As folks get older, everyday tasks that most take for granted, including eating, might get harder because of shaking or arthritic hands.
Laura Rao’s uncle used his ingenuity. At mealtime he would put an embroidery hoop with a towel connected by clothespins around his neck to protect his clothes from spills. Now he’s the inspiration for the Mo, one of Live On Goods’ bonTops, stylish clothing protectors originally designed for seniors and adults with disabilities. However, the women-owned Fort Wayne business that Rao is a partner in is finding the water- and stain-resistant coverings, which come in a variety of fabric designs from polka dots and stripes to oxford and Hawaiian, are finding other customers, including those with autism and anyone who finds the front catch-all pouch handy, including commuters.
Each of the women who started the business – Rao, an occupational therapist; Helen Huser Nill, a nurse; Maria Krach, a registered dietitian; Mary Briscoe, a small-business office manager with a retail background; and Gretchen Dahm, a creative woman with finance and business experience – knew someone with a physical limitation due to aging or a disability, Nill said.
When they couldn’t find a stylish, adult version of an adult bib, they decided to start a company with the bonTop as its first product, Nill said.
Nill remembers the embarrassment she and other family members felt for her mother-in-law when she dropped food on her nice clothes while eating at a country club. Nill got the ball rolling by asking four friends to join her to create an adult bib that was easy to put on and would look good while dining out.
She talked with Briscoe. And she went to pitch the idea to Dahm, who she knew had some sewing experience, over lunch.
“It must have been fate,” Dahm said. “Right then I took a sip of tea, and it went down my front.”
The owners produce the designs and Dahm creates the prototypes. She also works with the finances.
Along the way Nill talked with Krach.
“You eat three times a day, and dignity was the utmost concern,” Krach said.
Having worked as a dietician, Krach is aware that some seniors are embarrassed to dine with family and friends because their physical limitations cause them to be less tidy diners. This embarrassment may lead to social isolation that can lead to depression. When looking for clothing protectors for her parents she could only find ones that were ugly, infantile or ineffective, she said. The bonTops are a perfect solution.
The women worked with the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, which coached them from creating a business plan to applying for a grant through Elevate Ventures Indiana for $25,000 that helped them start production.
The center helped them decide to divide up many of the duties. Krach and Nill do sales and Rao the social media and website.
Rao said they got the feeling that Mike Fritsch, entrepreneur-in-residence at the center, didn’t quite “get” the product at first.
Fritsch said that was intentional.
“They came to us like a lot of people do, with a need, an idea,” Fritsch said.
Clients first must decide if a need exists for their products, he said.
“Prove to me that this will work,” he challenges clients. “Prove to me this will work with customers.”
With places like senior communities being Live On Goods’ prime market, Fritsch challenged them to talk with people there.
They had to look at the market, decide whether to make the product here or overseas, and so forth. The center helped them create a product name and get start-up money and introduced them to manufacturers.
“We say there’s an entrepreneurial ecosystem here,” Fritsch said.
Nill’s friend Mary “Jinx” Adams gives feedback to her on the products and is a member of the Live On Goods advisory board. She owns two bonTops.
“I wear (one) at every meal,” the 91-year-old said.
“It’s comfortable and easy to take care of” because it’s machine washable, she said. She sees a lot of promise in the product.
“I have no doubt, given a little bit of time, it will be very successful,” Adams said.
She takes a bit of credit for suggesting the side attachment that makes them easy to get on and off, unlike other adult bibs that snap behind the head at the neck.
The women are always finding new uses for the tops. Cheryl Perry, who works in advertising for Fort Wayne Newspapers, a business agent for The News-Sentinel, got two for her and her husband.
“We are such a messy couple,” she said. She’s hoping they’ll come in handy when she and her husband commute and need to eat along the way.
The business is also developing a version for young people with autism. Dahm is creating prototypes with input from an autism center’s staff for the young clients.
“A young boy said, ‘Can I have my bonTop back?” Dahm recalled.
The Fort Wayne-made products are available at the company’s website, www.liveongoods.com, the Mad Anthony’s Children’s Hope House Gift Shop in Lutheran Hospital and both James Medical locations. Prices range from $49 for the apronlike Bistro to $65 for the reversible Zash.
The cost may have turned some people off, Rao said. So they’re working on the Mo, another men’s version with a simplified collar that’s less expensive.
The company also has some clip-on ties.