Cloie Riley and neighbor Stephanie Cornette used to spend summers floating on tubes, rafts and Neo Noodles in their neighborhood lake in rural Orange County.
About four years ago, the women decided to transform those swim noodles – long, soft, mesh tubes filled with tiny white foam pellets – into something special.
What they came up with was their company Flo-Therapy and a line of products for kids and adults called Zoo Noodles, flotation toys in the form of cows, dragons and cats that squirt water.
“Cloie and I played with them and sketched out some designs, and we tried to sew some new designs,” Cornette said.
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After making little progress, they called in another neighbor, Nancy Huskins, a seamstress, and together they created a new square float called an aqua cloud.
In November 2011, Riley and Huskins presented the aqua cloud to Todd Truedson, product manager at T2 International, a consumer products company in Mooresville. The company declined to produce the float, but expressed the need for a float design for preschool kids.
“We took this as a challenge,” said Riley, 53, a former preschool teacher, who now teaches special education at C.W. Stafford Middle School in Hillsborough. “We sketched ideas all the way home.”
To develop the prototype, the trio convinced a Wal-Mart manager to sell them 20 Neo Noodles for half price. They dismantled the noodles, repurposed the materials, and spent the winter working with Truedson on developing Zoo Noodles. They sewed the noodles by hand and took their first products to market in the summer of 2012.
Later that year, mail-order catalog Frontgate commissioned a special line of Zoo Noodles. The women pooled their money to cover $6,000 in startup costs. Frontgate pays them 7 percent royalties on sales, which the women put back into the company.
In 2013, they started a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign, but only raised $821. Rather than give up, they continued to expand slowly, using any help they could get, including piggybacking their Zoo Noodle manufacturing orders with other T2 orders to take advantage of volume discounts.
Riley, Huskins and Cornette started marketing directly to local swim clubs, aquatic centers, gift shops, toy stores and other local businesses. The company sells noodles directly to consumers through its website and through retailers.
In November 2013, they went with Truedson to a Las Vegas pool and patio trade show, where they met retailers from around the world and sold about 300 Zoo Noodles. Realizing the trade show was key to selling, they went to the 2014 trade show, this one in Orlando, and sold about 8,000.
In October, T2 International was sold. The women brought Truedson on as their fourth partner and started using a manufacturing facility in China. The products are shipped to Riley’s home, and are packaged and sent to retailers and customers from there.
They are in the running to appear on the television show Shark Tank, where they hope to earn a $200,000 investment. A successful run on the show would help fund expansion and enable them to rent a larger facility.
“Our vision now is to expand to other products,” Cornette said. “New characters, beach towels, tote bags and T-shirts.”
Reach Teri Saylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter @terisaylor.
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