In the winter of 2019, Venkatesh Rao, a writer and management consultant sometimes referred to as a gonzo economist, came up with the term ‘domestic cosy’. Against the backdrop of the climate crisis, generational insecurity and widening inequality, Venkatesh explained how escape and retreat were becoming the dominant characteristics of late teenagers and young adults. ‘I’m calling it early,’ he posted on Twitter. ‘Gen Z is gonna be Domestic Cosy... Yeah, you heard it here first.’
On his widely read blog Ribbonfarm, Venkatesh unpacked some of his thoughts. ‘Domestic cosy is an attitude, emerging socioeconomic posture and aesthetic,’ he writes. ‘It finds its best expression in privacy, among friends, rather than in public, among strangers... Domestic cosy superficially resembles the hipster aesthetic. There is a focus on craft and production and it can appear artisan-like.’ Above all, he put forward that young adults will start caring less about going out and socialising, and instead look to prioritise their own comfort at home. A new type of consumer market was forming and it was going to be huge.
Sweeping forecasts are often wrong. Not that it stops us from believing them in our urge for a vision of the future. But over the next few months, Venkatesh’s predictions came good.
Selling the idea of cosiness is to be expected when you’re selling blankets. It’s a different story when aspirational brands, from vitamins to skincare, increasingly start being marketed with the same aesthetic of homely comfort and Instagram posts about staying in surrounded by candles on a Friday night. Even the New York branding agency Gin Lane – which counts Harry’s, Warby Parker and Everlane among its clients – changed its name to Pattern and launched a family of consumer brands focused on the home. Lots of other new brands followed that also targeted young adults; young adults who, even when they are out, want to feel as if they are at home.
No Plans Inc
While Venkatesh was fast in spotting the rise of domestic cosy, since nicknamed the ‘homebody economy’, Alisha Ramos beat him to it. In 2017, she launched a newsletter for ‘women who’d rather stay in tonight’, called Girls’ Night In. The newsletter opens with a note helping readers to unwind and better take care of themselves, followed by a round-up of links to articles and products, finished off with some kind of meme.
Alisha recognised early that young adults were already more prone to staying in these days – recent surveys show that Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 were spending 70% more time at home than the rest of the country’s population, while 28% of adults between 24 and 31 said they prefer drinking at home because going out is too much effort. And that was before the pandemic came along.
As people everywhere are learning to live with the reality of Covid-19, consumer behaviours are settling into a new normal. Talking on the phone from her home in Washington DC, Alisha says, ‘Suddenly it feels like any old brand is busy pivoting to cosiness.’
She, too, has been busy. In September 2020, Alisha launched No Plans Inc, which serves as an umbrella company for Girls’ Night In and The Lounge, a community platform for connecting online and in real life. Then, in October, she launched Whiled, a new arm of the company creating ‘goods designed for downtime’. The release of four jigsaw puzzles, each made in collaboration with an artist, signalled Alisha’s first move into making products and online sales. A post on Whiled’s Instagram page the day after the launch states: ‘The notion of “whiling away” the hours harkens back to the 1800s, an era in which being stimulated and also unproductive was widely celebrated.’
So, what does it mean to be a company about staying in when everyone is staying because they have to? ‘Friends and family were messaging me saying, “Everyone’s staying in now, you must be happy!”’ says Alisha. ‘But Girls’ Night In wasn’t ever about staying in because it feels irresponsible to go outside, or because things are simply closed.’
How, then, does it feel to be one of the few companies doing extremely well in the pandemic? ‘Business is definitely good,’ she says, pointing out that, by August, the company earned more in revenue than in the whole of 2019. ‘A lot of brands want to work with us right now because they want to align with customers staying in. But it does feel strange. Staying in has more of a grave lens on it now.’
‘Friends and family were messaging me saying, “Everyone’s staying in now, you must be happy!” But Girls’ Night In wasn’t ever about staying in because it feels irresponsible to go outside, or because things are simply closed.’
Girls’ Night In has seen its subscriber base shoot up to 170,000 in recent months. Lockdowns aside, there’s an obvious reason for young adults to be taking more pleasure in staying in: they’re exhausted and they just need a break. ‘It’s OK to take care of yourself,’ says Alisha. ‘We want to help people capture all the cosy intimate moments and make home life as special as possible.’
But for those who are cynical about the homebody economy, brands are trying to pull off an ingenious trick. They frame their appeal as anti-consumerist by urging a retreat from the world of going out and a move towards the supposedly less commercial spaces inside our homes. Really, they are promoting the idea on which all consumerism depends: that what you have right now isn’t enough, and that something needs buying before you can feel at ease. Or: don’t go anywhere if you don’t want to, but if you’re going to stay home, there’s some stuff you should probably buy. Like jigsaw puzzles.
Alisha concedes that the term ‘self-care’ has become ‘meaningless’. ‘So many brands aren’t in it for the right reasons,’ she says, ‘although there’s a super important, gendered component to the appeal of staying in and looking after yourself.’ She adds that a lot of women become interested in self-care and wellness almost as a way to show they are positively in control of their own lives and deserving subjects of their own care.
What’s more, why has spending money in public become the standard way to measure wellbeing and your ability to enjoy things? Implicit when looking at stay-at-homes is the idea that life is bad, Alisha explains, ‘and that’s something we’re working hard to turn around.’ According to Alisha, copycat brands that entered this space during lockdown might make a quick buck; longer term success, however, requires building meaningful communities. And this is where her competitive advantage lies.
Amanda Hesser, co-founder of Food52, a digital media and retail business, agrees. In September 2019, she sold a majority stake in Food52 for $83m, valuing the company at more than $100m. As one of the few founders of a media startup to successfully master the elusive content, community and retail model, where people go to read, share and, crucially, shop, she says she wouldn’t be surprised if Alisha ended up forming a similarly successful company.
‘Girls’ Night In caught on before the pandemic. Alisha really captured a sentiment, and she understands how community has to be an interactive experience,’ Amanda says. ‘Now she’s starting to spread her wings and experiment more. With each new launch, she’s creating a world for you to step into.’
Alisha, who says Amanda has become a ‘mentor of sorts’ since the pair were introduced a few years ago, has always looked to follow the content-and- community-before-commerce model that has worked so successfully for Food52 and a handful of other modern media brands.
With roles in brand strategy and management consulting at Vox Media, Alisha gained experience working at the intersection of revenue, technology and content early on in her career. She also has a background in writing and journalism – while studying sociology and history at Harvard University, she was editor-in-chief of The Harvard Voice.
‘Before media companies can even think about moving into e-commerce, you have to get your foundations right,’ she says. ‘Approaching things from the product to content way round, it just feels inauthentic to me. Like when a coffee company suddenly releases a magazine – they are just looking to shift more products.’
Girls’ Night In raised its first and only round of venture capital funding in 2018. At the same time, Alisha was working around the clock. ‘The message behind Girls’ Night In, to take care of yourself – I wasn’t doing that myself,’ she says. ‘So I hit pause and stopped chasing growth for growth’s sake. For example, I don’t expect Whiled to grow exponentially in the next year or two; I’m taking the long view and building out the brand across the next decade.’
For Alexis Juneja, who Alisha credits as playing a crucial role in helping her to get Girls’ Night In off the ground, ‘Even when she first launched the newsletter, she always had much bigger plans to expand the business as a whole.’ The pair met at Vox, which had recently acquired the media company Curbed Network, which Alexis co-founded in 2004.
‘Venture capital money can undoubtedly be great for lots of different reasons, but not always for growing organically and building community,’ says Alexis. ‘Alisha has been building in the right way.’ When Alisha started out, she adds, Girls’ Night In was ‘almost counter cultural. The emphasis used to be on young women to go out and behave in a certain way. She’s made it OK to follow a different path.’
Growing up, Alisha spent lots of time writing blogs and making friends in online communities such as MySpace, GeoCities and LiveJournal. One guy even flew out from the UK to see her in the US. ‘Some of my friends thought, “Who the hell is this dude?” Because, back then, it wasn’t “normal” to make friends online like it is today.
‘All these experiences taught me about the power of the internet,’ she continues. ‘It felt magical to connect with people from different lives. Now I’m taking that one level deeper by really connecting with people in their homes.’