Saturday, March 12, 2005

DIASPORA: Sleep for Sale

Three Bangladeshis from Connecticut have even invested significantly in the project. "Several Bangladeshis, who are doctors and lawyers, have supported the idea, because they see how unhealthy the American working lifestyle is," explains Chowdhury. Chowdhury says he has no immediate plans to open a MetroNaps centre in Bangladesh, but plans to explore the possibility of outsourcing portions of his manufacturing process here. He even hopes to tour several factories during a family visit to Bangladesh in March. "It's just an exploratory trip at this point," he explains.

Sleep for Sale
Daud Khan

Arshad Chowdhury's new office, on the 24th floor of the iconic Empire State Building in New York City, looks like the set of a science fiction movie. Eight fiberglass and steel pods line the walls, their billowy shapes illuminated softly from lights above. What happens in them is not science, but something much more elemental: Sleep. They are the centrepiece of what Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi-American, claims is the first of its kind in the world: a state of the art sleeping salon called MetroNaps, where over-worked, bleary-eyed professionals pay to take a mid-day rest.

Paying to powernap may seem like a strange idea, but MetroNaps has struck a deep chord in the global working world so far, offering professionals an easy solution for making mid-day rest part of their daily routine. With franchises opening in North America and a storm of media buzz, the innovation could change the future of working life.

MetroNaps, which opened for business in May 2004, was conceived as a redress to the negative side effects of global working culture, where employees are spending more and more of their time in their offices, staring at computer screens, with little or no rest throughout the day. Chowdhury, 29, who hails from the state of Connecticut, says there's a real problem in the lifestyle that corporate culture breeds. "In the last 15 years, people are working more and sleeping less. Now people are sleeping 6 to 7 hours a night, not the 8 to 10 recommended by doctors."

Chowdhury should know. He used to work for a multinational banking concern in New York, clocking long hours himself while watching his colleagues desperately seeking sleep. "I saw a lot of them sleeping at their desks. People would even sneak off to the bathroom to take a nap."

All the sagging eyelids convinced Chowdhury of two things: one, today's professionals are woefully sleep deprived; two, they lack viable options for taking a mid-day rest. "For someone who wants to sleep, they basically have only two options: a very uncomfortable chair or a very expensive hotel--there's nothing in between," explains Chowdhury.

Filling that void could add up to a business, he thought. But would people actually pay to take a nap?

He decided to test the concept while pursuing his MBA at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, setting up a small makeshift nap centre on the university's campus. His hunch was right, and he soon found himself with ample customers willing to pay $1.00 to take a nap in a simple lawnchair.

With renewed conviction and an MBA fresh under his belt, Chowdhury teamed up with a college friend, Christopher Lindholst, a fellow MBA graduate and the two soon secured initial funding to launch the business.

Then, using the latest sleep deprivation research, they spent two years creating the ideal sleeping environment for prospective customers, employing along the way the creative talents of Matthew Huey, who has designed furniture for such world class companies as Knoll and Lucite.

The result is the centrepiece of the MetroNaps experience: the MetroNaps pod, a sleek, futuristic-looking hull in which customers recline, make their choice of ambient music, and then slip promptly into sleep. (Chowdhury, a veritable encyclopedia of sleep statistics, says the average person falls asleep in 5 ½ minutes). Special lights and soft vibrations wake dozers at the end of the rest period, which lasts a blissful twenty minutes - the optimal amount of time to boost alertness and brain activity, Chowdhury says.

"You don't sleep as much or as deeply, but you avoid sleep inertia, the feeling of grogginess that comes from sleeping too deeply," he adds.

Eight sleeping pods now line the walls of the MetroNaps' flagship office in the Empire State building. Their quirky novelty and sci-fi good looks have already generated a storm of media buzz less than a year after going into operation, appearing in numerous major news outlets, including The New York Times, Fortune Magazine and BBC News.

Chowdhury says he's very pleased with the customer response so far, reporting that the pods are often full by the afternoon. Most customers are full-time members of the facility, paying $65 a month for daily access to the pods. The centre also attracts a good number of curious walk-in clients who pay $14 for the 20-minute session. Metronaps, open daily from 10:00am to 6:00pm, even offers a lunch service for an extra fee, serving customers their choice of sandwiches, pastas and salads when they wake.

Chowdhury is still cautiously optimistic about the future of his business, but signs abound that the company is doing well. In January, MetroNaps opened a new centre in the Vancouver International Airport in Canada, allowing weary airport goers the option of dozing off comfortably right near their gates. The cost is $15.00 for 2 hours of rest.

"Airports seemed like a natural fit because people in airports are generally exhausted," Chowdhury explains, adding, "They have long lags, so they're enthusiastic about our store."

Chowdhury hopes the company's New York and Vancouver locations are just the first of many such franchises. Eventually he'd like to see MetroNaps pods become part of the standard architectural furniture of offices and airports everywhere. "I want this to be as ubiquitous as the photocopying machine," he says.

The plan, in other words, is not just to grow the business, but to effect a larger change in the way professionals live and work. "We intend nothing less than a shift in the global working world," Chowdhury proclaims.

To that effect, MetroNaps is currently working on an international rollout, with pods to be deployed possibly in the UK, Japan, Australia and Brazil.

Chowdhury was born and raised in the US, but Bangladesh has been a central source of emotional and financial support in the launching of his business.

To begin with, growing up in a Bangali community in Connecticut helped mold Chowdhury's entrepreneurial drive, giving him the courage to take risks. "Almost everyone in my family is involved in businesses of one form or another, from groceries to Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. I certainly saw how my family and other Bangladeshis paved their own road to success."

Building a business around a mid-day rest resonated strongly with Chowdhury's Bangladeshi circle, beginning with his father. "My father, Dr. Mujibul G. Chow-dhury, is a cardiologist and physician, and he sees the benefits of a mid-day rest."

Three Bangladeshis from Connecticut have even invested significantly in the project. "Several Bangladeshis, who are doctors and lawyers, have supported the idea, because they see how unhealthy the American working lifestyle is," explains Chowdhury.

Chowdhury says he has no immediate plans to open a MetroNaps centre in Bangladesh, but plans to explore the possibility of outsourcing portions of his manufacturing process here. He even hopes to tour several factories during a family visit to Bangladesh in March. "It's just an exploratory trip at this point," he explains.

When not working, Chowdhury plans to spend time with his family in Chittagong, including his uncle, Yakub Ali, or to visit some of his favourite spots in Dhaka: Bongo Bazar and Boss Tailors.

The growth of Metronaps will no doubt keep him busy for the foreseeable future, but Chowdhury hopes to keep coming back to Bangladesh, which he has visited every year since his childhood. "I'm always impressed to see how much development is taking place in Dhaka," Chowdhury says, adding, "I'd like to see it become more of an international destination city for tourists."

If that happens, MetroNap pods could someday pop up at Zia International, offering passengers a quick powernap before they jet off around the world.