Monday 13 June 2016 3:00 am

Simba Sleep’s James Cox talks firmness, pet names and the importance of conical springs in mattresses

Within minutes of meeting James Cox, co-founder of innovative mattress company Simba Sleep, I’m drawing a diagram of his product – or my interpretation of it as he whizzes through its composition. Rather than the traditional springs or trendy memory foam, Simba’s mattress is a layer cake of unique ID foam, some memory and a conical pocket spring layer – i.e the springs can collapse in on themselves.

There is just one Simba mattress. “We wanted to come up with a product that wasn’t just good value, but pioneering,” says Cox. “This is a mattress that can be used by 95 per cent of the population.” The idea behind this is that most of what we think we know about mattresses is wrong.

For starters, “a lot of people buy a firm mattress because they think that’s good for them. That’s not true. What counts is the support the springs give you and the comfort foam provides – so that’s what we worked on.” Simba tested over 80 prototypes in conjunction with the Sleep to Live Institute, and R&D continues, with every two hundredth mattress being assessed.

A new breed

And it’s not just a decent product. “The internet enables you to create efficiencies in any industry. The mattress market is utterly archaic; it’s unfair to the consumer.” Cox explains that the mark-up on mattresses is extreme, and we buy in a psychologically interesting way anyway. “If you went into a shop knowing you had £2,000 to spend on a mattress, you’d feel like you were getting a real bargain – and good quality product – if it said reduced from £4,000 to £2,000. But there’s no science in the mattresses market at the moment – you can claim what you like and mark-up how you want.”

Simba is a direct-to-consumer business. That means a very short supply chain – the firm licenses out the making of the mattresses to a factory in Derby, and Cox says it’s three times cheaper than a mattress of the same quality. But you can’t go into a store and have a quick bounce. What you can do is order a mattress, keep it for 100 days and send it back if you don’t like it.

So far, with £2.5m in sales made in the first three months of trading, and a run rate of £20m over six months, Simba still has single digit percentage return rates. What’s more, your mattress arrives in a box measuring one metre by 50cm by 50cm – and unfurls once you’ve got it in position. This is where the conical springs come into their own: “because they collapse into themselves, we can keep a mattress in a box for nine months without it getting damaged.”

Building an empire

One starts to wonder how Cox became so interested in mattresses. “I was looking for a real-life problem to solve,” explains Cox. “There are a lot of new businesses out there where the founders then have to create a problem. And there are plenty of super companies out there. But I prefer things where you can actually see the tangible need and outcome.”

This has always been the case for Cox. He dropped out of Bristol University, where he was studying business, to try his hand as an equities trader in the City. Three years later, he’d set up his own brokerage. “I guess I knew already what I wanted to do. I went to university to have some fun, but it wasn’t that fun.” After that, he pottered over to Africa looking for investment opportunities to bring back to the UK market – predominantly in arts-related sectors like photography. And last year he founded JXC Ventures, a holding company for his personal interests. Meanwhile, he met co-founder Andrew McClements, a mattress industry stalwart with 31 years’ experience in the mattress manufacture business, and started planning Simba.

Full steam ahead

It’s important to the pair that they stay independent and continue selling directly to their customers, but they have entered a partnership with John Lewis. It’s a special case because “we really like what the brand stands for. We don’t think we need any more partnerships in the UK, though perhaps once we’ve expanded abroad we’d consider it.”

And Cox is storming on with expansion. Simba is in 27 John Lewises; next month, it’ll be in all 44. It’s expanding into Europe this month, and Asia and the Middle East by the end of the year. “The process won’t change for Europe, certainly. It’s really about tailoring the advertising and marketing to particular areas.”

The “boxing up element” of a Simba mattress means it’s very easy, comparatively speaking, to transport. Doing so “will cost us £3 a mattress on the back of a ship because of the way they slot together.” If you’ve ever wondered where your mattress is made, it’s probably in the UK – because they’re so clunky to move, most are made where bought and used.

I fire a series of increasingly bizarre questions at Cox, mostly collated from colleagues: “what’s the heaviest you can be to use a Simba bed?” The answer is 19 stone. Apparently, any heavier and you’d “need a specialist bed anyway”. Impressively, a Simba mattress will keep a glass of wine unspilled at one end, even if you jump on the other – because those individual conical pockets mean that it’s “zoned”. So if you’re light as a feather and your bedfellow is rather hefty, you won’t be pulled into the middle.

And if you’re wondering about why the company’s called Simba, it’s a pet name for Cox’s other half. “We put 20 names on a piece of paper but couldn’t get past that. I suppose it’s like ‘king of sleeps’ – and soft and cuddly. A bedroom should be to relationships like a kitchen is to the home, and we want to educate people that there is a viable alternative that focuses on your wellness and wellbeing. If you’re not well rested, what’s the point?”