Years of playing sports eventually required Kathy to get foot surgery, but left her toes misshapen. Desperate to resume her active lifestyle, Kathy had to resort to designing a product that corrected the problem—one she knew others could use too. Out of need and perseverance, Toe Tamer was born!
Tell us a little about your background
I have always been very independent and a bit of a rebel. When I was two and began putting up a fuss at bedtime, my father put me on his knee and told me I could go to bed the “good way” or the “bad way.” The good way was that I got a story and a ride upstairs on his shoulders. The bad way was that I kicked and screamed but still had to go to bed—without a ride or a story. A few years earlier, he had tried this approach with my sister, Leslie, who said, “Oh Daddy, I want to go the good way!” I, however, looked him in the eye and said “I want to go the bad way.”
I grew up in Darien, Connecticut, the youngest daughter of George and Linda Evans. My father spent almost his entire career working for General Electric. He was a company guy through and through and a successful international negotiator for them, but he felt he never reached his full potential. It was sad, because he was an incredibly smart, funny and creative person.
My mother was a rebel in her own right and someone who worked her whole life, starting as an advertising copywriter and publicist in New York City in the ‘50s. She had an infectious laugh and could make friends with anyone in a minute. She always encouraged me to be strong, independent, and never reliant on a man. She was funny, like my Dad. My sister likes to say that she was our resident Lucille Ball.
Growing up, I was surrounded by people who loved words, both spoken and written. At night, once we got past my “bad way” phase, my father would sit on my bed and play word games with me. He would come up with rhyming riddles that usually had something to do with my day, like “a fussy girl who likes to eat on a blanket.” It was up to me to come up with the rhyming answer, which in this case was a “nitpicker picnic-er.” It’s no wonder that by second grade, I was writing a lot of poetry.
And I just kept writing. I won a town-sponsored essay contest in sixth grade and wrote articles for the town and school. I was also a competitive gymnast and overall active kid. On rainy days, I would jump rope in our garage or roller skate for hours in our basement. Being active was as natural and necessary to me as breathing. It still is.
I went to Bates College in Maine and graduated with a B.A. in English. During my junior year, I went to London and worked as a newspaper reporter. After Bates, I worked a couple of jobs and then landed a position as a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB), a large advertising agency. I loved working at FCB, but the stress of being creative with a deadline could be intense. Some people I worked with could be very controlling, which was also stressful. It was during my time at FCB that I discovered I didn’t necessarily want to go the “bad way”; I just wanted to go “my way.”
Eventually, I moved to Chicago to work as a copywriter at Rapp Collins Worldwide. While it was a kinder, gentler place to work, there were still ways that I felt too controlled, especially after I got married and had a newborn daughter. I asked for flex time but was denied, so I quit. A few years later, I formed a “virtual” ad agency with two other young mothers whom I had met at Rapp Collins. Our agency was virtual because we worked out of our homes. I was (and still am) the creative director for our agency overseeing all writing. I was finally working for myself and doing things “my way.”
When did you start thinking about making a change in midlife?
My midlife “change” came out of necessity and caught me a bit by surprise. It started with a foot surgery gone bad and a discontinued product.
All those years of playing sports took a toll on my body. A painful bunion (basically a dislocated big toe) began to form on my left foot, and I finally gave in to having surgery. While operating, my surgeon “fixed” the two toes next to my big toe that had the potential of forming hammer toes (toes that bend abnormally at the middle toe joint). During my recovery, these two toes healed sticking up and completely off the ground. A second surgery, by a different surgeon, partially fixed the problem toes, but there was only so much he could do.
Getting back to an active life was hard. My toes rubbed against the top of my shoes and my fourth toe slipped under my third toe, so that when I walked or ran, I literally was stepping on that toe. Desperate, I went online and found an in-shoe toe “corrector” that I could wear to hold down and align my toes. I wore it constantly, but it was cheaply made and fell apart. When I went back to order another, it had been discontinued. I called the company and pleaded with them to make it again, because I could see needing this type of corrector for the rest of my life. I was informed that the company had been sold and that the new company wanted to focus on just shoes. They weren’t going to make the corrector anymore, and there were none left for me to buy.
Around this same time, I had been reflecting on my writing and advertising career. I still derived enjoyment from it, but I was a little bored. I wanted a new challenge. I would watch “Shark Tank” and come up with countless product ideas, like a gadget to stop automatic flushing toilets from prematurely flushing on me. I dreamed of launching one of these products and explored doing so, but always got busy and distracted by my advertising business.
What is your next act?
I am now the founder and maker of the Toe Tamer — a toe corrector similar to the one that had been discontinued. I started making it just for myself, but then I decided to build a business around it.
Before I made my first Toe Tamer, I wanted to address the shortcomings of the original product that I’d bought from the other company. The material they’d used separated into layers and bunched up. Their heel strap stretched out so that it was no longer tight enough to create the tension I needed to align my toes. Their top strap was too short and the toe loops were tight and a little too stiff.
After countless phone calls and emails, I found companies here in the U.S. that could provide me with the materials I needed. I found a softer, more durable fabric for the base of the toe corrector from a company in Ohio. I found a silky satin elastic for the toe loops and heel strap from a company in California. I made the heel strap fully adjustable on both sides and increased the area on which the strap could be attached. I had no idea how to use a sewing machine and sewed my first few Toe Tamers by hand.
The final push into my next act came after a follow-up visit with my second surgeon. He saw my handmade Toe Tamer and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! Where did you get that?” He proceeded to call in some of his staff. “Check this out! This is what I’ve been looking for!” I explained the story behind the Toe Tamer, and he said, “If you ever decide to sell these, I will be your first customer.”
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was easier than I thought to get my new business started. I didn’t really think about it much, I just hit the “go” button, and I was off. I think I was fueled by my excitement of finally having a new challenge ahead of me.
Over the course of just two months, I made prototypes, designed a one-toe-loop version, bought a sewing machine, took sewing lessons, came up with and trademarked the Toe Tamer name, filed a provisional patent, got a logo designed, got a stamp made to brand the inside of each Toe Tamer, got the package materials together, and sent samples to people I knew who had hammer toes and similar toe issues.
I delivered some sample products to my surgeon and waited for feedback. I emailed, I called. Nothing. Finally, a terse message was sent by his assistant. One patient had tried the Toe Tamer and didn’t feel like it created the same tension as another product she had. I took the news hard and didn’t do anything with the Toe Tamer for over a month. I was deflated, just by that one bit of negative feedback.
Finally, I reached out to the surgeon’s office again. Could he elaborate on the negative feedback he had gotten from that one patient? I got a quick response back. As it turns out, that one patient did like the Toe Tamer. It was different from her other toe corrector, but it ended up working out better for her and for another patient, as well.
Things were moving forward again. I decided to start selling the Toe Tamer online. While I was getting better at sewing, it was taking me a long time to make each Toe Tamer. On the day I made the realization that I needed sewing help, I received an email from RefugeeOne, a charity I am involved with in Chicago. They had new sewing classes for some of the refugee women, and they were looking for projects and ongoing work. I had found my sewers!
How supportive were your family and friends?
I am really lucky to have incredible support all around me. My husband, Dave, serves as one of my foot models. As a math teacher, he has also helped me figure out pricing and financial tracking. My 17-year-old son, Luke, is a talented illustrator and drew the product schematics for my provisional patent. My daughter, Emily, designed my logo. My advertising partner, Sharon, helped me design my business card, product materials, and website.
Some of my friends have kindly agreed to be Toe Tamer testers. Others have supported me through social media and referred people they know to the Toe Tamer website. I am so grateful!
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
Selling on the internet is new to me and not easy. There’s a science to it that I am finding out takes a lot of time to learn. Since my website is new, I don’t come up in many Google searches. I ran a Google ad which led to a handful of sales, but it cost me a lot compared to the sales I got from it, so I turned the ad off and am focusing on social media and Facebook ads. This whole online selling process is much slower and more complicated than I’d imagined.
Another challenge I’ve had is delegating the manufacturing and sewing to the refugee women. I made the mistake of dropping off all of the materials and samples and then after a brief discussion, I just left. I should have stayed and examined the first few that they made. In my absence, they decided to fold under the bottom of the toe loops to get a cleaner finish not realizing that doing this created a ridge that was uncomfortable to walk on. They all had to be redone. Lesson learned.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that, while I can wear a lot of hats, I get stressed with all the details. I’m a creative person by nature — more of an idea person than a detail-oriented person. While I can dive into all the little things that need to be done, it doesn’t come easy.
What has surprised me most about this process is the speed in which I shut down after the initial negative feedback from my surgeon’s office. I’m still trying to figure out where that came from and how to overcome it the next time it happens.
I have also learned that I’m more of a doer than I thought. Hopefully, I can keep “doing” what I need to do to build this into a successful product and long-term business. There are plenty of challenges ahead, including financial ones. I haven’t had to spend that much money to get where I am today, but at some point, I may have to and that scares me a little. I don’t want to put my family’s finances at risk, especially with one in college and another one headed there in a year.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I’m not sure that I would have spent all the time and effort to file a provisional patent. This kind of patent buys you patent “protection” for a year until you file a full-blown utility patent and get it approved. While I wrote and filed the provisional patent on my own, I would have to pay a patent lawyer around $10K to prepare a utility patent. I’m not sure it’s worth it. I have until September to decide.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Just do it. A few years ago, I lost two friends in a matter of months to cancer. We just don’t know how long we are on this Earth. You don’t want to be like my father and look back with regrets.
Embrace the change. Take the leap. You have little to lose and so much to gain. That said, listen to your gut if signs show that you’re headed in the wrong direction. Don’t be like the inventors on “Shark Tank” whose product is flawed but who refuse to abandon it. You have to recognize that your initial reinvention might just be a first step toward your REAL reinvention. Go into it with your eyes wide open and willing to change direction at any time.
What advice do you have for those interested in developing and marketing a new product?
Do your research about your new industry, product, prospective customers and soon-to-be competitors. Order your competitor’s products and study their websites. This will help you decide how you want to design your product and create a unique brand and message.
Also, identify the things that you’re good at and enjoy. If you are deficient in some areas, get help. Since I had no manufacturing experience, I connected with an advisor at the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) in Chicago. He spent his entire career in manufacturing, and I email him often for advice, resources, and recommendations.
Getting help with online selling can be expensive. One internet marketer I spoke with charges between $6,000 and $10,000 a month. Luckily, there are a lot of resources online and in bookstores that can teach you the fundamentals of online selling. Understand that it will take you a while to learn the basics, but you can do it yourself.
Do you have any recommendations for resources?
Women’s Business Development Center (chapters all around the country)
Amy Porterfield, Online Marketing Expert with free podcasts, guides and more
DotCom Secrets: The Underground Playbook for Growing Your Company Online by Russell Brunson
RefugeeOne, hard-working refugees eager to work
Go Daddy, Do-it-yourself web builder and online store with 24/7 chat or phone assistance
U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, online trademark search and filing (click on Trademark Basics)
Illinois LLC Set-Up
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
My Toe Tamer business is in its infancy, so it’s hard for me to see beyond it at this point. I would like to expand the product offering to include different foot products. I’m already working on some. However, I mostly want to focus on bringing the Toe Tamer to market and helping people who have foot deformities like mine stay active.
Just because I have taken this new path, I will never stop being a writer. I’ll continue my advertising writing and, down the road, I may write a book. If I do, I think it will be about my funny and dysfunctional dating experiences in New York City. There were many.