Nophol Techaphangam Is Making Sleep Greener. Here's How

By Chong Seow Wei

The social entrepreneur describes his ambitions for his mattress subscription service, the origin of his nickname and the film that continues to inspire him

Tatler Asia

I am Generation T is a series of quick-fire Q&As with some of the extraordinary individuals on the Gen.T List.

Mattresses might seem like an odd product for a startup, but for Nophol “Naps” Techaphangam, it makes perfect sense. Having grown up in a family that has been running a mattress and bedding manufacturing and trading business in Thailand for nearly a century, Techaphangam is familiar with the industry—and its pain points. 

When he worked at his family’s business, Somphol Bedding and Mattress Industry, he saw the amount of waste produced by the sector and a demand from customers for more cost-effective options. And so he left the company to set up Nornnorn in 2018 as a circular economy-based mattress subscription service, in a bid to “help set both the mattress and hospitality industries on a path towards environmental sustainability”. 

Techaphangam’s social impact ambitions extend beyond his startup. A Unicef Thailand NextGen Champion, he is working with the organisation to launch an initiative that will invite big corporates to provide disenfranchised migrant and refugee youth in Thailand with vocational training and job opportunities. He also founded and acts as the co-country director of the Thailand chapter of Nexus. There, he connects with young investors, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs and influencers around the world to find ways to increase and improve philanthropy and social impact investing. 

He shares more about the story behind Nornnorn and how he never intended for his personal nickname to match what he does for a living.

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Above  Photo: Unsplash

So, mattresses. What sparked your decision to start Nornnorn?
I had been working for my family business for nearly 10 years and learned a lot about the industry. I also saw that there was a demand from our customers, who wanted to spread out their spending on mattresses over time or didn’t have the capital to purchase high-quality mattresses. We also got a lot of requests to help get rid of mattresses at the end of their lives. 

The idea for Nornnorn came to me around 2015, three years before I actually started it. I was interested to see how businesses could be a force for good. I started Nornnorn as sort of an experiment to see if my idea would work as a business. Thankfully, it did, even though when we started, not many people were talking about the circular economy concept in Thailand.

What is Nornnorn all about?
We are arguably the first circular economy-based mattress subscription service in the world. We offer hospitality businesses highly affordable access to quality new mattresses from leading brands, as well as a stress-free, environmentally sustainable solution for used mattress disposal.  

Our subscriptions last between 60 and 120 months, in line with the hospitality industry's standard mattress replacement cycles. At the end of every subscription, we retrieve the used mattresses, disassemble them, and recycle or upcycle their components. 

In this way, we minimise the amount of waste in the production and consumption systems, ensure that our planet's finite resources are used more productively, and reduce future emissions of greenhouse gases.

What’s the story behind the name “Nornnorn”?
“Norn” means sleep in Thai and the double usage of the word goes with what we’re all about—that everything can be used a second, third, fourth time. The word “Nornnorn” also has a sweet and comforting connotation. It’s what parents in Thailand would say to their children when they have to go to bed. Finally, I wanted my company to have a Thai name, because there aren’t many cases of successful startups with Thai names in Thailand. I hope to be the first.

Your English nickname is Naps, which one might think has something to do with your job. Does it?
My nickname actually comes from my first name Nophol and it actually came about when I was spending my teenage years in the UK. My British friends and guardians found my name to be something of a challenge, so over time they decided to shorten it to Naps. It’s all a coincidence that the nickname goes perfectly well with my family business and current career.

What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced with getting people on board with Nornnorn?
A key challenge with customers is that people are interested, but we hope they can see more sides of the coin. People tend to focus on the financial benefits of our service and not see the environmental benefits. Our vision is to reduce waste in the system, so I hope our customers can understand this side more as well. 

The unfortunate thing is that it hasn’t sunken into people’s minds that they can make a change when it comes to the environment. Many think that global warming or climate change is an issue that has to be tackled by the government or larger organisations like the United Nations. But we, as individuals and small businesses, can create a positive impact too.

What’s next for Nornnorn?
I studied physics in university, so I’m very science-minded and constantly looking for ways to see how science can improve things. At Nornnorn, we recently partnered with the Asian Institute of Technology and Cambridge University to embark on a research study to see how we can better recycle the foam you find in mattresses. 

We’re also planning to measure the carbon footprint of every single product we feature. From there, we can see how to reduce them. We work with existing manufacturers, so we do have to work with a lot of their existing practices. But as we scale, we hope to have more power to convince them to make their practices more eco-friendly. 

That’s also why from the start, I decided not to create our own product and work with existing players. I believe in a win-win-win strategy—it should be a win for us, our suppliers and our customers. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We want to rely on the manufacturing prowess of the existing players and help them to be more eco-friendly instead.

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Sometimes when things get tough and I feel like giving up, I like to think of the moment in Interstellar where the lead character Joseph Cooper says, 'Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us.'
Nophol "Naps" Techaphangam

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My dad once told me that success is measured in decades, not years. I find that helpful as it motivates me, as an entrepreneur, to push through difficult times and stay focused and grounded when things are good.

What are you inspired to know more about in both your personal and professional life?
I feel like I’ve been climbing a mountain all these years. I’m curious to know where the top is and what it’s actually like to be on it.

What’s your favourite film and how has it influenced you?
Sometimes when things get tough and I feel like giving up, I like to think of the moment in Interstellar where the lead character Joseph Cooper says, “Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us.”

See more honourees from the Sustainability category of the Gen.T List 2020.

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