Sleep is critical to our overall health and well-being, and it’s even more important for elite athletes and bodybuilders who exercise at a high level. Studies have shown that good sleep quality is associated with greater muscle strength, while short sleep duration may be a risk factor for decreased muscle strength. In fact, one study concluded that sleep serves an absolutely vital physiological function and is arguably the single most important factor in exercise recovery.
The study also mentioned that quality sleep should be part of any elite athlete’s routine, noting that the saying, ‘You snooze, you lose,’ should actually be, “You snooze (more), you win’ for athletes. Nobody may know more about the importance of quality sleep and its ties to athletic performance better than former All-American collegiate and professional basketball player Michelle Marciniak. She competed for two National Championships at the University of Tennessee and led the Tennessee Lady Vols to their 4th National Championship in 1996. She was also named the NCAA Women’s Division I Most Outstanding Player in 1996, as well.
Marciniak then went on to play in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) where she made a name for herself thanks to her hard-nosed play on the court. Following her retirement from the WNBA, Marciniak became an assistant coach for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, serving as an assistant on the staff of Head Coach Susan Walvius. It was at the end of one of their practices in 2007 that Walvius and Marciniak came up with the idea to create the world’s first Performance Sheets. Then as Co-Founders and Co-CEOs of the woman-founded and owned company, SHEEX, they invented a new ‘Performance Bedding’ category in home textiles through cool, breathable, moisture-wicking technical fabrics.
MuscleTech.com had the opportunity to catch up with Michelle Marciniak, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of SHEEX, to talk about her storied basketball career, how she was able to translate the skills that she learned on the basketball court to the boardroom, and why MuscleTech community members should switch their sheets, comforters, pillows, mattress pads, and sleepwear to SHEEX. She also shares information about her own sleep routine that she hasn’t ever publicly shared with anyone else before.
Q: Let’s start right at the beginning of the SHEEX story. So, you and your Co-Founder and Co-CEO Susan Walvius are coaching college basketball at the University of South Carolina in 2007 and you manage to come up with the idea for performance sheets. Can you still recall the conversation that you had that sparked the inspiration for SHEEX? And if so, what exactly was said?
A: “I was wearing a pair of shorts that I loved to train in, really more for the technical aspects of the fabric. I had bought some for Susan to try and she made a different connection. She said, ‘I love the drape and feel of this fabric against my skin. I’d love to have bedsheets made out of this stuff. I’d love to sleep in it.’ I looked at her and said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s figure out if this has ever been done before.’
We learned that it had not been done before in true athletic performance fabrics. I guess knit sheets had been around for a while, but this was a different kind of knitted sheet. This had all kinds of moisture-wicking, temperature-control, breathability, and it had such a story around it with what the fabric does from a functional standpoint. Since that had never been done before in bedding, we said, ‘Let’s do it.’
The fact that it had never been done before was where the patents came into play. We learned how to sew athletic performance fabrics together to make it into a bed sheet. From that point on, we started to design our patents and get patents all over the world. Right now, we have 53 patents in 24 countries.
I guess from the get-go it was something that was maybe thought of as an out-there, sort of crazy idea, but I think a lot of entrepreneurial companies start off with an idea that no one else has thought of. (Smiling) That’s what makes you an entrepreneur. That you’re willing to take that risk and say yes to the idea.
You know, I used to play in cotton T-shirts and go through five shirts in a practice. I’d be just drenched. Now, on the tennis court, on the pickleball court, on the golf course, on the basketball court, or whatever your sport is, you probably wouldn’t be caught dead wearing cotton these days, right? It’s just not a cool, moisture-wicking type of fabric that breathes for you.
So, from my playing days, up until Susan and I were coaching together at South Carolina, we witnessed the full evolution of fabric in athletic wear. And we were first-to-market with the idea of performance bedding.”
Q: From there, you turned to students at South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business to help you put together a business plan for SHEEX. Up until then, your life had pretty much revolved around basketball. Had you ever put together a business plan before and what stands out from that process?
A: “The business plan process was interesting because I was a psychology major, Susan was an urban development major, and we were both coaching basketball at South Carolina. So, what that had to do with textiles? Nobody knows. But what we did know is how to work with students and the student-athletes to develop the business plan.
That was a fascinating process for us because after two semesters of working with graduate students and the dean of the Darla Moore School of Business, the results, meaning the business plan, came back. The feasibility study, the top-down research, and the 100-page business plan with all the research and data, pointed to people who could understand performance athletic fabrics, which was starting to evolve. Keep in mind, this was some 14 years ago now.
If we could tap into the people who were starting to wear and understand performance fabrics, then why wouldn’t they want to sleep in the same fabric that they are working out in for similar benefits? That’s how the idea continued, with the research behind the idea, not just an idea. It was a fascinating process.”
Q: So, you knew that you wanted to use materials commonly found in modern athletic wear for SHEEX, which would provide similar moisture-wicking, temperature-control, breathability, and stretch that’s not found in traditional cotton sheets, but what was the process of actually creating the actual, physical SHEEX sheets like?
A: “Again, it came from the pair of shorts and the athletic fabric that we were wearing. So, we reached out to probably 20 different factories, and the funny thing is that we cold faxed them trying to figure out if they were the ones that supplied the fabric for what we were trying to replicate. We heard back from no one. (Laughing) Nobody got back to us. Because what factory will disclose what’s going on in their factory? As we’ve learned 14 years later, nothing gets disclosed with what goes on in a factory.
So, we were trying to find a replica of the fabric, and we actually did. We ended up finding someone who had lots of this fabric in California and it was made specifically for the athletic apparel industry. From there, we started up a relationship with a factory in Northridge, California to try to help us cut some of this fabric.
But the funnier part of our story is that after we found the fabric and got it sent to us, what do you do with a bolt of fabric that’s probably ten feet long and wrapped up kind of like an enchilada? (Laughing) So, what do you do with it? You take it to a local seamstress to try and see if it can be sewn. When we took it to the seamstress, she was dumbfounded with us bringing in this amount of fabric that looked like it could make a car cover. As a matter of fact, that’s what she thought we were doing it for. We said, ‘No, it’s for a bed.’ And she really didn’t understand. But she ended up sewing it anyway, and the sewing sample cost about $450 just to sew it. So, that was discouraging, to say the least, because you don’t have a business with that kind of cost.
Anyway, that led us to trying to find different sources to cut and sew it in California. And eventually, that was too expensive. Then we ended up with our current factory that we still work with and have a great relationship with in China.”
Q: After you first created these sheets, what did you learn in regard to the demand or need for sheets made out of athletic fabric?
A: “Well, the demand and the need for athletic performance fabrics made into bedding is actually great. It’s trying to get the story out there for people to understand that these aren’t just traditional cotton sheets. These are performance sheets. They function for you. They do something for you. They help you sleep better through the stretch knit. The stretch knit allows for incredible breathability.
So, what we learned is really the overall wellness and health benefit that our sheets provide people just from getting a good night’s sleep because they’re not dealing with the temperature issues from traditional cotton sheets. Typically, traditional cotton sheets trap heat and moisture, and they keep the moisture against your skin, forcing you to wake up in the middle of the night.
Our SHEEX sheets are very luxurious, they function for you, and they keep you cool, dry, and comfortable all throughout the night. So, really, we’re the first company and the first brand that came out with a functional, call it, ‘performance sheet.’ Nobody had coined that phrase before we did.”
Q: These sheets sound perfect for warm summer nights, and for anyone who lives anywhere that’s really hot. Do you find that people in warmer climates gravitate toward your sheets more?
A: “The thing is we do really well in hotter climates, but we also do well in cooler climates because there’s a temperature regulation that happens because your body is breathing through the sheets. So, you can stay cozy and comfortable in the winter, and our sheets allow you to keep your body at an optimal temperature to allow your body to breathe because of the nature of what the performance fabrics are made of.”
Q: What is it about SHEEX that makes them so different than other sheets?
A: “What makes us different is that it’s a sheet that functions for you. The sheets are made from highly technical athletic performance fabrics. And because of our patents, nobody else can do that. So, nobody else can create a sheet just like ours because we’ve patented it worldwide. They also have a 4-way stretch, they wick moisture, they keep you cool, dry, and comfortable, and they function for you.”
Q: How are you able to get SHEEX fabrics to breathe ten times better than traditional cotton sheets? And what went into creating your SLEEP•FIT® Technology that wicks moisture away from the skin?
A: “The fabric itself is a highly technical athletic performance fabric that’s ultrasoft, has a super silky hand feel, and has 4-way stretch, which allows for incredible breathability.
The reason it breathes ten times better is because, number one, it’s not cotton. Cotton traps heat and moisture. We’ve actually done a lot of testing through NC State University. The tests show that our sheets breathe ten times better than traditional cotton. What that means is that you’ll sleep cooler because of the breathability of the fabric.
To get a little more technical, if you have moisture on your skin while you’re sleeping, SHEEX sheets will pull the moisture up and off your skin. Your sweat literally evaporates through the fabric. The bottom line is that you sleep cooler because you don’t have to deal with the moisture.”
Q: Do you have to wash and dry SHEEX sheets in a special way since they’re made from highly technical athletic performance fabrics?
A: “Since the sweat goes through the sheets and evaporates, you can wash your sheets however you normally wash sheets, whether that’s twice a week or once a week.
The neat thing as far as care is that you can machine wash these sheets on cold and then dry them on tumble dry low. These sheets dry in a third of the time. It’s very quick. If you have a 40-minute dry cycle, SHEEX sheets are going to dry in 10 minutes. It’s fantastic. And then they don’t wrinkle. It’s easy to make the bed because of the stretch of the fabric. The corners won’t pop off, and it’s great for all size mattresses – luxury, deep pocketed, thick mattresses with pillow top, and adjustable base beds.
We’ve got this elastic on the bottom, which is significant. It’s a thick, durable, elastic band on the bottom of the fitted sheet. Usually, those elastic bands are like a quarter of an inch. They’re so small. But ours is well over an inch and it makes the fitted sheets snap into place and fit the mattress really snug, and it won’t pop off. So, because of the stretch, it kind of moves with you. There are a lot of benefits to the sheet, as you can tell.”
Q: Elite athletes like you are known for their dedication, drive, and passion. The same can also be said about entrepreneurs. What were the most valuable lessons that you learned on (or off) the basketball court that you are now able to use in the business world?
A: “What my co-founder Susan and I learned through coaching and through basketball is that you’re only as good as the team that you surround yourself with, and you’re only as good as the staff that you surround yourself with. In order to make this happen, Susan and I applied our extreme work ethics. Our thought process was, ‘Nothing is good enough. Wake up every day and make it better.’ But we also surrounded ourselves with knowledge because if you don’t know something, then you need to go find out what it is that you don’t know and make it into something that you can learn and do now.
We called on industry experts, we called on our contacts, and we were just like sponges. We tried to listen, we were very flexible and versatile, and we took every meeting that we could and flew anywhere that we needed to. I think as an entrepreneur, you have to have flexibility, you have to be a risk-taker, and you have to be able to handle the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur, which there are lots of.
We worked hard, but we knew what we had in SHEEX. Every day we’d say, ‘Let’s just make today a little bit better than it was yesterday. Let’s just learn something new today that we didn’t know yesterday.’ It has been extremely challenging and extremely rewarding in the same sentence. We’ve worked hard to get to where we are today, and our hard work has paid off.”
Q: You were known as a hard-nosed player throughout your playing days. Do you bring that same intensity to the boardroom today?
A: (Laughing) “I would say I can’t change my stripes no matter how hard I try. I’m a competitor, a perfectionist, and extremely intense. So, yeah, the intensity that I bring to the company has been the same from day one to now – fourteen years later. (Smiling) I love what I do. I played basketball with an intense passion and I have an intense passion for SHEEX and for making this company into what Susan and I have dreamed about making it into.”
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of SHEEX, as well as why it was so important for you and your company to launch new lines and expand distribution?
A: “We were given some really sound advice early on. An advisor said, ‘OK, I understand that you have sheets, but what else are you going to get into?’ We replied, ‘Well, we haven’t really thought about that. You know, we haven’t even really brought the sheet out yet.’ And he said, ‘You’re either going to create a product or you’re going to create a brand. So, you need to decide whether you’re trying to create a brand or if you’re going to create a one-hit wonder product.’
Obviously, our entry into the marketplace was our sheet, and that’s what is patented. But we decided that we wanted to be a brand. By doing that, you have to think about your brand in ways of expansion. And the best way to do that is through product expansion, category expansion, and products in different categories that are all related to the home space. So, we decided to get into performance sleepwear, pillows, mattresses, mattress pads, and mattress protectors. Anything that you sleep on, in, or under, that is what the SHEEX brand is all about.”
Q: When you think back to your high school, college, and professional basketball playing days, what was your sleep routine like? Were you getting enough sleep before games as early as high school or was that something that you learned the importance of later on in your career?
A: “Sleep was always really important to me, and I always slept really well because I worked hard until I fell into bed. You know, I remember when I played USA Basketball going to the training camp in Colorado Springs and bringing my own sheets. And this is when I was a teenager, early twenties. I’ve never said that publicly before, but I’ve thought about it. And I would bring my own pillow.
So, somehow sleep must have been really important to me if I go off to a training camp and I bring my own bedding, which is ironic now that you know that I created this company and this sleep brand. (Laughing) I always knew sleep was extremely important to my performance. And I was an elite athlete. So, I took everything seriously. So, yes, sleep was one of those things that I took seriously, even when I was in high school on in to my pro career. I made sure sleep was way before any kind of social life that I ever could have had.”
Q: What advice do you have for any athletes and fitness enthusiasts who are eager to improve their sleep routine?
A: “I think it’s just prioritizing what your wants and needs are in life. If you want to be an elite athlete, a professional athlete, an Olympian, a really great high school player, or whatever level, prioritize what’s most important to you. If you want to be great as an athlete, then sleep better be a part of that equation.
Even though I’ve moved on to being more of a recreational type of athlete the older that I get, I still prioritize sleep because I want to be able to perform the next day. Whether it’s to perform in the boardroom as an entrepreneur, or as a runner and triathlete since I’ve done triathlons, sleep is vitally important for your overall health and well-being.”
Q: Speaking of being a triathlete, you’ve trained for several athletic competitions and philanthropic events in the past. Is there anything that you’re training for right now? Do you have any future training plans?
A: “I did an Ironman back in 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. It took me way too long to complete. But for that, I trained for nine months. It was an amazing experience. Traditionally, I’m not a distance athlete. I’m a sprinter. So, as I approached training, I had to completely change my mindset from ‘I’ve got to kill this run and kill this swim’ to ‘You’re actually just going to run for two hours and swim for an hour.’ It’s just a different mindset. It’s not for time or anything. It’s really for aerobic fitness. I have aspired to be an Ultra runner, but I don’t think my body is built for that. So, I’m probably going to go back to doing some Half Ironman Triathlons in 2022. So, I’ve got that on my plate.
I’m also training for something I’ve done in the past with cycling called Pedal for Alzheimer’s. It’s a ride that’s dedicated to my former college coach, Pat Summitt, who died of Alzheimer’s. That ride could be over 1,000 miles. The original ride was 1,098 miles in 11 days, which is a lot of miles. The ride was from Tennessee to Florida, and 1,098 was the number of wins that she had when she coached. We’ve raised a lot of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars, over a two-year period. So, I’m going back this year, and there’s a ride called Ride Tennessee for Pedal for Alzheimer’s. We’re riding from Nashville to Knoxville. So, it’s 500 miles in six days. I’m doing that in September.”
Q: You’re really keeping yourself busy. How do you manage to do it all?
A: “I can’t help myself. If I don’t have something I’m training for, at least in the back of my mind or on the calendar, I’m not fun to be around. I’m an athlete through and through.”
Q: How does SHEEX choose the companies that it partners with? What’s involved in the decision-making process?
A: “There’s two founders and we each have our own thing, if you will, that motivates us and drives us. Obviously, for me, anything athletic, or anything that has to do with fitness, health, and wellness, and even Alzheimer’s is something that’s near and dear to my heart because of my college coach.
I think no matter who we partner with it always comes back to an alignment, not only with the brand and the brand’s values, but the values that we have as founders. If you can’t do things that you want to do as a founder, in regards to aligning yourself with the right organizations, then why are you a founder? I mean, you of all people and we of all people, have control over who we partner with and who we don’t. So, in terms of MuscleTech, it’s a complete alignment with who we are as a brand and who we are as founders. And it was a no-brainer to work with MuscleTech because of the alignment.”
Q: Why should members of the MuscleTech community switch their sheets, comforters, pillows, mattress pads, and sleepwear to SHEEX?
A: “These are luxurious sheets, but they function for you. And the function part is what I would want people to pay attention to. If you think cool, dry, and comfortable all night long so that you get a better night sleep and can perform better the next day, I don’t know why anybody who is an athlete, an aspiring athlete, or a weekend warrior, wouldn’t aspire to be better the next day by getting a better night’s sleep.
Our brand promise is: A better night’s sleep than you would traditionally get in traditional cotton sheets.”