By GREGORY ZELLER //
It was the toothbrush on the floor that got him.
Tal Berke wouldn’t be the first inventor to think up a new-and-improved product in the shower, though his a-ha moment had as much to do with frustration as inspiration.
He remembers the last straw clearly: Home from work, ready for a shower and a relaxing evening, and then bam. Shampoo gone. Razor dripping with someone else’s residual stubble. And the toothbrush…
Berke will talk about it, if you press him.
“I was just getting frustrated,” he told Innovate LI, “always sharing my products with my siblings and my roommates.”
Berke didn’t get even, he got inventive. The Stony Brook University graduate –a political science bachelor’s with a prelaw concentration, two fields that conceivably steered him away from revenge scenarios – started devising a plan for a lockable shower caddy, ideal for protecting a personal stash from product poachers.
He shared his idea with Stephanie Cummings, who’d earned a sociology degree at SUNY Fredonia and therefore understood both the personal-product dangers of communal living and the behaviors of the marauding moocher.
“We really couldn’t believe there wasn’t another product out there that solved this problem,” Cummings noted.
In November 2015, the duo officially launched Bridgehampton-based Tula Industries LLC for the purposes of producing and marketing their flagship product, the Shlocker. The soak-able safe adheres to shower walls with industrial-strength suction cups and keeps conditioner, shaving cream and whatever else secure behind a waterproof combination lock.
Domestic and international patents are pending, covering the design – the lockbox is porous, allowing water to flush through – and that liquid-resistant lock, as well as the “commercial-grade suction cups,” Berke noted.
While they knew what they wanted the Shlocker to do, neither Berke nor Cummings had any design experience, so the entrepreneurs engaged an extensive prototyping round, inviting an international assortment of makers to give it their best shot – and best production estimate.
Citing cost as the primary factor, they ultimately selected a manufacturer in China, with Berke traveling to Asia personally to seal the deal.
“You just couldn’t compete, with the U.S. manufacturing compared to Chinese manufacturing,” the cofounder noted. “It was just way too expensive for the margins and the unit price.”
Despite some obvious language barriers – “You have to be very specific and double-check everything,” Cummings noted – the Chinese manufacturer also proved to be the most flexible.
“They were actually very helpful with the prototype design,” Cummings said. “They basically worked with the drawings and measurements we gave them. Everyone else we went to wanted different kinds of files and information and we would have needed to hire a professional product designer.
“It was looking like a huge expense.”
Berke was also able to swing deals with Chinese parts suppliers, further cutting the startup’s manufacturing costs. The actual Shlocker box requires a fairly expensive injection-mold process, but the inventor was able to secure local sources for the suction cups and combination locks, “reducing the production costs dramatically,” he said.
With a $30,000 personal investment – multiple trips to China included – on the table, the cofounders engaged a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, raising another $30,000. The spoils went “directly to manufacturing,” according to Cummings, with the first 4,000 units already shipped from China to Tula Industries’ 6,000 square feet of Ronkonkoma storage space.
The entrepreneurs are overseeing distribution themselves, using ShipStation – DIY e-commerce order-fulfillment software – and daily runs by United Parcel Service. As far as marketing the Shlocker, they’re building an online following and putting in some old-school legwork, including a display at March’s International Housewares Expo in Chicago, where they met representatives from national retailers including Wal-Mart, Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond.
They also came face-to-face with producers from QVC and the ABC Network program “Shark Tank,” which was “an interesting learning experience for us,” according to Berke.
“They liked us, but we’ve decided to hold off on ‘Shark Tank’ until we have some sales,” he said. “We’d be slaughtered by Mr. Wonderful without any sales.”
A QVC run might not be the best idea either, Cummings noted, not for a product targeting dorm-dwellers and a twentysomething roomies.
“I’m not sure it’s the best market for us, to reach our particular customers,” she said. “But we’re really open to any idea.”
That includes new ideas for the Shlocker itself. With the help of their Chinese manufacturer, the entrepreneurs continue to tinker with their design, including methods of hanging a unit from a showerhead and possibly upgrading to a waterproof digital lock.
They also have ideas (and pending U.S. patents) for lockable kitchen storage containers – think Tupperware: The Next Generation – but for now, the primary focus at Tula Industries is on the Shlocker and how to improve it.
“I would definitely like to have that digital lock, or maybe a fingerprint lock,” Berke said.
“A waterproof speaker,” Cummings noted.
“Maybe a plasma TV in there,” Berke added. “You never know.”
Tula Industries LLC
What’s It? Parent company of Shlocker, a waterproof safe for protecting personal shower products from moochers
Brought To You By: Hygienically- and security-minded entrepreneurs Tal Berke and Stephanie Cummings
All In: $30,000, self-invested, for patent application, LLC licensing, prototyping, travel and a new toothbrush
Status: Ready to safeguard your soap