Ep005 – Maxwell Cohen, Founder, Peel Away Labs
Fabian Geyrhalter speaks with Maxwell Cohen, who founded the innovative startup that developed Peelaways, the bedding industry’s first multilayered, disposable, waterproof fitted sheet designed for the home, industrial and healthcare markets.
Maxwell created his company while in college as a requirement from his parents. Fast forward and he appeared on Shark Tank and flopped.
Today Maxwell is successfully running an array of disposable bed sheet brands that are available internationally.
He shares how changing the brand name was a game changer for his startup, why the .com still reigns supreme, how carefully crafted words will lead to sales, and how he learned to persevere regardless of how often you hear the word ‘no’ along the journey – “Just get to that word quicker.”
Fabian Geyrhalter: Welcome to episode number five of Hitting the Mark. It’s only number five, which completely blows my mind. It feels like we’ve been on this journey for a lot longer than that. If you’re new to Hitting the Mark, a special welcome to you. Today we talk with a founder, who knows how to not take himself too seriously, while taking his venture extremely seriously. I was contacted by his PR folks, and when I read his bio, I was sold on having him on Hitting the Mark. Here it goes.
Maxwell Cohen is the founder and CEO of Peel Away Labs, the innovative startup company that developed Peelaways, the bedding industry’s first multilayered, disposable, waterproof fitted sheet designed for the home, industrial, and healthcare markets. Maxwell created his company, while in college, as a requirement from his parents. After appearing on Shark Tank, in which he flopped, he didn’t give up. Peel Away Labs was launched in January 2017, and Peelaways Crib-A-Peel, Dorm-A-Peel, and Peelaways Health are now available at major retailers and distributors worldwide, including consumer retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, etc., etc. And also a hospital distributors like Cardinal Health, and McKesson.
With that being said, welcome Maxwell.
M Cohen: Hey. Thanks so much for the intro. I appreciate it.
F Geyrhalter: Hey. Totally! Absolutely! So listen, I owe to my listeners why this bio, which by the way I’ve piecemealed from different bios of yours convinced me to immediately book you for my podcast. So, first of all you created the company as a requirement from your parents first, and second you flopped on Shark Tank, and you actually highlight that, and I’m so impressed by that. So, tell us about the parental requirement to start a company. It’s super intriguing, and I’m sure you get that asked a lot.
M Cohen: Yeah. I come from a family of serious entrepreneurs where my family we were pushed to start businesses before we turn 27, and that was based off of the experience, and knowledge, and wisdom that you get building something from the ground up. Something from idea stage to actual product stage, and then having customers and selling. So, all the experience you learn whether you fail or not starting a business is a fantastic for any future growth, and for any future employers of course. And if you didn’t fail, you’re onto something at a young age, and when you’re this young you really don’t have much to lose. I don’t have a wife, kids, a mortgage, and so it’s a perfect time to try, and start, and execute on a dream of starting a business that could potentially make people’s lives better.
F Geyrhalter: I absolutely love that, and usually it’s the lemonade stand when you’re five years old, but I love the idea that this happens while you’re in college, right? That’s the requirement that during college you don’t just slack off, but you actually do something, and try to create an actual product or service.
M Cohen: Yeah. I mean when I was in college I noticed my friends they never wash their sheets when I came home from college. I noticed that my elderly grandmother had trouble washing her sheets on more than a daily basis. So, that was an impetus on starting a business. I’m an environmental water resource economics major, so water is math is a big concern to me. So, a product like this helps many countries around the world that suffer from drought and water shortages will always have clean, sanitary sheets.
F Geyrhalter: So, tell me a little bit about that because this is fascinating to me because your brand narrative as we call it in the industry, it seemed to have changed over the years, right? So, in the beginning, it was more of the benefit of convenience, which was based on college students slacking off, and them being lazy, and then today it goes much, much deeper into that environmental angle, which is usually surprising to anyone that hears about a product that’s disposable. But you actually have really great claims behind it, and it sounds like it was always intrinsically part of your brand thinking that you can actually save water by doing that. So, explain to us a little bit how the sheets work, and how that narrative changed over the years.
M Cohen: Yeah. I just want to make it clear on how simple this product is. It’s the fitted bed sheet that we’re all familiar with, with the elastic at the bottom, we use 100% latex free elastics since we sell to healthcare, and then it has five layers on top. Each layer could be slept on for seven to 10 days, and then you simply peel that layer off to instantly reveal a brand new layer beneath. Each layer is incredibly soft, and each layer is 100% waterproof. The impetus behind the product was to go around the laundering process, which uses up to 50 gallons of precious water, bleach detergents, which is a chemical pollutant, time, electricity, and money.
M Cohen: So, that was the original plan of a product like this, and then once you start using it and learning who your customers are, it actually is the other way around where it started off as saving water, and then it actually turned out to be the ultimate convenience for people that need a product like ours. When you’re starting a business, you want to refine who your customer is. This is a bed sheet. This is a product that everyone you’ve ever met could use. There’s people that you believe should use it. When you’re starting a business you go for the people who you believe they need a product yours.
M Cohen: So, our product in my eyes if we had to describe it is the ultimate convenience when it comes to the bedding industry, and having to change your sheets. The traditional way is a hassle. It could take up to 15 minutes of changing sheets. With ours, you instantly have a brand new sheet no matter what happens.
F Geyrhalter: It’s a convenience with a sight benefit of actually doing better to the environment. It’s super interesting, and as you mention, as you got to know your target audience, and as you started to segment them based on your learnings, you actually created several brands. So, there’s Peelaways, then there’s Peelaways Health, but you also have Crib-A-Peel, Camp-A-Peel, and Dorm-A-Peel. So, I had to ask what was the appeal if I may ask, to create this brand architecture, and was separating the brands our like that by audience was it effective?
M Cohen: Yeah. So, this is a very unique business where to mention again that so many people could benefit from a product like ours.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Cohen: So, we’ve created brand specific to our end customer that allows them to understand our product sooner rather than later.
F Geyrhalter: Sure.
M Cohen: If it’s on a retail shelf, you have six seconds to get the message across. So, our branding is to make it very obvious what we do. The main product we sell is called Peelaways. Peelaways comes in all sizes from twin up to king. So, we use that, that’s our best seller, and it’s very obvious what the product is once you look at it after 60 seconds because the name is very simple.
F Geyrhalter: Right.
M Cohen: And obvious. And then we broke out into the clever branding with the appeal. So, we thought it was clever. We have three brands that utilize the appeal, which is Crib-A-Peel, Dorm-A-Peel, and Camp-A-Peel. As we thought it was very relatable for a product like ours. So, when you’re selling to customers you have to know who your audience is. You have to know the right lingo, you have to know the right verbiage. So, you mentioned we have a product called Peelaways Health, and we do that because we allow that insert and a website that’s built around Peelaways Health to be catered to the healthcare industry. So, a brand like ours has many different brands because we have to cater the message to the specific industry we’re going after.
M Cohen: So, we’re lucky enough to have many industries that really enjoy the benefits of our products, but it also creates a little bit of a challenge because you have to brand everything separately, and branding is incredibly important because it has to get your end customer to believe what I believe as the CEO of the company. The reason I created this product, I had to get you to portray that this is something that you need, and getting the branding right off the bat is an incredibly smart, fast way of getting people to believe what you believe.
F Geyrhalter: Amen. Amen. And very often with a product that is the same product that it just caters to different audiences, you keep the main name. So, you would have done Peelaways Crib, Peelaways Camp, but the way that you actually moved it into something that is much more amicable, but yet it’s descriptive, and I see it on your packaging you have Crib-A-Peel, and then you say … You use the words Peel Away right there on the package. So, there’s absolutely still the association with Peelaways, it is just very specific to the target audience, and I think you guys did fantastic, and I love the names. I think they’re hilarious, but they’re so descriptive, and you need to be descriptive of your product because it’s so unique, it’s so different. So, people very quickly understand the idea, and I think you’ve done a fantastic job with that. I really like it.
M Cohen: Yeah. And in the 21st century, branding is very unique. It’s very unique, and what do I mean by that? It’s all about the dotcom that you can buy. The URL, the domain of your business. I know many companies that don’t name their business the original name is because they couldn’t get the URL or even the dotco of their business. So, when you are starting a business, having a website that is the name of your business is also pretty crucial because are looking for you. It helps your SEO branding, it helps people find you on the internet of course.
F Geyrhalter: Right.
M Cohen: So, one of the first things we did was find a website, and see if peelaways.com was available, and that was available for 10, $13. But the funny part was if you got rid of the S, if you just did peelaway.com, to buy the website was over $150,000.
F Geyrhalter: And I don’t think any of your customers now would confuse the URL. They would never go to Peel Away because those are Peelaways. It is already … The product is plural because having the sheets, and the large amount of sheets that you could just Peel Away, it’s already intrinsically embedded. That was a pun I guess. Embedded into it. So, I think it works really well. That was not luck. I think there’s a lot of brand strategy that was behind the scenes in you creating that. I’m wondering are the products actually any different? The Crib-A-Peel, the Camp-A-Peel, and Dorm-A-Peel, or is it based on pretty much the same product, and it’s more marketing angle?
M Cohen: Each product is pretty much identical depending, and the only thing that really differs is the size. For the healthcare industry, we have a few extra iterations that allow it to be better for the industry, and one of those big iterations was the latex free elastic. So, each market does have a unique brand to it, but essentially the product is the same, but just different sizes from crib all the way up to king.
F Geyrhalter: That makes a lot of sense, and that’s what I thought it would be. So, I had to listen to the quick snippet of your Shark Tank episode, and in there you mention … I believe you mention that you started having those sheets in ambulances in Africa. Is it true like when you try to see if it would work in the healthcare environment, how did you start getting into that? Tell me a little bit about that journey because it’s fascinating to any entrepreneur listening.
M Cohen: Yeah, of course. I originally went after people and markets that I understood, and that I was familiar with. So, I originally was selling to college students, and to summer camps. Summer camps really loved the product because the one we sell to them, Camp-A-Peel has seven layers, and most summer camps are seven weeks long. So, it would be one layer per week. So, they saw the benefits there. The product … When I was on Shark Tank, the name of the business was different. I’ve changed the name of the business because branding is just so important. The original name of the business was AFRSHEET. A-F-R-S-H-E-E-T. And I originally came up with it. I thought it was incredibly clever.
M Cohen: But then I combined the SH from fresh and sheet together, it was my first branding, my first marketing moment. I thought it was great, but once you get to the customer they were having trouble pronouncing it. They were not even understanding what the product was, and it didn’t help. So, branding is a crucial part of is that I needed … I realized that I don’t want to have any trouble with anybody understanding what the product is. Let’s try and make it as obvious as possible. So, I changed the name of the company to Peel Away Labs, which then we started naming our products Peelaways, and Appeal as that was something that allowed our customers to understand the business quicker and faster.
M Cohen: And since we don’t sell something that is sexy, it does take time to educate the consumer about the benefits of the product. And if they see the benefits of the product in the name of the product, that is something that is incredibly powerful, and it allows you to get the customer’s eye, and then hopefully get them to close and buy the product.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. Absolutely. And back to the healthcare space, how did you try that out? I mean it’s a difficult space to get into, right? There’s lots of regulations. How did you start to get your feet wet in that space?
M Cohen: Yeah. As I mentioned in the beginning, when I was starting the business I came home from college and noticed that my elderly grandmother, who was bedridden. She felt she was embarrassed. She felt like she was a burden on the family because her sheets had to be changed-
F Geyrhalter: Right.
M Cohen: And it wasn’t her fault. It was the medication she was on. So, once we put the product on her bed, we recognized that this is a market that is going to benefit from others like ours. The home care market, if you’re taking care of somebody at home, this product is a tremendous benefit for everyone. For the caregiver as well as the person on top of the bed and sleeping on the bed. Our sheets are proven to be 32% softer than traditional healthcare bedding, each layer of our product is 100% waterproof, and one of the most beneficial is there’s somebody that is bedridden, we can change sheets within one minute or less. So, there’s better patient comfort, and it allows you to allocate your time more wisely.
M Cohen: So, that’s how we got into the healthcare market, and then once we started focusing more of our time on going to trade shows, we started feeling the feedback. Cardinal Health, McKesson wanted to sign us up as vendors. So, we knew there’s validation for a product like this in the healthcare market.
F Geyrhalter: And that was pretty much it. It was doing trade shows where you got direct contact with the healthcare industry like that, and they immediately gravitated towards your product?
M Cohen: Yeah. Trade shows are incredibly important when it comes to an old school business.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Cohen: Healthcare is an old school business. Doing things the old school way, not the millennial way. I’m the millennial of the team, and going to trade shows, walking around on my feet for eight, 10 hours it sounds old, and it sounds like the old way of doing business. But that has been our most successful business up to date is doing trade shows, finding the buyers, and talking to the gatekeepers that could help us get into the industry.
F Geyrhalter: That’s refreshing to hear because a business like yours you would think it would just have tons of landing pages, and SEO, and all that, and I’m sure it does. But on top of that having to do that old grind with trade shows, and having the personal … Forming this personal relationships, it’s good to hear that that is still super important. Looking back, what was the one big breakthrough moment that propelled your little idea that turned into a real brand? What was that breakthrough moment? Was it Shark Tank despite it not going quite as wished, or was there something else that really like was that big moment for you?
M Cohen: I mean when you’re starting a business, you want more than one big moment, and to me changing the name of the company was incredibly crucial. Telling somebody, “I’m the CEO of AfreShseet.” They go, “A what?” And it gets very frustrating. So, when you could translate what you could do more smoothly, “I’m the CEO and Founder of Peel Away Labs.” And so you get more of an understanding of what I’m doing immediately just by the name of by business.
F Geyrhalter: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
M Cohen: And a big crucial part is changing the name of the business as well from AfreShseet to Peel Away Labs, and AfreSheet seemed to only limit us to bedding when really my paddings encompassed all things that could be potentially multilayered in Peel Away. So, it doesn’t just limit us to sheets.
F Geyrhalter: That’s super interesting. That’s really interesting. So, talking back about Shark Tank because I think it’s fascinating because a lot of entrepreneurs that listen to this are like, “Oh my god, Shark Tank,” that’s like, “I want to be there. That’s the holy grail.” Everyone hears about once you’re on Shark Tank, you’re going to blow up. With you, I mean you didn’t do as well on Shark Tank as you wanted to do, but it didn’t seem to make you think twice. I mean you instead pushed forward with the same idea, and rightfully so. I mean the phones are ringing literally, right for you and things are going really, really well, and you kept pushing even hard.
F Geyrhalter: But how were those days and weeks after you flopped? I mean everyone talks about failure is so important, and it’s being celebrated in a way. But I mean was it super tough or did you immediately just say, “Look, sales are spiking, and I don’t care. I’m going to keep pushing.” How were those days afterwards?
M Cohen: Yeah. When I went on Shark Tank, I was young and the company was even younger.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Cohen: We only had a few beta testing products, beta products, and we had just the test market to summer camps and college students. So, looking back of course as you can imagine when somebody looks at you and says, “Your product is a dog of a product. Shoot it, get rid of it, and do something else with your time.”
F Geyrhalter: Literally, right? Yeah.
M Cohen: Your theme I think that is motivation. I take that as, “I need to be here and prove you wrong. I know the product has validation, I know there’s a market for it. But I’m young, the company is even younger.” So, there’s no real hurt feelings as you can imagine. Of course, just natural frustration, which is inevitable, but to me I took it as motivation. I got in the product into Walmart without the help of the Sharks. We’re vendors with Buy Buy Baby as well as Bed, Bath and Beyond without the Sharks. And actually we see the largest purchase order QBC has ever given for a new product in February.
F Geyrhalter: Oh congratulations.
M Cohen: Even without the blessing of Lori, to be honest I think she didn’t like me the most out of all the Sharks, I believe we’ll have incredibly successful campaign on QBC regardless of her backing or input on our product. So, we used it as motivation, persistence is key. I know that I was onto something whether they see it or not. It’s totally cool. And now that you look back, I didn’t really have a business. There was nothing really to invest in anyway. So, you recognize that Shark Tank is not for pre-revenue businesses, it’s for revenue-generating businesses. It’s really growth capital.
M Cohen: So, the experience itself was fantastic. It made me smarter, faster, wiser. It allowed me to have thick skin, but it wasn’t the Oprah Effect that everybody expected. My product and business wasn’t ready for Shark Tank to air. If I went back now I guarantee they would love the business that I have built in the market that they’ll be impressed.
F Geyrhalter: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right. Exactly. Too bad you won’t be back. You’re not doing them that favor, but listen I think that’s an amazing character trait that you showed after those weeks, and that for you looking at it in that way I think that’s something that most entrepreneurs need to learn. I think we read a lot about it, but it’s really hard for people to actually embody that and say, “No, this was a great lesson. Let’s move on. There are 50,000 more mountains that I can conquer, and this was just one of them.” Really, really great insight on how to see that, and how to go through that.
M Cohen: Yeah. And think of your listeners in the perspective of your real life investing. I pitch … It’s the same stories you hear all over the place. I pitch 68 investors before I got my first commitment. So, even if you get burned on Shark Tank, you have to realize you’re going to get burned in real life. And to me when I talk to investors or talk to people that I want to work with, I said, “Do you mind getting to the answer no as soon as possible please?”
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Cohen: “So, I could move onto the next thing?”
F Geyrhalter: Yeah. I think leaving the ego out the door, and just making the business transaction, and just saying, “Look, there’s so many more.” And it takes a lot, I think. I think it takes a lot, especially a lot of younger startup entrepreneurs at your age and younger when you started. For them that’s their life, right? And it’s a huge … I mean your ego is huge during that time because you think you just nailed it. You just came up with the next big thing, and to be like that, and to actually let go, and to take these answers not too seriously because you know there’s going to be a yes around the corner. It takes a lot, and I think it’s great that you’re sharing that with everyone.
M Cohen: Yeah. I mean as you mentioned in the beginning, you could tell that I have a sense of humor. I laugh at myself, I laugh at things that are worthy of laughing at. Things are going to go wrong, people are going to dislike you, dislike your product. It’s just the name of the game we’re in, and it’s really just this name of the game called life.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Cohen: So, you have to have thick skin to be an entrepreneur because there’s days that are great, there’s days that are terrible, there’s people that are mean, there’s people that are incredibly helpful.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely.
M Cohen: So, having equilibrium, and understanding this is one of the first steps to really building business.
F Geyrhalter: I think that’s great. I would have asked you as my final question of what’s one final piece of brand advice for founders as a takeaway, and I think you just gave us one. But-
M Cohen: Have a sense of humor.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Cohen: We’re in the business of … I like to joke around. We’re in the business of losing. 98% of companies, startups fail in the first two years. 99% of startups don’t receive their initial funding. So, once you realize the odds are against you, it allows you to push even hard, and it allows you to execute even better.
F Geyrhalter: Glorious. Exactly. Absolutely. Maxwell, listeners who got curious about Peelaways, which by now should be every single person listening, where can they go to get themselves a few sheets?
M Cohen: Yeah. Our products are sold in Walmart under a brand called Camp-A-Peel in the camping section, which is one of those funny, ironic branding things that worked. It worked, and I don’t believe they would have put us in the camping section if the product was called Peelaways. So, having the brand Camp-A-Peel because I sold to summer camps was incredibly beneficial.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Cohen: You could find our products on Bed, Bath and Beyond, BuyBuyBaby.com, Amazon.com. If you want to get in contact with me, feel free to LinkedIn me. Maxwell Cohen. Or feel free to reach out to our contact page on Peelaways.com. I’m happy to help anybody out. If there’s anybody out there that’s in the healthcare industry, and feels and sees the benefits of this product, and wants to make some more introductions on our behalf, that would be absolutely highly beneficial, and highly appreciated.
F Geyrhalter: Never stop hustling. Thank you, Maxwell. This was tons of fun. I really appreciate it.
M Cohen: Yeah. I’m so glad to be part of your fifth podcast, and I look forward to listening to the rest of the ones you build out.
F Geyrhalter: Thank you, thank you. And thanks to everyone for listening, and yes I have to say it again. Please hit the subscribe button, and give the show a quick rating because as we discussed, this is a brand new podcast, and it needs all the TLC it can get. This podcast is brought to you by FINIEN, the brand consultancy creating strategic, verbal, and visual brand clarity. A consultancy which I happen to run. You can learn more about FINIEN, and download free white papers to support your own brand launch or rebranding efforts at FINIEN.com. The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time when we once again will be Hitting the Mark.