Thursday, December 06, 2007

Wobble Tales

After blogging about Wobble Wedges®, I had the chance to talk with their creator, Robert Bellows. Here’s such a marvelous story about small-business triumph, I asked him if he’d write about it. He agreed to do it in the form of lengthy answers to six questions.

It’s a long read; I haven’t edited it much. Bellows said, “I had a great time looking back at the magical evolution of the Wobble Wedge.” See if you agree.

1. What made you decide that you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

I never decided to become an entrepreneur in the start-a-business-and-sell-it-for-millions mold. Perhaps I’m an entrepreneur in the sense that my work choices have been consistently driven by a deep desire to explore the realms of my own creativity while maintaining independence, the most precious resource of all.

The trick, of course, was getting paid in the process. If the business earned millions or if it earned just enough cash or somewhere in between that would be fine. Following that path by both intent and accident I have been a school teacher, carpenter, ranch hand, welder, tutor, artist, copywriter, publicist and a marketing/sales director in several businesses.

So how did Wobble Wedge come about? In my early 40s, I lost a business that I had expected to pursue for many more years. The demise of the business came from multiple forces much larger than our small company could counteract. To be frank, I was disillusioned by what came down. Taking a total break from business was the perfect solution. In the following months I began introducing myself to the world as an artist.

Over the next few years I made well over 100 sculptures and sold them through galleries and shows – a good living and a total blast. But the cash flow came in an uncomfortable boom and bust cycle. My business head popped and said, “Hey, why not start a really small business that will provide a steady cash flow but won’t require much daily office work?” That was the seed that sprouted into the Wobble Wedge.

2. How did you decide on the wedge? And what steps led to its engineered qualities?

For as long as I can remember I have always had a scrappy-looking 3-ring binder titled “Ideas.” Every time I had a business or product idea I had a habit of writing it down in the notebook: ideas of who needed the thing, who might buy it, and what it might take to make it and what it would take to distribute it.

Then reality would set in. Do I want to sit at a desk, manage a pile of employees, raise money, be responsible to bankers or shareholders, manage field reps and on and on? The answer was no….already done that. The ideas that required complex marketing and production were fun to dream about. The mere act of writing it down allowed to me let go of the idea so a new one could come in.

The question gradually changed from, “What business could I create that would be successful?” to something more like, “What business will support what I want to do with my time?”

What did I want? Simplicity. The product had to be simple. It had to be easy to understand. It had to be universally needed. It had to be cheap to make and cheap to buy. It had to be well made and very cool. It had to be fun to sell. And most of all, it had to have a “Wow, I wish I had thought of that!” factor.

How could I find that? Simple again. State the question as clearly as possible then forget about it.

One day, sitting at an annoying wobbly restaurant table, my wife (Terry Cohen) asked the magical question: “Think you could figure out how to fix this?” Whoa, that ain’t rocket science, it’s not even high school algebra.

All it takes is a small wedge. It could be used for all sorts of things...wait, that’s it: this is what we need to invent.

The first wedges were hand carved from a plastic block and from scraps of wood. I used my funky models for everything I could think of from stabilizing wobbly tables to leveling fountain sculptures.

Experimenting with them made it obvious that each wedge had to relate to the other...they had to nest to prevent slippage. They had to be stackable to fill large gaps. They had to be easy to trim. They had to be easy to retrieve even if they were inserted too far.

I showed my hand-carved wedges to an 80-year-old tool maker that had been making injection molds for years. With my samples in hand and a few pencil sketches he began machining some very precise samples. A few models later we had a perfectly simple but very functional design.

3. Would you expand on the (years’ long) marketing efforts you put into the product?

In the original vision, the product had to be “universally understood.” To be honest I didn’t know the full meaning of those words at the time. But their meaning is clear now. If anyone sees a Wobble Wedge, it takes only a fraction of a second for them to say, “I know where I could use one of these.”

We create literature, but really Wobble Wedges don’t need explanation. As such we didn’t have to go to the hefty expense of trying to educate or convince people to buy these.

Instead, we had the less expensive task of just letting them know that at long last here was a solution that they had been looking for all their life: handing a consumer, a contractor or a restaurant owner a couple of Wobble Wedges is in itself a complete marketing message.

Our primary marketing message is that Wobble Wedges are universally needed. That statement generated this line: Everyone needs Wobble Wedges. Now we needed to simply remind consumers of why they need Wobble Wedges. Everyone knows that most things are far from plumb, smooth or level. Everyone knows that almost nothing in the world is truly flat. So, why not just say what they already know. Hence the line: Because the World Still Isn’t Flat.

4. How critical is the “Wobble Wedge” brand name to your marketing efforts?

Wobble Wedge is a fantastic named coined by my brother Warren. The beauty of the name is again its simplicity. It describes the problem and the solution in one very memorable name. But even more than that, the name allows for universal application. It is not limiting in any way.

A contractor can relate to a Wobble Wedge as quickly as a waiter can. If we had called the product a Stable Table, for example, we would only appeal to restaurants. Contractors would have nothing to do with it.

So yes, Wobble Wedge is and excellent name, but not absolutely critical to the success of the product. We sell Wobble Wedges under many names targeted to many very specific markets. Our brand name is well known, but the quality, superior functionality, and readily available inventory of our Wobble Wedges is what keeps us in the game.

While we stimulated many PR stories for Wobble Wedges in the early years, the product itself stimulates its own story now. You see one, hit yourself on the forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Then someone like you writes a blog about it. That is the magic of Wobble Wedge.

5. The Wobble Wedge solves for a specific kind of problem. But Focus 12 itself doesn’t seem to have a problem now. If, after 20 years, you were asked what problem the company itself faces, what would that problem be?

Our Mom & Pop business is doing great. It is small and simple as we created it to be. It has provided very well for us. At this moment, we it looks like we’re going into a very exciting period of growth. That growth is already bringing in a level of complexity in our business that is taxing our small staff….that’s just Terry and I.

We have new products and new molds and new customers that will drive a whole new part of our business. But the coming complexity challenges our core mandate of simplicity. Both of us are getting older. As much as we love our business, we’re beginning to think of other things we’d like to do. Maybe a bigger business isn’t what we want. Maybe it is.

We’re still working on that question. Perhaps writing this response to your questions will stimulate that process. It is always amazing to me how we touch each other’s lives.

6. Last question: do you read Mother Earth News?

Yes, I was sort of an idealist. Perhaps that has eroded with time. It’s funny that you mention it. I haven’t seen that mag in years. Last month my wife brought one home to show me an article on gardening. Gardening sounds good to me these days. There is nothing like dirt under your fingernails and a freshly picked tomato to remind you of what is real.

Good storytellers are few and far between. Thanks to Robert Bellows for sharing this one. And for the fun of it, get your hands on a Wobble Wedge.


Robert Bellows said...

Yowsa, thanks for the electronic ink and the Wobble Wedge links. Pretty cool. I hope some of your readers find that long-winded story interesting. Catch ya. Sincerely, Robert Bellows.

[Editor's Note - A recent letter from Bellows offered Wobble Wedge Social Tip #351: "When you come across someone who disagrees with you, simply slip a Wobble Wedge or two in the heels of their shoes. On your next meeting, they will be inclined to agree with you."]

Seth Braun said...

Good stuff. Robert has been friend and mentor for years. Enjoyed the interview.

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Many thanks for the note, Seth - best of the Season.