Profiting from pain – Inside Track

Profiting from pain – Inside Track

Americans spend $24 billion a year to cure back pain. Most of that cash had been directed at surgeons and chiropractors. Not anymore. Entrepreneurs are leaping into this lucrative market. Last year, companies Providing relief from back pain generated $2.2 billion in sales.

Great American BackRub Store Inc.

Bill Zanker was strolling through a San Francisco park when he saw an aging hippie giving massages for $1 per minute. Customers were actually waiting in line. Zanker imagined moving the massages indoors and selling them quickly and cheaply, the way McDonald’s does with hamburgers. “What I’m trying to create is the `McRub,'” says Zanker.

In 1992, he opened his first Great American BackRub Store in Manhattan. He’s established 10 more and plans to grow aggressively. Zanker envisions 40 units by the end of the year. To fund expansion, Great American BackRub completed an initial public offering in early 1995, raising $6.5 million. The New York-based company posted revenues of $5 million last year.

The stores employ licensed massage therapists who rub down customers for 5 to 45 minutes for about $1 per minute. A key success factor, according to Zanker, is that, thanks to specially designed padded chairs, people are not required to remove their clothes. The stores also sell complementary items such as foot massagers and private-label massage off.

Zanker wants to sell his service to every stressed-out office worker, weary shopper, and harried commuter in the country. He plans to open upscale massage centers in major business districts, shopping malls, and airports.

Relax the Back Franchising Co.

Virginia Rogers had suffered from scoliosis her entire life. But her parents taught her never to complain. After years of silent agony, Rogers finally searched for help. She found a tiny store in her native Austin, Tex., where she could buy special products that relieved her back pain.

Unfortunately, the store was about to go bankrupt. “I knew these products could make a difference,” says Rogers. Rejuvenated, she came out of retirement and bought the store for $15,000.

Rogers introduced an array of related products and took her new company, Relax the Back, national by selling franchises. Last year, Relax the Back generated system-wide sales of $15 million and increased the number of franchises from 20 to 46.

The vibrant entrepreneur attributes her success to favorable demographics. “Baby boomers are getting older, and they’re looking to technology to cure their aches and pains,” she says. Her company carries everything from massagers and pillows to custom-designed office chairs.

The techno-revolution has been a great boon to business. “We have taken on the whole kit and caboodle of office ergonomics,” says Rogers. Hot sellers include back-friendly workstations and wrist rests for maneuvering a computer mouse.

The company even played a key role in the O.J. Simpson trial, sup plying comfortable chairs to judge Ito and the attorneys. There’s no way we could have bought that kind of advertising,” says Rogers.

Bell Dynamics International Inc.

Physical therapist Joanne Posner-Mayer first learned about Swiss Balls while working in Europe. Many doctors recommended that patients recovering from back surgery exercise with the huge, multicolored vinyl balls.

When Posner-Mayer returned to America, she began teaching Swiss Ball classes but had trouble keeping the balls in stock. In 1090, she formed Ball Dynamics International Inc. and began importing the balls directly from Italy.

To expand her market, Posner-Mayer targeted health care professionals who could introduce the ball technique to patients. She attended trade shows and conventions to demonstrate the product’s effectiveness. She recently published a book that details 500 exercises that can be performed with the ball.

“By watching television on the ball instead of a chair, you can strengthen your back and help avoid injuries,” says Jauna Hyer, the company’s general manager. Professional athletes such as Joe. Montana have added the ball to their workout programs.

Today, Ball Dynamics of Denver conducts most of its business by mail order. The balls sell for about $25 each. Last year, the company generated revenues of $1 million. “We are the toothbrush for the back,” says Posner-Mayer.

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