Samantha Hess and client Etienne Illiye-Savcier have a cuddle session at Hess' home. A regular client, Etienne says it is a way to disappear from the stresses of life and to be totally self-indulgent. Hess has created a career in cuddling.
Need a hug? Call Samantha Hess. She's a professional cuddler.
It's not what you think.
"There are so many people who need this service, but there's just not enough time to get to everybody," she told me.
The petite 29-year-old is the one-woman hugging machine behind CuddleUpToMe.com, based in Portland,Ore. Only in a city with the unofficial motto "Keep Portland Weird" might you find the right environment to turn platonic love into a business.
Hess charges $35 a half hour, $60 an hour to spoon, hug or snuggle. She will spend the night for $300.
"I also travel for some clients," she said.
In the past, Hess said she has worked at "a lot of things" — retail, restaurants, personal trainer, Netflix call center representative. Most recently, she was "an installation coordinator for a small security company."
But last January, she read about a man at a market with a "free hugs" sign. "Another guy came along to punk him with a 'deluxe hugs $2' sign. This gentleman got more hugs than the 'free hugs' guy because this is 'merica."
A dream was born. Hess started placing ads online promoting a cuddling business. She also posted flyers around Portland and handed out business cards. Her website then caught the attention of local media, and she appeared on Portland's Ed Forman Show.
Now she has more cuddling business than she can wrap her arms around.
"I am booking sessions two weeks out."
Hess meets her clients at a neutral location before agreeing to a cuddling session, and all customers must sign a waiver which lays out the ground rules: "The cuddle sessions are NOT to be interpreted as sexual;" "both parties will remain fully clothed;" and "cleanliness and adequate hygiene are required by both parties."
What happens if a client gets aroused? "Natural reactions will occur," she said. "Sometimes you have as much control over that as a sneeze. We just move positions so that it does not become a focus of the session."
She also notifies a third party about the time and location of each appointment, and that person is called when the appointment is over "with a unique safe word." ("Portlandia" fans, I don't know if the word is "cacao!")
Hess tells me her average client pays for a 60-minute session and schedules two to four times a month. Ages range from the mid-20s to mid-60s, and sizes from 140 to over 300 pounds.
"All different races and relationship statuses. Careers of all types. Men and women," she said. Clients just have to be over 18 and sign her waiver.
Hugging has been such a hit that Hess hopes to expand the business in 2014, hiring six people and opening a retail location. She's also hired a lawyer.
"I am having a legal opinion drafted, and that can cost as much as $10,000 to ensure there is no way the business is illegal," she said. She figures she'll need to come up with $80,000 total to make it all happen.
Cuddling apparently pays better than answering customer service calls for Netflix or installing security equipment.
"I am not a materialistic person," she said. "But I currently am set up to make much more than I did at any other job I've ever had."
Others considering opening a cuddling business, should "be very clear with what you are offering," Hess said. "Gray areas are completely unacceptable. Never compromise on things like clothing, what is acceptable touch and your safety."
Most important, stay focused on the client throughout the entire session.
"I am not thinking about what I have to do later or what I am getting out of this," Hess said.
Which makes it different than sex.
Hess said that she wants to do more than build a business. She wants to change minds.
"I do this because I truly believe I can be the person who helps shift the understanding of platonic touch between adults in our culture to a positive one," she said. "I believe so much in what I'm doing that I will put every ounce of energy I have to ensure I help as many people as possible."
After all that work, she may need a hug.
—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells
Entrepreneurial hot spots
The top 25 hottest start-ups in the world
Buy a book, or just the cover
Top 10 start-ups from MBAs
First published November 25 2013, 12:38 PM