Slanket inventor gets cozy with success

Posted Nov. 20, 2009, at 5:53 p.m.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: The slanket, a sleeved blanket made of soft polyester microfibers,  was an idea hatched in a Maine dorm room more than 10 years ago. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
BDN
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: The slanket, a sleeved blanket made of soft polyester microfibers, was an idea hatched in a Maine dorm room more than 10 years ago. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
The Camo Slanket photograph from  theslanket.com  website
theslanket.com
The Camo Slanket photograph from theslanket.com website

As the wind howled and the mercury dipped into inhumanly low numbers, Gary Clegg was nestled up in his dorm room in Kennebec Hall at the University of Maine in Orono. It was 1997, and Clegg, then a freshman, was trying to stay warm as he watched late night television. But the sleeping bag he had on top of his dorm bed just wasn’t cutting it. He wasn’t able to achieve maximum coziness with his hand out from under the covers changing the channels.

His solution seemed obvious at the time: cut holes in the bag, so he could stick his arms through them and keep them warm, while still using the remote control. But the little light bulb above his head came on: What about a blanket with sleeves?

“That Christmas break, I asked my Mom to make me a blanket with one sleeve,” said Clegg, 30, who was born in San Diego but moved to Standish while in middle school. “I used it all through college. Then I redesigned it to have two sleeves. That’s literally how it all got started.”

More than 10 years later, Clegg is the unlikely mastermind behind a business that’s banked more than $7 million in 2009 alone. Along with the toothpick and earmuffs, the Slanket, as Clegg’s sleeved blanket came to be called, is one of the great examples of useful objects invented in Maine.

The journey from college kid to millionaire businessman has taken him all over the world and put him in the national media spotlight. It’s also brought him no small amount of controversy and heartache, as the Snuggie, a cheaper version of the Slanket, toppled Clegg from the sleeved-blanket throne earlier this year, thanks to popular nationally televised ads.

‘It took a lot of research’

First things first, however. Just how did Clegg start making and marketing Slankets? The process started nearly four years after he graduated from UMaine, with a degree in communications. During that time, Clegg bounced around jobs, searching for a career. He snowboarded in Colorado. He tried to make a living as an actor in New York City. He tended bar. But always in the back of his head was the Slanket.

“My brother Jeff and I made the decision in 2004 to try to market this thing,” said Clegg. “It took a lot of research to get the whole thing going, but we were able to start production in late 2005.”

Clegg recalled the day he received the fabric to make the first Slankets, which arrived at the home of his parents, Marylynne and Edward Clegg.

“One morning, this 18-wheeler was blocking the road in front of my Mom and Dad’s house. It had tried to get in the driveway,” said Clegg. “It was full of thousands of yards of fabric. My Dad asked where I was planning to put it. I said, ‘In the garage?’”

The first run of Slankets was produced in a factory in Lewiston. The first goal Clegg set for himself was to pay his brother back the money he lent him to manufacture the first Slankets. By March 2006, he had done just that, and more: He had sold out of all of them. The success of the Slanket is not just about one man’s ingenuity. It’s also about the incredible power of the Internet.

“We did some pretty aggressive marketing online,” said Clegg. “We posted on forums and commented on Web sites. We sent out literally thousands of press releases. We reached people all over the world. We sold lots in Korea, in Finland, in Saudi Arabia. I can’t stress how important PR and marketing are to making a product sell.”

It was at that point that the price and turn-around time of making Slankets in Maine became far too costly and slow to make any kind of profit off them. Clegg made the decision to take the manufacturing of Slankets to China, and in late 2006, he traveled there, returning to the U.S. with a deal. Clegg also took his product to trade shows across the country, which caught the attention of QVC.

“When I first appeared on QVC with the Slanket, we sold 17,000 pieces in 11 minutes,” said Clegg. “It was incredible. It changed everything.”

Competition from Snuggies

The appeal of the Slanket is simple: It’s a way to keep extra warm while still being productive. It may seem outwardly silly, but on a chilly night, to be wrapped from head to toe in plush fleece, while still being able to read, knit or use your laptop, is a very affordable luxury. The Slanket now retails for $37.99, in a wide variety of colors, at www.theslanket.com. It measures 60 by 90 inches, and is made of 100 percent polyester microfibers. In Clegg’s eyes, sacrificing quality for a lower price point is not a trade-off he’s willing to make.

That’s where the Snuggie comes in. In 2008, TV commercials began appearing nationwide for a new sleeved blanket — a smaller, less expensive version of the Slanket Clegg had been selling for a full two years prior. Retailing at just $15, sales for Snuggies went through the roof. It became an instant pop culture phenomenon, spawning Internet spoofs, references in TV shows and placement in most major chain outlets. And Clegg, with his original product, was left in the dust.

At first, it appeared to Clegg that Allstar Products Corp., which markets Snuggies, ripped him and his company off. But unfortunately, obtaining a patent on an item such as a sleeved blanket is near impossible, and there was little they could do to stop the Snuggie, legally speaking.

The Slanket also is not the first sleeved blanket to hit the market. While Clegg’s idea came to him way back in 1997, the “Freedom Blanket,” another sleeved blanket marketed by a New Jersey family, came out a few years prior to the Slanket. Clegg says he was completely unaware of its existence until after his product took off.

Anne Flynn, director of marketing for Allstar, said her company was aware of the Slanket and other sleeved blankets — but maintained that their price point and marketing tactics made them different from other sleeved blankets.

“Yes, we were aware of similar product offerings. However, the difference with the Snuggie is that we provide a high-quality product at a price anyone can afford,” said Flynn, via e-mail. “In addition, we’ve been able to extend the Snuggie line to provide consumers with a number of affordable, fresh options — with Snuggie, anyone can find a blanket with sleeves that fits their personality and budget.”

Clegg’s original roommate in Kennebec Hall at UMaine, Nick Collins, now a consultant to Slanket, found the entire experience to be very disheartening.

“I get really mad when I think about it. I mean, we probably weren’t the first persons ever to put sleeves on a blanket, but we were the first to market it [nationally],” said Collins. “Gary put all this work into it, all out of pocket, and they just came in with their huge capital and a vastly inferior product and took it over. I hate them. I think it’s awful.”

Clegg takes a more diplomatic approach.

“Deep down, I knew something like this could happen. I didn’t know it would come with such ferocity, though,” he said. “But I also know that the same market that allows me to go for something like this and be successful is the same market that allows competition. It’s OK. I know that my product is better.”

The Slanket still boasts sales in the millions, and Clegg still sells his product on television and online with the same unique outlook on business he had when he was just starting out. He recalls a time when he and his friends would receive Slankets straight from the factory, fold and package them on their own, and even leave per-sonalized notes in each package. Though he now spends more time on a plane and has other people to fold his Slankets, Clegg retains that laid-back attitude.

“We’re from Maine. We have that kind of corner store, Mom-and-Pop outlook on business. We like to make connections like that with our customers,” he said. “This was never about making tons of money and being famous. It was about finding a way to be creative in my career, and to do the things I love — meet people and travel. And I’ve gotten to do that.”

To purchase a Slanket, visit www.theslanket.com.

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