American expatriate Spencer Jan first arrived in China in 2001 as a wide-eyed college intern and loved the experience so much he returned after graduation — this time with his wife in tow. He shares with Shanghaiist the story of how he came to take it upon himself to deliver expatriates from the scourge of hard mattresses.
Hi there Spencer. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from and what you do?
I was born in Oregon but grew up in Ancaster, Ontario (Canada). I had a normal childhood filled with fishing, skateboarding and playing SEGA. I graduated from Brigham Young University with degrees in International Studies and Mandarin Chinese. I’m now a father of two and consider myself to be an entrepreneur. With regards to my background, I grew up as an American born Chinese so I’ve always had a self-suppressed connection to Chinese culture. My siblings and I didn’t grow up speaking Chinese but I had an opportunity to learn it during two years I spent in Taiwan serving a church mission (I’m Mormon). Living in Asia for those two years and learning the language played a key role in unlocking the Chinese dragon within me. Ever since those two years, I’ve been fascinated with China and love how dynamic of a country it is.
How long have you been in Shanghai?
We started in Nanjing in 2005 and also lived in Suzhou for 6 months. I’ve been living in Shanghai since 2006, so it’s been 8 great years already. Both my kids were born in China and we’ve done our best to make it home. Aside from SlumberMAAX, I also have a US based sourcing company that I’m a part owner of with a good friend of mine. We source all sorts of products for companies in the US. We’ve done everything from furniture to custom metal components. It’s been a blast!
Tell us how you came to be in the mattress business.
SlumberMAAX was a bi-product of my sourcing activities. I had spent a decent amount of time learning the ins and outs of memory foam mattresses for a US customer who was importing from China and selling into Washington. During that time, I asked our factory to send me a mattress to use and after one night, I absolutely loved it! My wife loved it too and we were hooked. That’s when I realized how uncomfortable mattresses can be here in China for expats. I remember the first expat that bought from us. He had just moved into the apartments across from Xintiandi. Those are super expensive, super fancy apartments. But when I delivered he showed me the three brand new mattresses the landlord had just bought. They were still in the plastic wrap and they were all hard as a board. From that first delivery, I knew there was a need for SlumberMAAX. That’s how it started.
What’s so special about the memory foam mattress?
Memory foam mattresses tend to conform to your body a lot better than mattresses made of steel springs. Most people talk about mattresses as either soft or hard but a big factor in sleep comfort comes from pressure point relief. Since memory foam is able to shape itself to the curves of your body, it provides a lot of pressure point relief. This is the reason why it’s often used on hospital beds. Memory foam also greatly decreases motion transfer. This means when your partner rolls around, you’ll hardly feel it. My wife’s weapon of choice when she’s mad at me is to roll around in bed so that I can’t sleep. Our memory foam mattress put the kabosh on that!
Isn’t it true though that a hard mattress is better for the back?
I know that most local Chinese will say that a hard mattress is better for your back. Most westerners would say the opposite. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to the question. I think people should listen to their body and go with what works for them which is why we offer a 15 night tryout period. Since we’re an online retailer, we don’t have showrooms for people to try out our mattresses. Instead, we let them sleep on our mattresses for 15 nights and decide then.
How are expats outside of Shanghai taking to Slumbermaax?
The expat communities outside of Shanghai have really supported our growth. We ship mattresses to all major cities on a regular basis now including HK and Macau. We even shipped one order to Xinjiang which was over 4000km from Shanghai. That customer was amazed.
What are your future plans for Slumbermaax?
We plan to continue to focus on the expat communities in China. It’s a small niche but one that we really enjoy working with.
What are some of the challenges you had in starting up your own business in Shanghai?
The traffic! Shanghai traffic can get so congested that arranging a full days worth of deliveries with customers can become challenging. We do our best to accommodate the customer but it can get tricky.
What advice would you have for other would-be entrepreneurs in China?
For any one thinking about starting a business (in Shanghai or elsewhere), my advice would be to work hard and don’t be afraid to fail. Get into a business that you enjoy because the fun and excitement of coming up with a great idea fades fast. Being an entrepreneur means working hard… really really hard. So doing something you enjoy makes a lot of difference. Focus on what you’re good at and find others to help you with things you’re not good at. Listen to your customers and be open to criticism. Lastly, for the guys out there…don’t whine to your wife about how hard it is…she really doesn’t want to hear it!