Experts will tell you that in order to bring a product to market successfully you must plan, evaluate, research and strategize before you even begin. None of those principles can be applied to Norm Rolston, yet two years after launching his"Able Walker" invention from the back of his van, he has run up sales of over $5 million.
"I got the idea for the Able Walker from watching my aunt Maida bending over to pick up her two canes so she could get walking," Norman says. "It was a painful experience for her so, using old shopping carts and a stroller, soon I had a walker that she could use to hold on to, to go shopping with. Well, her friends soon needed one like it and so on, and since then, three years ago, I haven't had a day off since I built the first one.
"There were walkers around at the time I designed mine but, they didn't have casters on the front so you could turn it. There are other features: the handholds are at the front where they give real support. And you can put on the brakes when you have to."
There have been very few brakes put on anything else in his life since Norman got his idea for the "Able Walker". From a busy office-cum-museum in Burnaby, British Columbia, his factory builds the product and salespeople fan out across the continent making life easier for people who have walking disabilities. But overcoming the skepticism of the medical profession was difficult at first:
"They had reason to be wary. Other walkers weren't safe. They toppled over too easily. But now I have doctors say to me, 'Norman I wasn't too sure about that at first. But I have no doubts about it now.' I've been told by doctors that patients they had who could never before attend their clinics come in with their "Able Walkers" confident as can be. It's the change of attitude, the independence that's been given to them. "I just borrowed some good ideas and made them come together in place."
"Able Walker" isn't Norman's first entrepreneurial venture. In 1973 he turned a crane truck into the Rolston Crane and Freight Ltd. and now owns
15 cranes and related equipment. But Able Walker takes up so much of his time (in mid-1990 he had shipped 20,000 units to places around the world) he has passed control of the crane company to his children and concentrates solely on manufacturing, sales and distribution of the walking device.
"I'm getting a lesson in geography with all these foreign sales orders coming in."
Norman shrugs off his lack of formal education. He had only a grade 7 education, but never let even that get in the way of success.
"The biggest regret in my life was not leaving school three or four years earlier. My only credential is a D.O.P.E.-Doctor of Personal Experience."
His unorthodox launching of the Able Walker nevertheless led to his first orders and ultimate success.
"My wife Myrtle and I ran off a bunch of flyers with a picture demonstrating a woman using the Able Walker. It had a few lines describing it and the price, $259.50. We stuck these flyers up in every laundromat, bulletin board, old folk's homes, rec and bingo hall from Vancouver to Saskatoon. We practically lived right out of the van. By the time we got back home to Burnaby orders were starting to roll in. And they haven't stopped since."
His unorthodox style and dress and the fact that he runs a free museum out of his business premises does not mean that he hasn't planned from the beginning to market a good product and back it with a full money-back guarantee.
"We've been fortunate to get good media coverage. And I have done my own commercials on television. But the product sells itself. I have no hesitation in saying that it is a good product. "
Norman thinks of his invention almost as transportation because it makes people mobile again which reminds him that he has always had a fascination for transportation.
"My father worked for Henry Ford and he gained a great deal of knowledge from that. I have always been a great admirer of Henry Ford myself. I have a couple of Model Tís in my museum and a rare Model S."
What's Norm's advice for people who want to market an invention or make a success in their own field.
"People who make a success of themselves often have to go against all odds. Like Henry Ford, or Rick Hansen, people are always telling you: it's not sensible to carry on, that will never work, if that was any good it would have been done before. Forget them.
"Believe in yourself. Your university education, not that I have any, lays a good groundwork for a beginning but it's no meal ticket. Don't forget the most important asset you have: commonsense! Build from there. Education can be a help to you but don't let it be a hindrance to you too. Some initials after your name don't mean a thing in many cases.
"I see so many things out there that need doing. Pick something that needs some work to be done on it and improve on it. As soon as I get a million of these walkers on the market, I'm moving onto other things. I have other assistive devices in mind for such places as the labour market, and in the medical field."
Common sense, enthusiasm, and keeping formal education in the proper perspective. Norman Rolston is a youthful man in his late fifties. He's young' enough in spirit and heart to continue to make changes that will affect the way we live-and walk. He thinks you can do it too. And you can!
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