The product that makes
central vacuum systems more convenient
Father and son Gary and Rod Drivstuen were confident that their retractable hose system would generate enthusiasm with central vacuum consumers. Convincing companies within the industry was a different story - one that shows that resiliency is one of the key factors in building a successful business.
MONROE, WASH. - It was a seemingly uneventful errand, something he did every week, but one particular visit to the drive-thru of Gary Drivstuen's bank sparked a brainstorm.
Drivstuen - who at the time operated a group of convenience stores and car washes with his son, Rod - watched as he had so many times the deposit container zip through a tube from the drive-thru teller into the bank. Later that day, he walked into his house and almost tripped over the hose from his central vacuum system. He was reminded once again, how much he and his wife Sharon disliked packing their central vacuum hose from inlet to inlet, up and down the stairs, and then trying to shove it in a closet when finished vacuuming.
At that moment, he remembered what he had seen earlier at the bank and thought to himself, "Is it possible to use the suction from the central vacuum system to pull the hose back into the central vacuum pipe, just like the pneumatic tube pulls in the deposit container at the bank?"
That day in 1999 launched Drivstuen and his son on a long entrepreneurial journey that tested their resilience and determination to bring their company, Hide-A-Hose Inc, to fruition. The business, which manufactures and markets a retractable hose system for central vacuum units, has doubled sales every year since debuting the product in 2003 and has built a network of more than 200 dealers across the United States,Canada and abroad. Not shabby for a concept that was nearly scrapped on two occasions.
Central vacuum systems are found in millions of homes across the country. Homeowners benefit from the cleaner air made possible since these units are located outside of the living space and do not recirculate allergens and dust mites. Central vacuums are also quieter and three to five times more powerful than portable vacuums. Even with those perks, many people who have central vacuum systems in their homes don't like the necessity of lugging a long bulky hose from inlet to inlet, and finding a place to store the hose when they are finished.
This is what motivated Drivstuen to take his idea and transform it into a viable product, which became the Hide A Hose Retractable Hose Central Vacuum System.
"Simply put, our system solves the problem of what to do with the hose when you are finished vacuuming; we make vacuuming easier," said Rod Drivstuen, who is president of Hide-A-Hose. His father is now retired and helps in an advisory role.
With the Hide-A-Hose unit, the vacuum hose is stored inside the wall. Each inlet has a hose hidden within the central vacuum system's tubing.
"Our product increases the convenience of having a central vacuum system," Drivstuen explained. "When you are ready to vacuum, you pull out the length of hose you need (up to 50 feet), attach the appropriate tool and begin vacuuming. When you are done, the suction from the central vacuum unit retracts the hose back into the wall and out of sight. Since the necessity to move hoses around the house is eliminated, longer hoses can be used, thus reducing the number of inlets needed by half."
Prominent central vacuum industry companies like H-P Products, Cyclo Vac and Tip Top Parts are now Hide-A-Hose distribution partners, but the industry did not embrace the Drivstuen's when they introduced their concept. They learned first-hand that an innovative idea alone does not translate into a successful business venture.
Initially, Gary Drivstuen wanted to sell his idea to an established company. Fueled with optimism, he made a crude prototype, filmed a home video demonstrating how the product works and brought a television and VCR to the Vacuums Dealers Trade Association (VDTA) annual conference in Las Vegas. Representatives of central vacuum industry companies who took the time to watch Drivstuen's show were not interested.
Discouraged, the elder Drivstuen returned to his Monroe, Washington home and considered forgetting about pursuing the idea any further. His son offered a suggestion.
"I recommended that we try developing the concept on our own instead of selling it to a company," Rod Drivstuen said. "We couldn't afford to conduct extensive market research, so we talked a local central vacuum dealer into letting us display our product in his booth at the Seattle Home Show.
"The unit we had leaked air, and really didn't work very well, but it did retract the hose, which was important because it demonstrated the general idea," he added. "We heard from lots of consumers at the show who said they despised packing the central vacuum hose from inlet to inlet, up and down the stairs, and having to find a place to store it when they were done. When they saw our demonstration, the looks on their faces was all the market research we needed to continue moving forward."
Consumer interest at the Seattle Home Show spurred the Drivstuens to hire an engineer, who further developed the product, perfecting its' ability to seal and lock in addition to sucking the hose into the pipe. They returned to the VDTA show a year after their first trip, this time hoping to interest central vacuum system companies in distributing their retractable hose system.
"We presented our prototype to the same companies, and once again we did not get the response we anticipated. We also encountered a company with a similar idea as ours," Drivstuen said. "When we left that show, we questioned once more whether we should devote more time and resources in bringing this to market. What kept us motivated was the memory of the captivating response we received from consumers at the Seattle Home Show."
Instead of approaching companies to distribute their system, the Drivstuens decided to sell their product directly to central vacuum system dealers. Curious about the quality of the competing company's retractable hose unit, Rod called Gary Phillips, who is based in Portland and whose company is one of the largest central vacuum system dealers in the world.
"He told me that the competing company's product was not efficient, and that he would not install it, and he said that there was definitely a need to solve the hose management issue with central vacuums," Drivstuen said. "That led us to create enhanced prototypes, and Gary gave us feedback on the strengths and areas that needed improvement. We even installed our system in our own houses so we could test them."
Finally, after four years of tinkering and fine-tuning, the Drivstuens were confident that Hide-A-Hose Inc. had a retractable hose system that distributors could not resist. But there was another obstacle to leap.
"Since we did not have in-depth industry experience - we were just inventors and entrepreneurs with an idea - attracting the attention of dealers remained a daunting challenge," Drivstuen said. "At the VDTA show, we met Jack Sikes, a veteran salesperson in the central vacuum industry. He said he was planning to retire, until he saw the demonstration of our product."
Intrigued, Sikes expressed his interest in spearheading the Hide-A-Hose sales efforts, and the Drivstuens obliged. Sikes, who is the company's international sales manager, immediately opened doors that had been sealed shut.
"He gave us instant credibility," Drivstuen said. "Dealers answered his calls, and once they learned about our system from Jack, we started developing a network."
Hide-A-Hose was growing, but the Drivstuens were frustrated with the lack of interest from northwest dealers, the region where they are based.
"Sometimes problems turn out to be great opportunities. We had trouble getting local dealers on board, so we decided to start our own installation company installing only our retractable hose system," he said. "We thought it would be helpful to learn the business of our prospective customers first-hand. We became experts on our own product, which gave us credibility with the dealers we were striving to reach. It also allowed us to test products and marketing strategies for our dealers. We've now installed more than 500 systems across the Greater Seattle area in the last few years."
Drivstuen says that Hide-A-Hose "took a giant leap to the next level" earlier this year when the company announced strategic partnerships with H-P Products, Cyclo Vac and Tip Top Parts to distribute the retractable hose system.
"These strategic partners have the marketing clout to help us grow, and they also believe that our system will help them sell more of their core products," Drivstuen said. "After all the rejection we encountered in the early stages of transforming this from an idea into a product, it was gratifying to know that these respected leaders in the central vacuum industry see our potential and provide us the means to realize that potential."
Hide-A-Hose recently introduced the H3000, a next-generation retractable hose system Drivstuen says is a third smaller than the original and features a sleeker more contemporary design. The new product has improved locking and sealing features, It also retracts easier and smoother since the edges have been rounded, and the hose's retract angle has been changed. Hide-A-Hose makes its own large sweep pipe fittings since its hose will not retract through standard central vacuum fittings. Installation of the new product is simpler, which saves time and money for installers.
Hide-A-Hose has traveled a lengthy distance since its start-up years. The company has moved its' headquarters from Drivstuen's 1,000-square-foot basement to a 3,000-square-foot facility in Monroe, which is 30 miles northeast of Seattle.
Along with Hide-A-Hose's new distribution partners, the company is aggressively increasing its dealer network nationwide.
"Homeowners are fascinated by our system, so it is important that we attract dealers to demonstrate it at home shows," Drivstuen explained. "Ours is a consumer-driven product. Homeowners tell builders what they want, and once builders see extensive interest from consumers, they are motivated to install our system."