggles. The rest is history in the making!

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Sure! I grew up in South Florida, in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale. I had a great upbringing with one sibling (older sister) and two parents who just celebrated 37 years together. I went to Catholic elementary and high school and went to Emory University’s Goizueta Business School for my undergrad (no postgrad), getting my BBA with a double major in Econ and Finance with a minor in Business Law.

Both of my parents are business owners / self-employed (attorney and acupuncturist), so working for yourself was always baked into my DNA. It was “normal” for me to hear stories about building a company from scratch, managing people, and all the associated headaches and privileges that come with that. My sister is also self-employed as an acupuncturist as well.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Three years ago, I founded Sheets & Giggles with the mission of doing good in the world and having fun at the same time. That second part is easy — we just make a lot of puns and jokes and have a blast with our community of tens of thousands of S&G sleepers. As for doing good, we focus on three main things:

  1. Sustainability — In contrast to 99% of the home textiles market, Sheets & Giggles’ fabric uses no cotton, polyester, or bamboo viscose. Instead, our fabric is made from eucalyptus lyocell, a sustainably made cellulosic rayon that uses far less water, pesticides, and energy than the aforementioned traditional fabrics, and that uses no harmful chemicals in its production. Lyocell is completely biodegradable, leaving zero trace, and it’s made using a closed-loop process that reuses up to 99.5% of the solvents in each batch. It’s also more efficient in its dyeing, and uses absolutely zero pesticides, unlike the neonicotinoids used on cotton that are killing bee, bird, and butterfly populations. Unlike polyester, no petroleum is used in the fabric, and reducing new polyester production is one of the best things we can do to lower the amount of microplastics in our oceans and waterways. We also have completely zero-plastic packaging for all our products, one of the only (if not the only) bedding brands to do so.
  2. Reforestation — For every order we receive, Sheets & Giggles plants a tree in an area of the world that needs reforestation (95% of the trees we plant are in the US or Canada). We plant them in recovering wildfire areas in California, the PNW, Florida, and our backyard in Colorado, mostly. And for the eucalyptus trees used to make our lyocell sheets, no worries — 3 are planted for every 2 harvested, and they grow like weeds 🙂
  3. Philanthropy — Sheets & Giggles regularly contributes to causes and charities that our team and community care about, and those donations are a core part of our business model. In April 2020, S&G donated $40,000 in cash to the Colorado COVID-19 Relief Fund started by Jared Polis and Mile High United Way, which represented 20% of our revenue for 30 whole days.

Perhaps more importantly, we donated tens of thousands of dollars in bedding to shelters in Colorado. When the Downtown Denver Partnership called in March looking for hundreds of sheet sets to help slow the spread in homeless shelters, I’m proud to say that S&G answered. S&G’s sheets are now used in hundreds of Denver homeless shelter “respite motels” that are used to isolate symptomatic individuals from the general population, which helps to slow the spread locally.

S&G is also a Pledge One Percent company, pledging 1% of its profits (though it’s actually over 1% of revenue we’ve donated this year), time, products, and equity to local CO charities. That means if we get acquired one day or go public, 1% of those proceeds go to Colorado charities by default.

Beyond that, S&G recently donated $12,500 to over 125 charities from its Black Friday sales, and the S&G team is still looking for more ways to help. My team’s empathy and ambition are unmatched, and they care about each other and their community on a deep level. I’m very proud to work with them.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I’ve always had a bleeding heart; I’ve worked in multiple startups trying to solve big problems, including animal euthanasia and sexual assault. Sustainability is near and dear to me because, like every millennial and Gen Z-er onwards, we’ll have to deal with the long-term environmental fallout. It might be a hot take, but I’d like my kids to inherit a livable world. I wanted to start a company that I could look back on, win or lose, and be proud of our impact along the way.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Well, I got laid off suddenly from my last job at 1pm on a Monday… so that was probably the emotional trigger. I had just spent three years of my life building another company that I wasn’t the CEO of, and it failed for reasons that were out of my control (I was just VP of Business Development). That was the third time I had been let go from somewhere in my career, and frankly, you can only lose your healthcare suddenly so many times before you go a little crazy and want to live or die by your own hand.

I was definitely in a dark place in my mid-20s, feeling unfulfilled and a little lost, wondering if I had made the right career decisions, regretting not taking the jobs I had passed up for another one. Starting a business is scary as hell — I invested my life savings into Sheets & Giggles, didn’t pay myself for 18 months, got on COBRA (which sucks by the way, needs a total overhaul), and took a second job on the site to make ends meet in the meantime. I think everyone needs an emotional push to get them started on their entrepreneurial journey.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

  1. Write a 1- or 2-page business model overview, send to friends and family and mentors, and get feedback. When you feel good about it…
  2. Create a financial model that makes reasonable assumptions about your revenues and costs. For Sheets & Giggles: retail pricing, COGS, shipping, marketing costs, return percentage, etc. Then figure out your breakeven, and what you need to get there, initial budgets, etc., and then…
  3. Start selling (or do customer discovery). Somehow, you have to sell it before you build it: crowdfunding campaigns, preorders, alpha users, even something as simple as email signups. You have to validate the product-market fit before you start building.
  4. Then create the product to deliver, and create it in-line with those early customers’ feedback. They’ll feel more connected to the product and your company, and you’ll make a better product for them and will be more certain of its success.

Note how “build something” was #4 on my list — I have my own bias as a non-technical founder, but I see people make the mistake of spending tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars on products that the market rejects. Even worse, some people spend money on patents and inventory, but no money on presales or marketing, and are left wondering where they went wrong. It’s very sad to me when that happens and it happens all the time, because people love building things for problems they’ve identified, even if they haven’t validated the business model yet.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I got into a political discussion with Howard Schultz, the founder and long-time of Starbucks, in front of like 50 other CEOs. It was awesome. When he was thinking about running for president in early 2019, he stopped into the Techstars Boulder accelerator I was in, and he gave a lecture on starting a business and then turned it political (purposefully). I asked him why he didn’t support single-payer healthcare, because in my view it would make the country a lot more entrepreneurial. I.e., the current privatized system traps people into jobs they hate because of the benefits large companies can offer that startups can’t. This keeps industry experts shackled in large employers instead of allowing people the security to go out and start their own enterprise or join a small company without worrying about their family’s healthcare.

He said he never thought about it like that and hadn’t heard that viewpoint expressed before, and that he’d think on it and get back to me. I was impressed by the honesty.

Side note, Howard told me “Hell of a brand name” when he heard Sheets & Giggles for the first time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

White packaging. I wanted a clean look for our product: “Apple-esque,” like all startups do. Pro tip: FedEx and UPS don’t give a sheet about how beautiful your packaging is! It’ll arrive beat to hell at the customer’s doorstep 🙂 so choose a darker color for your packaging.

Less funny, but we also initially had some plastic in the packaging to prevent water damage, and took that out early on after customer feedback telling us to do better. Sheets & Giggles is now the only bedding brand I know of to ship our products in totally zero-plastic packaging.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Yes! So many. My Director of Product, Mike, who works for me, is a great mentor of mine. My old COO at my last company, Laura, who is now COO of Shinesty, is a great mentor of mine. I have mentors from Sphero, HomeAdvisor, Techstars, and other amazing companies, and many of them started as mentors and became investors in S&G when the time came. I text and call them when needed, and I pay it forward by giving my own time freely in mentorship hours to CO companies that ask or that do office hours that I get asked to give by different entrepreneurship classes and programs.

Joe Houlihan taught me everything I know about retail sales and partnerships, and because of his guidance I was able to build partnerships and sell into hundreds of doors at Brookstone, Target, and other incredible retailers at my last job. He also helped me understand the limitations of physical retail, which is why Sheets & Giggles doesn’t do any.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Wow, yes, thank you for asking, but not exactly by name. I will share this blog post, if that’s alright: https://sheetsgiggles.com/blogs/news/good-for-what-ails-you

It’s all about the people who use our sheets to sleep through the night despite chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, neuropathy, eczema, insomnia, etc. As someone with a herniated C4/5 disc and who has been unable to sleep in the past for months at a time because of my pain, this is my favorite thing about our company and our products.

Example from one of our customers named Aaron: “Hi, I am Aaron, I am 28 and I am a sweating pro! I also have ALS which causes me to not be able to pull the covers off of myself when I am hot! Your sheets have made my life so much more comfortable and always cool when I sleep!”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Use less polyester and petroleum-based synthetics, in everything you do. Stop buying it. Recycled poly is ok because it takes plastic out of the environment, but only if it’s from a verified source that’s not making bottles to “recycle” them (yes people actually do this). PSA: things like “microfiber,” “down alternative,” and “cruelty-free fabric” are code names for polyester.
  2. Vote for policies that help small businesses — and keep in mind that the technical definition for “medium” business is anyone who makes under $1 BILLION, so don’t be fooled by “this bill helps small and medium businesses” BS rhetoric. In my opinion, progressive policies would help small businesses level the playing field with large industry players and existing monopolies, so vote for progressives, who also have the strongest climate change plans that would invest a ton of capital into multiple industries. In a similar vein, support small businesses directly: don’t buy things from large retailers if that small business has its own website. If you find something cool on Amazon, for example, Google that company name and grab that product from their website — you’ll still probably get free shipping, the same price, and your product inside of a week, but you save them margin share that would normally go to the retailer.
  3. Politely email companies suggestions to improve their products and packaging from a sustainability perspective. Thoughtful, well-written emails get passed up the chain, and a customer’s email is what directly led to us taking plastic out of our packaging and saved tens of thousands of pieces of plastic.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Hire good people and let them work. — Hire people early and often — there’s no better ROI. And even though founders have trouble letting go of responsibilities, don’t micromanage the folks you hire: you hired them for a reason, and there are a lot of people who can do that job better than you can.
  2. Don’t work with assholes, even if you need a job done fast. — It’s often tempting to hire the first person who can “do the job,” even if you don’t get the best vibe from them, because time is always a factor and everything is urgent in the beginning. Don’t work with jerks: it’ll come back to haunt you, and you got that vibe for a reason (and other good people you’ll try to hire don’t want to work with jerks and you’ll lose good people because of the one bad person you refuse to let go of).
  3. People hire people who are like themselves. — Both in a negative and a positive way, this is true. Negatively, you will hire people who look like you literally, gender/race-wise; it’s a weird psychological phenomenon I’ve seen over and over again with businesses I’ve worked with. It’s good to keep that in mind. In a more positive way, you will hire people who share the same worldview/personality/skill set you do, so 1) make sure you keep that in mind and manage people the way you want to be managed, and 2) when hiring, make sure the interviewer has the personality and deep understanding of the skill set of the person you’re looking to hire.
  4. Work isn’t an end; it’s a means. — I’ve lost relationships over the last three years since I started Sheets & Giggles, and I don’t mean to glorify it: the amount of work is taxing and ever-compounding, and you’ll never catch up. Because of this, it’s easy to work until you can’t see straight, and to ignore other things in your life. Keep in mind why you started your company and remind yourself of your North Star, whether it’s a mission, lifestyle, etc. And take time to celebrate milestones and successes along the way — it’s very easy to just move to the next goal without recognizing you crushed your last one.
  5. Don’t do white packaging. — Boo FedEx and UPS (kidding they’re great, but white packaging gets scuffed badly in transit). Go with a darker color, like our purple Sheets & Giggles box.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I think that’s just what makes life worth living: your impact on other people. If you can materially improve the life of another person, that creates a ripple effect, and everyone is better off for it.

At the end of the day, we’re just self-aware carbon. You have that awareness for maybe 80 years, and then you blip out of existence — what you do for yourself, at the end of the day, doesn’t matter nearly as much (or at all) compared to what you do for others. Everything you do for you disappears; everything you do for others lives on in the world.

Start the business, take the time to be with your family, make donations, be active in politics, volunteer locally, immerse in a new culture, mentor others, wave hello, tell the joke — take all the shots.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Senator Sanders or Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez… my politics are showing.

If Jeff Bezos ever wants to lend an ear, I’ve got some ideas on how to improve Amazon’s shopping experience.

For fun, I’d love to get brunch with my favorite podcast hosts, Dan Le Batard and Stugotz.

How can our readers follow you online?

@ColinDMcIntosh, @SheetsGiggles, and on LinkedIn!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

You’re so welcome and thank you for interviewing me!

Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Colin McIntosh of Sheets & Giggles Is Helping To Change Our was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.