Several years ago, Allison Howard had an “ah-ha” moment when she realized her cotton bedding was damaging her skin and hair and, ultimately, disrupting her sleep.
“It was a few years back that I started noticing when I would wake up in the morning and look in the mirror that I had lines on half of my face from my pillowcase,” Howard says. “Because I'm an engineer, when I saw that, I immediately thought of a system that includes both your body and your bedding and thinking about how do those two pieces in this system interact with each other.”
She realized the most common fabric in bed linens was cotton, which holds moisture, causing the material to stick to your skin and mess your hair. Although some beauty mavens swear by silk pillowcases to combat nightly skin and hair damage, as a busy working mom, Howard didn’t have time for such high maintenance and expensive fabrics. She began to look more deeply into the $8 billion bedding industry for alternatives. She discovered there had been very little innovation when it comes to fabric.
Next, she broadened her research.
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‘I literally talked to two hundred other people,” Howard says. “Anyone I could find that I could ask questions about their bedding, and their sleep, and their skincare to see what I could learn and see if anyone else was experiencing this problem that I was experiencing.”
That research inspired Howard to engineer a new fabric. After going through several phases of testing, Nollapelli launched in 2019 with its first fabric — a patent-pending combination of natural and synthetic yarns in a unique dual-faced weave constructed to balance moisture, temperature, friction and pH.
Early in the journey Nollapelli obtained a trial run with a local boutique hotel in Pittsburgh.
“They put our linens in seven of their rooms for seven weeks and those rooms were constantly being booked and had different people sleeping in them every two or three nights,” Howard says. “That was a great way for us to gather a lot of feedback from customers and, frankly, from the housekeepers as well on how the linens held up through the laundry process. Those were some really important early data points for us.”
Although the initial focus was on hair and skin wellness, Howard discovered a third benefit from her linens: a good night's rest.
“I didn't set out to solve for sleep, but what we started hearing from customers — from people who were sleeping on Nollapelli — was so much more feedback on how much better they were sleeping, that the quality of their sleep was better,” she says. “They were falling asleep faster. They were tossing and turning less. They were feeling much more refreshed when they woke up in the morning. And so that was this amazing ‘ah-ha’ moment for us to think that solving for skin — which is, of course, our largest organ — can actually also enable us to solve for sleep and help our bodies really rest and restore during that important one-third of our day.”
Nollapelli’s initial focus was on serving the high-end hospitality market with hotel and spa linens. The pandemic abruptly diminished the need for linens there as hotels shut down. Howard pivoted away from hospitality and focused on the direct-to-consumer bedding market. The company has grown three times through the pandemic.
Nollapelli linens are now in use at top hotels and spas across the country, including the Park Hyatt in New York City and the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles. In addition, Nollapelli has recently been featured in Glamour, Martha Stewart Living, BuzzFeed, Conde Nast Traveler, and seen on ABC’s The View and a Good Morning America special spotlighting U.S.-made products.
The company managed to grow through simple loans to build inventory, but Howard is looking to take things to another level by seeking out early-stage and angel investors who are interested in wellness, female founders and in direct-to-consumer brands
“We are definitely seeing now that additional capital could help us to grow faster," she says.
Looking ahead, Howard said she expects to see more hotel and spa partnerships, collaborations with like-minded brands, and new products that leverage textile technology for better sleep, skin and hair.
Howard spoke on the Smart Business Dealmakers Podcast about how she create Nollapelli and prepared the company for early-stage investing. Hit play above to catch the full conversation.