You never know where a great idea is going to pop up. For Ellen Waldman, it was while she was in a ski line in New England. Though she loved to ski, Ellen grew frustrated with the discomfort of her neck gaiter, the tubular piece of fleece that kept her neck warm and free of snow during the occasional falls. “It was too much trouble to remove the gaiter when I needed to cool off, especially during a long day of skiing,” Ellen explains. “I could unzip my jacket; why couldn’t I unzip my gaiter?”
Unable to locate what seemed to be a logical product in ski shops, the mother of two decided to make one herself. After some experimenting, she found that a diagonal zipper allowed her to open a large section of fabric away from her neck to let in cooling air. And so was born WAMUware, Ellen’s acronym for “where air meets utility,” and her husband’s long-standing family nickname.
After submitting a patent application for her product, called the WAMUgaiter, Ellen pondered her next step. A patent was a potentially valuable asset, but should she sell her idea to an established company or develop and market her product herself?
On the suggestion of a reference librarian at the county, she contacted SCORE and discussed her options with mentors Michael Bozza and Claude Haggelberg. “They felt that with a patent pending, I should strongly consider starting up my own company,” Ellen recalls. “They gave me some manufacturing leads to investigate and helped me understand what to look for in terms of prices, sourcing materials and other manufacturing issues.”
In early 2003 Ellen attended national and regional trade shows and quickly found ready buyers among ski shops in the United States and overseas. Except for the manufacturing work, which took place in Pennsylvania, WAMUware was based entirely in Ellen’s New Jersey home.
Ellen’s biggest decision came when a Swedish-based company offered to purchase the manufacturing and marketing rights to WAMUware. The opportunity was quite tempting, but once again, Ellen sought the advice of her SCORE mentors. “We discussed pros and cons, what to look for in the agreement, and things to address with a lawyer,” Ellen says. “It took several months to unfold, and Claude and Michael were with me the whole way.”
Ellen has retained the patent to WAMUware, but is working closely with her new partner during the transition phase. “I’ll never forget being tongue-tied at my first visit to SCORE,” Ellen says. “I’m grateful for all the help Claude and Michael have provided through the years. They truly wanted to help me succeed.”
Michael Bozza and Claude Haggelberg helped Ellen with manufacturing leads to start her own business. They also worked with Ellen on developing a marketing strategy, identifying and working with sales representatives and building awareness for the WAMUgaiter and other products she had in mind.
Whenever a new issue arose, Ellen calls on her SCORE mentors. “Keeping me focused is something that Claude and Michael do very well, as I have a tendency to stray from the topic of discussion, especially if it’s a difficult one,” Ellen says. “And because they have different backgrounds and perspectives, we could look at an issue from several sides and make a better decision for my business.”