Turner started QOR360, a company designing and building a new active chair to prevent problems such as back pain, which happens when you sit in traditional ergonomic chairs. In the last two years, they've grown from a $100K company to a $1M one.
Hi Turner! Who are you and what are you currently working on?
I’m currently an emeritus professor here at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont. After a long career as an academic trauma surgeon, I spent a decade as a research epidemiologist. But for the last 5 years, I’ve been engaged in trying to understand the cause of low back pain to solve this nearly universal complaint. Oddly, this required that I create a startup to build and sell an entirely new kind of chair. So, unexpectedly at the age of 71, I find myself running a company, QOR360.com.
It’s clear that people are going to continue to sit, and sit a lot, no matter how often they are told that “sitting is the new smoking”. So, to deal with the public health crisis caused by sitting in badly designed “ergonomic” office chairs we had to be able to offer folks an entirely different way to sit, one that would allow them to move while sitting. Although there were a few such “active” chairs on the market, they were poorly designed, or too expensive to be a real solution. So, to change the way people sit, I became a reluctant entrepreneur and the CEO of a startup.
Our business model is simply to help people sit better by introducing the idea of sitting actively to as wide an audience as possible. This required that we create a solid chair that could be sold at a price everyone could afford and yet was not so ugly that no one would want one.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Before diving into QOR360 I spent 25 years as an academic trauma surgeon and another decade doing epidemiology. I didn’t get out much. To be a good surgeon, you need to show up every day, because patients have the reasonable expectation that their surgeon is there to solve any problem that arises, and a problem can come up at any time. So, I spent most of my career on a short leash, never more than 15 minutes away from the hospital.
The idea that back pain was a problem worth solving was a personal thing for me. I’d seen many patients complaining about back pain when I was an intern working in the emergency room, of course, and I vaguely understood that Western medicine didn’t have a solution for such patients beyond offering pain medicine and reassurance. So I didn’t take a deep dive into the back pain problem until I developed back pain myself. It took a while to riddle it out, but I eventually became convinced that sitting slumped passively all day long in “ergonomic” office chairs was causing immense problems. And not just with our posture and core strength leading to back pain. Epidemiologists estimate that passive sitting takes two years off our lives by playing havoc with our biochemistry, elevating our bad cholesterol, lowering our good cholesterol, raising our insulin lives. Quite simply, sitting passively is a public health catastrophe.
I should add that I’m not the obvious choice to design a product, create a company, or market furniture. But because someone had to address this problem I dove in. Luckily I found a cohort of like-minded souls with skill sets to make all this possible. It proved easy to find such people because they all understood the urgency of the problem.
We created our line of active chairs so people would have an alternative to the terrible “ergonomic” chairs that have come to define the 21st-century workplace. Our goal was to make rock-solid active chairs at an affordable price that were attractive enough that people would want them.
I’m new to the world of entrepreneurship and business, so I don’t have prior failures to fall back on for guidance. But I do have a long history of team building and teamwork because trauma surgery is a team sport. So, the business of finding talented people and creating a functional team was something that I had long experience with. And, as it turns out, this is probably the single most important skill a CEO can have.
How did you go from idea to product?
I understood the basic idea of making a chair that would be just unstable enough to encourage, indeed require, continuous muscular effort while sitting. But the actual invention of a reliable, and inexpensive, rocking mechanism required dozens of design failures, some of them hilarious in retrospect. When I finally hit on the idea of using a new geometric solid (an “eccentric bicylinder) as the rocking “mechanism” I instantly knew that this was the solution to the problem because it was a physically beautiful object.
This rocker’s shape was the key to our project, but it wasn’t clear how to make them. At first, we were cutting them out of solid wood using a bandsaw with 8” of blade exposed, but this seemed too dangerous; we didn’t want anyone to lose a finger as a part of our project. Pretty quickly we found that we would have to injection-mold this component, and although the mold was expensive ($20K), the individual rockers were inexpensive to make once we had the mold. And, the molded rockers were perfect to 1/10,000 of an inch and didn’t require sanding or finishing.
We didn’t have a launch for our chairs. We started giving them to friends to evaluate and then selling them to people at local trade shows, and finally, we set up a website to sell them online. The whole process was unplanned. Rather, it emerged organically as we took opportunities that presented themselves.
Our pricing strategy has been simply to sell our chairs as inexpensively as possible. We’re not trying to make money at this point; we’re trying to introduce active sitting to as many people as possible. As we continue to scale up I anticipate that our production costs will come down and at that point, we may start to show a profit. With luck, as time goes on we’ll be able to reduce the cost of our chairs and still show a profit.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
Growing a company turns out to be a lot harder than inventing or manufacturing a product. The key seems to be simple persistence. We pitched our chairs at trade shows, we pitched our chairs on street corners, we pitched our chairs to podcasters, we pitched our chairs to newspapers, we… Well, you get the idea. Eventually, someone hears you. Our first big success was when a piece about our chairs dropped in the Wall Street Journal. A single short article generated thousands of sales. A single brief mention of our chair as the best chair to upgrade a home office in an internal email at Google generated thousands of more sales. Now it seems to be mostly word of mouth that is selling our chairs.
And we’re always looking for new partners to tell our story. For example, we’re working with a father/son team, Tim and Rick Brennan who invented Vivobarefoot shoes to find synergy between our two companies’ projects. The Vivobarefoot shoe solved the problems that restrictive shoes caused for the human foot, and our chairs address the problems caused by office chairs that restrict the human body. So, we have a lot in common with Tim and Rick, but they’ve been in the game for almost two decades, so they have a lot of experience to share with us.
We’ve grown from a $100K company to a $1M company in the last two years, and we have aspirations to keep up this pace. So far it’s all been earned media and word of mouth, but we’re currently looking into paid media as a way to further awareness of active chairs as an alternative to passive sitting.
How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?
We’re pleased with how our business is doing, but we are always looking for our next move. We’re partnering with a group in Taiwan to bring active sitting to the Taiwanese, and we’re in early conversations with a company in Great Britain and an entrepreneur in Australia.
Our team philosophy is a little unusual, I think. Most businesses start with an organizational chart and then try to find people who fit in the boxes. We work the other way round: when someone shows up with skills and a passion for our project we draw a box around them and fit them into our organizational chart somehow. It can sometimes be a challenge, but it plays to every player’s strengths and makes for a much stronger company.
We’re always working to bring down the cost of our chairs, and we’re working on new designs that will be fully functional but less expensive than our flagship Ariel chair. My personal goal is to make active chairs so inexpensive that anyone who wants one can afford it. As an epidemiologist, I know that a solution that people can’t afford is no solution at all. So our focus is on solid active chairs that look good and are affordable.
And our chairs do look great. We recently won a design contest for chairs in Europe, the A’Design Competition. This was a little unexpected because all the other chairs in the contest were designed for their visual appeal. Our Ariel chair was the only one in the competition that was designed to solve a health crisis.
My personal goal is to hand this company off to the team that’s made it a success. I’m 71 years old, and I had a long career as a surgeon. I should be comfortably retired, so I’m not in this to pay off a mortgage. Rather, I view myself as trying to help these kids create a company that they can be proud of and will send their kids to college.
Since starting QOR360, what have been your main lessons?
Entrepreneurship is a lot more work than I’d imagined. It’s not enough to have a good idea, you also must have your idea at the right time: too early and no one can be convinced, too late and, well, it’s too late. And your idea must seem at least a little impossible: “If it’s obvious, well, it’s too late”. Finally, you must also have the energy and commitment to relentlessly pursue the project until it succeeds or fails. It’s a truism that many viable ideas fail because the entrepreneur simply becomes exhausted. Luckily there are several kids on our team who are far younger than I am and bring great energy and dogged determination to our project.
I was lucky to start our startup in Burlington, Vermont, which has a vibrant entrepreneurial community and a terrific maker space, The Generator. So many people were willing to share their time, their ideas, and especially their enthusiasm. I can’t thank them all enough. It was this community that convinced me that my idea for active sitting was worth pursuing.
What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?
It seems obvious that once we’d invented a better way to sit we would partner with a large office chair company and let them do the heavy lifting of manufacturing and distribution. But despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get “Big Chair” (Steelcase, Heman Miller, etc.) interested. They seem to be fixed in their approach to sitting, and new ideas simply weren’t welcome. But it’s been ever thus: as the famed Nobel Laureate Max Plank observed over 100 years ago: “A new truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” So, we’re busy upending what a chair is. Eventually, the Steelcase’s of the world will wake up, but by then it may be too late for them.
So, I’d say our biggest obstacle has been “Big Chair”. These guys have defined what a chair is for the last century: a chair must have a backrest, a footrest, armrests, a headrest, and the coup de grace, “lumbar support”. It’s hard for our chairs which sport none of these distractions to good posture to be taken seriously. But slowly, slowly, our take on sitting is gaining ground. It’s hard to say where the tipping point is but we’re getting there.
We haven’t made any catastrophic mistakes yet, but I’m pretty sure we will. It’s impossible to get everything right. I’m quite happy to place “little bets” that may or may not work out. What I’m very cautious about is making big bets, because if a big bet doesn’t pan out, well, you may lose your company and all the hard work that your team has put into the project.
What tools & resources do you recommend?
Start with a project that matters and find a solution that works. Then find some twenty-somethings who share your vision and get out of the way. The rest will pretty much look after itself.
I’ve never taken a business course, so I’ve had to rely on word of mouth from the entrepreneurial community here in Vermont. And books, lots of books. Oddly, however, only a few books have been helpful to me. The Art of the Start 2.0 by Guy Kawasaki was a real eye-opener for me, and a great general reference is The Portable MBA in Entrepreneurship. Also helpful was The Chair, by Galin Cranz. I guess I’m old school, but I find books much more helpful than podcasts or blogs or whatever, because reading is far faster than listening, and you can highlight and write in the margins, habits that make reaccessing information very quick. For fun, I sometimes listen to “How I Built This”. It’s astonishing how much success is predicated on simply being in the right place at the right time.
Where can we go to learn more?
I’ve written dozens of blog posts about aspects of active sitting that are up on our website. We also give away a design for a very inexpensive active chair that anyone can download and make for their kid(s).
I’ve written pieces for Elemental that explore some of the science behind active sitting. I also gave a TEDx Talk on the core ideas of active sitting. And I wrote a review article on active sitting for Chiropractic Economics.