Business of Well-being

Roleo: An Inventor's Journey from Concept to Product

If you have an idea for a wellness product but no idea how to make it a reality, you're not alone. People have great ideas every day. A tiny percentage makes it to consumers. Going from concept to marketplace isn't for the faint of heart. Yet, because there is a significant need for therapeutic and preventative tools to keep people healthy and productive, creating such a product could be potentially profitable, and therefore worth the effort.

Seven years ago, I had an idea for a non-surgical, non-drug treatment for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and repetitive stress injuries. As a full-time massage therapist at a very busy L.A. day spa, my hands and fingers were sore, achy and even tingling. Some colleagues filed Worker's Comp claims due to hand and wrist pain. Some retired.

If necessity is the mother of invention, this necessity was pregnant; and thus the Roleo was born. Massage therapists learn to prevent or ease symptoms of CTS with regular massage of the forearm muscles that control the hands and fingers.

Deep effleurage (gliding strokes), petrissage (kneading) and trigger point work (static pressure on hypersensitive sections or "taut bands" of muscle tissue) are especially effective. However, regular massage therapy can be too expensive and time-consuming for most people. I needed something to replicate these massage techniques so people could treat their own symptoms at home or on the job.

One day, my hands were so sore, I fantasized running them through an antique washing machine clothes wringer. This would - of course - crush my fingers, but it gave me an idea. I sketched the concept: two specially shaped rollers fit into a stand-alone frame, urged together by sturdy compression springs. The user would roll his or her hand and arm between the rollers and get a hand and arm massage. It looked good on paper.

I had no clue how to make this idea into an actual product. As a former attorney, I knew that the logically prudent next step would be to protect the idea. I wrote an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), that protects your idea so you can show it to people. You don't need a law degree.

Most basic legal business agreements are easy to find, free on the internet. I hired a well-regarded patent law firm to do an initial search for patents that might be considered "prior art," meaning so similar or anticipatory of my design that it would render mine un-patentable. There were roller-themed massagers, but not one that used the same mechanism.

We went ahead and filed a Provisional Patent Application, which is essentially a priority-holder in case someone else has the same idea later and files for patent. This firm was expensive, so I found a reputable sole practitioner who said she'd file the patent for far less. It still cost nearly $10,000 to have these law firms do the work to get the application filed and pending.

Another high-end firm then hired the sole practitioner, and her hourly rate went way up. Then, to add insult to financial injury, I discovered that both firms missed a few prior inventions that used similar mechanisms, which would have to be different for my application to succeed.

This required a "do-over" or Continuation in Part, to change my claims to get around the other patents. This was also, in my opinion, legal malpractice. Both firms had missed the prior art and jeopardized my patent. I fired the attorney and her firm, to prosecute the patent on my own. This is a consideration if you don't have a lot of money.

Books like Patent It Yourself, by David Pressman (NOLO) can guide you through this difficult, but doable, process. If you have good attention to detail, and your patent isn't a complicated process or design that would require specialized legal or engineering expertise, prosecuting your own patent can save cash.

The  is very helpful to non-lawyer patent applicants, and you can have an attorney review your work, thereby saving a lot of capital. The next step is to make a prototype to "prove the concept." I'm not bad with tools, but this was beyond my skills, especially creating the rollers, which required mold casting.

I found a local industrial design firm who worked with toy manufacturers and movie companies creating action figures and displays. They signed the NDA, looked at my drawings and said they could make a bare-bones prototype for around $1,200. The prototype found its way into the break room at the spa. To everyone's delight, especially mine, it helped our hand and wrist issues. At least one colleague shook her head and said she had the same idea! Too late!

Above: original "prove the concept" prototype made of Lucite, wood, ceramic, rubber and springs.

Now that I knew it worked, did I really want to try to make it into a product? If so, the design would need to be refined. I worked with the same firm to come up with specs to show a manufacturer. A young designer took my drawings and made CADs (computer-assisted designs). First, I had to pick the look or style of the device. There were three sheets like this (below), showing a few dozen front and side views.

I picked one, although the color scheme would soon change:

3 views of chosen shape

CAD's of inner mechanisms. In the original production prototype, the oval on the bottom was a button that would open the side panel to change the rollers, a decision scrapped during pre-manufacture.

We also designed the inner mechanisms for manufacturers to be able to spec out the cost of making the product. The prototype had springs pulling the rollers together; now we added a crossbar in the frame's top side that would move up and down the threads of a bolt attached to a knob to raise or lower the bar, decreasing or increasing the tension on the springs that were now pushing down on the upper roller.

This made it possible to change massage pressure just by turning a knob, an upgrade from the prototype that required changing springs to change tension. With machines that people will use regularly, this meant fewer parts to break or lose. Now all I needed was a factory. I don't have a factory. Not many people do.

This is where the inventor's best asset comes in, if he or she has it: luck. My father suggested I approach a local company that he worked with decades earlier. The founder's son was now in charge, and he looked at my prototype. He liked it. He knew a factory in China that made his company's products.

They agreed to help develop the device, just for the promise that they would manufacture the item. The factory owner would make the prototypes himself; he was a mechanical engineer who happened to have a factory. Therefore, there was no upfront cost to me. This was sheer luck.

The prototype and redesign process can cost tens of thousands of dollars. I was getting it for a promise that I wanted to make anyway. Of course, this company marked up the cost because no one does something for nothing. After a half-dozen prototype versions, 2,400 units of the device, the Roleo Therapeutic Arm Massager, became available in 2007.

I kept and shipped them in my garage.One note about manufacturing: You don't have to manufacture overseas. But conventional wisdom holds that the cost of goods is still much lower that way. "Made in the USA" is definitely a great marketing tag, and it supports the U.S. economy.

We recently moved production to another Hong Kong factory to cut out the middleman, but our plan is to someday move manufacture stateside. In addition to where it is made, materials will greatly affect cost. For example, much of my product is plastic, which requires the use of petroleum, so if oil prices are high, my cost of goods goes up, as does my shipping.

If you have no connections, there are manufacturer's reps found online who will find you a factory. It is best to have some personal connection, so ask around first. Knock-offs are a huge problem, especially with factories in Asia, and international patents can cost upwards of $100,000, so having someone to vouch for a manufacturer helps lessen the likelihood that your factory will rip you off.

Before the product made it to these shores, it needed a name. I jokingly called it "WristWringer," an homage to its inspiration, but that doesn't evoke pain relief. "Roll'n Relief" got a nod, but that sounded like a medical marijuana product. "Rol-lief" was dad's idea, and everyone over 78 loved it, which is good but I wanted something fun and friendly.

One day, over coffee, I ran some tag lines for a friend, and "Roleo" slipped out. It was an accident, but it had the "roll" sound, which I wanted, and sounded like a name. It turned out to be the name of a musician in South America. I didn't think this would cause customer confusion, so "Roleo" was born.

Law firms charge around $400 for a U.S. trademark application. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office fee is currently around $300. Some online services claim to do it for $70 plus fees. This is one area where it's worth doing it yourself. There is a free, easy-to-use search engine on the USPTO site, and if your mark is available, the online application is simple.

If you don't have a logo or design for the mark, file for the word or name only. This is definitely DIY stuff that can save money that will be better used to market your product. This is US Registered Trademark 77506632: roleo I found a graphic designer to design the logo used on the product, box, ads and all product literature:

Costs vary for this service, but like website design, you can seek out a student or new graduate looking for work who might cut you a deal. Reach out to design schools or colleges with marketing programs for recommendations. Making the Roleo was challenging. Now the only way to get my car back in the garage was to sell them.

This would prove even harder. We started a website, which you can have designed for $1,000 - $2,000. To save money, you can use templates available at internet service providers like DirectNIC and GoDaddy. Then you have to get people to go to the website. This costs more money, whether you hire a firm to do Search Engine Optimization or do it yourself with Google AdWords or other apps and services.

It was, and still is, a time-consuming, complex process. SEO firms charge a lot to get your site to be the top ten Google searches. It is best to find a reputable website developer to construct your website correctly from the get go, with the coding and key words to maximize web traffic to your site.

This will help avoid more costs later to make the site more efficient. The best sales strategy is to get the right people to know your product, like product purchasers for stores, catalogs and websites. These people are hard to find, difficult to reach and reluctant to buy your product. First, get a sales track record by starting small. Google search for small websites and stores that sell products like yours, and see if you can find the person responsible for purchasing product. It might be the owner of the company.

Forget about Costco or WalMart for now. A Costco buyer told me she couldn't buy a product that was not likely to have $1,000,000 in annual sales. Most large retailers work with the same distributors over and over again, so to reach them you might need to find a distributor who handles these companies and has a relationship with their buyers.

Anticipate rejection. E-mails are easy to ignore. Phone calls are great if the right person answers. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Mailing brochures about the product and following up with a phone call is often a good method.

Marketing is important, but very expensive. Get free press by submitting press releases or finding "new products" columns in magazines like Massage Magazine, Guitar Player, Massage and Bodywork Journal, Climbing Magazine, Drummer Magazine, Modern Drummer Magazine. This was great for our product, as was selling to several catalogs, including Massage Warehouse and larger ones (and more difficult to deal with) like Hammacher Schlemmer and Taylor Gifts.

Obviously big catalog listings are desirable, but most will ask for deep discounts to cover print costs that will cut into your margin, and almost all of them have "buy-back" provisions in the sales agreement that allows them to return any of the inventory they purchased for a full refund. The wellness industry (and the medical field) is a whole other thing entirely.

I showed our product to a Physical Therapist in Beverly Hills who liked it a lot. But he asked if we had a study proving that it worked? Double-blind, randomized studies such as those published by the National Institute of Health and universities can cost upwards of 6 figures to conduct. So no, we don't have a study. Instead, we continue to introduce the product to doctors, therapists, and others who can see if it works for their own patients and clients.

Since 2007, we managed to sell around 10,000 of them. Even so, that wasn't enough cash flow to sustain a business, and we were constantly on the verge of running out of cash. More money was borrowed from family and friends. It was, frankly, scary.After refinements in design, including the addition of optional suction cups to secure the unit to a table or desk, the new version of the product launched in 2014, and looks like this:

It has come a long way, and is available on our website, Amazon, a few catalogs, and from many chiropractors, massage therapists, and other practitioners throughout the U.S., Canada, Korea, Japan, Sweden and Australia. One person, insisted we ship him a Roleo to Crimea, where shipping cost more than the product itself. Although sales are up, we're still usually in danger of running out of money.

The costs of running a business are surprising, from the tooling and retooling, import, storage, fulfillment, FDA registration (for "medical" devices), patent applications, to the more obvious marketing and taxes, keeping a good cash flow is a serious challenge for any new business, especially selling one product that no one really knows about yet.

About the Author

Paul Kleiman is the President of Massage U, Inc. and inventor of the Roleo Massager for hand and wrist pain. Paul was an attorney in his native New York City and later studied and practiced massage therapy. As a therapist, he became aware of the need for a product to address his own chronic hand and wrist pain. Massage U is now developing new products for other chronic pain conditions.

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