A charmed life: Giving stethoscope a personal touch at the heart of stay-at-home mom's startup
When Jess Muraco quit her job as a dental assistant to be a stay-at-home mom, she was feeling guilty about being unable to financially contribute to her family.
In late 2009, she was daydreaming about what she could do to bring in some income when she thought of an interesting accessorizing niche: decorating a stethoscope.
"So many people in the medical industry wear scrubs with lapel pins all over them," said Muraco, who lives in Brighton. "I thought it would be nice to personalize a stethoscope so you could wear your favorite awareness pins. It also helps to let people know which (stethoscope) is theirs."
While her son was sleeping, Muraco grabbed her stethoscope and started sketching ideas. Later, she purchased a few embellishments from her local Jo-Ann Fabrics store and considered how to attach them to the stethoscope.
She contacted her brother in New York, a tool and die maker, and asked whether he could design a clip that would secure a lapel pin to the metal portion of the instrument.
Using lightweight aluminum, he designed a clip and created a prototype using the model of stethoscope that Muraco owned.
The feedback was very positive When Muraco showed her prototype to a few trustworthy contacts in the medical field, the feedback was positive. People said they would love to wear one from their alma mater or one designed as a frame to hold a picture of their grandchildren.
Muraco immediately contacted the intellectual property law firm of Young Basile Hanlon & MacFarlane P.C. in Troy to run a preliminary search and ensure a similar product did not exist.
With the law firm's findings, Muraco created a company name, Embel Lush LLC, and designed a website with the help of a friend.
She hit a glitch when she realized she needed a clip with a hole that would work with any-size stethoscope. After confiding in her dad, he went into his garage and returned with an industrial paper punch that could punch out circles in the exact diameter.
Muraco's father sent her home with the tool and sheets of stock aluminum, and she set up shop in her garage. With the clamp her husband bought her, she was able to manually punch out the discs, string elastic through the hole in the disc with a dental threader, take the ear bud off the stethoscope, shimmy the clips down and attach the embellishments.
By early 2011, Muraco was ready to see whether her invention would sell. She asked her mother-in-law, who works in the medical field in management, whether if she would help Muraco staff a booth at a Michigan Nurses Association conference in Lansing that March.
"We took 100 pieces and all of them went in about 15 minutes," said Muraco, who came home with about 20 new orders. "It was so exciting. I thought, 'This is it.' "
Muraco began cold calling hospitals and gift stores, filling a large order of 70 charms for the gift store at Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield Township. She typically sold the charms for $20 apiece, although she lowered the price to $10 apiece for large quantities.
Casa De Amici gift shop and interior design in Milford has sold around 100 a hundred of the charms over the past year or so.
"I work with a lot of doctors at Providence Hospital and thought (these charms) would be perfect," said owner Mary Kabisa. "The charms have sold very well. They are a great gift for someone going into the medical field or for graduation. The appeal is that it's personal."
During her rollout, Muraco invested rolled all her product sales back into the cost of starting the business — roughly $5,775. This was made up mainly of $4,000 in attorney fees as well as filing fees for the company name, tools and materials for handmade production, Web design, a separate phone line, business cards, booth fees for trade shows and two embroidered polo shirts.
Over time, the manufacturing of the charms became difficult for Muraco — who was making them by hand, about 50 a day, after her children went to bed.
"The problem was threading the elastic and going to the store and getting the embellishments people wanted," she said. "Nothing was wholesale for me, and I didn't want to have too much stock."
She began researching medical lapel pins last October in the hopes of ordering new designs in bulk at a discounted rate. She came across a website for a corporate gift company called Baudville in Grand Rapids and called them about bulk ordering. They ended up connecting her to the vice president of the company, who requested a meeting to see her product.
Muraco turned some of Baudville's best-selling lapel pins into stethoscope charms and met with the company two weeks later. Baudville asked to partner with Muraco in time for the charms to be on the cover of their National Nurses Week catalog distributed this past May.
Thrilled, Muraco signed an exclusive agreement for one year to enable Baudville to mass-manufacture 12 designs — which they branded "Steth-O-Charms" — and handle all sales and marketing. In exchange, Muraco receives 5 percent of all sales.
In the first four weeks, Baudville sold more than 1,100 Steth-O-Charms at $8.95 apiece.
"We had no idea what the turnout would be," Muraco said. Baudville said sales were "pretty decent," she said.
The Steth-O-Charms appeal to a large market including pediatricians, veterinarians, firefighters, medical technicians, nurses and doctors. They also have the potential to be used for commemorative events, such as a hospital celebrating an anniversary or adding a new wing.
Although she could sit back and let Baudville manage sales, Muraco plans to continue marketing the charms throughout Southeast Michigan by visiting more hospitals, private doctor's offices and gift shops.
"The more I get it out there, the more people will buy," Muraco said. "I feel strongly about supporting it as much as I can."
Jess Muraco worked closely with Denise Glassmeyer of the intellectual property law firm of Young Basile Hanlon & MacFarlane P.C. in Troy to secure a patent for her design.
“Patents are a tool; they are not a lottery ticket,” said Glassmeyer, who pointed out that patents are limited to 20 years. She said patents enable a businessperson to build a business and define buy-sell relationships with a manufacturer or licensee.
“Sometimes the patent may not mature into a buy-sell relationship, but it gets you sitting at the right table to forge the deal,” Glassmeyer said. She offers a few tips for would-be inventors:
• Be careful disclosing the invention. Beginning next March, to file in order for a patent application to be filed, you must be the first inventor to file it. Consult with a patent attorney before offering the invention for sale, exhibiting it at a trade show or having it written up in a magazine.
• Do the math. A U.S. patent application is going to cost around in the range of five figures, so think about what the return on investment needs to be before investing in a patent, said Glassmeyer.
• Realize the expense of trying to enforce a patent against an unwilling third party. Glassmeyer encourages businesses to use patents to make friends, not enemies. “I challenge businesses to look at things not just as ‘It’s mine’ but more ‘It’s mine and here’s the price for you to be in this field, too,” she said. says Glassmeyer. In many situations, a business doesn’t have the capacity to make every single one needed, so it is they are willing to license to a competitor and still maintain competitive advantage.
• If you choose not to patent something, make sure no one else can patent it, either. Make sure you’ve done some other activity to ensure the public knows it is available (See the first point about disclosing the invention). If the invention is already out in the public domain, this limits someone else from patenting it — but you don’t have any control over it, either.
• Budget well. Even if it is a simple invention, budget $25,000 and go up from there, Glassmeyer said. “If it can be patented for less than that, wonderful. But if you’re trying to get venture capital, you can’t go back a second time saying you didn’t budget correctly.”
• Patents are territorial. A U.S. patent is enforceable in the U.S. and its territories only. Attorneys may be able to use a U.S. patent to stop importation at the border or force a website to shut down, but eventually a company will have to obtain individual patents from countries that are commercially important to them.