Because a Guy from Ecuador Can Sell Soda Off the Back of a Donkey, Then Come Here and Build a $120 Million Business—All It Takes Is a Few Mattresses and an 800 Number

No. 35
(1) Napoleon Barragan is born in 1941 in Bilovan, a farming village in Ecuador. He sleeps on a straw bed in a dirt-floored home. At 17, Barragan flees to Colombia. He delivers beer and soda on donkeys. Moves to Barranquilla with 24 pesos (roughly one penny according to today’s currency rate). He sleeps in the streets and in parks.

Photo: Photographs courtesy of Napoleon Barragan

(2) He marries and borrows money to fly to New York with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. All sleep together on a relative’s pullout sofa in Jamaica. Barragan takes odd jobs in factories—packing shoes, assembling carpets, making plastic buttons—then works as a salesman in a secondhand furniture store.

(3) He borrows $2,000 to start a secondhand-furniture store of his own. There, the first idea comes. It is 1976; Barragan is flipping through a newspaper on the subway. He sees an ad for Dial-A-Steak. Barragan’s mind churns. If the people running Dial-A-Steak can sell T-bones over the phone, why can’t he sell mattresses the same way? He decides to start a new company. He later calls it 1-800-Mattress.

(4) The second idea comes. Filming his first late-night TV ad in 1986, one of the commercial’s producers complains that 1-800-Mattress is one letter too long to use as a telephone number. “Why don’t you leave the last ‘s’ off for savings?” one of the assistants shooting the commercial suggests. An iconic slogan is born. By the mid-nineties, 1-800-Mattress is the nation’s largest mattress tele-retailer.

(5) Barragan is busted for tax evasion. In March 1993, cops raid his Queens warehouse looking for accounting books. Barragan pleads guilty to evading $300,000 in taxes. “Prison Cot for Mattress Maven,” screams one tabloid headline. Barragan spends 36 hours in jail, a year with an electric surveillance anklet, and pays $1 million in fines. Barragan attributes his legal trouble to disorganization. “The biggest mistake of my life,” he says.

(6) Barragan makes his comeback. 1-800-Mattress reinvents itself, building showrooms across the country, producing a Website, and going upscale. It begins to offer handmade mattresses from Hypnos, a British manufacturer that makes mattresses for the royal family, selling for as much as $12,000 apiece. In 2004, 1-800-Mattress breaks the $100 million mark in sales for the first time; projected sales for 2006 are $120 million. Barragan, now 65, sleeps on a mattress he purchased at one of his showrooms. On clearance. Next: Because Even Our Rodents…

Because a Guy from Ecuador Can Sell Soda Off the […]