Startup novice Stephanie Gomez learned a key lesson — be nimble — when health care leaders embraced new uses for her product. Says Gomez: 'I had nurses hugging me.'
If there is one thing Stephanie Gomez knows about starting a business from scratch, it’s that the first steps must be based on stable footing.
That approach matches the product offered by Naples-based Stabilized Steps, a startup that captured the attention of the leadership of the Tamiami Angel Funds, in addition to several health care entities. Founded nearly two years ago with an invention by Punta Gorda contractor and co-founder Eryk Hardwick, Stabilized Steps’ patented product is a skid-like device attached to the bottom of standard walkers, allowing users to traverse uneven terrain outdoors — including the beach all the way into the water — without fear of falling.
“I have spent two years getting all our legal requirements done, all our organizational structure,” says Gomez, 30, who started the company with credit cards and a second mortgage, and left a career in commercial banking to partner with Hardwick. “We have a sound organizational structure. We just have all the pieces in place ready for growth. I feel like if I didn’t have all those, even if I was door-knocking, I would quickly fail if I didn’t have the foundation right.”
Even with stability, and buzz, Gomez recently learned a key entrepreneurial lesson in moving quickly to capitalize on unseen opportunities. It stems from health care professionals and orthopedic specialists, who say the stability offered by Stabilized Steps' attachment allows patients to stand from a seated position using only the walker for support. That's an innovative twist in eldercare mobility, Gomez has learned in multiple meetings, including when she attended a recent trade show in Albuquerque, N.M.
“Their faces were so baffled,” says Gomez, who had not considered indoor use advantages of the stabilizers. “It was a big deal. They said you don't know what that means to improving the lives of the patients and their caregivers. I had nurses hugging me. They told me people not on walkers have no idea what a big deal this is.”
In addition to stability while standing up, the compact size of the standard walker allows for navigation through small indoor areas, reduces the need for grab bars, is easily transportable and can be taken directly into a shower.
“That’s the part we were missing,” says Gomez, who operates the business out of a crowded, single office suite in east Naples. “We were missing the whole indoor application.”
“Who knows where this can take us. I would have had no idea we would be here if you asked me five years ago. I was in banking." — Stephanie Gomez
The revelation sent Gomez on the hunt for new marketing materials. Hardwick, meanwhile, is designing new accessories, including wheels to allow the walkers to glide easier over deep pile carpet.
Gomez, in addition to personal debt, has relied on internet research and mentors to learn the basics of forming a company. She partnered with another local company, Global Link Manufacturing, to make the products at a plant in China.
That level of risk and ambition, in addition to the product, was a winning formula at a venture pitch event held by Adrenaline Venture Fund, administered by Tamiami Angel Funds Chairman Tim Cartwright. With the prize of a $25,000 investment in hand, subsequent discussions led to a $100,000 commitment from the venture fund, providing benchmarks are met, plus its assistance for a $500,000 capital campaign.
Then Gomez can valuate the company and accept private investment, potentially, in the form of a convertible note, or loan that turns into equity, that would pay 10% interest and a 25% discount when converted into stock. Her ultimate goal is to raise $1.5 million.
At $149.99 per pair, Gomez says the stabilizers are affordable, providing stability otherwise offered by more expensive devices. They are offered direct to consumers on the company's website, through dealers in 13 states and, most recently, at Sunshine Ace Hardware locations in Collier County. Now ready to take the company nationwide, she is interviewing for sales reps. She declined to disclose revenue.
Long term, Gomez says Stabilized Steps may only reach its full potential under ownership of a larger company. But she doesn’t rule out keeping it in the family. Her husband, Daniel, is vice president of operations, although he also works elsewhere. Her sister, Juliana Cifuentes is research and project manager.
That could lead to another key entrepreneurial lesson: hire people smarter than you.
“If we stay the way we are, we would need to bring in an executive who knows that world better than I do,” says Gomez. "I have the energy and passion to do it, but there comes a time when you have to have the right people with the right expertise to maximize the potential.”