Controversy is what makes this grow: Professional cuddler Samantha Hess on her exceptional business ideaRakhi Chakraborty
As far as unusual job descriptions go Samantha Hess, the world’s first professional cuddler, can lay claim to one of the most unique titles in the world. An entrepreneur who makes her living by hugging people, she has drawn in her fair share of fans and critics. But whatever your initial reaction to this mind-bendingly original venture- be it eye rolling sarcasm or warm acceptance- no one can decry curiosity.
Read on to know the bizarre story that inspired this business idea, why hugging and cuddling is central to our survival as a species, how haters are essential to the growth of her business and the only startup lesson that hopeful entrepreneurs need to internalize.
There was an incident involving a man who wanted to give free hugs and then a man sat next to him, offering hugs for two dollars which inspired you to launch your business. Please elaborate.
In January of 2013 I was on Facebook when I came across this story about how a guy who was giving out free hugs got less hugs than a guy who was charging for them. I had that lightbulb moment of realizing that when we put a monetary value on things, people understand our motivations more easily.
I am such a touch driven person that I need physical human connection to thrive. I felt how cool it would be if I could pay someone to hug me and not have any ulterior motive or expectation of emotional attachment. Once I started wondering why a service like this doesn’t exist, it was natural to jump to why not start my own.
In the year and a half that you’ve launched your business, you’ve seen phenomenal growth.
The growth has been amazing. I couldn’t even have dreamt of success at this scale, let alone achieving it within a year. The first publicity I received was when a local newspaper covered us. By October that year my story had been viewed by a million people all over the world. I ended up on more than forty different news stations across the country. I recently did radio shows in Ireland and Australia. I was on TV in Poland. I am doing interviews with journalists like you from India. Now my story has been seen by an estimated eighteen million people. The journey has been incredible.
Financially, and in terms of client base, how much has your business grown?
Though financially the business grew very fast, it was six months before I was making any actual profit. But that’s only because it cost so much to hire a lawyer, ensure the legality of my business and create my waiver. It took me six months to recoup those costs.
In the first few months, I calculated, I was making 22 cents an hour. It was that bad. I wrote a book, which helped keep things afloat. Now things have turned around. I’ve taken on some business partners. We are opening a 3500 square feet retail space ten blocks from the downtown of my city. I have had hundreds of clients so far and the number is growing fast.
Why is cuddling such a fundamental human need?
I find platonic touches to be one of those things that we are genetically coded to crave. Physiologically, when you hold someone for twenty seconds or more, it releases feel good hormones like oxytocin and serotonin and prevents cortisol- the stress hormone. Physical touch, when given and received in a positive way, regulates our bodies in fundamental ways. It helps with memory, sleep and metabolism and boosts our psyche. It is the cure all for our age.
In this technology obsessed era, we are reaching out less and less. Our interactions are usually impersonal. It’s hard when I can see you but I can’t feel you, can’t give you a hug. This is detrimental to society because we lose that sense of connection that binds us together. I strongly feel that this is something we need to get back in order for us to move forward as a species.
You wrote that you are the happiest person you know and that’s why doing this job is so natural for you. But when you put a commercial caper on that happiness, does it not take away the sentiment’s intrinsic value?
I love my job. The integrity of my business is preserved by the strict system that I’ve created around it. Every moment of every session, every interaction, is completely calculated. I am not just going with the flow. I am controlling and guiding things that make the most sense.
I’ve had a few people I’ve chosen not to take on as clients. Having that opportunity to sit down and talk to people before I take them on is important to me in order to make informed choices. I feel that I cannot take on people who are looking for a replacement romantic connection. One person offered me $500 to make out with them. That is not something I would ever do.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The best thing is getting to see how much of a difference I have made in someone’s life. It is incredibly heartening to see my clients happier, healthier and more in control of their lives once we’ve had a few sessions. To witness the healing process up close is to have my faith restored in the resilience of the human spirit.
What’s the worst thing about your job?
The worst thing is the hours. I’ve never been a business owner before and I had no idea what I was getting into. I spend fourteen or fifteen hours on my business, in some capacity or the other, every single day. I am exhausted.
It’s great to make the amount of money that I make during the sessions, but there are so many hours beyond that I am putting in that I am not getting paid for. It’s tough because there are many things I had no idea about and had to learn from ground zero. But that’s okay because now there’s nothing else I would rather be doing with my life.
How emotionally draining is each session for you? Or is it as rejuvenating for you as it is for your client?
It is definitely not rejuvenating. It is an emotionally draining service because I am not focused on my wants or needs. Sometimes it even gets physically exhausting to remain in a position where the client is comfortable, but I am not. The mental drain depends on the client as well. Some people come to me with a luxury bent of mind. Their life is pretty good and this service is something they use to recharge.
Others use me as a makeshift therapist. They cry and tell me what’s going on with their lives. They have endured severe trauma. For many, this is the first time they are empowered enough to open up.
I do self-care daily religiously. I meditate for fifteen minutes in the morning before even getting out of bed. Right after that I make a list of all the things I am grateful for, just to make sure I am thinking positively. I also meditate before every session. After every session I light incense to remove negative energy. The smell triggers my brain to focus and refresh. I adhere to these rituals to keep myself healthy.
I read that you are looking to hire more ‘cuddlers’. What is your selection criteria? How do you distinguish between sincere candidates and those applying for the novelty of it?
I just hired three people recently. We had over nine hundred local applicants. Four thousand people from across the globe wrote in requesting more information about it.
There is no required job background. It has no bearing on what you have done previously in your career. What I am looking for is someone who has an open, giving and nurturing personality, someone who is empathetic.
It’s tough because clients come with their share of flaws. People talk freely about their prejudices and we are not supposed to conceal any distaste. It’s hard but I want people who can look anyone in the eye and make them feel unconditional love and acceptance.
How do you deal with the constant scepticism and judgement that is a consequence of the work that you do?
I am of the school of thought that any publicity is good publicity. This is a service that people are going to be emotionally charged about, very few can be neutral about it. Either they will love it or hate it. But then again, having that kind of a reaction to this shows that there is a huge need for this.
When people attack me, either verbally or over mail, I try to remember that they are not attacking me per se. In fact most of those who are upset about it the most are the ones who need this the most. People who have genuine doubts or questions about my reasons for doing this work, I always reply to them. It may take some time, but I will get back to you. I have also stated facts on my website clearly. But I have no time or inclination for trolls.
That said, the controversy is what makes this business grow. If it wasn’t interesting, people wouldn’t even find out about it. Having people who hate it also brings in a ton of people who love it.
As someone who created a brand new job description from scratch and is now building a successful business around it, what is your advice to people wanting to strike out on their own?
My concept of how to make a business work is simple. If you believe your startup will fail, it will. I know that my venture will succeed. That’s why it will. That is all it takes- an unconditional acceptance of your path.