Derek Hales has built the business of his dreams – literally! Hales founded Sleepopolis, a website on which he reviews sleep products like mattresses, pillows, and sheets to help fellow sleepers find the items that will best meet their needs for optimized rest.
Why did you start your business?
My background is in business and marketing. I’ve spent most of my career working in digital marketing. I’ve always had a passion for the Internet, websites, and just building great content that answers questions.
When I got married, I needed a new mattress. My wife and I were sleeping on a full mattress at the time. We were shopping for a new mattress, and we didn’t really like what we were finding in stores. We tried a couple of online mattresses, and we liked those much better. I ended up taking my experiences and creating the first version of Sleepopolis, which resonated really well. It was something people were really interested and wanted to see more of.
How did you get the funds to get going?
I did not take out any loans. I was self-funded. There was pretty low overhead because it was all digital and intellectual content. There wasn’t a lot of need for startup capital.
Have you heard of business credit?
Yes. I have separate bank accounts for my business. I’m set up so that if I need to get business credit, it should be fairly easy to get going.
Managing the Business
What’s most challenging about running your business?
Prioritizing the things that are really moving the needle. That was something I really struggled with in the first year. I wanted to make sure that I was spending time on things that were going to make the biggest impact and be the most desirable. It sounds very easy, but I would get a lot of pressure from a relatively small number of people asking for a review or a comparison or a particular piece of content on something. A lot of time, that wouldn’t necessarily match up to what the marketplace at large was demanding. Finding the middle ground between those areas was a challenge. I wanted to be able to deliver what my readers were looking for at a micro-level, for those individuals who are really passionate about X, Y, and Z. But, I still had to make sure I was prioritizing what the wider silent majority was demanding.
How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?
My margins are very low. Most of my expenses are advertising and making sure I’m getting the brand awareness out in the marketplace. I don’t have much of a system or a need for optimizing cash flow at this point.
Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?
Not really. We don’t really have suppliers or vendors.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
The time management piece was a big thing. I had to learn to really focus, because it was easy for my days to just slip away. I try very diligently to break up my days and work on one thing at a time. Emails are always a perfect example – I could sit around and answer emails as they come in, one by one. That’s what I did for the first six months. I started looking at my days, and at 2-, 3-, 4-o’clock in the afternoon, all I had done was answer e-mails. I tried to get that to a point where I would spend two hours in the morning and two hours at night just cranking through emails as fast as possible. Doing them all at once, I was able to increase my efficiency. Really, with everything – writing, emails, the administrative side – I had to focus on doing it efficiently and not splitting my attention between four different things.
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?
I’ve built the business right for long-term success. In this business, there are a lot of people who get into it with really short-term goals in mind. They want to enter, get a lot of traffic, and make money on advertising. Everything I write, or any photographs I shoot, I really try to push quality. I’m trying to make a site that I can truly be proud of, a site that I would want to see. That’s set up long-term success and separated Sleepopolis from some of the other competitors in the space.
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?
Being able to work for myself has been the most rewarding, by far. I had a small freelance business when I was in college, and then I went to work for a big agency. I learned a lot in the agency, but there are a lot of restrictions in agency life. Being able to run my own business, choose my own hours, choose my own projects, and really take full control of everything, including the strategy work, has been rewarding. Even taking on the operational and administrative side of the business has been a new, fun challenge that I’ve enjoyed.
What does the future look like for your business?
It’s going to be more of the same for the next couple years. This is such a new and changing industry, the online mattress industry, that it’s hard to say for sure where it’s going to go. But, I know wherever it goes, Sleepopolis is going to be right there with it. At some point, we’re going to see a bigger evolution of the mattress industry as a whole, so it will be really interesting to see how it unfolds and how the online space interacts with the retail space and what changes the big brands unfold.
What advice do you have for someone starting a business?
The biggest and most important thing is simply to start. I look at the last 10 years of my life, and they have been filled with so many ideas for different businesses or websites that I might want to start. I never felt like I had all the pieces together, or a plan put together to execute the vision. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’ve always found it difficult to start, because I never feel like I know where I’m going.
When I look at what I’ve done with Sleepopolis, I didn’t even start it with the idea that it would become anything. I just wanted to put a 5-10-page blog out that would help a few people and answer the questions that I had. It was able to organically turn into so much more.
Just get started. You don’t have to know where you’re going in the long term. Just put together a 60- or 90-day plan to go somewhere. You could spend a lifetime trying to plan out this perfect business, but you’ll never feel like you fully have the plan together, and you’ll end up doing nothing because of fear.