If you’ve ever attempted a siesta in the futuristic nap pods in SciLi or Olin, then you’ve come in contact with the work of Christopher Lindholst ’97 and Arshad Chowdhury ’98. While at the University, Lindholst studied in the College of Social Studies, and Chowdhury majored in economics. In 2004, the pair co-founded MetroNaps, the company responsible for the nap machines in the University’s libraries as well as those in other universities and at corporations such as Google.
The Argus caught the entrepreneurial duo before the dedication of the SciLi nap machine on Monday, March 4 to talk about circadian rhythms, naps in the Empire State Building, and industrial design—and definitely not to talk about the secret society to which they both belonged during their time at Wesleyan.
The Argus: First of all, how did you come up with the idea for nap machines or for the business as a whole?
Christopher Lindholst: It was actually Arshad’s idea. He saw people falling asleep at work. He was working at a bank at the time, and everybody was working really long hours, and we started digging…trying to understand what is it about—why are people tired? Is it just because you’re not getting enough sleep or are there other factors that contribute? Science reveals that we’re all preprogrammed to nap, actually; it’s just because of the Industrial Revolution that we practically forgot that. So that’s where the idea came from.
And the original idea for the company was that we were going to offer nap retail locations, sort of like a gym where you’d have a membership, where you could come and nap. So that’s how we started the business in 2004, with a napping facility in the Empire State Building.
A: How many machines were there?
CL: Eight. We had eight machines…it turned out that the retail aspect was not a good business; we couldn’t get the stores to work. But people really liked the idea, and we were lucky to get a lot of publicity when we first launched the store, and people started calling us from all over the world about these chairs that we had designed for the space. And it was never our intention that we would—you know, we weren’t planning to sell the chairs; we were just going to use them in our store. But businesses evolve, and so now that’s all we do. We do installations in companies and hospitals and universities so people can take naps.
A: So what were you doing at the time?
CL: I was working for Johnson & Johnson as a health economist, and when Arshad approached me about [the idea], I could see the utility of it or the potential economic value of it, because if you can make people more productive by putting them in the chair, if you can show the economic value of that, then you can go to customers and basically justify why they should pay you for it. So that’s what I was doing at the other company…which is a bit dry…I was keen to start my own business because I was tired of working at a large company, and also we knew each other from [Wesleyan].
A: How did you meet here?
CL: [long pause.] We were both part of a secret society.
…So that’s how we got started. Everybody thought we were totally crazy when we did it, but after 10 years, the topic of sleep and napping is a much more mainstream topic. People now talk about it more, and sleep is in the news all the time. Most people, if you ask them, “How long are you supposed to take a nap for?” they know that they should be taking a nap for 15 to 20 minutes, and a lot of that is us having pushed that message out through the media and the media talking about it.
We were very lucky that we got as much publicity as we did, but it’s because it was a different idea, and the chairs have quite a unique design, so magazines [keep] publishing the picture, even if it’s totally irrelevant for the magazine, and we get a lot of press. So from that perspective, the stores were great in terms of generating awareness.
A: What kind of research is behind this? How do you go about conducting studies for it?
CL: Actually, the store that we had in the Empire State Building was like an R&D [Research and Development] facility for us. People were coming in to use the chairs, so it was functional in the sense that people were effectively paying us to be guinea pigs in a way, and through that, that’s how the design has evolved, because we learned the kinds of features that people look for.
We thought that people would really like lots of different music, for example, but we found out that it’s actually better when it’s simple and there’s only one kind of music. So a lot of these things where you might intuitively think one thing and it actually turns out it’s the other thing. We added things like storage bins on the inside, because our first version didn’t have that, so you can put your bag or a woman’s handbag or something, because you can’t relax if you’re worried about your possessions being stolen. Small details like that.
A: What about the light that changes color?
CL: There’s some science behind the different colors that help you relax and wake you up. It’s pretty simple.
Arshad Chowdhury: But we never built it to guarantee that it would put you to sleep. There’s no gas...really, you use it when you’re tired and it gives you enough privacy that you can get rest in a public place. It blocks out enough light; it gives you enough privacy that you can do that. We don’t have any false promises. We never did. We can’t guarantee you that it’s going to put you to sleep because it doesn’t do that. If you’re not tired, don’t use it. That’s worked for us so far.
A: Have you collaborated on any other business plans?
AC: Well, we both have started and been involved in a number of different businesses. This is the only one we’ve worked on together—I actually formally left MetroNaps in 2008, and even though we’re still always in touch, I went into the technology world and haven’t done anything in the sleep world since 2008, really.
A: What do you do now?
AC: Now I run a company called Power 20—it’s a mobile fitness company. We build mobile applications for exercise. The first app is actually also called Power 20, and it’s on Android and iPhone, and the whole point is to give people a very quick, intense 20-minute exercise even for folks who don’t have gyms.
A: I’m kind of seeing a trend here.
AC: Yeah, the health and wellness for sure, and [the fact that] it’s delivered in manageable, bite-sized realistic chunks.
A: When you were at Wes, did you have any idea that entrepreneurship was something you might be interested in?
CL: I think so. I think it’s something you sort of intuitively know or at least you find it out pretty quick if you go out into the workplace and work at a big company. It becomes pretty apparent that it’s either something that works for you or doesn’t.
AC: I think Wesleyan students have always been and continue to be really entrepreneurial and really creative. There are already so many collaborations going on on campus, whether it’s musicians and, increasingly, technology projects...We are almost trained here to create new things out of nothing, and so when you graduate you have that momentum, and when you create things, you don’t hit roadblocks; you actually get a lot of support. People support you every step of the way, and I think that we found that pretty much to be true. Selling naps wasn’t necessarily easy or logical, but we definitely got a lot of support from the Wesleyan community.
A: Where are these machines installed [other than at universities]?
CL: Most of our business is corporations—primarily large companies. One of our major clients is Google; they have a lot in their offices around the world. But also consumer goods companies and a lot of tech companies that have a more open culture about this kind of stuff. We’ve done some hospital installations as well, like in the Intensive Care Unit for caregivers. They work long shifts, and it’s always important for them to be [rested], because when you’re not, you can make mistakes, and that can have catastrophic consequences.
A: Did you hire an industrial designer for the chairs, or did you design the whole chair/sphere system yourselves?
AC: Well, the chair has evolved over the years, and when we started off, we did hire a furniture designer—an industrial designer. His name is Matthew Hoey: we worked together for about a year to create the first version, and it was a beautiful piece; it was more art than functional. That was fine, except that we weren’t able to take it apart and put it back together, which really limited the number of places where we could install it. Once we realized that the real market for us was in the installations...we realized that we had to redesign the chair completely, and so in that case, we needed industrial designers to use computers to render each component so that it could be shipped.
A: Any Wesleyan memories that you want to talk about?
AC: Well, like a lot of people, I had sort of a napping ritual. If I had an early-morning class, then for sure I would spend at least an hour in the afternoon taking a nap. I think I ended up napping for about a quarter of my college career. So I think I’m an expert by now.
A: Did you have a specific napping location?
AC: Yeah, it was in the old campus center, which was that building right there [points in the direction of the Allbritton Center]. On the bottom floor, where the mailboxes were, there was a lounge, and I would nap down there.
A: Would you say there’s an ideal time for napping?
AC: There is. It’s usually about eight hours after you wake up. There’s also a biological basis for when it’s a good time to nap—it’s when your circadian rhythm causes your metabolism to slow and your body temperature to dip a little bit. That happens two times during the day: once between 2 and 4 a.m., and again between 2 and 4 p.m. That mid-day dip, that grogginess that usually happens after lunch, happens not because you ate, but rather because your body temperature is going down naturally. Whether you eat or not, you tend to get tired then, and the more sleep-deprived you are, the more extreme that is. So if you haven’t slept for a few nights, that mid-day dip gets really intense. That corresponds with when we see car accidents—between 2 and 4 a.m., and again between 2 and 4 p.m.
CL: That tends to be the peak time for nodding off, basically. But it depends also on when you get up.
AC: And you want to nap for less than 40 minutes. Twenty minutes is ideal, actually, because if you nap for much longer, then you tend to go into deep sleep, and it’s harder to wake up from that, because waking up from that is accompanied by sleep inertia, or grogginess.
A: We’ve definitely experienced that. Do you have any final advice for kids at Wes who are interested in entrepreneurship?
CL: Get lots of experience. Work for as many different kinds of places as you can, so you can learn through working for somebody else, so that when you decide to start your own business, you don’t end up making the same mistakes.
AC: I guess my advice is a little bit different, which is just that if you know you want to work for yourself and start your own business, mistakes are bound to happen, so you should just get started—start making those mistakes sooner rather than later, and there’s no need to really postpone or try to save up money until you have enough to start your business. You should just get started, and figure it out once you begin.
Additional reporting by Noah Rauschkolb ’14.