A little more than a week after graduating from high school, an 18 year-old Shawn Nelson was reclining into his newfound freedom, lounging on the couch one summer morning, watching “The Price Is Right” while munching on a bowl of Captain Crunch. Wouldn’t it be funny to make the world’s largest bean bag, he thought. The idea popped into his head in an unremarkable way, much like most ideas do. Except, rather than letting it pass over him like a cloud, he asked that it loop back through a few more times before, finally, reaching up and grabbing a hold of it.
A self-proclaimed “weird and impulsive kid,” Nelson got off of the couch, crawled into his car and drove to Joann’s fabric store. In a matter of hours, he was crafting on his living room floor, cutting the fabric into the shape of a massive baseball. The problem? The bean bag filling material he purchased wasn’t sufficient; he would need a truckload of it. Packing peanuts weren’t going to work either. It was that classic moment where one shouts into the air, as though the air is filled with answers, “There must be a better way!”
He thumbed through his parents’ closet until his eyes rested on their camping mattresses. He took a paper cutter to its foam, ripping it from the springs. The cutting stretched on intermittently for weeks until – alas – he fell into his cradling handy work, pleased with what he had made. The first ever Sac was stuffed and born – except it wasn’t called “Sac” just yet. It wasn’t called an anything. It had no name, no bud of an identity, no significance beyond this “stupid idea” he had one time that wasn’t going anywhere beyond his parents’ basement.
Or would it?
Nelson began dragging the bean bag nearly everywhere with him. To the beach. On camping trips. To the park. Friends and strangers were dying to know where they could buy one. Nelson just shrugged it off until, eventually, the bag was stowed away and completely forgotten about it. It laid in his parents’ shed collecting spiders and dust for two years – having found its home in the graveyard of ideas and experiments long expired.
Now immersed in college life at the University of Utah, one day he was preparing to go to a drive-in movie with this friends when an image of the bean bag flashed into his head. He asked his neighbor (who would later become his business partner) to help him retrieve it from the shed. That night, all of the movie-goers wanted to know: “Where can I get one of those things?”
His friends and neighbors wouldn’t stop asking. They wanted to collapse into the bag on weekends and watch football games. They wanted their kids to roll around in them. They longed to haul it with them on family picnics and be cradled by the comfort of home. So Nelson had two choices: Make them for these people so that they would stop harassing him, or make them for these people so that they would stop harassing him, while also charging for them. In other words, start a little business. No big deal, right?
Nelson landed on the name Lovesac and, on Halloween 1998, registered it. As the saying goes, “the rest is history,” but no worthwhile story can ever be reduced to that.
After three more years of experimentation, which involved hauling the Sacs through his neighborhood in a company van, as well as to various festivals and home shows, making orders occasionally but still never earning a dime in profit, Nelson thought it best to close the business down. “Lovesac was just my side hustle. I was waiting tables the entire time. It was this funny thing to do – going to these festivals while I prepared to get a real job. But even after I considered making it a business, I was a reluctant entrepreneur and had to be convinced that I could potentially monetize the whole thing.”
In the spring of 2001, he and his friend-turned-business-partner ventured to a trade show in Chicago. It was his last real attempt at proving that this Lovesac venture was never going to launch. At the show’s end, he packed up his booth and returned home to Salt Lake City without a single order to fulfill. But, the next day, while positioned on the floor with a Sac stretched out before him, mid-stuff, his cell phone rang. It was the Limited Too, a prominent clothing store for young girls. And they wanted 12,000 mini Lovesacs made for Christmas. No big deal, right?
“They were placing this order, not knowing it was just me, a buddy, and a little lawn mower shredder thing. We had to scramble and open up a factory by maxing out credit cards, literally using a tractor and a hay grinder to shred foam in order to fill this gigantic order for a major corporation.”
After all 12,000 orders for the Limited Too were fulfilled, Lovesac’s then-inefficient process prevented Nelson from profiting a dime. “I emerged at 24 years old with $55,000 in credit card debt,” he says.
Desperate, Nelson searched for ways to refine the product, soon figuring out a way to shrink it down so that each Sac could be conveniently shipped via UPS. But all of the furniture stores laughed and scoffed at him. Oversized bean bags? How ridiculous. Lovesac? What a name. No one wanted those.
So rather than wait for an opportunity that was never going to arrive, Nelson decided to open up his own store, taking his cousin with him. Except the malls didn’t want them either. “I kept hearing, ‘We have businesses like Abercrombie & Fitch, Crate and Barrel, and Pottery Barn. What is this Lovesac?’ They wouldn’t even let us in,” says Nelson.
Eventually, a new mall that was opening up in downtown Salt Lake City allowed the duo to rent – temporarily – one of their vacant spaces. “They basically told us that they would kick us out in four or five months, once they found a better tenant,” he says.
Nelson’s goal, one he thought to be rather aggressive, was to sell one Sac each week. This would allow him to pay himself and his cousin $5.00 an hour, as well as satisfy his new monthly rent bill. But, to their astonishment, the Sacs began vanishing from the store almost daily. After the first weekend, the rent was paid. Within the first 60 days, they had done $120,000 in business. “It was Christmas 2001, we were in a brand new mall, the Winter Olympics going on nearby. It was like the stars had finally aligned,” says Nelson.
Not long after, they opened up a successful location in Las Vegas. In 2006, there were dozens of stores and they expanded beyond Sacs, producing the innovative Sactionals, a patented adaptable couch designed with entire generations in mind. But, that same year, Lovesac underwent a financial reorganization. “I had this business that was growing like a wild weed, but its organization was somewhat messy,” says Nelson. “I was extremely aggressive and excited in the beginning, not understanding the link between funding, management and growth.”
The company refined their model and, in 2012, Lovesac was named the fastest-growing furniture company in the U.S. by Furniture Today magazine. By 2014, the company had 59 retail stores, and an even more progressive business online. Lovesac, with a business philosophy cemented in the creation of products that are “Designed for Life,” has ambitions to become a multi-billion dollar company within five to ten years.
So what does Nelson have to say about this accidental empire he built? “It’s not just about the furniture. It’s about putting something into the world that’s meaningful. Something that is good for individuals, for families and for the environment.”
Now with a YouTube channel and book in process, both titled “Get off the Couch,” Nelson feels strongly about encouraging others to explore even the benign, definitely-not-earth-shattering “what if” moments we all experience. “What separates an entrepreneur from everybody else is that everybody has ‘what if’ ideas, but entrepreneurs act on them,” he says.
A prime example of living in this spirit of action is the night, a little more than a year ago, when Nelson pulled out his phone and made a video, documenting his life as a CEO, husband and dad. Made in the same impulsive fashion as his drive to the fabric store those decades before, that video has turned into more than 100 episodes with a growing following, as well as the catalyst for the book he is in the process of writing.
“‘Get off the couch’ has been my ethos ever since my business took off, and it pervades everything that I do. I can think of a million examples in my life, including this week, where I chose to get off of the couch and do something. And, by the way, 990 out of 1,000 were wasteful,” he says. “But if you have 990 failures, 10 of them can really take you somewhere.”
So what is his golden advice to the entrepreneurial at heart? It turns out, he has a lot to say.
“If you are truly an entrepreneur, you won’t just get off of the couch one time. You’re getting off of the couch multiple times a day, in various forms,” says Nelson. “I have experienced the most cliché highs and the most cliché lows. I won a million dollars on national TV but, then a year after that, saw the business that I grew, loved, and was responsible for, undergo an unglamorous reorganization. Along the way, there have been a thousand failures and a thousand dumb ideas. But there have been some incredibly successful ones. And, that’s the point: you have to get off of the couch over and over again in order to greet them.”