Every few years a consumer product hits the market and becomes a cultural phenomenon. Back in the 80s it was The Clapper, a sound activated light switch. Most recently it’s the Snuggie, a blanket with sleeves that came to market in 2008 and a year later, had already sold more than 20 million units. While this kind of popularity is impressive, the product holds a dirty secret. All Star Products created the Snuggie after being inspired by an already existing product: The Slanket.
The Slanket was created in 1997 by a then-freshman at the University of Maine named Gary Clegg. As the story goes, 17-year-old Clegg was sitting under a blanket in his poorly insulated dorm room on a cold December night. He wanted to turn his old-fashioned tube television to Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but had to take his hand out from under his warm blanket and point the remote at the screen to do so. Annoyed by this fact, he cut a hole in the blanket and stuck his arm through. Within a few hours he came up with the idea to add sleeves to his blanket and a few weeks later went home and commissioned the first Slanket to be made by his mother.
Clegg used his strange shaped blanket to keep warm for the next four years. A few years after graduation, he founded The Slanket and began selling it online and on QVC, with much success. It wasn’t until he saw a commercial for the Snuggie in August 2008 that his heart sank. Somewhat surprisingly though, The Slanket is still selling well, despite its well-known competition.
I sat down with Clegg, now 32 years old, to hear his story and how he stays competitive in a cutthroat market.
When did you decide to make The Slanket a business?
It took a while. I graduated from college in 2001 and then spent a year traveling and working in Brazil. After that, I joined my brother in Boulder, Colorado and became a ski bum for a few months. In 2002, I picked up the idea and asked my Mom to make a bunch of Slankets. I ended up giving them out to family and friends, which turned into a nice test group for the product. Everyone loved it.
I moved to New York City in 2003 and started acting, writing and researching how I could make The Slanket into a business. By 2005, I’d fully committed. My brother injected capital into the business and I hired a third party warehousing and shipping company. I used a manufacturing plant in Maine to make about 1,200 units and ended up selling out in seven weeks. Within three months, I was seeing articles on the product on blogs in the Ukraine and Brazil. It was crazy.
How did you deal with this early success?
Well, I knew it was going to be big, so I shut down the site and flew to China to find a manufacturer. By this time it was 2007. We went to a home and housewares trade show in Chicago and that is when everything went to the next level. We were the Cinderella story of the show; we got on The Today Show, received orders from Sky Mall, met QVC, online retailers and representatives from mail order catalogues.
One week later, I was at QVC’s offices. We re-launched and immediately started breaking records on QVC. They were selling faster than we could get products to them.
How did you hear about the Snuggie?
In 2008 things were going great for us and we were preparing to approach big box stores in the summer of that year. All of that ended, though, in August. That is when we saw the first test commercials for Snuggie.
Were you upset?
I was down at first, but I knew there was nothing I could do.
Did you consider legal action?
No, I never thought about that. We also didn’t have a patent because textile patents are really hard to protect. It is like having a patent on socks or T-shirts.
Did you still approach the big box stores?
No, we really couldn’t. The Snuggie had taken that business. Instead, we had to refocus and look differently at the playing field. Since then, we’ve been selling well online and on QVC.
How much business do you think you’ve lost because of the Snuggie?
None. Our business has never dropped. The Snuggie hasn’t taken any of our existing business, but it has taken our potential business such as potential sales from big box stores.
How have you stayed so competitive?
It’s all in our approach. We’ve always thought globally. We do major business in the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain and Australia. In the U.K., The Slanket is their Snuggie—it’s number one. We also focus on delivering superior customer service and providing a quality product.
Will you stay with The Slanket forever?
I don’t think so. I am really interested in creative endeavors. I am looking at coming out with a new product that will launch this spring or summer on QVC. I can’t talk about the details yet, but I’m excited. I’m also going to Mexico to work on a film. And I’d like to take some time off to study different languages. I already speak Portuguese and Spanish.
What advice can you give to entrepreneurs worried that their ideas will get stolen?
My advice is to do it anyway and to sell, sell, sell as fast as you can. Then move on to your next idea. You can sit for years and never act on your idea because you are scared, or you can go for it and see what happens. I say go for it. When I look at The Slanket in hindsight, I know there are ways I could have perfected what I did, but I don’t have regrets. I’m glad I went for it.
What advice can you offer budding entrepreneurs?
Think globally. Utilize the Internet to sell your product or service around the world. Keep your initial investment and initial debt very small. For the first two years of The Slanket, I was bartending on the weekends to pay rent. I rolled almost all of my profits back into the company, which was a big help. Keep your overhead low in the early years and never take money until you really have to.