A restful sleep that’s good for you and the environment: the Sojao story

A good night’s sleep depends on several variables. Comfortable mattress? Check. Luxuriant duvet? Check. Pillows you can snuggle with? Absolutely.

One often overlooked aspect of waking up refreshed in the morning are bed sheets. We might spend hours researching the right kind of mattress and testing pillows but when it comes to sheets, we don’t really give the same attention that we should. 

We’ll glance through the sizing, color, and perhaps check the materials used but that’s about it. While there’s no better feeling than lazing around in bed on a weekend morning, we tend to underplay how much comfortable sheets factor into the equation.

Looking to change consumer attitudes towards bed sheets is Sojao. Started by Singaporean entrepreneurs Priscilla and Janice, the startup is a direct-to-consumer online store that prides itself on using certified organic cotton in all of its products with a clear focus on sustainability and fair trade.

The idea behind Sojao started about three years ago, explains Priscilla, during a home renovation spree. As she searched for sheets that matched the look of her new room, she was left frustrated by the lack of options. 

“I went to a departmental store in Singapore, and at that time there were only big brands from overseas, like Sheridan, Hallmark. There wasn't a local brand, a local bedding company that provided sheets,” she adds. “Plus, none of the big brands really spoke to me because they were all just packaged up in plastic and they all looked really generic.”

To make things worse, most of the sheets that Priscilla saw cost anywhere between $500 to $800 per set, way over her budget.

“All this came together and I asked myself, hey why don’t I just do some research into bedding and find out why sheets cost such a high price?”

At the time, ecommerce in the lion state was still in its infancy which meant there was a real gap in the market. Priscilla and team were prescient enough to understand this opportunity and get started with product development.

Handle with care

Turns out growing cotton is terrible for the environment. Plus, it’s highly water-intensive: a single kilo of cotton needs about 10,000 litres of water alone. And that cotton t-shirt you’re wearing right now? Took around 2,700 litres of water to manufacture. 

Adding to the problem is the common practice by farmers to use different fertilizers, pesticides, and other GMO products to artificially increase yields. Such toxic elements take a heavy toll on the environment, drastically reducing soil health and eventually finding their way into waterways such as rivers, lakes, and streams. 

Sojao founders

Sojao founders Priscilla and Janice

Sojao’s suppliers, based in India, are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard. Priscilla reveals it took two years of research to find the right partner, which entailed “three or four” trips to the South Asian country.

“A lot of people claim to be organic cotton producers, but they don't really have the certifications. Certification was really important to us because we wanted to make sure that the people that we purchase from have the right credentials,” she explains.

In fact, Sojao works with a farmer’s cooperative that has over 15,000 farmers. The cooperative helps educate farmers on how to grow organic cotton sustainably. And because organic cotton is priced higher than the conventional kind, it helps improve their livelihoods. 

The frequent trips to India also helped the founders with more than just product development. The name of their brand, Sojao, is inspired from a Hindi word which means ‘go to bed’. 

Tackling a unique problem

From an outsider’s perspective, Sojao fits the definition of an ethical, responsible company that places consumer interests first. But as Priscilla explains, conscious consumerism wasn’t a major selling point in Singapore when they first started product development. It’s far more popular in other parts of the world such as the US, UK, and Australia but lags behind in Asia.

Direct-to-consumer bed sheet companies like Sol Organics and Boll & Branch have been selling in Western markets for several years now, but there’s a far lower presence in markets like Singapore and Malaysia. 

“Initially, we kept our margins very low in order to make our sheets affordable and accessible to everybody. We had to educate people why organic cotton sheets are better and teach them about the environmental and social impacts of purchasing organic cotton,” she adds.

The influx of cheap Chinese imports was also a factor, but Sojao’s positioning as a luxury brand meant that it never competed directly with cheaper, mass-produced items. 

“The [major] problem for us was making ourselves known to people as a sustainable, organic brand. People were like, "oh, what are these organic cotton bed sheets?" They were a bit sceptical at first, but once they actually touched the sheets and felt them, they were convinced,” Priscilla explains.

Priscilla, who previously worked in advertising and digital marketing, took to online channels to help spread the word. Instagram and Facebook were significant acquisition channels, along with some influencer marketing campaigns. But what really helped was word of mouth: as people became aware of Sojao, they realized it was a local bedding brand in Singapore. The media caught wave of it too which helped with publicity. 

The Shopify experience

Prisicilla maintains that Shopify has been a foundational aspect of her business, giving the team a ‘platform to build something out of nothing.’

It took her about two months to get the initial store up and running, but the best part was that she didn’t need to hire a single technical resource for the initial build. 

“All you needed to do was just put in your prices and your product images and then you're good to go. That really helped to create an initial skeleton [...] And, that was really easy to do because Shopify has page templates and you can customize different page templates according to your content that you want on your store,” she explains.

“I honestly think that we wouldn't have been able to sell our sheets as affordably as we do if we didn't have Shopify and had to go to traditional brick and mortar stores. Our sheets wouldn't be as affordably priced as they are now. I’m a huge advocate for Shopify and I love its app store.”

Sourcing sustainably, growing exponentially

Sojao, which launched about a year ago, is entirely self-funded so far and has declined to take any outside investment. Priscilla doesn’t reveal precise figures on investment and sales, but does say that all the initial capital has been recouped. 

“Whatever profits that we've made, we're just pumping it back into the business and trying to improve our products and focusing on market expansions as well,” she says.

Priscilla explains that the goal for Sojao in the next five years is to reach all the major Southeast Asian markets such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. Australia is also a priority country as the response for products has been excellent. The strategy is to embark on a combination of targeted digital marketing as well as more local warehouses to enable faster shipping and delivery timelines.

Sojao has a limited offline retail presence at a local Singaporean furniture store called Commune, but the aim isn’t to explore offline opportunities with fervent interest. It would like to remain a niche brand and not spread itself too thin. 

So as a first-time founder, what advice does Priscilla have for other aspiring ecommerce entrepreneurs?

“Don’t wait for everything to be perfect before you launch your business. Some people want to make sure that the timing is right and everything is set up. The best thing to do is just launch your business, get the groundwork laid out, establish yourself, and then finetune along the way.”

“Another thing is to really listen to your customers and their feedback. Use that to modify your business, to introduce new products, or tweak your business according to their feedback. You really have to engage with your customers for them to feel comfortable enough to give you feedback, which is why it’s essential to build a community and keep an open line of communication.”