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Business Observer Thursday, May 28, 2009 12 years ago

Foot Patrol

Bill Johnson's entrepreneurial spirit — and his inner inventor — can be traced to his wife's un-tanned feet. His next step: Sales.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Bill Johnson's entrepreneurial spirit — and his inner inventor — can be traced to his wife's un-tanned feet. His next step: Sales.

Bill Johnson thought he had a pretty good idea of what he was in for five years ago when he set out to invent a device that could tan a person's feet.

Between funding and engineering, through research and tinkering, he thought he had a grip on the hurdles, hoops and hassles an inventor-entrepreneur has to battle.

What Johnson didn't foresee, however, was the 70-year-old ladies and their untanned feet.

These are the gaggle of women he sees at his country club, usually during dinner. They run up to him, slam their legs on the table and wonder: When can I get my hands on a foot tanner?

After five years, including three years spent on product design and two years of testing, Johnson can finally deliver — to the ladies and to anyone else: The Solafeet ST-400 Foot Tanner is now on the market.

“Every time you play golf or tennis, your feet get a little whiter than your ankles,” says Johnson. “So you have to constantly tan your feet.”

That was the problem Johnson's wife, Colleen Johnson, encountered. The tanning creams she was using didn't work, so she asked her husband if he knew of anything that could tan just a person's feet.

That was in late 2003. Johnson, who at the time was running a cultured marble company in Sarasota, couldn't find anything in stores to solve his wife's dilemma. He did an exhaustive patent search and couldn't find anything at all.

A Chicago native whose background is in chemical engineering, Johnson decided he could build a solution to the problem. He started in his garage with a cardboard box, a ballast and some light bulbs.

He realized that with the right combination of lights and protection, he could build a foot tanner — not only for his wife, but for others. His obsession with the project led him to become known as the foot-tan guy at the Sarasota country club where he lives.

Hence, his adoring fans.

But Johnson, who owned a plumbing business for 10 years before going into the marble business, knew he was going to need money to fund the obsession. He spoke with several bankers, venture capitalists and potential investors. He considered selling the idea to a product development company.

He ultimately decided, however, that his best option would be to self-fund the project. He used $350,000 from his savings, money he earned from the marble business, which saw a sales boost related to the housing boom.

Johnson then found a few partners and vendors. He hired Wolff System Technology Corp., a Georgia-based indoor tanning equipment manufacturer, to build the bulbs and he worked with a consumer product design firm in San Diego to work out any kinks in the final product. He also found a plastic firm in Largo to do the injection molding for the foot tanner.

The Solafeet Foot Tanner looks like a footbath. But instead of water, each machine has a UV mix of lights. Johnson says a 15-minute post-golf or tennis session with the tanner will turn sunless feet into tan feet in about a week.

The next step is to sell the tanner, which he is pricing at $229 each. He is initially targeting country clubs in and around Sarasota, Naples and Orlando, an obvious demographic starting point. He is seeking distributors or sales partners in Naples and Orlando.

While the recession has clearly damaged the sales potential of any want-not-need product, Johnson's confidence is high. So high that he's selling his marble company to work full-time on the foot tanner.

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