If you have ever been confined to a wheelchair, even for a short time, you know it can be depersonalizing. It may be that you are below eye level, but no matter the cause, those in wheelchairs are often ignored. Sharon Paulsell and her husband Steve found when running Honor Flights out of Columbia, Missouri that strangers readily approached and thanked ambulatory Veterans for their services while those in wheelchairs were often overlooked.
Sharon and Steve also found during trips that the hundreds of wheelchairs at the national World War II Memorial all looked the same. Once, a wheelchair from their group was accidentally loaded onto a bus for another Honor Flight leading to an extensive search to track it down. Luggage tags or newspaper bags tied to the wheelchairs just weren’t cutting it to identify their wheelchairs at a glance.
The issues became the impetus for the creation of a new business called Wheelchair Personalities. At first, Sharon didn’t plan to start a business. She just wanted to find a way to better recognize both the chairs and the veterans who occupied them.
Wheelchair Personalities now designs covers for the back of wheelchairs.
The first models announced the occupant’s status of being a World War II Vet for those veterans taking the Honor Flight. Sharon noticed they were getting more attention than the walking veterans with the covers being a conversation starter.
With these positive results, Sharon and Steve decided to start a business with Sharon at the helm. They expanded their idea to include others in wheelchairs, who they thought might like to express themselves via their wheelchairs as well.
Since Steve’s sister, Mary Paulsell, works for Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers (SBTDCs,) the couple knew there was free help available to their small business and others like them. They started planning the business with SBTDC counseling in 2010 and continue to seek advice. The couple also worked with Elinor Arendt from the Mid-Missouri SCORE association. (SBTDC and SCORE are both SBA resource partners which offer free counseling and low cost training.)
Each Columbia SBTDC employee has an area where they have assisted the growing business. Virginia Wilson started them with the business plan template, told them how much work it takes to run a small business, and assisted them with gathering all the forms and documents needed to start and register a small business. Jim Gann connected them with other small businesses—notably suppliers, manufacturers, and salespeople. He introduced the concept of “pay for performance” for sales people. Collin Bunch is a social media “guru” and has assisted them with all things social media—especially Facebook and LinkedIn. Mary Paulsell has been there with sage advice and cheerleading along the way.
Even with expert advice, Sharon and Steve made some mistakes. They rented space early on, and then found it was a needless expense. Fortunately, they lost their lease when another business took over the whole building. They are again working out of their home and are quite happy there for now.
The couple used their savings to finance Honor Flights and Wheelchair Personalities. They are now concentrating more intensely on Wheelchair Personalities because there is no similar product on the market today and they feel strongly that the wheelchair-bound should be able to express their personalities via the covers.
The covers have been adopted by Children’s Hospital in Columbia, whose “wheelchair corrals” are no longer filled with plain black, brown, or navy wheelchairs, they now have brightly colored pictures of TJ and a morale boosting inscription reading, ‘We care about your comfort and you are important to us as an individual.’ One young patient said he wouldn’t get in another wheelchair unless TJ, the Children’s Hospital’s tiger mascot, was on the back.
Sharon’s current goal is to expand to other hospitals, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes and then tackle major retail chains.
“Most retail chains and hospitals just have stenciled wheelchairs. Not only are our covers another form of advertising, but they express more care for the needs of those patrons in wheelchairs. It gives a more cheerful appearance,” Sharon says, noting they have has enlisted Ms. Wheelchair USA 2010-2011, Phaedra Olsen, to promote the covers.
The back covers can be individually ordered from the website and are now available at Carrie’s Hallmark Shop in Jefferson City. While the Paulsells are the sole employees, it is important to them that products remains American-made. They employ an intern from the University of Missouri who is now unpaid and learning about small business, but who would like to be hired when the company grows.
Knowing the ups and downs of starting a business, Sharon and Steve also mentor new entrepreneurs in the 1 Million Cups program initiated by the Kaufman Foundation. What advice do they pass on to these new small business owners?
“Seek out all available resources and use them—friends, family, other small business owners, SBTDC, SCORE, SBA. Don’t try to go it alone…ask for assistance and advice,” says Sharon.
Missouri SBTDC in Columbia can be reached by calling 573-884-8087, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting http://www.missouribusiness.net/ucie/index.asp. They are located at Regional Economic Development, Inc. (REDI), 500 E. Walnut, Suite 103, Columbia, MO, 65201. Mid-Missouri SCORE can be reached at 573-874-1132, by visiting 300 S. Providence Rd, Columbia, MO, 65203, or online at http://midmissouriscore.org.
For more information on how SBA St. Louis can assist your small business, contact 314-539-6600 or visit www.sba.gov/mo/stlouis. The St. Louis District also maintains an office in the REDI in Columbia and one on the SEMO campus in Cape Girardeau. The contact information can be found on the SBA St. Louis District Office website.