Each week, Female CoFounder features a female founder in the community. Follow along each week and learn from different founders and their journeys.
FcF: Tell us about yourself?
Hannah: My first job ever was taking care of ring-tailed lemurs at an educational charity called Elephant Thoughts. I studied English at the University of Toronto. Initially I planned to go to law school, but around the same time I realized that a law career wasn’t for me, I had an opportunity to join AI startup Blue J Legal. I joined Blue J as an analyst but soon moved into business development and then spent time in more customer-facing roles at other early stage startups.
I joined IBM a few months before the pandemic and gained exposure to all sorts of new technologies as a salesperson and consultant. I led a volunteer team that worked on improving culture, belonging, and workplace unity. When we shifted to remote work, it became clear that constant screen time and the dissolving boundaries between home and work were resulting in more burnout than ever.
Throughout my whole career, I’ve seen exhaustion held up as a badge of honor. It wasn’t until late in the pandemic that I started to understand the importance of sleep and learn about the increasing sleep problems in the developed world. Shortly after, I left IBM to start Sleepout.
FcF: What is Sleepout?
Hannah: Sleepout is an E-Commerce business with a goal to help people sleep better anywhere. Our first product is a portable blackout curtain.
The Sleepout curtain allows new parents, shift workers, renters, travelers, or the light-sensitive to completely darken their bedrooms instantly. It temporarily attaches to any size windows using patent-pending suction technology and blocks 100% of the light. It’s about the size and weight of a book when packed up so it’s easy to travel with.
In addition to creating physical products, we are building a community around sleep science and education. We have different channels where we share tips and conversations with sleep experts. We’re also building the business to be carbon-neutral and socially responsible.
Our goal is really to be the world’s leading non-pharmaceutical sleep brand. We want to help people sleep better wherever they go, and our portable blackout curtains are the first way we are going to do that.
FcF: How did you come up with Sleepout?
Hannah: Sleepout started because we needed our product! My partner and co-founder has insomnia. He needs total darkness to fall asleep. When we moved apartments, we needed a temporary solution to black out the room and bought everything available. Nothing worked, so we did what we had to: taped garbage bags to the windows.
We found that portable blackout curtains were an Amazon bestseller with poor reviews. We spent hours reading thousands of reviews to understand the problems with available solutions — that the suction cups didn’t stay up, and light bled in around the sides — and designed something to address them.
We know sleep problems have been increasing. Darkness is essential for quality sleep, but there are many cases where you can’t use permanent blackout curtains. We knew we could design something better than what already existed, so we took a leap and started Sleepout. We’re now sure we have created the world’s best portable blackout curtain.
FcF: What were the first 3 steps you took after you knew you wanted to pursue building Sleepout?
1. Research. We looked at the existing market, validated the demand, and read thousands of reviews on Amazon to understand the ICP and problems we needed to solve.
2. Outreach to experts. We were brand new in our industry so we reached out to entrepreneurs and experts who’d been in the space for much longer than we had to start learning what we needed to do.
3. Prototype experimentation. With the two biggest problems to solve identified (poor suction cups and light bleeds), we started experimenting with different designs and materials to develop our prototypes.
FcF: How did you validate your idea to ensure it was something that people wanted?
Hannah: Fun fact: Sleepout is actually the third business my partner and I considered starting since the pandemic started. We tried two other businesses in totally different industries, but because of poor margins or lack of validation, wanted to go with something better-validated.
1. Amazon reviews. Our product was an Amazon bestseller with poor (avg. 3.9/5 star) reviews. We understood from the volume sold that the product was in-demand and solving a big problem for people, but the poor reviews meant there was a significant opportunity to innovate.
2. Mock sale. We had some calls with people in our target market and with the sleep consultants who served them, but have read everywhere that what people say and what people do are not the same thing. We set up a landing page with a mock sale — so it looked like you could buy the product but it appeared sold out when you put in your information — and tested conversions through paid ads on FB and Instagram.
FcF: How did you meet your co-founder? What do you look for in finding your cofounders?
Hannah: We actually met on my first day in tech! We worked together at Blue J Legal in 2017/18. We’ve come a long way since then — we’re now co-founders of Sleepout and also partners.
We complement each other’s strengths really well. I think finding a good co-founder is about the right mix between a balance of strengths (ie. you’re complementary) and the ability to both get on board, get excited, and share a vision for what you want your company to be. The best co-founder for you will be different than the best co-founder for someone else. I think the approach is very similar to looking for jobs: it’s about people first, opportunity second.
FcF: How have relationships with other founders helped you build your business?
Hannah: Building relationships with other founders has been game-changing for us. Most of our major milestones, especially in the areas we knew nothing about (product development, Kickstarter, patents, etc) have come from continued relationships with other founders.
The understanding is invaluable too. When you’re building a business, it really is your entire life, and I’ve started to realize how difficult that is to relate to if you haven’t done it yourself. The support, advice, and friendship from other founders has been absolutely incredible, and the business wouldn’t have gotten to where it is today without it.
FcF: In your newsletter, you shared that you’ve just filled out the patent application. That’s really exciting and most founders might not be aware of this. Can you explain more of the importance of patenting and what the process has been like?
Hannah: Thank you! As of writing we can proudly say we are patent-pending.
The whole process has been complicated. Patent laws differ from country to country (filing in the US and Canada has to be done with separate offices) and we recommend retaining legal counsel to help navigate this system.
There are different types of patents: utility and design. Utility patents protect the function of an invention where design patents protect the external design and ornamentation. The bar for a utility patent is high, so as an interim step you can file a provisional patent application, which gives you one year of protection from the date of filing before you have to file for a full utility patent.
To have a patent granted, your invention has to be both novel (no “prior art” can exist) and non-obvious (you can’t just stick two things together and call it an invention). The process has quite a few steps! IP Watchdog, a US website focused on patents, patent law, and intellectual property, does have a DIY-provisional patent drafting system that walks you through the drafting process called the Invent and Patent System. We used a combination of this system and a lot of help from our law firm and industrial designer for our application.
FcF: What’s been the most difficult so far in your journey in building a physical product?
Hannah: Figuring out where to start! Neither myself or my Co-Founder had any previous experience making physical products so absolutely everything was a learning curve. We made a lot of mistakes early in the process and still have tons to learn. More recently, working with our manufacturer overseas to develop a physical product virtually has been tough too. Between the language barrier, possible poor internet connectivity, and the lack of being able to physically demonstrate how you want something to look, feel, or work, it’s like product development in hard mode. (Definitely still fun!)
My advice on that would be to reach out to people who have made physical products before and expect to take baby steps at first. Our first few calls were all cold reach outs to experts in blackout fabric, apparel manufacturers, and entrepreneurs who’d launched similar products. We’ve met incredible people and built some phenomenal relationships this way — and it was actually how we were introduced to our manufacturer!
FcF: What is something you wish the general public would understand more about clinical insomnia?
Hannah: I wish more of us realized how much modern life creates an uphill battle for good sleep. Insomnia and sleep deprivation are huge and growing issues — the WHO actually considers most of the developed world to be in an “epidemic of sleep deprivation”. Screen time in particular is tricky, with most of us working remote full time and studies showing each additional hour of screen time per day reduces your sleep each night.
Beyond that, many of us have abnormal sleep schedules and end up fighting our bodies’ natural circadian rhythms, so we never really get the chance to fall asleep and wake up in a way that’s natural for how we’ve evolved over millions of years. Getting a good sleep is not just about what you do at bedtime — it’s about a consistent wake time, morning light exposure, no screens in your bedroom, and darkness at night.
It’s encouraging to remember that our bodies have such a strong natural drive to sleep that they’ll adjust by themselves if we give them an opportunity to do so. This is the reason CBT-I (insomnia-specific cognitive behavioural therapy) and sleep restriction therapy are so effective at treating clinical insomnia: the problem is almost always something you can solve by adjusting behaviour, mentality, and environment.
FcF: Do you have any tips to help founders have better quality of sleep?
1. No screens in your bedroom. We all know that blue light inhibits melatonin production, but recent studies show bright light can be just as bad. Further, phones are considered “high-priority stimuli” and have been shown to drain attention and excite your brain even when off but in your field of view. Phones are designed to be extremely stimulating and your brain associates them with that, making them totally antithetical to winding down and improving sleep.
2. Keep a consistent wake time (even on weekends!) Your body runs on cycles, one of which is the about-24-hour “circadian rhythm” that regulates all the systems in your body that help you sleep and wake up. Going to bed at the same time every night can be a great way to sleep deeper by making the most of your body’s rhythms, and a consistent wake time can be even more helpful for keeping that biological clock consistent.
3. Sleep with blackout curtains! Darkness is essential for good quality sleep. Recent studies have shown that even a little bit of light exposure while sleeping reduces your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. Participants sleeping in total darkness reported a better quality of sleep and performed better on a series of tests (physical, memory/recall, and psychological) compared to those who slept in rooms with some or minimal light exposure. Even for the people who can sleep without it, darkness can be a game-changer for improving sleep quality.
FcF: If you were to give advice to yourself as you were starting out, what would it be?
Hannah: My advice would be that focus is a superpower. I would tell myself to use OKRs or some other structured, medium-term form of goal setting so that I knew what to spend my time on every day. It’s easy to get pulled into things that take you away from your goals! I’m very easily distracted and it’s because of our quarterly OKRs that I’m now able to stay on task and finish what I need to do every day.
FcF: What advice do you have for other women who have a start-up idea or side project idea?
First: validate, validate, validate. Sleepout was the third business my co-founder and I considered seriously and we abandoned the other two because we couldn’t validate them well enough.
Second: Just go for it! You’ll never feel ready but diving in despite that feeling is 100% worthwhile. Recognize that everything will change and that’s a great thing. Entrepreneurship is truly unique to anything else I’ve done and if it’s for you, I’d absolutely recommend it. Be vulnerable, too — we’ve been building in public and sharing our story, and so far, that’s really resonating.
Finally: Reach out to people who know more than you. So many people want to help new entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurship community is absolutely amazing and you’ll learn so much more than you ever thought possible if you just ask for help.
FcF: How can the Female CoFounder community help you?
Hannah: Right now, our biggest focus is creating demand by spreading the word ahead of our Kickstarter. We’d love for you to subscribe and share our newsletter at sleepout.substack.com. If you visit the site and have any thoughts to share, or can make introductions that would be helpful, please do. We appreciate the support from this community!
FcF: How can people contact you?
You can also DM @Hannah Brennen in our Slack channel!
Want to join the Female CoFounder community?
Get access to the community Slack channel and weekly newsletter!