As people who use wheelchairs, canes or crutches, braces, grab bars or grabbers, ventilators, prosthetics or toilet extenders, we tend to be consummate jury-riggers. Because each of us has different needs–and because most of those who are designing the products we use have no experience using them–our desire for comfort, efficiency and safety strikes a fine balance. It is that necessity that causes many of us to carry a roll of duct tape in our back pocket and to always have a wrench, hammer or welding torch close at hand.
Through modification, most of us have come up with excellent solutions to make our daily lives easier and more efficient. More and more, there are many of us who are not only taking our bright ideas to the manufacturing stage but actually changing the way products are built. Consider well-known wheelchair-design pioneers like Marilyn Hamilton of Quickie or Jim Finch of Teftec. But there are also other, less well-known innovators who have done much the same thing with different adaptive products.
We talked with several people who had an idea and believed their inventions would make viable products. You may recognize their products or may have seen their advertisements. You may even recognize their stories as your own: facing a problem head on and using firsthand experience to come up with a solution. Their helpful tips and stories of perseverance may even provide the motivation you need to manufacture your own idea.
The first airplane trip Bruce Hammer took after he injured his spinal cord was to visit some friends in New Jersey. He was in California and he knew he would need a shower chair during his stay. He considered shipping his own chair in the box it came in, but instead realized he could just cut and unbolt some of the tubing, stuff it in a suitcase and check it in as luggage. Not only did it work great at his friend’s house–he only needed a screwdriver and a pliers to put it back together–but the ex-cabinetmaker/architect/motorcycle racer realized he had hit on an idea that could potentially make him a lot of money.
In May 1982 Hammer–at 32, the number two motorcycle racer of the year–crashed at an American Motorcyclist Association race and woke up in an intensive care unit in Wisconsin with a C6-7 spinal cord injury. He didn’t start racing until his late 20s (he’d worked for 10 years as a journeyman cabinetmaker making products for the rich and famous in Southern California, then became an architect and worked with computer graphics). In December 1983, during his first trip post-injury, he took his first steps toward arriving at where he is today: building shower chairs that sell for $695 to $2,995.
“At the time, there were bathroom products available for home use but nobody was making any products that you could fold up and travel with,” Hammer says. “That was the basis of my idea, to start making products that you could travel with. During the mid-1980s, for family vacations, I would work on a prototype bath bench to take with me on trips.”
Hammer would buy standard bath benches or shower chairs and take them apart. For the first bath bench, he enlisted his old racing team, Team Hammer, to fabricate his idea for the travel bench. He then hired a company to make one that he used for a couple of years. He built prototypes from 1983 until 1998. Then his mother offered him money that allowed him to quit his job as an architect and start making his invention. In the mid-1980s, he also sold his share of Team Hammer, which is still racing today.
“Before I became incorporated in 1998, I hired somebody who manufactures stuff for motorcycle racers to make a few of my shower chairs,” says the owner of Nuprodx, in San Rafael, Calif. “He was familiar with the quality I required. “Thousands of dollars of seed money were necessary to start: I had to have product liability insurance, corporation fees, I had to pay a machinist so I could make quantities of chairs, and I needed a lot of compatible parts,” he adds. “To start a business like mine doesn’t take a huge amount of money. You can become incorporated all by yourself and instead of having a full corporation you can have a limited liability corporation. For $25,000 you probably could pay all of the fees, a retail license, get incorporated and start an advertising program.”
The most challenging aspect for Hammer was finding a shop to manufacture the product. One shop he visited told him they were too busy to help but suggested someone they used for welding. It’s this kind of word of mouth that the entrepreneurs we talked to say is most helpful in creating products and building businesses.
For another source, the welder suggested a machine shop in Oakland, near Hammer’s home. It just happened that the machine shop had made parts for his old racing team.
“There are local shops that do just about anything,” Hammer says. “With the Internet and e-mail and with shipping being more efficient and cost-effective, you can easily start manufacturing your own products. I work with a guy who has his machine shop set up in his basement. I send him a digital file of what I want, and he makes the parts.”
He found a tube bending company on the Thomas Register Web site (www.ThomasNet.com). He buys tubing and has it shipped to the tube bender. It is then shipped to his machinist for welding and drilling; it gets anodized and assembled, and then Hammer picks up the pieces from the machinist. A company in Indiana fabricates the seat and bench parts, and other companies manufacture the cushions, rubber tips for the legs, and carrying cases for the finished chair.
He applied for a patent this past spring, but said it is a very slow and expensive process, costing between $10,000 and $20,000, [see sidebar, page 50]. Plus, he said a patent does not guarantee that your design won’t be copied; if someone makes just a small change to your product, it won’t be in violation of your patent, and you will still have to defend yourself in court.
Early on, Hammer started advertising and attending trade shows to showcase his product, generate sales and sign on distributors. He now advertises in New Mobility, Paraplegia News, Sports ‘n Spokes, and Quest, and each year attends three to four trade shows, including the Abilities Expo. He says booths at the shows cost $2,500 and his advertising budget is now $50,000. He sends out press releases to print media to announce product updates.
“I now make and sell 400 to 500 chairs a year and to date have sold 2,400,” Hammer says. “At the shows, I usually sell three or four chairs, and take three to 10 orders. Along with my Web site, there is one company that advertises my product in their catalog and I have about 150 dealers that sell my stuff.”
Hammer justifies the relatively high cost of his chairs by making them with what he says are higher-quality parts than his competitors. He uses aluminum tubing, stainless steel fasteners, custom-made hinges, padded cushions and backs to protect the users’ skin and welds in spots where others use a bolting system that can break down after use.
“I tell people my chairs are $29.95 and they’ll say, ‘Oh, $29? I’ll take five of them,'” he quips. “How do I justify something that is 10 times as much [as my competitors]? Theirs are not portable, they’re not as adjustable, usually don’t have a padded seat or back. And, they’ll never say this, but their chairs are designed to be thrown away after a certain time. Like with wheelchairs, a lot of private insurance companies assume that the product will only last five years and consumers will have to buy another one. The manufacturers play along and make stuff that’ll break down in four years and 11 months; mine are made to last a millennium.”
A typical customer is a person who has a disability and resources to pay out-of-pocket and who travels. He also has had several customers who–with a lot of perseverance and a well-written letter of medical need–had their private insurance or Medicaid pay for their shower chair. But he says it’s hard to get demographic information on the population to whom he is selling because big medical equipment supply companies say that there aren’t enough disabled people who travel.
“The traditional route of disability magazines and trade shows and therapists’ offices and hospitals can reach a small audience, but I’m not getting to the vast majority of the people I want to sell to,” he says. “AARP Magazine charges $10,000 an issue for a small ad. They are trying to target younger readers, and they want to talk about how active baby boomers are, but they don’t want to cover accessibility.”
For his Web site, he went with a Web hosting company instead of trying to build his own site. By visiting other Web sites, he found a host by checking out who designed and maintains sites that he liked (usually noted at the bottom of a site’s home page). For $300 a year, Computer Web Studio hosts Hammer’s site, which frees up valuable hard-drive space on his own computer. Important advice from this entrepreneur includes knowing your costs before you dive into manufacturing, and knowing your audience, your market.
“The main hurdles are understanding how much money it takes to run a business, and knowing that you make a profit on the realities of what people can and will pay for a particular product,” he warned. “I have been trying to get more products to sell because I have fixed costs whether I sell 100 or 1,000 units; I still have to have an office, a Web site and need product liability insurance. You’ve got to be pretty motivated and optimistic to make this work. It’s just like how young people don’t realize how difficult life is; that’s a good thing because if they knew how hard it was, they wouldn’t try different things.”
The 55-year-old Hammer says he has a whole series of other products he’ll be taking to market next year. He’d also like to find cheaper ways to manufacture his products and will be checking into possibly manufacturing in China. Like many entrepreneurs who have retail distributors and who sell their products via a Web storefront or catalog–such as Mike Ginsburg, our next subject–Hammer would also like to license other people’s ideas and sell them under his Nuprodx banner.
Confidence in Your Product
Mike Ginsburg is not afraid to call himself a guinea pig. In fact his openness to product testing, along with his research ability and a little word of mouth, helped him create a very successful line of suppositories made specifically for fast action.
Ginsburg was injured at the C8-T1 level in an automobile accident in 1963. By the mid-1980s, when he was seriously looking for a better bowel program, he asked a friend who happened to be a pharmacist if there was a way to make a suppository that would work faster. (He was using generic Dulcolax; it was the only thing on the market and was slow to perform.) His friend put Ginsburg in touch with the manufacturer of the product, who in turn took his suggestions of tweaking the active ingredient–bisocodyl–and using a water-soluble coating instead of the usual hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenated oil–fat–melts slowly to activate the bisocodyl. Using water, the active ingredient is able to stimulate the bowel more quickly. Together they created a faster-acting suppository. Within a few months they came up with a product that worked in half the time of the generic suppository. It wasn’t FDA approved, but Ginsburg had his supply.
“In 1988 I went to a progressive rehab program out in California,” Ginsburg says. “One day I was talking with one of the fellows about how horrible his bowel program was, how long it takes. I said I have something for you to try. Next morning he said, ‘Mike, that was the greatest thing, that was the magic bullet!’
“He had this Texan southern drawl and the way he said it just stuck in my mind, so years later, that’s what I named my suppository.”
Ginsburg called his wife in New York and had her send more of the bullet-shaped wonders and gave them to the Texan and another guy from rehab. Within weeks, he was getting calls from all over the country from people who had heard about his product from the two men. He started sending out the bullets himself and soon applied for and received a national drug code number from the FDA–this gave him approval to legally sell his suppository. He and the manufacturing company made an agreement that Ginsburg would distribute the specially formulated brand exclusively and indefinitely. They put Ginsburg’s name on the packaging and he slowly started a marketing campaign.
“At this time I worked in hospital administration,” says the owner of Concepts in Confidence. “I didn’t quit my day job but started sending out press releases. My sister’s friend was in advertising and he told me to get good photographs made of my packaging. I paid good money for some pictures, wrote up a news release and sent the information out to magazines.” Ginsburg spent a few hundred dollars on the photos, but they lasted years. “It was well worth the cost,” he says.
Ginsburg’s natural ability for selling–he says he worked in every store in his neighborhood and in high school was named Junior Achievement Salesman of the Year for all of New York City–along with attending trade shows and expos, attracted the bulk of his business. In the first five years of selling his product he attended four or five shows each year. Now, by word of mouth and his Web site, he sees a 15 to 20 percent increase in business every year. He got his first trade show booth for $250; the fee normally was $1,000 for a 10-by-10-foot booth, but Ginsburg told the softhearted owner of the show he couldn’t afford the cost and only wanted to set up a table in a corner.
In 1992 Ginsburg quit his day job and sold his product full-time. Soon he added to his product lineup other resale products, such as gloves and catheters. He now sends out catalogs and spends about $25,000 to $30,000 a year on advertising.
But success and smooth going are not always the rule in the business world. Recently, Ginsburg’s manufacturer had a problem with expiration date regulations, which caused a shutdown in product supply for a year. Ginsburg had to have a custom pharmacy make the Magic Bullet as prescription only and was able to fill 10,000 prescriptions. This enabled him to keep his business running but alienated some customers.
“Some customers said it was a scam, that I was robbing them,” he says. “But if I wouldn’t have done it, there would have been a lot of people without the Magic Bullet and I would have been out of business.”
Because of his initially slow marketing process, Ginsburg didn’t have big outlays of money; he marketed according to what revenues came in. He’s added several new products since then, including one for urinary tract infections, and he and his wife have moved to Boynton Beach, Fla., where he has a 1,700-square-foot warehouse/office space.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re based. All you need is a telephone, a computer and a UPS or post office for shipping, that’s it,” Ginsburg says. “I worked out of my dining room, moved to the garage, and then rented space. The only drawback of working in your home is that it doesn’t matter when the calls come in, you have to take them,” he warns. “The work never stops in the house.”
Now, his Web site captures 8 to 10 percent of total sales and the rest is divided between wholesale and retail sales. And like our next innovator, Thomas Fetterman, Ginsburg used to cover several trade shows a year. Unlike Fetterman, however, Ginsburg has stopped attending the expos.
“Trade shows are a lot of work but you draw a lot of business–it gives you a chance to get to a lot of people,” he says. “You get a chance to tell them why your product is good. If I had to start again, I’d do them. I loved it when I started, it was exciting. But it got to the point where the majority of the people attending knew my product, and most of the other vendors at the shows were already reselling my product.”
Tips from a Pro
Thomas Fetterman knows a thing or two about physics, chemistry and manufacturing an idea. A crutch user for 50 years, Fetterman created his own shock-absorbing crutch tips by concocting and testing different polymers in his home to find the correct formula. He also serves on the board of the American Society of Inventors.
“My problem came out of walking on crutches for what was then 40 years. My shoulders became beat up and very, very painful,” says the Philadelphian. “My doc basically said to slow down and take aspirin–not a comfortable solution for my lifestyle.”
Fetterman was 8 years old when he contracted polio and started using crutches. By the time he reached his early 20s he realized he had a finite amount of miles to be mobile. He went to college, got married, immigrated to Australia and traveled around Southeast Asia for between three and four years.
“I did a lot of other traveling and I got a lot of miles out of these shoulders,” says the owner of Thomas Fetterman, Inc. “My shoulders don’t owe me a nickel.”
By his mid-40s he realized the ground impact at the tip of his crutches was causing problems in his shoulders. After researching crutch shock absorption, he found that with each step, crutch users cast two to three times their body weight onto their shoulders. An active person takes 6,000 to 8,000 steps a day, which translates into literally tons of negative ground-impact force. This crutch-striking-ground shock transmits through the hands, up the arms and dead-ends in the shoulders.
Fetterman thought he could lessen this impact by cushioning the tips of his crutch. It was the mid-1980s, and tennis shoe technology was hitting the U.S. market: inspiration enough for a guy who grew up wearing $3 sneakers. He sliced the bottom off his crutch tips and glued a piece of sponge from a rubber ball between the tip and the tread. He said the result was amazing–very soft and comfortable. Logic told him that this was literally a step in the right direction.
“The sponge worked, but in two weeks time, the memory of the rubber was lost: it collapsed and lost its shock-absorbing ability,” Fetterman says. “That put me on another quest to find material that would give me that shock-absorbing effect but wouldn’t collapse. In the phone book I found a local manufacturer of rubber products who told me that all rubber products will collapse and fatigue over time because they are short-link molecules. I needed a long-link molecule, and he suggested that I explore polyurethane.”
Still, he had his proof of concept, which is the first step to moving an idea forward to becoming an invention and a product. When he found the right polymer, Fetterman had a molding company make a single-cavity steel mold for about $1,000. He then had several sets of tips made and sent them out to other crutch-users who gave him good feedback.
“You can become very myopic with your own invention,” he warned. “People become enamored with their invention and they ask their spouse and kids and neighbors and best friends what they think about the invention, and because they love the inventor, they say it’s great. But if you’re going to move forward in a sensible way, you want to do a lot of testing with people who don’t even know you.”
He did a patent search and talked to a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., who told him he had a good shot at getting his tips patented. His first patent cost $5,000. In 1988 he formed a company with his two brothers, who put up $16,000 to make the first multi-cavity mold. At their first medical trade show in Atlanta they sold $3,000 worth of Tornado tips, enough to pay for the booth and the trip. Now it was time to grow the business.
Fetterman eventually sold his patent for $100,000 (plus $25,000 consulting fee to launch it) to Sunrise Medical. They made a $75,000 mold and started making the Tornado tip, but the project languished when they had manufacturing problems. Fetterman had a good relationship with the president and vice president of the company and asked to buy back his patent. He got it back, along with the mold and all their wholesale customers who had sold the tips.
“You really need someone in the corporate world to champion you or you go nowhere,” he adds.
The best marketing strategy Fetterman has used was a catalog he called the Whole Crutch Catalog. In time he added a gel-filled crutch handgrip, then a crutch arm cuff. For publicity, he sent a press release and photo of his tips to Popular Science magazine–they featured it in their new-product section. He did a local invention convention and was awarded most popular invention. He utilized that news to generate more press and write more news releases. (To learn how to write a news release, Fetterman suggests reading How to Market a Product for Under $500 by his friend and fellow ASOI member, Jeffrey Dobkin.)
Like others with whom we spoke, Fetterman says the disability market is one of most difficult areas in which to promote and develop products. He cites the unavailability of demographic list rentals as one reason.
“You can buy a list of anything, people who are rich or poor, anything, but you cannot purchase a list [specifically] of people on crutches,” he says. “The privacy and information act and the paternalistic attitude of the government forbids [some entities] from accumulating lists of disabled people–knowing that we’re all so stupid that we would never be able to protect ourselves from any incredible offer,” he says with irony. “In all the years I’ve been on crutches, I’ve never received one piece of junk mail directed at my disability. Yet, from the manufacturers’ and end users’ point of view, I would have loved it if somebody would’ve sent me a nice postcard featuring crutch tips.”
[Editor's note: The publisher of New Mobility does own and rent a very large mailing list of people with disabilities. While wheelchair users can be identified on the list, crutch users cannot.]
As a board member of the ASOI, Fetterman warns that there are dozens and dozens of invention scam companies out there that prey on inventors. He says to watch for those who advertise that they can help you sell your invention or product–for a fee. He suggests contacting your local non-profit ASOI organization and notes the added help they can give you in your endeavor, such as meeting to examine your product. For a $30 yearly membership, you also receive a magazine, newsletter and have access to other members.
“I’ve done an electronic classroom for people with disabilities to help them become entrepreneurial,” he says. “I advise people to stick with things related to their disability that would improve their own lives. If it works for them, they have the credibility to convince others. I like to support other disabled people in this marketplace. I’m willing to speak to readers about their invention and can give more broad-based information.
“It’s a major accomplishment to find a product that works for your needs,” Fetterman adds. “You know the old saying, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ I say yes, necessity is a mother. But if you’re going to make a product, make a product in the field you know. Don’t be distracted by other things that pull you away from your core strengths and your core abilities.”
What is a Patent?
A patent is a legal document that gives the inventor authority to exclude others from making, using, selling or importing their invention. It is placed on something that is new and has utility–something of which you can make use. There is no application; you disclose your invention and request a patent in writing. Costs vary depending on complexity of the product technology.
“We advise people to get some sense of market value for their invention before they go forward,” says Richard Maulsby, director of public affairs, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.USPTO.gov). “It’s a lengthy and sometimes costly process. Patents are for things we use everyday. Copyrights are visual designs that are registered with the Library of Congress. A trademark is a fingerprint of commerce, it is your brand,” he adds.
The USPTO receives more than 450,000 patent requests a year. About 75 percent receive a patent. There are about 1.5 million active and in-force patents today and of that number, at the most, only a few thousand are viable products and are making money. Last year the USPTO issued 187,000 patents, of which Maulsby says the vast majority went to U.S. corporations here and abroad. Patents are good for a limited period of time: 20 years from application. A trademark lasts indefinitely if you keep using it, pay a fee and defend it by going after people who infringe upon it.
“Most importantly, before even writing for a patent, do some kind of market study to see if there is some kind of need or demand for your product!” Maulsby cautions. “At the bottom of our home page is an inventors resource link that will help inventors who are thinking about applying for a patent.”
Maulsby, like others we talked to, also advises consulting with a patent attorney or patent agent before proceeding. “It’s always better to spend a little money up front–than a lot down the road and be sorry,” he warns. “It’s just the cold hard facts.”