Slip into a wheelchair and assume the mantle of invisibility. No longer at eye level to most, wheelchair users often complain they become unnoticed and ignored when in their chairs.
From her vantage point as logistics director of Central Missouri Honor Flight, Sharon Paulsell witnessed the reluctance of veterans to use a wheelchair during Honor Flight visits to the memorials in Washington, D.C., back in 2009.
“The first thing we do when we arrive in D.C. is unload the wheelchairs,” she says. “But we noticed that once we got everyone in the chairs and moved them through airports and memorial sites, we saw that many people were reluctant to approach the veterans and talk to them.”
Honor Flight is a celebratory journey for veterans, organized by a group dedicated to honoring the sacrifices of their charges. No detail is too small to fulfill the volunteers’ goals of making each experience the trip of a lifetime. After that first year working in Honor Flight, Sharon and her husband, Flight Director Steve Paulsell, put their heads together to come up with a way to make the wheelchair detail a more joyful part of the veterans’ experience.
Their solution was to create colorful covers, applied to the backs of the borrowed wheelchairs, that display the Honor Flight logo and the veteran status of the occupant.
“It’s made a world of difference in their lives,” Sharon says of the product they christened Wheelchair Personalities. “We’ve seen a marked improvement in the veterans’ willingness to use the chairs, and a more positive reception from the public.”
Steve Paulsell has a more direct method of enticing the veterans into using the colorfully clad chairs, Sharon says. “He tells them it’s a ‘chick magnet.’ ”
Taking The Plunge
The Paulsells produced and donated more than 80 wheelchair covers to Central Missouri Honor Flight, a local hub of the national organization. The volunteer project planted a seed that led to the couple’s current enterprise.
“We began to hear from other people who suggested there were many other applications appropriate for our product,” Sharon says. An untapped market had opened and the Paulsells plunged headfirst into the entrepreneurial experience. They applied for a provisional patent in 2010 and launched Wheelchair Personalities.
The wheelchair covers dress up the visible back of a standard, nonpower wheelchair or sports wheelchair and attach with Velcro straps. They can be transferred easily from one chair to another with the same chair back dimensions. Made of 600×300 denier polyester with PVC backing, they are machine washable and dryer-safe, and can be treated with traditional spray disinfectants. Sharon designs the covers, with input from the client, and then puts it into production, noting the process is entirely “Made in the USA.”
“Our graphics are created at Stahls in Wisconsin from PDFs we send them,” she says. “They’re applied to material produced in Indiana.” American Discovery Textile Manufacturing in nearby Glasgow produces large orders of the wheelchair covers. For orders of fewer than 50, the Paulsells employ a local seamstress — and disabled veteran — in Columbia to make the covers. Available in a variety of colors and infinitely customizable, the covers come in two price points: $47 for children’s and standard sizes; $57 for extra large. The company promises a 5- to 10-day turnaround on orders.
“We could do this cheaper with imported materials and labor,” Sharon says, “but we’re committed to domestic production. We have our priorities to do the right thing.”
“Doing the right thing” has brought its own reward, the Paulsells say. Boasting quality workmanship and domestic production, the company has sold thousands of covers to individuals and a wide range of facilities and groups such as University of Missouri Children’s Hospital, the MU Student Union, Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital and Honor Flight hubs across the country. They are negotiating with nursing homes, hospitals, sports teams, the Wounded Warrior Project, hotels and other commercial businesses.
“Our biggest challenge,” Steve says, “has been promoting a product no one has ever seen.”
The last four years have been a whirlwind education in business startup for the Paulsells.
Both arrived at this enterprise as a second chapter in their professional lives. Steve, 63, spent 38 years as a firefighter — 31 as chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District. Born in St. Louis, he has lived in Columbia since he was 5 years old. Sharon, 53, a self-described “Army brat” from Grand Island, Neb., moved to Columbia in 1980 to begin a career in nonprofit administration. The couple married in 2009 and turned their energies to their volunteer causes and their newfound entrepreneurial purpose.
With their Honor Flight prototype in hand, the Paulsells sounded out ideas with focus groups and entered pitch competitions. They tested every incarnation of their design, looking for durability. “We have brutalized these things on Honor Flights,” says Steve.
They sought advice through the Small Business Technology & Development Center and the mid-Missouri SCORE association, where counselors schooled them on business plan development, marketing and social media, network connections and sales issues, as well as the time and paperwork requirements of running a small business. The couple filed two provisional patents and in April 2013 applied for a nonprovisional patent. That same month, they entered the 2013 #BOOM competition, sponsored by Regional Economic Development Inc., and took their first crack at presenting their product.
“We didn’t place,” Sharon says, “but we learned so much and it was a great experience.”
A few months later, Sharon entered the Grow Mid-Missouri PitchON competition at Boonville’s Isle of Capri, where she took first place. The event — sponsored by the Moberly Area Economic Development Corp., Moberly Area Community College and the Moberly Chamber of Commerce — models itself on the “Shark Tank” television show that matches entrepreneurs with investors.
“The pitch competitions draw a lot of marketing companies to you,” Steve says. “There are some great opportunities but you have to sift through the offers and ideas. The most important thing, though, is getting with the other entrepreneurs. So much happens outside in the lobby when you’re not competing — it’s very supportive.”
That same summer, a Columbia branch of 1 Million Cups formed. Wheelchair Personalities was on the opening-day docket of presenters at the first gathering of mentors, advisers and other entrepreneurs.
It was an impressive debut, says REDI President Mike Brooks. “Great example of seeing an opportunity!” he says.
“It’s all about getting our product out there,” Steve says. “We’ve been beneficiaries — and benefactors — of the Columbia entrepreneur network. It’s fun and energizing. Everyone is so kind and helpful.”
Smiles & Stares
The Paulsells have poured their savings into their company.
“We had a little nest egg from a family inheritance we could tap,” Steve notes.
They learned as much from their mistakes as they did from their advisers, although some errors were more costly than others.
“We thought we needed an office to conduct business,” Sharon says. For a while, they leased space on John Garry Drive, an unnecessary expenditure before they’d sold even one wheelchair cover. Now they work out of their home and maintain a website for orders.
“The Internet is an amazing tool,” Sharon says. “I take full advantage of all social media. It’s free — except for my time.
Without other employment to distract them, the couple focuses on building their business — when they’re not volunteering for one cause or another.
“If we didn’t do so much volunteer work, our business would have grown three times what it has,” says Sharon. “But you do what you can. Volunteering is a part of who we are.”
The couple’s passion for their causes — particularly those that champion the rights of veterans or the disabled — has ushered them into a circle of memorable clients, customers and friends.
Their covers have adorned the chair of Russelville’s Phaedra Olsen, Ms. Wheelchair USA 2010, who now works for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Tennessee. “She’s a beauty queen in Nashville,” Sharon says. “She likes the glitzy, glamorous designs.”
Some clients request designs that can be tricky for Wheelchair Personalities to accommodate outside of licensing contracts. “We had an order for a man who loved John Deere tractors, but we weren’t authorized to use that logo,” Sharon recalls. “We came up with something in those iconic colors and put a tractor on it. He won’t part with that cover — not even to let the nursing home staff wash it!”
Another impromptu design brought a smile to a baseball fan. “We couldn’t just slap a St. Louis Cardinals logo on a wheelchair for this one customer, so we re-created a cover styled like a jersey — in red, of course, with his favorite player’s number,” Sharon says. “He loved it.”
From the smiles of happy clients to the well-deserved recognition of a veteran’s service, Wheelchair Personalities offers a way for the disabled to stand out in the crowd.
“It gives you permission to stare,” Sharon says.
For the curious, stares can lead to conversation. And conversation is the cure for invisibility.
Find Out More
Visit Wheelchair Personalities online at www.wheelchairpersonalities.com.