Judy Cutler-Teeven discovered her latest invention out of personal necessity. How will she find sustained success?
When it comes to research and development for the design of new products, Judy Cutler-Teeven of Fort Myers is her own lab rat.
A career-long designer of merchandise who started out making couture bridal gowns, she holds 30 patents, having designed everything “from wedding gowns to helicopter seats” during a 38-year career.
Along the way she learned not only about how to recognize a need — she says that’s the easy part — but how to follow-through on a new product from idea to invention, the latter stages where Cutler-Teeven says the tendency for creative minds is to dare not tread.
Her latest invention is the result of personal necessity — going from idea to product in less than three years. Forced into semi-retirement by ongoing back problems, Cutler-Teeven, 60, was sent home from a third back surgery in 2016, a fusion procedure, with a simple back support device, a beach ball.
“A half-million dollars worth of surgery and I get a beach ball,” says Cutler-Teeven, who moved to Fort Myers 15 years ago from Chicago. “The doctor said, ‘I want you to blow four puffs of air into the beach ball, stretch it vertically, align it with your spine and whenever you're sitting you're going to press against that and it will create a counter-pressure that will align your spine, it will give you comfort, relief and it's going to help heal your back.' Then he said, 'If you can manage, stick an ice pack back there.’”
'Do you know hard it is to come up with a name that hasn't been taken? It is really hard and I didn't want it to be some silly name. TheraPouf is a little trendy with a little medical, I like that combo.' Judy Cutler-Teeven, TheraPouf
The effort to hold an ice pack against a partially inflated beach ball in the correct position, and make it all portable, convinced Cutler-Teeven there had to be a better way.
A web search for such a product yielded no results, as did a subsequent patent search. That’s when Cutler-Teeven's training kicked in. She designed her own.
She bought some neoprene, fashioned a pouch on her commercial sewing machine and added a pocket in which to slide a cold or heat pack. And with that, TheraPouf was born. Currently run entirely out of her home, Cutler-Teeven’s husband, Gerry Teeven, is vice president of TheraPouf and a second company she started, Products of Purpose.
“I made it, started using it and the relief I got was amazing,” Cutler-Teeven says. “I started using it without ice going to the movies or watching TV on the couch or in a car. I took it everywhere with me. My husband said, ‘This has got legs. You need to look into what you can do with this because you can help a lot of people.’”
While pursuing a utility patent for Therapouf, she made 25 more and tested them through doctors, chiropractors and with personal acquaintances. With positive results, she made 25 more to expand the testing.
“It was enough to make me take the leap and invest and do some product development,” Cutler-Teeven says, declining to disclose the total amount invested.
The test patients reported they used TheraPouf for neck, elbow and knee pain treatment — prompting adaptations of the original product. And another recent surgical procedure has resulted in another product design for which she declined to disclose details.
Made in USA
The first production run of TheraPouf was 341 pieces. Cutler-Teeven planned for 500 but underestimated the amount of product needed. Her strategy for a small run was, and continues to be, to allow for refinements in design, potential opportunities for co-branding and making the product in different colors beyond its signature teal.
With decades of experience in developing products made in China, Cutler-Teeven knew the ability to make lower-quantity runs was only possible if produced domestically. The cold-heat packs are manufactured in China and shipped to Miami, where a company makes the remaining components, executes pack-out and provides fulfillment.
“The good thing about manufacturing in the U.S. is you can do that,” says Cutler-Teeven. If you go overseas, your (most likely quantity is) 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000, so you might get a lower cost, but you have no flexibility.”
Cutler-Teeven seeks to someday bring manufacturing and fulfillment to Fort Myers with Products of Purpose, through which she plans to employ disadvantaged and disabled workers to make home decor products and, eventually, TheraPouf.
TheraPouf retails for $89.99 with a wholesale cost of $39. Cutler-Teeven declined to specify production costs, saying they are within acceptable margins in light of her commitment to produce in the U.S. She expects to reduce those costs as TheraPouf grows by more effective resourcing of raw materials.
Early in her career, Cutler-Teeven went head-to-head with Vera Wang and others, designing couture bridal gowns. She began sewing bridal gowns in 1980 and in 1988 opened Tirrana, a Chicago-based bridal manufacturing company where she produced gowns and bridal accessories for 15 years.
“Vera Wang and I were on the same circuit and we would go around for six weeks during bridal season and show at all the bridal markets,” says Cutler-Teeven. “When everything went to China and all of (Wang’s) gowns started being copied in China, I didn't know how to play that game, so I closed my business and went to work for companies that produced products in China. I had only ever designed bridal gowns, but started getting plugged into every possible product line."
It doesn’t matter the product, Cutler-Teeven says. An inventive mind recognizes a void in the marketplace and designs products to meet that need. She teaches a class at Goodwill called “I Have a Great Idea” because, she says, the idea is only about 25% of the invention process.
“If you don't develop yourself and get the other 75%, or align yourself with manufacturing, marketing, finance and developing a business plan, the most creative people don't want to go there," she says. "That's why a lot of really good ideas don't go anywhere because people don't want to do the due diligence.”
Floreen Meador, broker associate with John R. Wood Properties in Naples, worked briefly with Cutler-Teeven in the 1990s when both were designing craft products for Michael’s, among others. They reconnected in 2013 through Gerry Teeven, who by happenstance worked with a mortgage company in the same building at Meador’s real estate office.
“It didn’t surprise me that she was hired by a major craft distributor with offices overseas,” Meador says. “She would create craft programs ahead of marketing and design development, and she must have made millions for them because she is so creative."
Prominent area accounting executive Gail Markham, a partner with Markham Norton in Naples, met Cutler-Teeven on Captiva Island while boating with mutual friends. A conversation about Cutler-Teeven’s gown design background led to a discussion about PACE Center for Girls, which Markham founded 10 years ago, and a gown donation and resale event that benefits the program. Cutler-Teeven had several sample gowns to donate, and a relationship was born.
Markham is the now the accountant for all of Cutler-Teeven’s enterprises.
“She looks at a problem and figures out how to solve it with a product,” says Markham. “She is one of those people who can look at something and figure out how to make it.”
No big boxes … yet
Since launching in early October, TheraPouf has been available only online at therapouf.com. Cutler-Teeven has joined the Golf Merchandisers Association, providing access to more than 2,000 golf, fitness and tennis shops nationwide. Wholesaling is next, seeking to place the product in medical supply outlets.
“We're starting to ship to golf courses strategically across the South and the West Coast because this is their season,” says Cutler-Teeven. “We will probably do the PGA Show in Orlando in January. We’re working on getting an appearance on 'Shark Tank,' QVC and some other outlets that give us more exposure.”
Some 2,500 TheraPoufs have been made so far, and new versions of the product are already in development.
Another goal: get Medicare approval for the products. "This is a fabulous product for people in nursing homes and rehabilitation," she says, "so I am shifting more toward a partnering agreement with a medically aligned company.”
Cutler-Teeven is working with Priority Marketing in Fort Myers for online exposure. She is also meeting with an airport retailer group, seeking to place the version without the cold-heat pack in airport shops. That model can be rolled down into a 6-by-6-inch pack, making it easily transportable for travel.
She's even looked into Costco — with some hesitation. For one, she says, it's expensive to get in there. Also, she adds that "I’ve done so much business with Walmart I probably wouldn't do that, at least not for a very long time."
Cutler-Teeven, in total, is taking a deliberate, gradual approach to the business to prevent demand from outpacing supply. “There is nothing worse," she says, "than not being able to deliver your product."