Cameron Jones grew up loving cars, so he built a career selling them and eventually owning dealerships.
He did not grow up loving incredibly-plush animal sleeping bags. But he’s now the inventor, proprietor and only full-time employee of a business selling them by the thousands.
“We started out on… I don’t want to say a goof, but I had the time,” he said. “I wanted to see what would happen.”
Four years ago, Mr. Jones found himself looking for a business opportunity. He had received an offer from Baierl for his Northland Ford dealership in Cranberry and decided to sell. The year before, he had closed his other dealership, Northland Lincoln.
Shortly afterward, he visited a friend whose 10-year-old daughter was playing with a pink sleeping bag with a kitten head at the top. The 53-year-old Mr. Jones, who is married with no children, had just seen a television commercial for a product called a Stuffie — a stuffed animal with a multiple pockets for holding toys or other treasures.
What if, he thought, he could make something like a giant Stuffie — so big that “kids could be able to stuff themselves in there” and use it as sleeping bag?
“I was always an idea person — I always had ideas,” he said. “But I was always too busy working to be able to do it.”
Through money, perseverance and luck, he was able to create and sell what he called a SnooZzoo — a child-size animal sleeping bag that can be also be worn as a backpack, with a coordinating pillow. But even he didn’t come up with the idea for what came next.
Once he started selling the kid version, he began getting numerous inquiries for larger sizes: “I’m not even a kid and I want this,” commented a Facebook reader. “Would a 69-inch person be too snug?” asked one Instagrammer.
In one sense, the concept of a $170 adult-sized animal sleeping bag is strange. But in a time when gummy vitamins are advertised on network television, Lego sets are designed for ages 16-plus and Children’s Museums hold adult nights — it fits right in.
“Adults are sharing their life and their life stage with their kids,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group, referencing products such as adult coloring books and footed pajamas. “They go to concerts together, they shop in the same stores — the generation gap that we grew up to think of is gone. Fifty-year-olds think of themselves as 15 and 18-year-olds think they’re 25.”
An adult-sized SnooZzoo weighs 10 pounds, fits people up to 6-feet-tall and takes up most of a couch. It is soft on the outside, breathable and cool on the inside.
Mr. Jones sold out of the adult black bear SnooZzoo within 30 days of it going on sale in October. The brown bear and panda are now sold out as well, with limited quantities left of the polar bear. He initially ordered 600 adult costumes and plans to add another animal and order more. He has also sold more than 2,000 of the children’s sized sleeping bags, which cost between $90 and $120.
He does the packaging and shipping himself, with occasional help from his wife, who is an attorney. After housing all the materials in his Cranberry home, he recently bought a warehouse in Evans City. “It was a nightmare,” he laughed. “I couldn’t use my basement for two years.”
From design to execution
Mr. Jones wasn’t quite sure how to proceed when he initially came up with the sleeping bag idea. He ended up contacting a company called Laser Lab Shop, based in Point Breeze, which was able to design and manufacture a prototype.
The company had never worked with “soft goods,” said owner Adam Murray, but he and designer Katie Schaible were able to come up with a prototype — part Snuggli, part stuffed animal, part mascot costume. “At the end of the day, design is for the most part design,” he said. “It’s just about the execution.”
Mr. Jones then found a factory in China to manufacture the product (he’d hoped to have them made in America but the price point was too high) and decided on the name SnooZzoo as a combination of Snooze and Zoo.
He credits the idea in part to his childhood love of animals — until he was 11 he lived in Australia, where his grandfather founded the country’s largest koala sanctuary. He grew up after that in Greensburg, getting a job selling Porshes and Toyotas in Monroeville after graduating from Duquesne University in 1985 with a business degree.
By the fall of 2015, the SnooZzoos were ready for market and Mr. Jones had his sights on selling the product in the granddaddy of toy stores — Toys R Us. By cold calling and leaving countless answering machines messages, he was able to set up a meeting with a Toys R Us buyer in New Jersey. He stuffed two hockey bags full of SnooZzoos and drove to New Jersey, where he had hired two children who would meet him at Toys R Us to demonstrate the costumes.
Two minutes into the meeting, the Toys R Us representative informed him that the sleeping bags were too big for store shelves. Mr. Jones asked if she could just see the costumes on the hired children. “I told her, ‘I just drove seven hours — give me a couple minutes.’”
It worked — seeing the kids walk in wearing the sleeping bags as backpacks and then try them on bought him enough time to changed her mind. She decided to allow him sell them through Toys R Us online only. That connected him with a distributor for another retailers as well, such as Sears, Target and Walmart, which now sell SnooZzoos online.
Some of the market for SnooZzoos is among those who identify as furries, in part because they are much cheaper than custom-made fursuits that can run into the thousands of dollars. Mr. Jones has secured a spot to sell them at Anthrocon, an annual convention for cartoon animal enthusiasts.
Mr. Jones markets his product almost exclusively through social media, including cheeky Facebook and Instagram captions such as “Happy ‘Fur’th of July” for polar bears holding American flags and “Purple Mane” for a bear in a purple lion wig to commemorate Prince’s death.
Scott Zhivago of Airdrie, Canada, outside of Calgary, saw one of those Facebook posts — a picture of an adult-sized black bear SnooZzoo in a leather club chair holding a beer.
Almost immediately, he clicked to buy it.
“It looked like it would be awesome to snuggle up in and have some beer and it’s worked out exactly like that,” said Mr. Zhivago, 36, who owns his own electrical engineering consulting company. “I’m the envy of my friends, that’s for sure. It just gets funnier and funnier.”
Anya Sostek: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308.