The Ups and Downs of an Inflatable Seat

Discomfort was the mother of invention for frequent flier Bob Duncan, who tells how he built a thriving business around a carry-on seat cushion

For Bob Duncan, a 47-year-old pilot for Alaska Airlines, 1st Class Sleeper started out as a way to ease the grueling commute from his hometown of Sequim, Wash., two hours northwest of Seattle, to his job in Anchorage, Alaska. What he came up with was a three-foot inflatable pillow that fits into a coach airline seat, providing both lumbar support for the lower back and a neck cushion to stop a drowsy passenger's head rolling around. With it, Duncan was finally able grab a little shut-eye during the airborne legs of his 12-hour round trips (see BW Online, 10/16/03, "No Longer Sleepless into Seattle")

He fiddled with it on and off, but it was a nine-hour trip with his wife to Moscow that convinced him that other travelers had the same problem sleeping on planes that he did. He found a manufacturer -- by then, he was on version five of the idea -- and started selling what he then called SnoozWedge to the public at local gift shows and travel expos up and down the West Coast. Eventually, so that he could devote more time to developing a commercial product, Duncan did away with the commute entirely. Just over two years ago, he moved his family of six to Anchorage.

Earlier this year, in preparation for a national launch, he renamed the product 1st Class Sleeper and started showing it at travel- and luggage-industry trade shows in order to line up national distribution. In its first time out, 1st Class Sleeper nailed the big travel accessory catalogs, and picked up a couple dozen independent luggage retailers as well. Recently, Duncan spoke with BusinessWeek correspondent Larry Armstrong about the trials of getting a good idea from concept to market. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: Where did the idea for 1st Class Sleeper come from?


I commuted for six years between Seattle and Anchorage, and could never sleep on the plane. I watched people go through all kinds of contortions and use all kinds of devices to try to sleep, but none of them worked for me. One day, the flight was empty, I stuffed 11 pillows into the back of a seat. I couldn't even sit in it without the seat belt holding me in. But I slept for two hours. That's when I knew I had something, like a lumbar pillow that goes all the way up to your shoulders.

A: Isn't it a long way to get from 11 airline pillows to a commercial product?


I had a neighbor who invented an industrial vacuum sealer, and he encouraged me. We vacuum-sealed a bunch of things together to come up with a lumbar cushion. It looked kind of funky, but it worked really well. My next big hurdle was when we realized we needed a better seal than a heat seal. I found a company in Seattle that could do an RF seal, the kind used on waterbeds and high-quality inflatable products. They made a beautiful prototype, but they wouldn't sign a nondisclosure agreement to protect my invention. I eventually found a company in Southern California that would. They ended up making our first 1,800, starting in lots of 50 at a time.

A: How do you market them?


In April of 2001, we took the prototype to a local travel show in San Francisco. We gathered up our whole family and drove our trailer down to San Francisco with our airline seats…

A: Your airline seats?


You can't get the full effect in an office chair. So Alaska Airlines was gracious enough to let me borrow six coach airline seats. Since then, we've bought a bunch of them. In May that year, I bought six seats on eBay for just under $500 -- the manufacturers want $3,600 for a row of three. Later, I bought 12 seats from Air Canada for $75 each. We always show it in the middle seat, the worst seat in the house.

Q: What was the proverbial big break?


This March, we decided to go national and take it to the Travel Goods Assn. show in Las Vegas. It was a huge gamble, a $10,000 gamble. But at a breakfast the second day, they gave awards for the most innovative products. They announced Samsonite's. They announced Travelpro's. Then they announced our name, and our product, and nearly everyone in the room went "Who?" It was like David and Goliath. That's what really put us on the map. That's when the two big travel catalogs, Magellan's and TravelSmith, picked us up.

Q: Are you still doing the local shows?


These little holiday gift shows are real moneymakers for us. We'll do a show in Tacoma this month, then shows in Anchorage and Seattle in November. Hopefully, that's going to fund our next order.

Q: Isn't that a little hand-to mouth?


We're trying not to take on any debt. We've put all our own money into this, so it's all paid for right now. So far, we've put about $150,000 in. Of course, we've made some of that back. We've had people offer to help, but they want a percentage of the company. We feel very strongly that we should pay our own way. So, early on, I guess it was hand-to-mouth. But the catalogs have been reordering once a week. So we now can forecast out four or five months, where we couldn't do that before when we were only selling them ourselves.

Q: How were you able to get the price down to $49.95?


We found at these little shows that, at $79, three out of ten people who sat in it would buy it. At $50, seven out of ten would buy it. We knew it was a good product -- it's a product that pretty much sells itself -- but we had to get the cost down. We'd see other products at these shows and ask who made them, so we had about five recommendations for manufacturers in China. We sent prototypes to them and they'd come back with a sample and a price. We settled on one. But when it came time to close the deal, SARs broke out. I wasn't going to take the risk of going there in person, which I'd planned to do. So I had to wire a downpayment of $15,000 to a person I'd never met before, to a country I'd never been to before, to a bank I'd never heard of before. It was scary, but I did it. It's worked out perfectly. The quality is excellent and price is much better.

Q: What was your biggest misstep?


Well, it wasn't really a mistake, but early on we went into SkyMall, the inflight catalog. It costs $8,000 a month, and we committed for six months. September 11 hit right in the middle of it. What we thought would be a modest loss, but important for getting our name out, turned into a huge loss. We almost didn't recover from it.

Q: What's your next step?


We have a couple of airlines that want to try selling this onboard -- you know that all the airlines are looking for new sources of revenue. We're trying to schedule a chiropractor show for sometime next year. Chiropractors already love this thing. And I'm trying to get some medical institution to study this. I'm not a doctor, but I know when I use the Sleeper my feet don't swell up like they did before I had it. If this can battle DVT [deep vascular thrombosis] and save some lives, then it should be on every plane in the world.

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