Flight Attendant Becomes Woman Inventor

By Features WomenEntrepreneur.com

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For as long as I can remember, I have always dreamed of inventing a product. During the past 25 years, I have had many different ideas, but nothing ever felt right. That all changed on Oct. 28, 2005.

I was at Barnes & Noble for story time with my two children, Chloe, 3, and Carter, 2. When story time finished, all the parents took their children to the restroom. Since there were no child-height sinks, one by one we all took turns lifting up our children and holding them against the counter so they could wash their hands. My children didn't particularly enjoy being wedged between me and the edge of the restroom counter and, really, who could blame them? I lifted Carter, held him against the counter and while I reached for the soap, he immediately started to cry. I hadn't realized that my leaning forward was hurting his stomach. As I consoled him, I thought to myself, "Why is there a diaper-changing table in every restroom but nothing for children to help them reach the sink?" Suddenly, there it was -- that gut feeling -- and it had never felt so right.

When I got to the car, I immediately called my husband. He was at a job interview, and I told him it didn't matter if he got the job because I had the most amazing idea. While he was intrigued, he wondered if there was already a step stool of some kind on the market we hadn't yet seen. It's difficult to explain, but deep down I just knew there was nothing out there.

The next day I had to work a flight to Los Angeles and back. When I got to Los Angeles, I called my husband to see if he had been able to find anything. He said he had been searching the U.S. Patent Office website for hours and couldn't find any kind of a step stool for public restrooms. Even though he was only confirming what I already knew, I still got butterflies in my stomach when he told me.

A few weeks later I was sitting on the flight attendant jump seat talking with another flight attendant. We were talking about what our husbands did for a living and she said that her husband was a patent attorney. I met with him at his office a few days later, where he explained the whole patent process to me. He recommended filing a provisional patent, which costs a lot less than a regular patent and protects your idea for one year. That is exactly what I did.

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With the provisional patent filed in January 2006, it was time to create the product. One night while doing research on the internet, I came across a newspaper article about a guy in Atlanta who had invented a car carrier for motorized scooters. In the article he said his success wouldn't have been possible without his product design engineer, John Evans. I called the inventor the next day and asked for Evans' contact information, which he was happy to provide. The day I met Evans is the day that changed my life forever. He took my idea and original design and transformed it into a work of art.Step 'n Wash was born.

I had sketched a simple design within days of getting the idea. For example, I knew I needed a retracting step so it wouldn't be in adults' way. But Evans suggested that the legs be curved to prevent adults from stubbing their toes on it. He preserved the conceptual idea -- a folding step -- but his design looked entirely different from mine. That's because he took the manufacturing process into account. While my design would have worked, it would also have been a challenge to manufacture.

Once Evans finalized the design, we created a prototype to test functionality and strength. We tweaked the design several times, and each time we had to make a new prototype and test everything again. It took three years to perfect the spring mechanism to retract the step.

Once I thought I had the final design, my first big mistake was thinking we were finished with the prototypes and testing. I had 200 units made, only to discover that there was a "pinch point" -- a place where two moving pieces came together with enough of a gap for a child to insert a finger and get it pinched. To make matters worse, there was no easy fix for the problem, and all 200 units were turned into scrap metal. It was a huge financial blow.

Happily for me, I was still able to depend on my two angel investors, American Express and Visa.

When the product was finally ready for the market -- which included removing or covering all pinch points to eliminate potential liability -- selling it proved much more difficult than I ever imagined. Almost every potential customer wanted to know what other businesses had purchased the product. Nobody wanted to be first. My husband suggested that I give units away for free. This way we would have customers, and nobody would ever know that they weren't paying customers. Even though we were in debt up to our eyeballs, I took his advice and gave units at no charge to several zoos and aquariums. The first prototype was installed at Zoo Atlanta in October 2006. It turned out to be a great idea. Almost immediately, I started getting positive feedback.

During the second year of business, my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had surgery and underwent two years of chemotherapy. I was now working full time as a flight attendant and taking care of my husband and our two children, all while trying to increase sales for Step 'n Wash. It was a lot to juggle and, looking back, I'm proud of my ability to overcome all of the personal challenges I faced.

In an effort to increase exposure for my product, I purchased a booth at the International Amusement Parks Expo in November 2007. Step 'n Wash was entered in a contest for the best new product for the amusement park industry, and it won. The show was attended by people from all over the world, and we received orders from amusement parks in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Europe.

As I continued to grow the business, I faced many challenges with regard to sales. I can remember calling an aquarium to set up a sales appointment, hoping to show the product in person. The response was, "We have been open for 25 years without Step 'n Wash, and I am sure we will be just fine if we go another 25 without it." A couple of years later the man I had spoken with was transferred to another department. The person who took over saw our product at another aquarium. She called and ordered Step 'n Wash for all of the facility's restrooms. That was a nice victory, and I only had to wait two years instead of 25.

People will tell you that sales can be a real grind, and they're right. You will have good days and bad days, and it is so important to manage your bad days so they don't get out of control. When I have a bad day, I always try to focus on the positive things that have happened. One day I received an e-mail from a woman whose daughter is a little person. She wrote that while on vacation they visited a zoo, and when they went to the restroom her daughter saw our step stool. Her daughter was 12 years old and had never been able to reach a sink in a public restroom. This was the first time she was able to wash her hands on her own without her mom having to lift her up, and she was thrilled. When I read her e-mail, I must have cried for 20 minutes. I couldn't believe something that I invented was changing another person's life. On a daily basis, I try to focus on all of the accomplishments I have made.

Our customers are some of our best salespeople. We get a lot of feedback from mothers who love the step stools and ask us why a particular business isn't using the device. We tell them to contact the business, because hearing about the product from a customer is more persuasive to a business than receiving a sales package from us.

That's how we landed in Wegmans grocery stores. A customer who had used Step 'n Wash somewhere else sent the company an e-mail suggesting it install the device since its stores cater to families. Wegmans contacted us and purchased two units as a test. Three months later, Wegmans ordered our stools for all of its stores. This kind of organic, grassroots movement has really helped our business grow this year.

Step 'n Wash is easy to use. We created a sign for the restroom mirror to let parents know there is a step stool available to help their kids wash their hands. Since the units are essentially at children's eye level, typically children notice the step stool before their parents do. They figure it out right away: Often before parents even notice the sign on the mirror, they'll find their kids standing on the step washing their hands. Children who see another child using the stool will usually insist on waiting in line to use it rather than have mom or dad pick them up to reach the sink.

Some facilities have installed more than one unit in their busiest restrooms because so many kids were waiting in line to use it.

If you have an idea, never assume that it has already been done. Who would have imagined that out of the tens of millions of mothers who came before me, no one had invented a retractable step for children to use in public restrooms?

Step 'n Wash is a profitable business, with sales for 2010 up 300 percent over the previous year and almost 200 new customers on the books this year. The more than 5 million public restrooms in America offer our company a tremendous growth opportunity.

This year, I finally received my utility patent. Step 'n Wash is now in over 500 locations and -- most important -- my husband, who now works full time for the company, is healthy and cancer-free.

I hope my story will encourage you to believe in yourself and follow your dreams. I have grown so much on this journey. Here are some of the most important lessons I learned:

  1. If you think you have a great idea, start by doing the research yourself to see if it has already been invented. Visit the U.S. Patent Office website. You can research design and utility patents and review drawings. Often a patent has been filed, but the owner of the patent has never brought the invention to market.
     
  2. If you are not ready to file a patent, you can prepare an application for a provisional patent. This option is less expensive, and it will hold the date for your actual patent should you decide to file. A patent attorney can prepare and file this for you.
     
  3. Your patent attorney should be able to recommend a patent draftsman. The draftsman will create sketches of your design so you can file the provisional patent. This costs about $750. You will then have one year from the date the provisional patent is filed to change it to a utility patent application.
     
  4. Build a prototype. You need to find a good product engineer to create drawing files necessary to build a working product. The engineer will have connections with mold and tool shops that will be able to create your product. Be prepared to go through several revisions of your original design.
     
  5. File incorporation documents for your business.
     
  6. Apply for trademark protection for any of your logos or slogans.
     
  7. While you are waiting for a decision on your patent application, you can use the words "patent pending" on your product and start selling it.
     
  8. It can take up to four years to get a patent. When you visit a patent attorney, don't be worried about whether he or she thinks your invention is a good one. While a patent can help deter competition, it does not necessarily eliminate competition, nor does it guarantee the product's success.
     
  9. Your product's success depends on you. It's up to you to deliver the goods, work hard and hit the market.

Joi Sumpton is the president ofStep 'n Wash Inc. Step n' Wash is a self-retracting step that enables children to safely reach the sink and soap dispensers in public restrooms. 

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