“Necessity is the mother of invention”— a cliché that explains how things come to be created or invented and introduced to the world. But here in San Antonio, it’s often mothers, housewives and businesswomen who are the actual “mothers of invention”— real-life women behind items you’ll see in stores nationwide and online, too.
And it’s these ladies we sought out this issue, for the backstory behind the products and the women who created them inspire us as much as the inventions do. Their stories of all that’s involved in taking a dream to the drawing board and then thrusting a new product into a competitive global market are no less than amazing, so we’ve spent a bit of time with three creative ladies and their unique products to learn what it’s like when necessity and inspiration bring forth inventions.
Who would have ever guessed that what began as an elementary school science project could turn into a full-scale family business for a mom and dad? Claudia Berdegue and her husband, Eduardo, never dreamed that’s what would happen, and yet it’s exactly how their original product, the HomeSwimmer, was invented. A mother of three — son Julian, 17; daughter, Belen, 19; and youngest daughter Andrea, 11 — Claudia would soon become the mother of a fascinating new invention that would transform the world of swimming for exercise and swim training — and the Berdegue family. “My son was a fifth-grader at the time, and he had an upcoming science fair. The whole family was working on different ideas for him. At one point, my son and I were outside brainstorming with my husband, and we looked at our above-ground swimming pool with a deck around it, and one of us said, ‘What about something we could create to help swimmers swim in place?’ So we bought a pulley and a rope and made a kind of make-shift prototype — very basic, not quite what we have today. We began playing around with the idea and determining ways to improve it,” explains Berdegue.
The family tried out different models and worked through different prototypes for a device that would help a swimmer feel resistance as he swam in place — so that a person could swim in a small pool and still get a good workout. An advantage of the HomeSwimmer is that when using it the swimmer must constantly stay in motion and swim to stay afloat; you can’t glide between strokes, so using the product offers a more vigorous workout than normal swimming. Thus, the product seemed the perfect exercise equipment for a person who wants to use a pool for fitness, even if he or she doesn’t have access to a large pool for swimming laps.
“A week before the project was due, we felt so good about our product that my husband had the idea to patent it. Our son had to come up with something else to take to the science fair,” says Berdegue. Then the family started working in earnest on inventing a quality product they could produce, market and sell. “The whole process took about two years from the time we first perceived the HomeSwimmer to the time we brought it to market,” she says. The family launched the product in 2006 and began making the rounds at sporting goods trade fairs across the country and even one in Munich, Germany. Soon the product began to win awards. The family traveled internationally to trade shows and sporting goods venues in exciting places like Germany, and soon the product won a 2006 iParenting Media Award for design quality and functionality as Outstanding Product of the Year. It was also named one of the top five new fitness items in Shape magazine. Soon HomeSwimmer would gain coverage in national and regional magazines and win other awards.
Called a “portable stationary swimming system for fun and effective swimming exercise at home or on the road,” HomeSwimmer now sells primarily online, and it has made a fan out of Olympic swimmer Josh Davis and top swim trainers like Susan Ingram. Berdegue has been working hard to promote her family’s invention for the past four years, but in May she decided to return to her job in finance at Broadway Bank. The HomeSwimmer business is in good hands, though, with a strong team of employees who help handle the warehouse, shipping and customer service.
Berdegue says she never dreamed that the product her family invented to help people swim in place would take them so far so fast.
Deb Bolner Prost
Born and raised in San Antonio, Deb Bolner Prost grew up around her parents’ family business, Bolner’s Fiesta Spices — with products selling in about 40 states — which helped foster her own entrepreneurial spirit. But, more importantly, it gave her a knowledge of herbs and spices that would be essential to the creation of a product that she and four other friends would invent, a product that was truly born of necessity. “I work out quite a bit and try to stay healthy, and I always find it difficult to cool down quickly. My daughter was an Olympic Development Program Division One Elite soccer and field hockey athlete, and we were always attending regional and national tournaments. Often I’d stand around watching while she played in temperatures of almost 100 degrees in the shade. I’d try to cool the kids down when they came off the field, and we’d have towels iced down, but the towels never kept cool. Later, my friends and I and those in my Bunco group would go through ‘the change’ and get hot flashes, and we couldn’t find a way to cool off quickly either. Women who are going through that want natural alternatives to help with the problem. I’d go into stores thinking, ‘What can I do or buy or find to help me cool off?’” says Prost. There wasn’t anything.
Then, when Prost’s friend Linda Caldwell began a battle with breast cancer, the need for a way to cool off become more important: “When Linda went through chemo, she was thrown into early-stage hot flashes and needed something to cool her down,” says Prost, and it was then that she and four friends decided to call upon their joint background in business and marketing and upon Prost’s understanding of herbs and spices to create a product that would help people feel cooler.
And so Cool Off™ was invented. It soon hit stores across the United States in April of 2010. Cool Off™ pre-moistened towelettes provide a quick, convenient way to renew, refresh and re-energize wherever you are while exercising, working or playing outdoors, traveling … or dealing with hot flashes. “Cool Off™ is infused with natural ingredients that include cooling herbs, plant botanicals and essential oils, all with a clean, fresh scent, so it soothes and moisturizes skin as it provides instant and long-lasting relief from the heat,” explains its Web site. “The Cool Off™ chill lasts approximately 20 minutes, with some reporting effects lasting up to an hour and a half. Users can reactivate the towelettes’ cooling properties by splashing water on the skin where Cool Off™ was applied, renewing the refreshing sensation.”
So how does one take an idea to product form? As the song goes, “With a little help from my friends.”
“This is a project that is much bigger than one person — we really are a team: Linda Caldwell, Bev Bolner, Dawn Gwin and Jim Caldwell and me. Together we have backgrounds and strengths in engineering, graphic design, marketing, research and events promotion,” explains Prost, who has been called “a data guru” and marketing research specialist and who is currently about halfway through her graduate work for a master’s degree in nutrition at Incarnate Word – though she’s had to take a short break from studies because she’s so busy now. “We spent about three years doing research and development marketing work, along with a little kitchen chemistry, while drawing from my background in spices and my other interests in natural healing and nutrition,” says Prost. “We took our respective skills — researching, going to trade shows, talking to contract manufacturers, doing marketing research – and launched this new product strictly by the book. We wanted to make sure there was indeed a market for our product.”
And there was.
“We did our first manufacturing run March 2010 and got on the shelves of H-E-B in late April on the first-aid aisle,” says Prost. Soon Cool Off™ could be found in TETCO convenience stores, in Duane Reade drugstores in New York City and online at Amazon.com, Drugstore.com, CVS.com, as well as at Academy Sports & Outdoors … to name just a few places. After the American Music Awards this year and even the Emmys, Cool Off™ was included in gift bags for stars. Prost was excited to be able to go to Los Angeles to be in the “gifting room” of the American Music Awards.
Cool Off™ has also, and quite appropriately, been given out in sample form at performances of Menopause the Musical in Houston and Austin — just another opportunity for this original invention to help folks cool down when things heat up.
Rockin’ Green Soap
With 4-and-a-half-year-old son Jackson and 2-year-old son Zachary, you’d think a young mom like Kimberly Webb would be sick and tired of baby diapers — but, odd as it may seem, they’ve actually become her passion.
Cloth diapers, that is.
And with cloth diapers comes lots of laundry, and with laundry comes lots of laundry detergent, and with that can come chemicals, scents, softeners and films that block absorbency as well as chemical irritants and allergy-producing ingredients that bother babies’ skin. And that simply wouldn’t do for Webb, who wanted to use cloth diapers but couldn’t seem to get them truly clean with standard detergents. Besides, her kids have sensitive skins bothered by the chemicals in most laundry cleaners. “I began with disposable diapers for the first year with the first baby, but he kept getting rashes from them, so my mom suggested I try cloth diapers.” recalls Webb, “I said, ‘Oh Mom, that’s so old-school.’ But then I tried cloth diapers and fell in love with them — modern diapers now come in all different colors and materials, and they’re so cute! But I couldn’t wash them to save my life. The hard water in San Antonio made it harder to clean them, so they smelled bad, and it was a nightmare. So I had to come up with something to keep them clean.” So Webb started doing a bit of research to learn how traditional detergents work and what they contain, and she found that additives like “optical brighteners” in detergents could leave a coating behind so cloth diapers (and towels and other fabrics) would be less absorbent, and they’d also be harder to clean. So Webb went to work in her kitchen to create a better laundry soap for diapers.
“There are a lot of places you could get soap ingredients in smaller batches, like hobby chemistry sites. So my husband and I started out making smaller batches of a detergent that was free of dyes, enzymes, whiteners and brighteners just for our family, and then I’d give it to friends for their diapers, and it grew from there. Friends would tell their friends, and their friends would tell others, and suddenly it took off,” says Webb. “We began using it for all our laundry, and it was so much better. Towels get so fluffy and soft, too.” Webb had already developed a small website to sell cloth diapers, so her husband suggested she “subsidize her diaper obsession” by adding their detergent, now called Rockin’ Green, to the site.
“I first started selling the soap on that site in 2009, but then we got to the point that we were only selling soap instead of diapers, so we opened up another site to sell just our product. It was in September of that year that we were taking on our first retailers — people who wanted to wholesale it,” says Webb. So her husband, Jeremy, who had a full-time job, started helping make it in their garage. “Jeremy was an aircraft mechanic, so he would work on aircraft all day and make soap all night. He was wonderful about it,” she says. The business simply exploded and outgrew their garage. “Our clients want everything natural and green, so we pick ingredients that are safe for the environment and the kids. Rockin’ Green is currently going through Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing to ensure that it’s safe for the environment,” says Webb. It’s a process that is purely elective so she can ensure that her product is truly “green.”
“We’ve now been in business about a year and a half, and we currently have 450 retailers in the United States and about 200 in other countries, including distributors in Australia, Canada, Europe and one in Dubai,” says Webb. Her husband no longer is an aircraft mechanic; Rockin’ Green has become a big family business. “We just moved into a new office in Castroville with 7,000 square feet of office and warehouse space, and we’ve got eight full-time employees and dogs and kids running around. I bring my kids to work with me,” she says. “We just did our first trade show this past August,” says Webb, who has a degree in marketing. But she says with a good product and the Internet, you don’t need experience in marketing, a bunch of trade shows or a lot of startup money to succeed. “With almost 13,000 fans on Facebook and 4,000-plus fans on Twitter, our marketing has really depended on the online community with message boards and social media. The cloth diaper community is pretty tight, and they connect online,” explains Webb.
“My family and friends thought I was crazy when I said I was going to start a detergent company, but I believed in it and thought that was something parents needed. And it worked. A good idea, lots of long nights, lack of sleep and pure determination go a long way. I rarely sleep; motherhood has trained me for this,” says Webb, who adds it is “just too sad” when kids get potty-trained — a sentiment that only a mom with a passion for diapers and her own brand of laundry soap could possibly understand.