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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 19, 2019 2 months ago

Entrepreneur faces uphill climb in a quest to take out competition

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Jon Sjostedt, behind One Gutter Guard, seeks his aha moment.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The gutter industry isn’t high on most entrepreneurs’ lists of sexy and sizzling businesses to grab onto.   

But Jon Sjostedt and Bobby Jackson, after more than 20 years in medical device and products, believe gutters are ripe for disruption. The pair aims to prove it with One Gutter Guard, their recently patented product that uses an interchangeable mesh — a technological innovation in gutter guard design — that helps solve gutter clogging problems.

“All the companies in the medical device space always looked for that aha moment, where a physician would look at something and say, ‘This is going to change the standard of care,’" Sjostedt says. “We want something like that, which would really set us apart. There are plenty of 'me too' products out there.”

The trick now with One Gutter Guard and the company that makes it, Palm Harbor-based Universal Manufacturing & Design, is to build traction in its underdog battle against bigger competitors. A main target is what Sjostedt calls the industry leader: Ohio-based LeafFilter, which had around $160 million in sales in 2017, according to Remodeling Magazine’s Top 550 list of the largest exterior contractors nationwide.

"We want something that … would really set us apart. There are plenty of 'me too' products out there." Jon Sjostedt, One Gutter Guard

Universal Manufacturing & Design, founded in 2015, does more than $1 million a year in sales, with a healthy profit margin, Sjostedt says. He expects the eight-employee firm to grow at least 20% in 2019. 

The best way to catch competitors, Sjostedt says, is to start with quality. After four years and more than $500,000 in startup and research and development costs, they believe One Gutter Guard does that. It revolves around the product’s proprietary speed channel, which securely holds the mesh in place while allowing it to be changed if needed. Jackson says all other products are made using mesh inserts affixed by glue or crimping methods. Those often fail over time because of expansion and contraction in changing weather.

“The neat part of One Gutter Guard is we keep the gutter from clogging,” Sjostedt says, “and allow the gutter to do its job.”

One Gutter Guard is in the top tier of home improvement products sold through a dealer network and contractors, Sjostedt says. It’s one of the lower-priced models within the higher end, but the challenge is acute: Get dealers to switch to One Gutter Guard, or do enough marketing where homeowners request it. Or both.

The company spreads the word about One Gutter Guard through a combination of regional, national and social media marketing and advertising. With a “you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time,” approach, Sjostedt says the company, spending 10% of revenues on marketing, aims to do it “better and smarter” than competitors. The company also launched a series of financial incentive packages to woo home products dealers to switch to One Gutter Guard.  

Another advantage: Universal Manufacturing & Design was recently awarded a patent for the proprietary gutter technology in One Gutter Guard, entitled Debris Exclusion Device for Rain Gutters. “The patent has given us a lot more visibility and interest in the product," Sjostedt says.

One Gutter Guard has gone through several iterations. Sjostedt and Jackson initially intended to have a passive investment in Universal Manufacturing & Design. But about six or months into the investment, the former St. Jude Medical sales manager colleagues honed in on some weak spots. They shifted some personnel and turned to hyper-focus on getting One Gutter Guard to market.  “We needed to be more involved,” says Sjostedt, “so we could make some changes.”

One of those shifts included finding a manufacturing partner certified in ISO 9000 standards. The company found that in Toronto-based Samco — which specializes in roll-forming manufacturing, a process that uses a cross-section of sheet metal, normally in long lengths — Samco handles the tool-die settings and manufacturing for One Gutter Guard then ships the uncompleted product to Universal Manufacturing & Design’s Palm Harbor office for assembly.

Sjostedt says outsourcing manufacturing, even with the additional cost, is a big win. A machine to do the work costs at least $750,000 is 20-30 yards long and requires a full-time engineer, he says.

Although Sjostedt and the company are focused on grabbing more gutter market share, he’s also thinking about future products to complement One Gutter Guard. “The home market is fragmented,” he says, “and I hope to [grow] into it.”

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