Dr. Kathrin Hamm – Founder & CEO of Bearaby

Episode 217

Dr. Kathrin Hamm, founder and CEO of Bearaby, shares the Bearaby creation story of her guilt-free weighted blankets and how her uncompromising spirit allowed Bearaby to set a precedent for rapidfire growth. Relax and unwind with this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be. I want to just make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show, though, join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m thrilled to have my next guest. Here. We have Dr. Kathrin Hamm, who is the founder and CEO of one of my favorite companies so snuggly and cozy. It’s called bear bees, so I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It has really taken the world by storm. Certainly such a great product to have for gifts, whether it’s for the holidays, or birthdays or just for your favorite friend or yourself. So I absolutely love it. And I’m honored to have her here. Today. Catherine is the founder and CEO and she was actually working at the World Bank as an economist and was constantly traveling and looking for a natural solution to her chronic insomnia. And when she experienced the pressure of a weighted blanket for the first time, she knew she had found something special. So she launched Barbie in 2018 and quickly sold out a three month supply and in just two days, and setting a precedent for Barbies rapid fire growth. She’s been recognized by Inc Magazine as one of the 100 most powerful women in business. And her signature product the cotton Napper weighted blanket has won both the Red Dot design award and Fast Company’s innovation by Design Award as well. And the sleep Foundation’s top pick for best weighted blanket of 2021. I’m so excited to dive into her journey and career and building this incredible company. And just as we were talking right before, I think I saw Chrissy Tegan maybe it might have been last holiday that she was snuggling with it and thought that it was such a great item as a gift. So I think that’s how I got turned on to it initially, but I’ve gifted it to many of my nieces and nephews and cousins and friends. So thank you so much for making such a terrific item.

Kathrin Hamm 2:54
Thanks so much for having me in. What an introduction. Spacing?

Kara Goldin 2:59
Absolutely. So tell me a little bit we heard about your previous experience at the World Bank. But tell me a little bit about you as a little girl. Did you always like blankets? I mean was Did you know about weighted blankets? How did this all start?

Kathrin Hamm 3:14
Well, no, I think as a little girl I didn’t know about weighted blankets. I grew up in in Germany, originally. And I was actually passionate always about development. So after graduating, I started working for a startup in Afghanistan, it was my first job actually. And we were looking into education for women, specifically, and how women can use like online distance education. And that got me really passionate about I mean, originally coming from like a business angle. I was like, Okay, I want to do more and see what what I could do. And then I from there, I went to Columbia University to study more economic development, by later on, also got my PhD in economics, and kind of, I always thought, like, how can I have more impact? And I thought on a broader scale, the best place probably to have impact would be at the World Bank. And so that’s kind of where my first job led me. And I started in Washington, DC. And again, somehow I gravitated to women intrapreneur. Naturally, without kind of even thinking about it. I could be an intrapreneur I was always like, fascinated when I saw these women and we were looking into like different countries on kind of how we can help women intrapreneurs grow because it’s still women don’t have the same access to finance as men do. That’s in the US so but it’s also in the developing world the same problem and And then I think after some time I got transferred. And I was working first in the Middle East, in different countries. And then within just like another year, I was transferred to South Asia, working from India. And that’s where also kind of my, my insomnia kind of never was a good sleeper, even as a kid, you know, when you have like, little noise goes off, and I’m immediately awake, very light sleeper. And then there was a time when I was just constantly traveling, and my job demanded a lot of travel. And, and when I say a lot, I mean, there were times there was a stage in my life where I was traveling to more than 40 countries in a year. So I just felt constantly exhausted. And I think at that stage, I probably had tried every every sleep product that is on the market, I mean, mattresses, white noise machines, every type of things that you could like, where I thought there must be something. And I kind of more accidentally stumbled upon weighted blankets, because at that point, it was a product that was sold in a pharmacy, it wasn’t something you know, that would be that you would buy online, it was a medical niche product. And I read an article about it, how, like an like a weighted blanket essentially helps children with sensory disorders. But there was like a small sentence, at the end of this article that said, the same kind of mechanism that helps children also helps adult sleep basically put an evenly distributed weight on the body. And then kind of your cortisol level, the stress hormone reduces overnight, but then also your brain activates to release the sleep hormone. So what’s like, I mean, what, what else, I mean, what’s really miserable at that point, you know, couldn’t fall asleep would wake up multiple times at night. And when I felt when I woke up in the morning, and felt like I hadn’t slept at all, so I was like, I have nothing else to lose. So ordered that thing in that blanket from that pharmacy took six weeks to arrive in was really ugly. At first, I didn’t even want to try it because it was like orange and blue. It had all like these fancy, but ugly colors. And it had like these beads, plastic beads in it. And it was felt rough. But I was like, you know, let’s just give it a try. So I put it on on a Saturday afternoon for nap. And I literally passed out. I mean, and that’s something that never happened to me before. I woke up four hours later. And I’m like, wow, this is this is it. And I mean, at that point, also, I didn’t think about a business idea or anything. I was like, Okay, I’m, you know, I’m having that thing now helps me sleep better. And then I can move on with my career at the World Bank.

And then I just realized after a couple of nights that there was no way that I could sleep under this blanket for an entire night. It just made me really hard. Just imagine you sleep under 20 pounds of plastic beads, there’s just no way that you know, you can it’s just too much it was I was sweaty, I would keep it off. And then I searched I kept searching like there must be something at the end. It’s a product that’s been around for 30 years, right? It’s a medical product that’s been out there, but no one has actually done anything or invented something. And that’s kind of where my where I got more interested in ESET is there maybe something where I could potentially, you know, try to come up with a better solution. And I started more as a side hustle, still having my job and then kind of starting to look into it doing more research. And that’s kind of how everything came about starting variable in the first place.

Kara Goldin 8:56
That’s awesome. So you knew nothing about other than the fact that you were interested in this idea, but manufacturing was just a whole new world for you. Right? So what was the first step and actually figuring out how to create this product.

Kathrin Hamm 9:15
So was actually my mom who helped me create the product. So my mom, my all my lifelong she was an avid knitter, I just picked it up along the way. And I mean, she saw me experimenting with like, I’m like this this heavy blanket 20 pounds, and I want to find a way to make it better. And then she came one day with a T shirt with the old cotton t shirt and we were cutting it into strips and then sewing the strips together into a cordon yarn. And while I was like still like cutting the strips strips, my mom had actually already knitted the strips into a weighted blanket into a small blanket while and we were looking Got it and it was heavy. And that’s when I realized, if you weave together like amount of fabric, you actually get an equal amount of weight and putting any artificial filling materials. And the net also, it looked really pretty, it felt good. It was cozy. And when we showed the first prototype to family and friends as everyone gravitated towards it, and they wanted to touch it and try it. And when they were laying under the blanket, they were like, wow, this just feels like a big calming hug. And that’s also where the name is coming from. So Bear baby, we took that my mom and I, we were like, Okay, everyone says, This feels like a bear hug. So how about we call a blanket bear be as a combination of, of bear hug. And lullaby.

Kara Goldin 10:49
It’s a it’s a perfect name, too. So it’s a very memorable name and brings fond memories, I think for people, as well. So how did you figure out like, not only how to manufacture the product, but how you would actually get it into stores? Did you have a store that you took it into? Or initially, or how did you think about it?

Kathrin Hamm 11:13
I mean, the manufacturing was the first, like, big obstacle that I was facing. Because at that point, it was just there was no such product on the market. So I was talking to 48 manufacturers, and I got 48 knows the people in apparel set? Well, this is yes, it’s cotton. And it’s the same materials, how we make apparel, but we have we don’t have the machines to make it. And people in bedding said, look, we’ve been trying since many years to make blankets lighter. Why would you even make something heavy? That doesn’t make any sense? And who are you anyways? Right? So I mean, kind of with no experience. So the first like, we were really scrappy, we started small with renting a small place, we put into knitting machines, and we just started knitting. So we had to do it, the first production run we had to do ourselves. And then when we launched in December 2018, with a couple of blankets we had we sold out immediately, and there was a lot of attention around it. Because at that point, weighted blankets, just moved from that medical niche space into into, yeah, mainstream, like New York Times was reporting about it. And they were just they had one times Innovation Award of the year. So it was amazing. Like we were sold out and people like got on a waitlist. And at some point, we had that huge waitlist. And then one morning, I woke up and I had an email from West Salem, in my inbox. And I mean, we were just two months old at that stage. I was like, you know, that’s for sure. fake email, but it actually turned out to be real. And wait, let

Kara Goldin 12:59
me so you’re selling online? Initially, we were only signing online. Exactly. And did you sell through like, Instagram? Or how did you get the word out about what you were doing?

Kathrin Hamm 13:09
Yeah, we had an Instagram account. We had Facebook, we didn’t do any digital marketing at that point, because I didn’t know anything about digital marketing. It’s so we kind of, you know, just started we it was pretty small, very simple. Selling the blankets. But we I think what like an initial inflection point was where we just got a lot of media coverage, because suddenly there was an option in the market that looked as different with the blankets or it’s like it’s a breathable blankets and sustainably addressed every pain point that people were facing with these plastic filled weighted blankets. And so we naturally just got like so much attention for it from media. And so Westham actually had reached out to us because they read about us in Fast Company. So that’s how that came about. And then they wanted to come into our showroom. And that said, we were just two people literally living out of a garage, right? And I was like, we were like going back and forth. We like what should we do? I mean, they know that we that small with a take us on and we said, You know what, how about we could just come to your place. And they’re like, Okay, sure. At that stage, we had five colors and three different ways. And they’re like, why don’t you bring all of them like bring a 15 pound 20 pound and a 25 pound from all kinds of colors. So we literally had to wheel in 300 pounds of blanket through New York City. So we took a we took a hotel trolley and Dumbo and pushed it down the street into into West cell and literally with the blankets in and yeah, they saw them and they were immediately ready to order the blankets and five months later, we already Were in West Salem. And that was like a second inflection point of very being. I mean, not being a one year old company. We released from there saw kind of attraction.

Kara Goldin 15:12
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Kathrin Hamm 19:48
So we grew from two employees now to 30. More than 30 employees? Yeah, we just turned three years old.

Kara Goldin 19:55
That’s amazing. And have you self funded it or did you actually go out and get funding Were bootstrapped.

Kathrin Hamm 20:00
So, in the initial stage, I emptied out my retirement savings account when I quit my job at the at the World Bank and put the money in. And that was pretty scary at the beginning, because I was already in my mid 30s. So it’s like, everyone around me was just like you in that age bracket where everyone kind of, you know, gets like the next big career job and people going to, you know, fancy vacations or kind of buying their first home. And for me, it was a stage where, where I had to tell people, well, I’m going to sell these heavy blankets over the internet. And all my friends just thought like, she’s completely crazy. So that felt like a big step at the beginning of just, you know, not having to show anything and kind of doing something in your mid 30s, that you basically don’t know anything about it. But I said, like, I give it a year, that was my initial plan. And if it doesn’t work out in a year, I can always go back to my job. And obviously, it doesn’t take a year. I mean, building a company is takes much longer than a year. But I think after a year, you can already tell if your product is a fit for the market, and how the customer responds. And given that I was working with women entrepreneurs, I said, like the worst case that can happen is that I have a great story of like, how not to do it? And maybe there’s some lessons learned later on. But yeah, so far, I haven’t been back. And and it’s, it’s been growing. Yeah, quite quickly over the last three years.

Kara Goldin 21:45
What do you think I am, I always talk about the fear of failure, and how that stops so many people from actually going out and trying I mean, why do you think you were okay with going out and, and just trying to see whether or not you could make it work?

Kathrin Hamm 22:04
I think one is I really believed in the products are immediate reactions I got as I thought we were really onto something from the feedback we got. But I think it’s also just taking that first step, that’s the most difficult once you really kind of quit your job, you put your savings towards it, and you’re putting in a timeline. And then it’s just about maybe breaking it down and not thinking about the bigger picture of like, I’m gonna be the one who’s building that huge company, but really taking it step by step. And then once you took the step, first step, you’re taking the next and the next and the next. And I think that’s how I saw it. And from this kind of a personal growth opportunity where I’m like, you know, I’m, every day I’m telling challenging myself, and I’m learning something. So if you have that mindset shift about, like, what everyone thinks it should be supposed to be or what it should look like. And you’re kind of decoupling that. From that and to see, like, look, I’m putting my head down and putting in the work. And I’m not, you know, listening to match of like, the other voices that people say, That’s crazy. That’s, that’s gonna fail for sure. I think that’s already a big part of the equation of kind of just keep going.

Kara Goldin 23:27
I totally agree. So it’s, I, you know, I always say friends and family are the worst in the beginning, too, because they don’t want you to, you know, take these risks, right? They, they worry about you and hear you already using your savings. And, you know, words like for me, I left a career in tech and then decided to start a water company. I mean, everybody was like, What are you doing? You know, I could only imagine you’re you’re working at the World Bank, and your family’s just saying, What is she? She’s got blankets everywhere. I mean, what is she thinking? She’s just knitting all the time. And I can I can only imagine, but it’s, but, you know, I think that the the best part I found too, is when you hear those people, they remember most of them what they said, and then you know, you’re proving them wrong. And I’d love having those conversations, because it’s it’s a lot of fun to hear them, you know, own it, right more than anything. What

Kathrin Hamm 24:28
did they what they said, I mean, some some friends also like now that came kind of forward and said, look at that point. I really didn’t want to tell you but I thought you know, it was crazy. And I’m like, Yeah, I could feel it. You know, when you sit with your girlfriends and like, have dinner and everyone is giving their Korea updates. Like oh, I just made part now and I just did this and I was kind of I’m doing that and we are coming back from that vacation. And then when it came to me it was first year was just silence because I didn’t have anything I didn’t have the prototype Are the production ready? I didn’t even have the website. I was just saying I was I’m working on that idea of selling the blankets, but I didn’t have anything to show. I could just see how the whole table would turn quiet. And they’re like, oh, that’s, that’s nice. That’s, that’s great. And I kind of next Ross is talking. Yeah. So it’s, it’s, it’s kind of nice then to see people say like, wow, I was wrong. And now I’m following. And I’m actually really inspired by the story. And I think some people are even thinking maybe, you know, I could have done something because many people have ideas. And like, you know, there are some times to sit together and everyone’s there. I wish I had that product, I could think about this. But then most of the people actually don’t go for it, and they don’t do it. And I think like then seeing someone who really started from nothing, and was sitting on a table with like complete silence, kind of build something. I think that probably sparks a lot of like internal thinking that, you know, maybe I should have gotten for that idea. When I had it.

Kara Goldin 26:04
Definitely. It’s it’s interesting. I wrote a book just over a year ago, and called undaunted. And I’ve had more people reach out to me, and who have picked up a copy of the book. And they have said just that, and that they had thought about an idea. And then they just got busy with their everyday life and continuing up the ladder. And then they they really have thought about why they never did that. And they regret it. And so I, my response is always so go do it. Right. It’s never too late to go and start something and even if there’s competition out there, if you really believe you’ve got a uniqueness, and there’s a story to it as well, it’s really about, you know, who is better at getting the product out there who has a better quality? Who has? It can, I’m sure there’s other weighted blankets that have come on the market to compete with you differently. But I think it just, it really as long as you stay close to what your purpose is and what you can do. I think that that’s the the most important piece, what do you think story? Or how does that fall into your company? In terms of how you’ve gotten the story out there? Do you use your story? In terms of how you developed it a lot? I mean, obviously, I feel like you have to have a great product, you have to you can’t just have a story. Maybe people will buy it once based on a story. But you have to have a quality product which certainly bear be is so but what what do you think about your your story and, and, and how important it is to have one today for consumers to be able to engage with it.

Kathrin Hamm 27:50
I think you’re right at the first point. And I would say the the first kind of two years, it was really more about the product, like the stories where there’s something new, there’s something innovative, there’s something sustainable that the market hasn’t seen. So that innovation story. And I mean, once we want different awards, like the Fast Company innovation by Design Award, then people started kind of who’s that person again, who invented a product. I think that came from me more at a later stage. It was at the beginning, really about the product, and what is the benefit that the consumers getting from that. But I think now that we’ve really grown very fast and kind of have done some things also in a in a different way by bootstrapping, for example. I think now people are like, Okay, how, you know, who’s the person actually behind it. And I think that’s where the storytelling is coming in. So yeah, I think now I’m going out. And I’m talking more about like these initial days. And we also kind of the mistakes that I made and encouraging kind of other people who think, Oh, I have that idea. But I’m also in my mid 30s. And, you know, I don’t have like any investors, I still remember that. At the beginning, I think kind of the story that you maybe don’t have to raise a lot of money, but there is a way to bootstrap the company. That’s something like that many people reached out to me as they like telling me exactly how you’ve done it and how you’ve gone from that point to that point. So I think now that that story of like, personally, but I think also as a as a woman, having founded something and kind of as a single founder. I think that’s another angle. I mean, I didn’t have anyone would be nice. When I ever see like people who get along well and who founded something together. Sometimes I got a bit jealous. So because it can be quite lonely at the beginning, but I think now kind of telling the story and kind of like what’s important for me and kind of one thing also that I’m still trying to encourage is like napping, we created that napping culture. So I’m really trying to get that, that message out of, we don’t have to earn rest, we actually need rest. And we’ve met terribly, we actually implemented that napping culture through co working hours. So we work between 10 and 2pm. So that’s when we all online, that’s when we have all our meetings. But outside of these co working hours, we actually can work can distribute our hours flexibly. I mean, I’m, for example, still taking an afternoon nap, I couldn’t go a day without a nap. I love it. And, but some people like to walk their dogs and people want to spend time with their children. And that I think really worked for us. And kind of showing that model that even pre COVID, I think we already had that hybrid workplace in just naturally by people following the natural rhythm and worked really well for us and kind of still building a company in a hypergrowth model, while having people distributed across like different countries, in different time zones with these co working hours, it worked really well. So it’s nice to now kind of things that I saw, for example, in my password paste, that wasn’t a possibility. I mean, when moving here to the US, with my first job, I mean, in Germany, I grew up and it was pretty normal to take an afternoon nap. But then in the US, it’s like it’s napping, it’s just not part of the culture. So I realized, oh, actually nobody’s napping here. It’s it’s actually almost frowned upon. So at the World Bank, I will always live very close to the office. And I, during the during lunch break, I always snuck out to take a quick nap. But I never told anyone so because I felt guilty about it. And now kind of with with Barry and trying to create a culture where, you know, people can take risks, and then they don’t have to feel guilty about it. So that’s really nice that I have the opportunity now to bring some of the things that didn’t work for me in the past, and look into something slightly different. And, and and share the story.

Kara Goldin 32:20
Yeah, well, creating all of your own culture. And, you know, that’s, that’s definitely been a huge benefit for him to us as well. Or for me in building that it’s been a lot of fun. So what was sort of the probably the most surprising thing to you about building a business? I mean, you talked a little bit about, you know, being being lonely, I certainly I talk about that as well, that it’s, you know, especially when you’re when you’re the boss, I think, you know, even when you try and bring culture together and in the company, you still have people who still, I don’t know, believe like, I don’t know, maybe they can’t go out with you for a drink or something. Because they feel like you know, you know, that person’s the boss or, or whatever, you know that they’ve got to separate things. In some ways. I feel like, you know that there’s a little bit of that that goes on to but what do you think is the most surprising thing just in building the business that you just were you just you took on, but maybe you just didn’t really realize that you’d have to deal with a lot of those issues.

Kathrin Hamm 33:33
I mean, I think went from when you start a business or like, even before that you always read in the news, like if someone kind of maybe makes it on that list, or makes it into our proud and then you made it. But there’s actually no moment when you actually when you’ve made it, it’s actually always a continuum. So even after you kind of have this reflect, it’s more like a journey of inflection points. And it the challenge. I mean, what what gets you from here to there doesn’t get you to the next level. So you always actually have to continue learning. And with all the changes like this, yeah, I mean, there’s been, we’ve talked about it a supply chain. So I mean, it’s never that you feel like I was always at the beginning thinking, like, if I have these three things figured out, then probably from there, I can just do the same thing. And it will work. But actually, like every day, you actually have to completely rethink some of the playbook. And it keeps changing and evolving. And I think that’s also the beauty of it. It’s it’s not kind of it will stay the same but the challenges kind of just get different. And you have to tackle them in a different way and you have to evolve and you never have to stop learning and go back to that beginner’s mindset. So like, you feel like okay, now I’m like you saying I’m I’m the boss. But I think at the same time I feel everyday like I’m a student. And I have to kind of like start from the from some things because it could completely change, start from scratch again and go really stay humble, and go into that beginner’s mindset again and have to figure it out. And I imagine for the next steps, it probably will continue now being like, not a straight curve, but always like, I don’t know, with like, different inflection points along the journey

Kara Goldin 35:31
there. There always is from as I share, it’s people have said to us, oh, gosh, you guys are such a big company. And you know, but with every hurdle, every, you know, point along the way we there, there’s different challenges, right? That so there’s, there’s many, many different, there’s definitely pluses to being larger. But it’s, then you run into so many other things. So it’s, it’s definitely a, you know, being a startup, there’s different stages, but different stages has different challenges along the way. So Well, thank you so much for coming and inspiring us all and teaching us that we can actually go out and do it. If we’ve got an idea go out and try, the worst that would happen is that you would have a great story and you could teach others about your mistakes along the way. I really, really loved this, Catherine so much. So thank you again. And thank you, everyone for listening. This is an incredible episode of the Kara Goldin show. We’re here every Monday and Wednesday. If you have not subscribed to the podcast, please do. We’re here on Apple podcasts on Spotify and on your favorite platforms. And please follow me on social channels at Kara Goldin that’s with an AI and definitely pick up a bear a B and go and see Catherine as well. I’m sure she’s on social media. What platform are you typically on?

Kathrin Hamm 37:08
So unbearably is like the we are mostly on Instagram, it might barely be. And our website is bearable.com.

Kara Goldin 37:15
Terrific. Well, everybody, this is such a great and incredible gift or just a gift for yourself as well. And they look so beautiful in your house, too. So we have a bunch of them in here. So it’s, it’s really nice. And finally, if you haven’t gotten a copy of my book, undaunted, which is really chair sharing a lot of my journey around building the company that I founded hint and definitely pick up a case of hint as well if you haven’t had a chance to try it, or it’s also available at your local stores or online. And thank you everybody. Thanks again, Katherine and everybody have a great rest of the week. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the book calm and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening