Roberto Hoyos comes across with the laid back, semi-sleepy demeanor of a guy who makes pillows for a living. But behind the soft exterior is a geeky, entrepreneurial spirit that turned a simple gift idea into a viral sensation and a thriving, 11-year-old Seattle business.
Hoyos is the founder and CEO of Throwboy, a trend setter in the world of home decor. From a non-descript industrial lot in Mukilteo, Wash., Hoyos operates what he calls the “pillow fort,” shipping hundreds of pop-culture and tech-infused designer throw pillows to customers around the world every month.
The idea came to the 36-year-old Seattle native back in 2007, when he was working at an Apple store. As a Christmas gift for his girlfriend at the time, he stitched together seven pillows modeled after computer icons. She wrote about them for a tech blog she was working for and the resulting traffic crashed a website where Hoyos had pictures of the pillows.
“I was just working a regular job,” Hoyos said. “I was really into tech, and I knew how to sew from a young age. My grandmother was one of the original REI employees in Seattle, and she kind of taught me how to sew when I was really little. But I was also kind of a nerd and I liked Apple.”
As emails and comments piled up, a friend encouraged Hoyos to look at the business potential in his craft.
“I didn’t think it was a business. I just thought it was a cool idea,” he said.
But he loved marketing as a career idea, and he considered himself an artist, so he was intrigued by the thought of marrying the two, turning his pillow designs into a brand with unlimited potential. Beyond the computer icons he envisioned all of the personal and pop-infused passions which could translate into a piece of decor or a resting place for tired geek heads.
By early 2008 he was getting better at sewing and he was working to set up a website. His plan was to ultimately outsource everything, but it was taking too long to coordinate, so he decided he’d do it all — the design, the sewing, the packaging — and figure out how to make things work from there.
“I wanted to hit the ground running while there was people still interested in it,” Hoyos said. “During the time that I was about to launch the website for real and had the name and everything, another Mac blog picked it up and then it just went viral again. So it was all kind of like perfect timing.”
The earliest pillows are long since gone with the girlfriend, and in the years since Hoyos has encountered the hard realities of pillow rip-off artists. He seized on modern tech culture, creating “LOL” and “OMG” chat bubble pillows. And in a turning point for his company, he created what he said were the first pillows featuring popular emojis — the poop emoji pillow is in fact his biggest seller ever.
But he said he got ripped off really fast and Throwboy couldn’t keep up with the knockoffs. Rather than put up a pillow fight, Hoyos just decided he didn’t want to be the emoji pillow company.
Today Hoyos still conceives and designs his pillows, which sell for $29.99 to $39.99 each on his website. Manufacturing of about 100 different designs over the years has long since shifted from his grandmother’s sewing machine overseas to China. The warehouse space in Mukilteo is stacked with boxes and Hoyos said he ships about 800 pillows a month.
He owns 100 percent of the business, has no investors and it’s been profitable since the very start. A Kickstarter in 2012 helped him to go from hand sewing everything to mass production. He moved to St. Louis because it was cheaper and easier to grow a business, but he left after two years and went to Los Angeles for another two. Then he killed off the emoji pillows and came home to Seattle four months ago.
“I feel like I’m getting my second spring right now which is to turn Throwboy into what I really imagined, which is a large, well-known, household name. The go-to place for a cool pillow,” said Hoyos, who runs Throwboy alone right now, with help from a couple contractors. “Everything I’ve learned over the years, I feel like I’m applying this year and it’s growing quicker than it’s ever grown.”
And he’s still very much an Apple geek.
The latest Throwboy line is called the The Iconic Pillow Collection and is a nod to what worked for the company 10 years ago — except it’s Apple hardware instead of software icons this time. Three-dimensional designs include the 1977 Apple II, the 1984 Macintosh and the 1998 iMac, as well as a 2001 iPod and a 2007 iPhone. The 1984 Mac is his new hottest-selling design.
To jumpstart the line last year, Hoyos used Kickstarter again. He met a funding goal of $10,000 in two hours and ultimately raised $78,000.
Hoyos said he targeted the Apple fanboys because “I am that fan,” adding that he’s not trying to claim that he’s Apple. But he knows the tech giant is aware of his product because he ships pillows to customers at their headquarters address.
Beyond Apple he’s also created some one-offs as swag for corporate events for companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, Pinterest and other tech companies that have caught wind of Throwboy.
Mixed in with the tech stuff at the pillow fort this week were squishy, green avocado pillow halves — a design born out of millennials’ relatively newfound love for the fruit. Because it takes about three months to go from concept to actually having a pillow to throw, Hoyos tries to pay close attention to ideas that will have staying power. He doesn’t want a random internet meme on a pillow that ends up meaning nothing.
“I kind of set up the company to always be a reflection of what was happening,” he said. “So if something starts to kind of bubble up, it’s like, ‘OK, how do we do something? But how do we pick the right thing that’s not going to feel passé by the time we put it out?'”
With a dream down the road of having employees “who are passionate and want to change the world of pillows,” you’d better not sleep on Throwboy.
Or, do sleep on them. Either way, Roberto Hoyos wins.