Joe Vosters, owner of Bill-Ray Home Mobility, LLC in Appleton and a Fox Cities SCORE client, points to a recent article in USA TODAY as evidence that his most recent invention has a place in the hotel industry where major chains are looking for ways to set themselves apart.
The article featured Hilton’s new Innovation Gallery at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner. Vosters thinks his Friendly Beds (www.billrayhomemobility.com), designed to make travel easier for disabled travelers, would fit right in and give a hotel an edge in attracting these consumers.
“The handicapped traveler market spends over 17.3 billion a year in the United States, and our innovative product would improve their ability to safely travel,” Vosters said.
He has filed a patent application for the uniquely designed beds. The new product borrows features from his original Friendly Beds, but adds features that would appeal to hotels and travelers.
It is part of the evolution of his business as Vosters tries to find a niche in the market and gain traction for the business he started in 2009. The current bed was designed in response to disabled family members who had issues with mobility. As a mechanical engineer with about 30 years of experience, he was able to design a bed that provided a solution.
“Our innovative bed mobility system allows a person to use their muscles to help themselves for increased independence, self-esteem and a chance to build strength,” Vosters said. “Risk of injury to caregivers is reduced and it is a critical item allowing people to remain at home as long as possible.”
But he has found that having a great product doesn’t mean it will automatically find success. His original plan included distribution through medical supply companies, but in 2013, the government made changes in reimbursement that resulted in a high percentage of these businesses closing. It also cut off that distribution channel and meant that he would have to take the beds right to the end user.
“They are the ones that need it the most, but what could I do to reach them?” he asked.
Vosters honed his marketing plan, but has found it difficult to reach a global target audience with limited funds. He has focused on the internet and been successful in utilizing search words so his product has prominence. As calls have come in, he has identified those in greatest need such as those with Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, allowing him to add keywords.
Most of the sales are made to concerned adult children, and after buying the beds for parents, they often write rave reviews about the quality and design. Yet, those sales are made one at a time and are a difficult way to build and sustain a business. However, talking to purchasers made Vosters think that there may be another market to tap.
“Many of the people who called were struggling and mentioned their difficulty of traveling," Vosters said. "The government mandates that 4 percent of hotel rooms be handicap accessible. Basically, I thought, ‘What if I come up with a Friendly Bed for a hotel room?’”
With an estimated 5 million hotel rooms in the United States, Vosters thinks he is on the right track with the new design.
“This has great potential because there is nothing in the world resembling this," he said. "This product would have worldwide application for high-end rooms. There is such promise to this line.”
While he plans to revise his business plan to launch the hotel product, he continues to work on other inventions that he hopes will catapult the business to success. He isn’t afraid of the long hours and believes in his mission to bring innovative solutions to the elderly/disabled markets by designing heavy duty products.
“As a small business, I do almost everything including packaging and shipping,” he said. “There is inventory control, customer service, purchasing, engineering, financials, and marketing. It’s not easy, but any business can be a huge challenge. You just have to do your homework, be very careful and be ready for anything.”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.