Image: TravelRest pillow
John Mittelstadt had his fill of frustrations when trying to sleep on airplanes. He tied his pillow to the back of his seat with shoelaces, an idea that eventually evolved into the TravelRest pillow, pictured.
By Travel writer contributor
updated 1/6/2009 11:29:39 AM ET 2009-01-06T16:29:39

As a professional model, John Mittelstadt is no stranger to long plane flights. Working with Levi Strauss, Banana Republic and other clothing companies, he flies from his home outside San Francisco to either New York or Hong Kong eight to 10 times a year. The latter, in particular, he says, “are just a killer.”

Two years ago, he decided to do something about it. He was returning from Hong Kong and sleeping poorly because the little airline pillow wouldn’t stay in place. “It occurred to me that if I could tether it to the seat somehow,” he says, “I’d have something.”

What he had were the laces of his running shoes, which he used to tie the pillow to the back of his seat. “It was the first time I really slept for hours,” says Mittelstadt, who started tinkering with the concept once he got home. It took several iterations, but in March 2008, he unveiled the TravelRest pillow ($26.95), a 27-inch-long, inflatable pillow that promised the seemingly impossible: decent sleep for distressed travelers.

From wayward pillows to wandering hands
Even if you fly only occasionally, chances are you’ve experienced your own share of frustrating moments. Maybe, as in Mittelstadt’s case, it involved a wayward pillow, or perhaps it had something to do with a long delay or limited armrest space. But while most of us tend to sigh and suffer silently, a few intrepid travelers have managed to turn those moments into marketable products. Necessity, it’s often said, is the mother of invention, but frustration makes a pretty good midwife.

For Matt Mostad, a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” one such moment came on a flight three years ago. At the time, he was working in business development for an Internet startup company and flying regularly between Seattle and San Jose, Calif., to meet with venture capitalists.

“I was sitting on the short side of an MD-80 next to a really big guy,” he says. “Every time he fell asleep, his hand would fall into my lap.” Worse yet, the same thing happened several more times on his return flight later that day. “After the sixth or seventh time I had a strange person’s hand in my lap in a single day, I thought, someone’s trying to tell me something. I need to solve this problem.”

To do that, he borrowed his mother-in-law’s sewing machine and began experimenting. The idea was to create something that would gently secure your hands so they’d stay in place — i.e., in your own lap, not your seatmate’s — even after you fell asleep. In 2007, he introduced the Pocket Armrest ($14.99), a stretchy, figure-8-shaped sling that you slide over your wrists or elbows so your crossed arms stay that way.

“Everybody who tries it on makes a joke about it being a restraining device,” says Mostad, who ultimately settled on a two-sided design made of micro-suede and polypropylene to avoid the confining effect. “The goal is to have you feel like your elbows are in a hammock rather than a restraining device.”

Anyone can be an inventor
While both Mostad and Mittelstadt consider themselves creatively inclined, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or industrial designer) to understand the source of their inspiration. “Coach airline travel has simply become such a slog,” says Mostad. “Anything that makes that slog easier and more relaxing will be met with approval.”

“You’ve got to fend for yourself,” agrees Mittelstadt, citing the “creeping indignity” of commercial air travel and the decline in onboard services. “The airlines aren’t going to do it,” he says. “They’ve already got your money.” And while that’s unlikely to change any time soon, he also believes it can be an opportunity that inspires other inventive travelers. “Why not me?” he asks rhetorically. “Why shouldn’t I give this a try?”

Which is not to say developing a new travel product is easy or without its setbacks. The Pocket Armrest, for example, was originally conceived as a pair of Velcro-backed mittens that would allow you to rest your hands together. But after making a prototype pair, Mostad noticed a problem: “Any time you wanted to do anything from scratch your nose to pick up a drink, you’d hear this huge Velcro-ripping sound that nobody would want to be associated with.”

But instead of bemoaning the setback, Mostad suggests it’s a natural part of the process and something every would-be inventor should be prepared for. “Don’t get siloed into one solution,” he says. “Give yourself no limits on how the problem can be solved, and keep opening yourself up to user feedback.”

In his case, he knew he was on the right track when he and wife set up an in-airport sales demonstration in Memphis: “We were putting up our banners, and several people came up and said, ‘That’s exactly my problem. You don’t have to sell me — how much is it?’”

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