BIG DREAMS START SMALL

How two men became 4 Moms

I’ll admit I’m a little skeptical when I first hear about a couple of guys in Pittsburgh, the Steel City of all places, who started a company that makes high-end baby products for loving mothers. More specifically, products that include an $800 baby stroller that even Natalie Portman is pushing around.

Then I check out the 4moms’ website and find myself leaning a little closer as I watch the videos demonstrating their products.  Then I watch the videos again,  captivated by something I have no intention of buying.  I don’t even have kids.  And as far as cutting edge technology is concerned, I’d rather hold a book in my hand than a tablet.  So why am I still sitting here staring at a mechanized baby stroller that opens and closes gracefully with a push of a button?  And that’s when I know I have to leave the warmth of Los Angeles and fly to Pittsburgh for a closer look.

Dale, the photographer I’ll be working with, picks me up at my hotel and we make our way over to the company’s headquarters in the Strip District, an old, industrial neighborhood on the southern bank of the Allegheny River, just northeast of the central business district. Back in the day, a lot of big companies set up shop here, including Heinz, ALCOA, and U.S. Steel. But on this morning, I’m in the area to discuss a small, privately held company that is quickly making a name for itself in the $9 billion-a-year juvenile products industry.

Only we can’t get in the front door.

Now to be fair, 4moms is just one of a number of businesses located in the Crane Building, a classically preserved, red brick structure that was a plumbing warehouse at one time. And it’s like six degrees outside, so that may have something to do with why the dial-directory won’t recognize the company code listed on the registry. It also might have something to do with me. I’m usually one of those people who has to stand in front of a motion-controlled sink in a public bathroom waving frantically for upwards of a minute before the sensor acknowledges my existence.

Then again, this isn’t a faulty faucet.  It’s a magazine interview.  And I’m here to see two men who are building their brand through efficiency and sophisticated technology. I can’t help but wonder how they might feel about a door that won’t open.  Especially Henry Thorne, the duo’s mechanical engineer, who got his start by inventing a personal robot named Cye, which could do things like vacuum, deliver donuts to coworkers, and, you guessed it, greet visitors at the front door.

Fortunately, a young man in his twenties arrives for work and lets us into the building.  As he leads us up to the second floor, I notice the relaxed manner in which he moves, the hint of a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. He has no idea why we are there, but this is someone who seems to enjoy coming into work. This is an individual who carries himself like he is in on a secret.

“You work here?” I ask, as he enters the lobby of 4moms.

“I do,” he replies, vanishing as quickly as he had appeared.

A few minutes later, I’m sitting across from Henry Thorne in a small conference room within a large, tastefully designed workspace that evokes the aesthetic vision of Apple, accentuated by the United Colors of Benetton.  His partner, Rob Daley, will be joining us shortly, but Henry wastes no time inquiring about my arrival.  “What do you mean, you couldn’t get into the building?” he responds, tipping forward on a pendulum of concern.

I dismiss the incident as a random occurrence, but it’s too late. Henry’s mind has already kicked into problem solving mode. His eyes remain fixed on me as he begins to silently analyze the incoming data. He’s not happy about the door downstairs.  He doesn’t understand it.  And yet he also seems to know that we don’t have a lot of time, so he can’t just get up and leave the interview to fix it himself, even though his body language is expressing that very desire.  No, the front door will have to wait while he sits there and tells me about his path to the present.

It began in the early seventies, on the streets of SoHo in New York City, where a young Henry constructed his first invention, a pinball machine that used an air hockey puck instead of a ball. He followed that up with a small airplane built from scratch that moved even faster than the puck.  Sure, he could have bought one of those kits from a catalogue, but he wasn’t interested in following someone else’s design. He had to build the one that was flying around inside his head.

Henry’s parents divorced when he was ten.  His mother was an artist and his father was a businessman, but it was his mom who had the biggest influence on him.  She dragged him along to hear John Cage play music at The Kitchen, exposing him to a creative environment that encouraged him to explore his unconventional ideas. His eyes still light up when he talks about his early years on Canal Street. “It was man’s junkyard. A surplus of everything under the sun.  Plastic, bearings, metal, motors. It was like the ultimate erector set. Or Lego kit.  And everything was nearly free.”  He lingers there a moment longer, his mind drifting through a time and place that he can seemingly still touch.  “And I built stuff.”

Those early inventions would eventually lead him to Carnegie Mellon University, just a few miles from his current playground.  But he didn’t choose the school because it had one of the best engineering programs in the country. The name itself was also a factor in his decision to enroll there, for it inspired another image that he simply had to explore. The image of a wonderful place where trees somehow grew melons instead of leaves.  It was here that Henry felt like he truly belonged for the very first time.

After getting his bachelor’s degree in 1982, Henry stayed and picked up his M.S. in mechanical engineering before relocating to Michigan to help General Motors troubleshoot its robotic assembly lines.  Only he didn’t start inventing machines at an early age just so he could spend his adult years working for someone else.  He wanted to create something that might one day change the way we live.  And since Pittsburgh was offering a funding program for entrepreneurs, he decided to follow his heart and return to the city he loved in 1992, where he would embark on his mission to make Cye, the personal robot that he believed was his destiny.

Cye nearly broke his heart.

Yes, the invention was widely recognized within the robotics community as a stunning achievement when it debuted in 1999 ($695 before accessories), an accomplishment that landed Henry and Cye on The Today Show and got them plenty of ink in various publications, including Wired magazine, which even went so far as to call Cye the “Macintosh” of  personal robots.  But only a few hundred people actually bought Henry’s product and that forced him to take a good hard look at why.  It was during these dark days that Henry would make perhaps his greatest discovery.  He knew he could build anything, and he honestly believed he could build it better than anyone else. What he needed was someone who could tell him what to build.  Someone who understood the commercialization of a product the way he understood the mechanics within.  Someone who was just as passionate and adventurous as himself.  A partner who could turn his inventions into a business.

Rob Daley got his start in entrepreneurship selling rocks door to door in Gaithersburg, Maryland, when he was five years old. That’s right, rocks. Not polished stones you might buy to make New Age jewelry or landscape a fish tank. Rocks, as in those things outside in your yard. He told his neighbors that he was trying to raise money for Christmas presents, a heartfelt sales pitch that taught him a valuable lesson he would carry with him into adulthood. How you sell something is just as important as what you are selling.

He sold out of rocks. He couldn’t find them fast enough.

This led to snow shoveling, selling magazines, and delivering newspapers.  His parents also divorced during his early years, but when he joins my conversation with Henry in the small conference room, I get the impression that this is one of the few subjects he’s not comfortable discussing.  So I ask him about it again.  “If there was anything my parents did for me that was really great,” he says with a smile.  “It was that they had no money.”  This makes Henry laugh, which in turn makes Rob laugh. They do that frequently.  “So if I wanted to have money, I needed to go get some. And I found out really early on that having money was–”

“Better,” says Henry, finishing his sentence, something else they do often.

Rob was the first member of his family to get a college degree. He graduated from the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia and received his M.B.A. from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.  Between the two, he became an investment banker at Alex. Brown and Sons in Baltimore, where he raised capital for private companies and learned the skills he knew he would need to start his own business someday.

Following his return to academia to get his masters, Rob moved to Pittsburgh in 1998 to work for PNC Equity. Then, in 2001, he became a founding partner in PNC Technology Investors, a position that would put him on a collision course with a humbled inventor who was looking to raise money to transform his destiny into a business. The two men met at the National Robotics Engineering Consortium that same year. Pittsburgh had wanted to become “Roboburgh” at the time, so there was no shortage of smart people in attendance who were willing to listen to a man who had already conquered that frontier.  But none of those people clicked with Henry Thorne the way that Rob Daley did.

Jump forward to the fall of 2004. Henry has since turned his Cye technology into a successful hospital robot, and he now wants to talk to Rob about another idea that is keeping him up at night. Rob has recently left PNC and gone out on his own, so the two men sit down and have lunch one afternoon. Henry tells Rob that he’s working on a digital shower control, which piques Rob’s interest. Rob knows that there are two basic ways to make it as an entrepreneur. Either create a new market, or change an existing one.  And because modern plumbing hasn’t fundamentally changed since copper pipes arrived on the scene after World War II, he sees an opportunity.  So Rob and Henry decide to test their convictions and build a demo shower that controls the exact temperature of water, which they then take to the Pittsburgh Home Show, expecting it to be a big hit with tech-savvy men.

Tech-savvy men don’t find it cool. In fact, they think it’s pretty stupid.

That night, Rob changes the messaging to “Fifteen Minute Bathroom Upgrade,” and suddenly, strangely, this exact same product is a big hit with a little old lady who is looking for technology that will extend assisted living.  Not exactly the demographic they were aiming for.  “So I’m a seventy-year-old woman living on my own,” says Rob, recalling that fateful afternoon. “And interacting with my bath environment is scary for me because I don’t want to get hurt. So if you can provide some technology that can help me manage that environment, I’m really interested.”

Then a young mother walks by their booth and complicates matters even further.  She doesn’t respond to the shower concept, but she mentions that she’d really like to see the technology in a bathtub for her kids.  Rob and Henry scoff at this initially, viewing it as another step backwards. At least the little old lady was interested in the shower.  This woman is talking about bathtubs.  Then a few more mothers pass by, and a few more after that, all with similar comments that Rob summarizes this way, “What we were hearing at that point in time was this idea that when kids make a transition to bathing on their own, it’s stressful for mom. So if she can leave some technology behind to provide some oversight in that bathing environment for her child, that has a lot of appeal for her.”

One home show, two possibilities at opposite ends of the age spectrum.

But when Rob and Henry  begin  to research both demographics extensively, they learn that only one of them has a real distribution channel. Eldercare is a multi-billion dollar business without a mass market retailer, while baby products can be purchased at a number of outlets, including Babies “R” Us, Target, and Walmart. Have a baby and people will throw you a party and shower you with gifts.  As Henry points out, “They don’t do that when you get old.”

Next comes a focus group comprised of five moms, one of whom is Rob’s wife, who is pregnant with their second child.  Through this group and other studies, the guys soon discover that when a mother is looking to purchase something for her child, the number one source of trusted information is other mothers. Word of mouth, or word of mom, so to speak.  Rob and Henry have already formed a company called Thorley Industries, yet they now realize that no woman is going to buy infant products from a company that sounds like it makes spy satellites.

And so, just like that, 4moms is born in 2005, named after the duo’s very first focus group. The fifth mom is obviously silent because, let’s face it, 5moms just doesn’t have the same ring.  Another marketing strategy devised by Rob Daley, the kid from Gaithersburg who could sell a rock to a neighbor.

It is now 2013, and 4moms is getting ready to double its workforce. Again. The last growth spurt brought them from 35 employees to 70. Now they are expanding to 140, after topping $16 million in annual sales in 2012. They hope to double those sales as well in 2013.

Their success began with a Digital Bath Spout Cover, straight from the desires of those mothers they encountered at the Pittsburgh Home Show, using the same technology that Henry developed for the failed shower. The spout cover led to the creation of an Infant Tub that is now marketed along with the spout as part of their Cleanwater Collection ($89.99). An infant seat called the Mamaroo ($199) followed that, another product of intense research. In talking to potential customers, Rob and Henry learned that many mothers pass bouncy seats and swings around to their friends because infants respond differently to motion. One child might not like back-and-forth movements, while another can’t get enough of them. Some liked to be soothed, others like to be entertained. But there was nothing on the market that gave mothers a selection of motion like the robotic seat that Rob and Henry envisioned, complete with an iPod docking station and five settings ranging from “Car Ride” to “Rock a Bye.”  Perhaps that’s why they are now selling nearly 10,000 of these a month, including one to Elton John. Whether or not Mr. John is playing “Rocket Man” for his son is anyone’s guess. His publicist declined to comment.

4moms also makes a collapsible crib called The Breeze ($299), which opens and closes in one easy step and causes baby gurus to blog effusively about how this little Pack and Play will change lives forever.  But it’s the Origami, the stroller I referenced earlier, that impresses me the most.  It has daytime running lights, an LCD screen that displays a thermometer, speedometer and odometer, and little generators in the back wheels that power all of these perks while charging your cell phone.  An impressive piece of machinery that almost seems too good to be true.  No wonder I find myself snooping around the premises when Rob and Henry step out to a meeting. They talk a good story and all, but I’ve developed a hunch.  It’s time to pull back the curtain on the magical elves who really designed this thing.

There are no elves to be found in the engineering workspace, even though the space itself looks like it sprang from a collaboration between Steve Jobs and Mrs. Claus. A young engineer has a returned Mamaroo perched on his work station, trying to pinpoint a squeak reported by a customer.  A designer stands at her sewing machine, sewing something mysterious for one of the many new products that 4moms has in the pipeline. Other designers and engineers are playing a board game at a table in an adjacent kitchen, eating leftovers from a catered lunch that is brought in every Tuesday and Thursday.  Rock and roll is playing on a stereo. A rescue dog named Santino bombs around on a play date with another dog.

The photographer who shot the videos on the company’s website isn’t with an agency in New York or Chicago. His name is R. J. Deutsch, a quiet, unassuming 27-year-old from Spring Valley, Wisconsin, a town of a thousand people. R. J. entered a video contest in hopes of winning a Mamaroo for his newborn, but finished third.  In the real world, this is only one small step ahead of a fourth place ribbon. At 4moms, Rob Daley sees something in R. J.’s work that the winner does not possess. He offers R. J. a job and relocates him and his family to Pittsburgh.

Then there is Mary Koes, the VP of production, a woman who dropped out of the robotics Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon to give birth to her first child and become only the fifth employee at 4moms in 2006. Mary explains the company’s decision to manufacture three of their products in China (the Cleanwater Infant Tub is made in Erie, PA).  She credits the infrastructure in China, but also tells me about the response she received from American manufacturers when she approached them at AmCon, the American Contract Manufacturers Show.  “The only people who showed any interest in what I was talking about had a factory in Honduras.  U.S. manufacturers were really uninterested in working with us.”

Online reviews of the different products made by 4moms are predominantly positive, but there are some complaints that the Origami is too heavy to carry easily (32 lbs), and that it doesn’t recline far enough, making it hard for certain babies to nap.  Those who love the Mamaroo rave about how it soothes even the fussiest infant, while those who don’t tend to say the motions are too slow to calm their child.  In an era when nearly everyone has the power to critique pretty much anything or anyone, it might be easy to dismiss the negative as personal taste.  However, that isn’t the philosophy at 4moms, where they follow a mantra that defines their approach: “Everything matters.”

Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial ecosystem isn’t as fertile as other midsized U.S. cities in terms of investment capital and experienced management (see “Money and managers wanted”), but when I reconvene with Rob and Henry in the little conference room, their enthusiasm for the city runs deep.  “It’s a great place for start-ups,” they say in unison.  They’ve been successful raising money from local firms such as Innovation Works and BlueTree Allied Angels, as well as attracting outside funds like Bain Capital, which invested $20 million into the company in 2012.  As for the workforce at 4moms, two-thirds were hired within the area. “There’s plenty of talent locally, so that hasn’t been an issue [for us],” says Rob. “I would say that the challenge with recruiting, if there is one… generally, if you are going to get someone from outside the region you are most successful when you have someone who has had exposure here.” He points to graduates of Carnegie Mellon as an example. People, he says, who already know that this is a great place to live and work.  “You don’t come here for glitz and glamour. You come because you value things like human interaction, and lifestyle, and relationships with people.”

“We’re a community,” adds Henry.

This reminds me of something else I noticed in their absence. No one has their own office at 4moms, including them. Everyone works in a large, communal space that has been divided into departments.  For instance, Customer Support is in the same department as the marketing team because, as Rob explains, they believe that Customer Support isn’t a logistics problem. It’s a marketing function. An inflection point.  The best place to touch a customer and build your brand. “So you can either handle it well and strengthen the relationship, or you can handle it poorly and make it worse.” In other words, this is the absolute last department that should ever be outsourced just to save money.

Both men have spent their share of time in classrooms, so I steer the conversation back to education, hoping they will conclude the day with some helpful advice for young entrepreneurs. Both Rob and Henry agree that a good education can provide the first 500 hours of the 10,000 it takes to be an entrepreneur.  Beyond that, Rob says it comes down to the fabric of an individual.  “When we started 4moms a good friend of mine sent me a congratulatory note with a quote from Robert Jarvik that said, ‘Entrepreneurs are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear.’”  Rob also talks about the importance of passion and how entrepreneurs need to be passionate if they are going to create a product that people are passionate about.  And take the time to get to know the consumer, he advises.  “There are millions of interesting problems in the world, but people only care about 1% of those problems.  So identify what people really care about.”

Henry nods in agreement. “Otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of really cool stuff in your basement. That’s where I’d have been had I not teamed up with Rob.”

When my cab finally arrives to take me to the airport, I rejoin Dale in the lobby as he’s packing up the equipment he used to take photographs throughout the day.  He’s scrambling to get on the road, so I stop to help him carry his things out to the car. I grab two of his bags along with my own and he picks up the remaining three. The problem is, he is also taking an Origami stroller with him to photograph at his studio in Cleveland.  Which means we will have to make two trips out to the car and neither of us has the time.  So we just stand there for a moment staring at it, trying to figure out if there is a better way to do this. Then Dale frees up a couple of fingers and pushes the magic button on the stroller, causing it to fold up neatly within itself. He then uses those same fingers to carry it downstairs, as if we are in a commercial for a product that will market itself.

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