When Doug Collins bought a high-clearance truck, his sister, a petite 5 feet, 1 inch tall, managed to fall off the tailgate. Collins watched the pratfall from inside the house, and moaned, "She's gonna make me sell that truck if I don't figure something out."
So says his sister-in-law, Jodie Andersen, in telling how Collins invented the X-Tend-A-Step, a booster step with taillight that installs beneath a pickup truck and telescopes out from the rear.
But it wasn't easy.
"We have a garage full of failures," says Andersen. The challenge: "You have six inches to work with behind the hitch receiver. How do you extend 24 inches with a six inch receiver?"
After the invention was perfected, Andersen took over research and development. She formed JoDog Sport, Inc. and as president and chief executive set out to market the X-Tend-A-Step.
She has the background for the task, having assisted entrepreneurs with finance and development for seven years while employed with the Nevada Commission on Economic Development Rural Community Program.
"This product has so much potential," she says. "There is nothing like it on the market."
Andersen sees moving 10,000 units the first year, and up to 100,000 units by year five.
But first she had some bird-dogging to do. She got the patent, both domestic and international. She found a supplier for the lights and cord; finding a power coil cord that was both springy and retractable took six months. She lined up a manufacturer, Seven C's Inc. in Reno.
"Their quality, experience, and precision are outstanding," says Andersen of owner Jim Clewitt, who handles small manufacturing projects under contract. "He showed me how we could cut corners on cost while maintaining the integrity of the unit."
The first run was only 500. And some assembly is required. For that, she found Robert Miller at RD Technology, conveniently located in the same building as Seven C's.
Andersen plans a second run of 800 units.
She's taking a slow-growth approach because the venture is funded by family and friends.
"If I sell them myself, I can make enough to fund myself until I get to the 30,000 manufacturing range," she says.
But Andersen needs $200,000 for the next step and so is looking for an investor. While the inventor will get royalties, she plans to negotiate ownership with the investor.
And, she's ready for a marketing director and a chief executive officer.
"Now I'm looking to have the leadership of someone who's been there before," says Andersen. "I'm looking for a team who really are driven and who have the same passion and zest that I bring."
"My strength is marketing," she adds. "I have people on the sidelines waiting until it's ready to go. A friend with an MBA will do finite research and development."
In November she attended the Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Association trade show, which draws 11 million people. "That's where we met our potential distributors and reps in the industry," she says.
A Sacramento distributor is interested. So is the U.S. Army and Air Force.
Family members in Texas and Michigan who work in the automotive industry and in sales will work on distribution in those states.
Locally, Andersen is targeting government agencies and utility companies. Western Nevada Supply and Granite Construction are buying it.
Granite Construction has been using the product since September, says Andersen, adding, "I gave them permission to break it. They've tried everything. Their truck got stuck in the mud. To free it, a front loader lifted the back of the truck up by the step and it still works. I couldn't have paid for such a study."
The X-Tend-A-Step doubles as an additional light system. It's mounted at bumper level on a truck, but centered, which puts it directly in the line-of-sight of car drivers, who sit lower than do truck drivers. The truck's turn signals, hazards, and brake lights are wired into it.
"Our market is safety," says Andersen. "This step promotes convenience, utility and safety."
That's a big selling point, says Andersen, because one workers compensation claim can far outweigh the cost of the product. She cites a $300,00 settlement for an injury claim from a construction employee who fell off the tailgate of a truck. Plus, she says, if a company can demonstrate that it's taking safety steps, it can enjoy reduced workers comp premiums.
"This entrepreneurial battle has been really difficult," Andersen admits. "Penetrating a new market with an automotive accessory and not having experience with that market."
She credits start-up success to the Technology Ventures Corp. of Las Vegas, a non-profit entrepreneurial assistance organization, and says, "They helped me develop the plan to attract the funding."
But the number one challenge Andersen faces is marketplace competition. Although she's got domestic and international patents pending, she knows copycats will surface. So the foremost goal is getting the new product to market before some well-heeled competitor does a full market launch.