Photo: Jacob Kepler
Former basketball coaches Susan Walvius and Michelle Marciniak used their athletic backgrounds to achieve a perfect night's sleep.
In August 2007, University of South Carolina basketball coaches Susan Walvius and Michelle Marciniak were wrapping up a long day of drills at an off-season camp when the conversation turned to the obsession-worthy brand of athletic shorts they'd recently discovered. The shorts were silky but not slippery, sumptuous yet practical, ridiculously soft. "I'd like to make sheets out of this fabric," Walvius mused. Marciniak stared at her boss. "Let's do it!" she said.
It was an impulsive suggestion—but Walvius, who was ready for a new challenge after 18 years as a head coach, found herself calling the dean of the university's business school the next day. Soon the lifelong jocks were meeting with students to conduct market research. "I had never taken any business classes—I was a psychology major!" says Marciniak, a onetime National Championship MVP at the University of Tennessee. Yet by the following spring, they'd quit their jobs to focus full-time on Sheex: luxury bedding made of breathable, cutting-edge performance fabrics that keep sleepers from overheating in the night and waking up sweaty.
The women admit it was hard to abandon the financial security of Division I coaching gigs, and even harder to lose "the opportunity to make an impact on young people's lives," as Walvius says. Their learning curve was steep, she adds, whether they were researching factories ("We got hideous sample after hideous sample—stuff would come back with gold trim") or making an ill-fated attempt at "sexy, suggestive" marketing materials ("My mom was appalled").
A factory in Southern California finally sent them sheets that turned their dreams into perfect reality. "That was a big day for us," says Walvius, who monitors the Sheex bottom line while Marciniak builds relationships with business mentors and investors. (Or, as Marciniak puts it, "Susan is the play-by-play announcer and I'm the color analyst.") This spring Sheex rolls out in Bed, Bath & Beyond stores and on HSN, and the founders are also planning a sleepwear line. "We asked ourselves, 'Are we going to run a small business or build a championship-caliber company?'" says Walvius. The answer was obvious. "In our culture, we compete." —Meredith Bryan
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