John and Linda Vogel have a story that began with a bathroom brainstorm. That was followed by an almost immediate stopover at a dumpster.
The idea formed in September 2020 when a renter at a duplex they own was concerned that her elderly mother was having trouble stepping into the bathtub. When the Vogels got a price for replacing the tub with a shower, they were told it would cost $8,500.
“After our meeting with the bath contractor, my husband, John, took on a challenge to design a tub kit to walk through a tub instead of ripping it out,” Linda said. “We literally stopped at a dumpster on the way home from the meeting and picked up some cardboard to design a prototype to send to draftsmen for a 3D drawing.”
In addition, they contacted the Green Bay SCORE chapter and were assigned Paul Carron, who had owned a manufacturing company, as a mentor. He provided direction, and the couple said he was a “tremendous asset” as they began to turn an idea into a patented product.
Although anxious to get started, their progress was hindered by the pandemic and supply chain issues. Obtaining steel for the mold took six months and costs for the plastic resin that would be used in making the product increased dramatically in price.
“After crunching a lot of numbers such as ocean freight, tariff, shipping and packaging, we found it was a lot more economical to manufacture this product right in our own backyard,” Linda said. “After visiting and touring Deluxe Plastics of Clintonville twice, we were convinced that their price was competitive and they had high quality control.”
The couple, now retired, had the experience to successfully launch, and Step Thru Shower and Tub, LLC, became a reality. John, who spent much of his career as a sales representative working with big box stores, knew how to make contact with decision makers. Their goal was to develop a product that was reasonable in cost and attractive to those retailers.
John noted that pricing was a major concern from the start. His nephew, an engineer, told him that similar products were available, and the Vogels thought they might be too late to bring the product to market. However, a review of the competition encouraged them.
“I looked at similar products and saw that they had a cost of about $325; that was really expensive,” John said. “I thought that we could manufacture this and sell it much, much cheaper.”
They were determined to get the lowest price on all of the parts of the process including engineering, manufacturing, packaging and shipping. As they worked on the design, they discovered that they would have an advantage in the market by creating an adjustable piece. Their competitors were making a large number of available sizes that resulted in home supply retailers having to stock numerous items.
“The competitors had one unit to fill the void, and it wasn’t adjustable,” John said. “When I was designing this, I thought if I oversize the piece and it has a back side that can be adjusted, a retailer only has to stock one SKU. Mine is trimmable to a custom fit.”
They also focused on making the installation easy, and have a video on YouTube that shows how a person can do it themselves.
The results have been great, and customers are providing stellar reviews. The new business, however, is not without issues. They have had website issues that they are correcting, and are trying to gain an audience with home supply retailers to get their product on the shelf. There has been interest, but they haven’t had success yet.
In the interim, ads are running in the Green Bay and Eau Claire markets, and they are doing direct-to-consumer sales using a toll-free number, 866-882-5487. With the hard work done in refining costs, they are pricing kits at just $59.99. Linda is personally taking calls and filling orders as John works on the paperwork required to get the product in front of retailers.
“Our goal from Day 1 was to develop a tub kit that the average homeowner could afford, and we feel we have accomplished that,” Linda said. “Step Thru has low manufacturing costs along with a low markup passed onto the retailer so they can sell it at a reasonable price and still make a profit.”
While the selling price is low, costs have been substantial. The costs of filing for and obtaining a patent, engineering, packaging, manufacturing, purchasing a mold, and marketing well exceed $100,000. But they have developed a high-quality product at a low price, and believe in its potential.
“Our initial goal was and still is to try to get 2% of the market of tubs, which computes to about 6 million tub kits,” Linda said. “We will continue to do whatever it takes to reach that goal.”
As the product starts to gain market share, they plan to add help. They have utilized experts as needed and know that they can’t do everything themselves. They also have learned the importance of having realistic expectations.
“Investigate everything before going forward,” Linda said. “Follow your dreams and ideas, but don’t quit your day job. Make sure that you have something different, safe and economical that the customer will want.”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.