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A Leg to Stand On10/31/2007

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For an Edmonds woman, necessity was the mother of a business venture

By Kristin Fetters-Walp / Special to The Herald

EDMONDS - It took a broken leg and an insistence on staying active, but Sharalyn Ramm has done something she never expected to - invent a product.

"I had foot surgery four years ago, and for 12 weeks I could put no weight on my right foot," Ramm said. "I thought, 'How can we make lemonade out of this lemon?'"

Too active to slow down during healing, Ramm first tried resting her knee on a rolling office chair and later rented a knee scooter.

"I had to lift it to turn it. So it still was not perfect," Ramm recalled. "But it was so much better that I thought these should be easily available everywhere."

She joined with two friends, one a retired nurse, and purchased 53 Roundabout scooters to rent out. The business was a solid success, with the devices constantly being rented. But adjusting them for different heights was laborious, and customers complained that the scooters could not turn without being lifted.

Michael O'Leary / The Herald
Sharalyn Ramm is marketing a knee scooter that utilizes larger wheels and two front wheels for better mobility.

Ramm began working with a professor friend, Don Ptacek, to design a better scooter. After several prototypes, the pair hit gold. They developed the Turning Leg Caddy, or TLC. The wheeled, turning, easily adjustable crutch substitute allows people who must keep weight off one leg or foot to remain active.

"With it, they can do almost all of their daily activities, and many can even get back to work," Ramm explained.

Now, four years after her break, Ramm has split from the original partnership with her two friends and formed Round About Mobility Mate LLC.

A helping hand

With help from the Northwest Women's Business Center, which has offices in Edmonds and Marysville, Ramm, 65, is applying for federal certification as a minority business. That will help her land valuable government contracts.

"I really think that this product will sweep the (home health care) industry," Ramm said.

Her impending success is a shining example of why the Northwest Women's Business Center exists, director Tiffany McVeety said. Ramm, a retired restaurant owner, has long been an entrepreneur, and had contacts who helped turn her idea into a product. Now, the center means to help her promote that product, connect with buyers and tap into OPM - other people's money.

Financial backing, in the form of loans, grants and government contracts, is something women entrepreneurs and business owners don't seek enough of, McVeety said.

"In our state, 53 percent of all business owners are women," she said.

"But we generally don't know about OPM, so we bootstrap or use our credit cards. We don't use the system."

Nationwide, women only secure 4 percent of all venture capital, she added, quoting the Small Business Administration. McVeety said she feels best about her job when she can help a woman tap into money to "buy something big or get a government contract."

But smaller triumphs matter, too. For example, producing a slick, professional marketing brochure for Ramm with no advance notice. In just six hours, McVeety and one other full-time staff person created a brochure that highlighted the TLC's benefits and helped Ramm land numerous orders at a major home health products trade show.

A public-private partnership between the SBA and Community Capital Development, the Northwest Women's Business Center offers one-on-one business counseling, group classes and networking opportunities. Members receive discounts on events and classes, and may take advantage of counseling and assistance such as the brochure help Ramm received.

Business counseling by a network of retired business executives, SCORE, is available to non-members, as are all events and classes.

"When you're starting out, sometimes you're not sure where to spend your money, and a lot of times you shouldnt spend your money on hiring consultants," McVeety said. "There's all this free help out there."

Staying power

The women's center provides individual counseling to help obtain financing, negotiate confidential deals, particularly involving property acquisition or sale, and address specific challenges. Networking events, such as monthly breakfasts and the annual bus tour of women-owned businesses, help startups build contacts and share ideas.

"We offer those services that help new businesses stay around," McVeety said.

Through the Women's Network for Entrepreneurial Training, the center provides group classes on topics that McVeety said all startups - and many existing businesses - need help with planning, specific financial planning and maintenance, finding money and every aspect of marketing.

The two-person staff typically trains about 1,200 people, mostly women, a year. Last year, that number reached 1,800, and the demand keeps growing.

"My (SBA grant) training for the first two quarters of this year is 900 percent over goal," McVeety said. "The demand is so much greater than we can even provide for."

The demand is good news to McVeety, though. She stressed that SBA statistics show half of all new businesses will fail within three years if the owners do not seek technical assistance. While Washington has the highest rate of new business start-ups in the nation, our state has the highest failure rate as well.

However, the likelihood of success improves with training and professional business counseling. That help could come in the form of classes, individual aid, an informed board of directors, or the services of a hired attorney or accountant.

"When we do funding for businesses and they've sought technical assistance, the numbers just skyrocket," McVeety said. "Within five years, 80 percent are still in business."

What it takes

Understanding how to develop and use a business plan with specific goals, a statement of purpose, financial projections for one to three years, a clear target market and a marketing plan are key to survival.

Ultimately, McVeety recommends doing what Ramm did - just get started. Jot down ideas, goals, potential markets and financial projections on a piece of paper and take it to an adviser for review.

"You're always ready," she said. "That doesn't mean quit your day job now, but if you have a passion for something, you just need to go after it, because this life is too short not to."

And remember to plan your path forward and find OPM on the way, she added.

A majority of the Northwest Women's Business Center's clients are either like Ramm - women older than 40 ready for another career, or empty nesters ready to develop themselves outside of family life.

Ramm said she never expected retirement, which began for her in 1991, to include inventing a revolutionary home health tool. In fact, farming and inventing are the two things she said she was sure she would never do in life.

"I just didn't see myself having that kind of mind," she said. "It just goes to show that you never know what you're capable of until you try, and try and try again."

Look for her next in overalls and mud boots tending a crop.

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