Rie Nørregaard, Susy Korb And Susan Towers, Omhu: Bringing Style To Senior Citizens

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Face it: With each tick-tock of the clock, you're getting older. Aging is something many fear, but it's inevitable. But the three women behind Omhu are seeking to reinvent aging -- or at least how we feel about it -- with colorful and whimsical canes, walkers and other "living aids."

Rie Nørregaard, Susy Korb and Susan Towers have watched their parents' health deteriorate, along with their increasing dependence on these "living aids." Having to rely on a cane is a humbling experience for many, so this trio decided to innovate in an old, stale industry -- one that also happens to be a $25 billion-a-year industry.

Originally expecting to target older women, Omhu (Danish for "with great care") has found success amongst a diverse audience, boasting a customer base from ages 15 to 92 -- because, as the founders of Omhu are quick to point out, canes aren't just for old people.

How did Omhu come to life?

Towers: Susy and I had set up a business partnership in 2008 to do brand strategy and marketing consulting. Rie has a daughter who goes to school with Susy's daughter and they were good friends. Rie was pregnant and began shopping for that child and seeing all this wonderful new stuff that's just coming out. And yet, when you shop for things for an elderly parent -- a cane, a bath seat, a stool -- there was nothing good to buy. With this germ of an idea, Rie started talking to Susy and me about brands and creating value. We did quite a lot of research into the market first, and then we incorporated in 2010.

Korb: We had the desire to become entrepreneurs. We all had good jobs that we enjoyed and learned from, but we realized it would be more satisfying to start something on our own. Usually startups are 20-year-olds who are pulling all-nighters and sleeping on the couch and maxing out their credit cards. We're pulling all-nighters but we're not sleeping on the couch yet! It's pretty unusual for people to have gone through whole professional careers and had the infrastructure of an IT department and an HR department to start on this journey.

The aging aren't exactly the flashiest target demographic. Why did you decide to start a brand in this market?

Korb: There was a real market need for this. Both Rie and Susan were taking care of elderly parents and literally not able to find anything that was attractive for them. This was a market that needed design, performance, innovation and a brand attitude. It couldn't just be, "OK, I've lived my life making aesthetic judgments, and now I'll stop because I'm older." We're not trying to cure people, but Rie's references for our products are "snowboard" and "hockey stick" and "bicycle" -- very positive, colorful, energetic and happy things.

Towers: The durable medical equipment market is a huge, established market -- it's not like we're doing something extraordinary. What's extraordinary about us is that we're bringing our experience in product development, design, marketing and branding, and we're applying it to an existing market where there is no differentiation in branding and design. People are living longer, but they're not necessarily living better, so there's a whole range of services and support that they're going to need.

My father was completely independent until he was 81, and then he had a fall and everything started going horribly wrong. Within 18 months, we had to get the Life Alert, the cane, the walker, the full-time care at home. When you look at the ads out there for these kinds of products, they're horrendous. They play on people's fears -- "I've fallen and I can't get up!" And most of the companies have names like "medi" and "dura," which has an infirm connotation... or it's something like "sunrise." This market has been completely ignored.

Korb: It's not the happiest part of life, but it happens. So, to just say, "Avert your eyes and go into this ghetto of infirmity" was not the way we wanted to live. It's a pretty lofty goal. In addition to being a successful company, we do intend to change the way people think and feel about aging and disability. That's the root of the brand -- we're upbeat and positive.

Towers: But we're not delusional about aging. We have direct experience with the indignities of this stage of life, but you have to maintain a sense of humor. And because we recognize that people now are willing to spend a little more for a brand they like and desire and trust, these things can become an accessory. You have your iPhone, and you can have a beautiful orange cane. One of our customers was at a black-tie event last week and his cane was stolen! We thought that was so funny.

What were the startup costs?

Towers: The first $150,000 was self-funded while we were doing the research side of things.

Korb: And then we raised $750,000 from family and friends and investors. They're all somewhere between 40 and 80 years old, and all of them were investing in the idea as much as the team. They've all been active participants -- they give ideas and we bounce things off them.

In a market that focuses on functionality and durability, how does your design-driven product line compare on price? Do people mind the price difference?

Towers: You have a lot of unbranded wooden canes that can range from $30 to $80 at very typical retail outlets like Bigelow or a surgical supply store like Falk on the Upper East Side. It's something people use every day and it's very important that it's a good cane if you're going to be leaning on it, depending on it. Ours are $135. But we're seeing that about half of our sales are coming from people who are giving these as gifts, and what we're trying to do is disruptive distribution -- taking canes out of these ghettoized markets and having them in museum gift shops and men's clothing stores and places where you wouldn't expect it. It becomes an accessory, not a crutch.

Korb: It normalizes the item, too. Think of eyeglasses 50 years ago -- it was, "Hey, four eyes!" You'd go to a medical supply store and have three choices, and now it's a fashion statement! People have extensive shoe wardrobes, handbag wardrobes, eyeglass wardrobes. There are also reasons for people who aren't "old" to use canes -- MS, hip replacement, knee surgery. In generations past, gentlemen carried canes and it was a status symbol, not a sign of infirmity. So it's not so far-fetched to believe that we can bring that back... or at least give it some attitude.

Nørregaard: If someone is going to tell you that you need a cane -- whether it's a medical professional telling a patient, or you telling a parent, or a friend telling a friend -- it's a very difficult conversation that nobody wants to have. But if you ask someone, "What color cane do you want?" you circumvent that whole conversation. It turns it around and the person becomes in charge, and they're choosing something that they want to relate to. Everyone has a relationship to color and they're very happy to choose one.

In addition to canes, what are some of the other products you're developing?

Nørregaard: We started with the cane because it's a personal accessory and because it can go into these other channels of distribution. But there are a handful of products that many people need. There's a bath stool, because most accidents happen in the bathroom or on the way to the bathroom. We're making a beautiful chair that communicates very differently than the plastic chairs you're used to seeing that look like they belong in an institution or a hospital. We're also doing a bedside table. Another big focus is mobility, because being able to get places is the social connection between a person and the rest of the world. Technology is important, too. A lot of technology in this space comes with the idea of "monitoring," which is very unfriendly. Our pedometer has a simple on-off switch, but it provides an enormous emotional benefit and helps people stay independent.

And everything is multi-functional?

Nørregaard: Right. We don't want to make stuff and equipment that piles up in corners of people's homes when they're not in use, so everything we do transforms into something else. Our wall-mounted cane holder is also a nightlight so you can keep it by your bed or chair. We work with physical therapists and with people in their homes to understand the needs, and we take those needs and turn them into a product that is desirable for everyone. I'm going to put the wall mounts in my kids' rooms to get their stuff off the floor. These are things that can work in your life regardless of age.

Social media have become a big part of marketing these days, but your target demographic is obviously an older crowd. Are you finding your consumers on Facebook and Twitter?

Towers: Yes, we did a little advertising on Facebook, and we got a lot of traffic from that. And there are blogs, too. There was a 28-year-old woman on a fashion and gossip blog, and she had a problem with her hip and needed a cane. One woman left a comment with a link to Omhu, and we had 3,000 visitors from the website! They didn't all shop with us, but maybe they told their friends about us. It's been very interesting to see how the digital world can help businesses like ours.

Korb: We had an idea of who our customer would be, and our audience is skewing younger. Our youngest customer is 15, our oldest is probably 92. The sweet spot is probably 40 to 65 -- people taking care of their parents and weekend warriors who need a knee and hip replacement. Now we're talking to everyone, including young people, so by the time they get to our age, the thought isn't, "Oh, I don't want to get old!" I mean, you hope you DO get old because the alternative is that you don't!

Nørregaard: But what ties our customers together is their approach to life, more than their age. It's people looking for new products and design and who are interested in the back-story of a product and the attitude, and that's been really refreshing to see.

We're hearing a lot about how so many baby boomers are starting to turn 65. How has that wave helped Omhu grow?

Korb: It's easier to get wholesale accounts. We knew this was coming a couple of years ago, but when V Magazine does "The Age Issue" and Vogue does "The Prime of Life" and you start seeing that hitting the mainstream, it helps with market receptivity. Again, the need is there -- people use canes and people want good products. That part hasn't changed, but the buyers are recognizing the need for our products, so retail acceptance is happening much faster.

What's the biggest challenge?

Nørregaard: Doing everything at the same time and making the right decisions at the right time. Every decision matters -- we have to consider the smallest details while also understanding where the business needs to be in five years.

What's your favorite part of running the business?

Korb: I love seeing the customers happy. When someone gets a cane and they send a pictures -- that's viscerally satisfying. And I like taking away some of the fear of aging, which is obviously self-serving, because I hope to live to a ripe old age! And I like working with these guys. You have to work hard and you have to work smart. I think it's sharpened all of our skills.

Towers: Having spent years working in slightly frivolous areas and getting people to buy make-up or clothing or skincare -- I mean, you don't really need any of that stuff. It's fun, it's nice, but I get a greater sense of gratification from creating something that people actually want and need.

Nørregaard: It's getting a really great product to people to make them happy -- to believe strongly in an idea, to make it happen and then have it be received by someone who's really satisfied with it. I'm now collaborating with designers whom I've worked with or grown up with for many years to make things that are meaningful and that people are excited about. As a designer, that's an enormous luxury and satisfaction to have in your life.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Susy Korb, Susan Towers, Rie Nørregaard
Company: Omhu
Ages: 53, 44 and 43
Location: New York
Founded: 2010
Employees: A network of freelancers
Projected 2011 Revenue: $2 million to $3 million
Website: www.omhu.com

The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 2/23/11.

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