Neil Parikh hadn’t been getting a lot of rest, and it showed. It was deep into the afternoon, and Mr. Parikh, a founder of the direct-to-consumer mattress start-up Casper, was looking at the menu of a Midtown Manhattan coffee shop, debating whether it was too late for another cappuccino.

“This whole week, basically, I’ve been in the toilet — I had a 57, a 59,” he said, sighing. He was referring to readings taken by a silver band, called an Oura, that was on his right ring finger and tracks things like R.E.M. sleep and heart rate and returns a “readiness” score out of 100.

Standing next to Mr. Parikh was Dr. Frank Lipman, a sleep specialist who has been treating the executive for a year and a half. “That’s not good,” he said, frowning. “I’m usually in the high 80s, unless I sit up at night and watch Rachel Maddow.”

Mr. Parikh, who has a Casper Wave model in his bed at home, settled on a decaf. It’s not a great look for one of the top executives of a mattress company to seem haggard and kvetch about z’s during prime working hours, but recently, Casper has quietly acknowledged that it’s not enough to be a mere foam-slab company. The start-up needs a bigger market, and the concept it’s embracing is sleep itself.

Five years ago, the start-up started slinging compressed mattresses in cardboard boxes straight to buyers’ homes — an alternative to cluttered mattress chains that tried to baffle consumers with jargon. Casper’s basic proposition, that going to a mattress store is a drag and no one should have to do it, made sense to fans of other retail start-ups trying to cut out middlemen, such as Warby Parker.

But in the years since, Casper has had to shift positions. Dozens of mattress-in-a-box competitors crowded the market. Realizing the limitations of an entirely virtual business model, Casper began opening storefronts and selling products like pillows and sheets. All the while, the wellness industry rose up, with companies attaching their wares to a sense of higher, healthful purpose. While businesses devoted to optimizing most of the core bodily functions abound — start-ups that promise more healthful eating, more holistic hydration, etc. — no company has yet established itself as the clear leader of the sleep space.

It’s a slightly absurd concept, until you consider that humans spend about one-third of their lives sleeping, and that the potential market is enormous. CB Insights, a research firm, estimates that the size of the so-called sleep health economy will reach $85 billion by 2021.

“Buying a mattress is not a recurring purchase,” said Jacob Matthews, an analyst with the research firm CB Insights. “As Casper thinks about expanding, opportunities to bring the customer back into the brand ecosystem, whether it’s for an experience or a product, are going to be key.”

And so ahead of a possible initial public offering, Casper is trying to recast itself as “the Nike of sleep,” in the company’s phrase. It has assembled a “sleep advisory board” that includes Dr. Lipman, who contributes articles and recipes to Goop.com, in addition to impressively credentialed academics and supposed sleep experts from Brown, the University of Arizona and elsewhere. The panel will advise Casper’s 500 employees on how to sleep better so that they, in turn, can better advise customers at the company’s stores.

As Mr. Parikh sees it, this will help shoppers develop a lucrative affection for Casper, one that is impossible to imagine them feeling for the conglomerates that constitute Big Sleep, namely Serta Simmons Holdings and Tempur Sealy International.

“Those companies don’t understand that long term, consumers are investing in things that mean something bigger,” Mr. Parikh said. “If I’m wearing a pair of Nike shoes, a little part of me feels connected to the Olympic athletes that wear those shoes, and maybe I feel like I’m a little bit faster of a runner. That’s the mentality shift.

“We’re trying to shift the cultural norms so that hopefully, over time, when people pick a Casper, they’re buying into something a lot bigger than just a slab of memory foam.”

Casper is also expanding its wellness offerings. This year, it debuted Glow, a cordless bedside light designed to expedite the wind-down process, a somewhat oxymoronic proposition. Glow gradually dims for 45 minutes and turns on or off with a simple shake. (It can also be programmed with a proprietary app, although looking at the melatonin-suppressing blue light of your phone screen might defeat Glow’s purpose.)

At $129, it’s more expensive than the average nightstand lamp. Philip Krim, Casper’s chief executive, said it served as an entry point for people curious about the brand but unwilling to drop $395 or more on a mattress.

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CreditBenjamin Lowy/Getty Images

“They’ll start with the Glow, or the pillows, or the sheets,” Mr. Parikh said. “And then they’ll be like, ‘Well, maybe I need a new bed’ — and then we start converting.”

Besides mattresses, Casper now sells bed frames (starting at $365), duvets ($250), dog beds ($125), even actual sleep. At the Dreamery, a hushed, high-ceilinged space attached to Casper’s store in SoHo, you can buy a 45-minute nap in a minimalist, yurtlike pod for $25. The price includes snacks, beverages and rental pajamas.

“Over time, revenue is going to increasingly be diversified outside of the mattress, as more and more people realize that Casper is not just a mattress destination but, really, a destination for all things sleep,” Mr. Krim said.

This spring, Casper quietly changed its social media strategy. Along with its usual photographs of shiny, happy people on Casper beds, the company began publishing guided meditations and bedtime stories on Instagram, YouTube and Spotify. Many are narrated by a somniferous entity named June the Moon.

“Hello there, creatures of the internet,” she intones breathily in one clip. “Are you dreaming of blissful sleep? Tired of chasing those elusive z’s? Ready to live your best life?” She promises to transport the bleary-eyed to “a magical internet slumberland filled with sounds, meditations and bedtime stories to help you wind down and drift off.”

“Social media tends to be really anxiety provoking,” said Jeff Brooks, Casper’s chief marketing officer. “We want to be an oasis.” Mr. Brooks also helped create the company’s new mission statement, as lofty and vaporous as a cumulus cloud: “Awakening the potential of a well-rested world.”

A mattress primer: For a long time, the American market has been dominated by Tempur Sealy and Serta Simmons, both of which date back to the 19th century. Simmons Bedding was founded in Atlanta in 1870; Sealy, which Tempur-Pedic acquired in 2012, was founded in Texas in 1881.

But the current state of the industry began to take shape in 2014, when a group of men at a co-working space noticed the direct-to-consumer trend and figured that a good industry to disrupt might be one whose incumbents had been around since Thomas Edison was messing with electricity. They started Casper, and before long it was synonymous with the mattress-in-a-box concept. Today Casper has a $1.1 billion valuation and a slew of imitators, including Purple, Avocado, Leesa and Saatva.

The wrinkle is that Casper has never posted a profit. And its biggest rivals say they are not, well, losing sleep. “Our stock’s up 80 percent, and we’re a $4 billion company,” Scott Thompson, Tempur Sealy’s chief executive, told me. “We’re having a great time.”

“What we are not doing is spending money in P.R. to create buzz to raise more money to fund unprofitable operations,” he added. In Mr. Thompson’s view, Casper’s main innovation is “the willingness to lose tons of money for multiple years while hoping to find a business plan or find a greater fool to buy them.”

Perhaps because of the competition, Casper has gone to great lengths to protect its reputation, even at the cost of undercutting its cuddly image. Mr. Krim has publicly warred with mattress-review websites that rated Casper as inferior. In 2016, the company sued three of them, and the next year, it provided a loan that funded a takeover of one of the sites.

In March, the tech publication The Information published internal Casper financial statements that showed the start-up was still losing money. The company says its revenue for 2018 exceeded $400 million. By comparison, Tempur Sealy posted revenue of $2.7 billion, with operating income of $256 million.

But while Mr. Thompson may scoff at the start-ups’ business model, his company has been forced to play catch-up. Tempur Sealy now offers Cocoon, a bed-in-a-box that, just like Casper, comes with a 100-night trial period. Direct-to-consumer sales now account for about 10 percent of the company’s sales. (Last year, Serta Simmons acquired the Casper rival Tuft & Needle.)

To a certain extent, there are only so many new ideas in sleep. In 2012, two years before Casper came along, Tempur Sealy rolled out flagship stores with semiprivate mattress testing pods and “sleep consultants” working not on commission but on salary. As of September, Tempur Sealy had 49 of these stores in North America, outpacing Casper’s 46.

While the start-up arrived heralding the end of IRL stores, its future may depend on them, especially if it broadens its market from mere mattresses to the entire category of sleep.

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CreditJake Rosenberg

At Casper headquarters in New York, the company recently instituted a “sleep in” policy for employees: Once a month, they can opt to not set an alarm and head to the office after whenever they wake up.

Elizabeth Wolfson, the head of human resources, is working with the new advisory board to develop a sleep training program that will be mandatory for every worker.

“We’ve laid out what Chapters 1 through 4 might look like,” Ms. Wolfson said. “All employees will participate in Chapter 1, which is really the foundations of what is good sleep: defining basic terms like circadian rhythms.”

“Phase 2 is more intermediate and for our front lines,” a.k.a. Casper’s retail staff, she added. The vision is that every store will eventually have a “black belt”-level sleep expert.

“We’re figuring out if it makes sense to offer sleep coaching,” Mr. Parikh said. “What other things can this sleep evangelist do?”

Promoting expertise is something of a change for Casper, given that many of its store personnel had no experience selling mattresses, or even selling anything.

“I’d rather find somebody that’s a great conversationalist than a great salesperson,” said Kyle Rod, the manager of a Casper store in Torrance, Calif.

Before he got the job, he spent 15 years running a Guitar Center. “People will talk about music all day long, but getting them to talk about how they’re sleeping, that’s a lot more difficult,” Mr. Rod said. “It’s a very intimate experience when you’re having to say: ‘O.K., so what’s happening in your shoulders? How do your hips feel? How are you situated in the bed?’”

To get his employees comfortable with initiating these conversations, Mr. Rod encourages them to read and discuss sleep studies — “It’s like homework,” he said — and role-play. On the day I visited, Mr. Rod pulled aside Tracie Dunifer, the assistant manager, and asked her to act as someone who was waking up with shoulder pain but didn’t know why.

A version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” played out, with Mr. Rod guiding Ms. Dunifer to three products before she indicated that one felt best. It was the Wave mattress, she said, whose contours better supported her hips and shoulders thanks to some combination of technology that makes the mattress both firm and soft and, honestly, went completely over my head. The Casper store was certainly more homey than the anonymous strip mall where I bought my last mattress, but the sense of confusion was the same.

There’s no doubt that there is money to be made in sleep: Consider the $149,900 horsetail hair mattress from the Swedish company Hästens, or the parents who spend thousands of dollars on sleep consultants for their newborns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has decreed sleep deprivation a public health problem, saying that about a third of American adults do not get sufficient rest — contributing to the sense that quality shut-eye is becoming a luxury.

But that could all be a mismatch for Casper’s midmarket brand. Early engagement with its social media efforts are low. One Instagram clip of June the Moon has around 5,500 views, and only 7,400 users subscribe to the brand’s YouTube channel.

If Casper decides to file for an I.P.O., as is rumored, it will enter a market that’s increasingly skeptical about unprofitable start-ups. Uber’s debut this year was a comprehensive disappointment. Shares of Slack plunged in early September after the company announced an unexpectedly big loss. And WeWork is under pressure to delay its I.P.O., after initial hopes of an offering above $47 billion have faded to a level in the range of $15 billion to $20 billion.

All of the companies styled themselves as disrupters, and they did change the way Americans travel, communicate and work — just as Casper changed the way millions shop for their sleep. But none of them has ever turned a profit.

Back at the Dreamery, Mr. Parikh said Casper’s customer base was “everyone — everyone is in the market for sleep, because everyone can sleep better.” It may be true, but for now, in a business sense, it’s very much a dream.

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