Can this con­trap­tion re­ally help you sleep on an air­plane?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - THOMAS HEATH thomas.heath@wash­post.com

Ephi Zlot­nit­sky landed in Wash­ing­ton as a 22-year-old im­mi­grant from Is­rael on a July Satur­day in 1989.

The next day, the former para­trooper, who barely spoke English, walked into a kosher deli in Sil­ver Spring and got a job. As he re­calls it: “The owner said, ‘I don’t have a job for you.’ I said, ‘I’m not leav­ing.’ He asked me, what can I do?”

“What­ever you want,” Zlot­nit­sky replied. “Wash dishes. Clean floors.”

He did all that — and also made a mean Israeli salad.

Fast for­ward 28 years. Zlot­nit­sky, now 50, has started sev­eral com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing a real es­tate com­pany and a Mary­land-based soft­ware firm.

But it’s his foray into air­line travel that got my at­ten­tion. Zlot­nit­sky is not only an ex­am­ple of the rich con­tri­bu­tions that im­mi­grants bring to Amer­ica. His is also a tale of the thank­less frus­tra­tions that go with build­ing a busi­ness.

And what with all the hor­ror sto­ries about fights, ri­ots, even scor­pi­ons, on the air­lines re­cently, I thought Zlot­nit­sky’s project to bring peace­ful sleep to air­line trav­el­ers was timely. The en­tre­pre­neur has helped in­vent an air­plane pil­low with the kitschy name of Jet Comfy.

Jet Comfy re­minds me of those wacky late-night ads hawk­ing off­beat con­trap­tions like the Veg O-Matic, Pocket Fish­er­man and In­side the Shell Egg Scram­bler.

Like en­tre­pre­neur and TV mar­keter Ron Popeil, Zlot­nit­sky is al­ways think­ing of the next thing.

Peo­ple like Zlot­nit­sky im­press me. I wish I had 2 per­cent of his en­ergy and re­source­ful­ness. Af­ter talk­ing with him for an hour, I called the busi­ness­man who rec­om­mended him to me and asked, ‘Is this guy for real?’ ” He as­sured me he was. “I wasn’t the bright­est guy,” said Zlot­nit­sky, who was born and raised 20 min­utes north of Tel Aviv. “But I’ve al­ways been this guy who was think­ing out­side the box. I don’t be­lieve in ‘no.’ ”

This anec­dote is from when he was a teenager: “We were driv­ing in a car at night in the mid­dle of nowhere in Is­rael, and a belt broke in our car. We couldn’t see any­thing.

“The driver looks at me and said, ‘We are stuck here.’ I said, ‘I am break­ing the mir­ror.’ I told him to turn on the head­lights and shine from one mir­ror to an­other. We man­aged to fix the belt and drove back home. From that day, peo­ple came to me to fix stuff.”

His lat­est mis­sion is fix­ing sleep prob­lems for trav­el­ers.

The airspace for plane pil­lows is as crowded as the skies. The horse­shoe pil­low has been around for decades. A former Vir­gin At­lantic flight at­ten­dant, a few years back, in­vented a Jshaped pil­low.

“Air­lines are cram­ming you in, and there is less space and less ev­ery­thing,” Zlot­nit­sky said. “At least you want to sleep nor­mal.”

He and a busi­ness part­ner have in­vested three years and $350,000 to cre­ate the Jet Comfy. The pil­low is the size of a purse and sells for $39.99.

About 10,000 units have been sold since it went on sale in Jan­uary. Zlot­nit­sky said he has plans to open the first Jet Comfy com­fort sales cen­ter in Dulles In­ter­na­tional Airport in Au­gust and hopes to ex­pand to 25 lo­ca­tions at larger air­ports in a year.

The pil­low is avail­able now on Ama­zon Prime and at Lug­gage Plus stores and will be of­fered on­line by Wal­mart later this month. (Ama­zon.com chief ex­ec­u­tive Jef­frey P. Be­zos owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

It weighs less than a pound and mea­sures 9.5-by-5.5 inches. It looks noth­ing like a pil­low — more like a foam head­rest at­tached to a foot-long pole sup­ported by the arm of your seat.

Zlot­nit­sky is bet­ting that, among the more than 3 bil­lion peo­ple who fly ev­ery year, there is enough of a mar­ket for him to sell mil­lions of Jet Com­fys. “We plan to sell over 350,000 units by mid2018 in the U.S. alone,” he said. “We are work­ing to start dis­tri­bu­tion in Europe, China, Aus­tralia and the Mid­dle East.”

Af­ter leav­ing the Israeli De­fense Forces, Zlot­nit­sky started a plas­ter­ing com­pany. It failed, leav­ing him $250,000 in debt.

“I didn’t know what I was do­ing,” he said. “I took loans. I bought ma­chin­ery. All kinds of crazy stuff.”

He even­tu­ally paid off the bank loans. Zlot­nit­sky had bet­ter luck in the United States. He and his brother, Chanan, grew a small news­pa­per dis­tri­bu­tion route into the re­gion’s largest news de­liv­ery busi­nesses, known as News One. They sold it to Hud­son News in 2008, be­fore print’s steep­est de­cline and in time to make some money off the sale.

They in­vested in iCon­trol. The $150 mil­lion com­pany’s tech­nol­ogy aids com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween re­tail­ers and sup­pli­ers, and Zlot­nit­sky owns 22 per­cent of it. Gold­man Sachs owns a chunk, too.

In be­tween, he has in­vested in real es­tate that earned enough money to sub­si­dize iCon­trol, Jet Comfy and a few other en­deav­ors.

“I don’t know what I’m worth,” he said. “I hope I’m worth a lot.”

Jet Comfy all started on a div­ing trip with his wife to Bora Bora in 2014. As they were ex­it­ing the Air Tahiti jet, he heard a pas­sen­ger named David Brecht, a bat­tery en­gi­neer from San Diego, call it the “worst flight ever.”

At the ho­tel bar later, the two de­cided to team up to bring rest­ful sleep to those who can’t af­ford to buy spa­cious first-class seats. Zlot­nit­sky’s idea was to recre­ate the com­fort of your chin rest­ing in the cup of your hand with your el­bow rest­ing on the desk or ta­ble.

“That’s the nat­u­ral po­si­tion,” he said. “You tell some­body to rest their head, and that’s what they are go­ing to do.”

They cre­ated mock-ups out of card­board. They drew de­signs on toi­let pa­per. They bought “selfie sticks” for the pil­low stand. They Skyped be­tween Mary­land and San Diego. They bought a used 3-D printer for $2,300. They bought used air­line seats on eBay to test their de­signs. They bought foam, alu­minum, plas­tic. They pulled all-nighters.

“Dave is the geek that can take my ideas and make it hap­pen. I am the guy tak­ing it to the busi­ness. We spent al­most two years build­ing this crazy thing.”

They tried out sev­eral names: EZ Rest (us­ing Zlot­nit­sky’s ini­tials) and Easy Comfy. Their wives came up with Jet Comfy.

The low point came on a fac­tory-hunt­ing trip to China in March 2016. Zlot­nit­sky ar­rived in Shen­zhen, an in­dus­trial city of 12 mil­lion, in the mid­dle of the night, me­an­der­ing for three hours in a cab with a driver who did not un­der­stand English.

“‘That’s it,’ I thought,” Zlot­nit­sky said. “I’m not com­ing back from this one. It was like a movie.”

But he did come back af­ter find­ing a small fac­tory that could build most of the parts for his pil­low. By last sum­mer, they had nine test pil­lows that they asked friends and fam­ily to try. They sent sam­ples to the Hall­mark Chan­nel and me­dia out­lets. They got a write-up on the Huff Post’s web­site and a pro­file by a San Diego tele­vi­sion sta­tion.

Zlot­nit­sky sent me a free sam­ple. My wife, Polly, took it with her on a trip over­seas last week to serve as my guinea pig.

“Jet Comfy is a plus,” she re­ported back from Europe. “Not nir­vana, but a def­i­nite im­prove­ment. It has earned a re­turn ticket.”

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ephi Zlot­nit­sky, an Israeli-born en­tre­pre­neur, tries out his new air­plane pil­low — dubbed JetComfy — at his Rockville of­fice.

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