By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Bruce and Kate Santhuff might be the only couple in the country who would be happy to see one of their careers wind up in the toilet -- a "shower toilet," that is.
Bruce first encountered such a fixture in his hotel bathroom during a 2001 business trip to Japan, where they are quite prevalent. A mixture of a toilet and a bidet, it sported a high-tech seat equipped with two water nozzles and a dryer, negating the need for paper. "When I saw it, I laughed," Bruce says. But "after using it for three days, I became a believer. It was just a better way to do it."
Now Bruce, who works as an independent television sound technician, is so serious about "hands-free" toileting that he and Kate, a part-time educational consultant and teacher, have brought their version of the product to market in the United States.
The Santhuffs, who live in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County with their son and daughter, found a manufacturer in Taiwan and a warehouse and distributor in Washington state. They coined and trademarked the name "Spaloo," set up a Web site and ordered a container of 400 seats. Since late 2005, they have sold half, at about $335 apiece. Once they sell the first shipment, they'll break even on their more than $100,000 investment, which came from a house sale and home equity loan.
Here's how it works: The heated Spaloo seat ("We get a lot of people who say it's worth the money just for the heated seat," Bruce says) fits on virtually any toilet, but requires a nearby electrical outlet. A user presses a button on the control panel to pick a "feminine wash" or a "family wash" (water temperature and pressure are adjustable), then presses another button for the warm-air dryer.
The Santhuffs have seats in every bathroom of their house, and even daughter Alexandra, 7, has gotten into the act, penning promotional jingles (one goes, in part: "Spaloo, Spaloo, it's so great for you/Spaloo, Spaloo, you will love it, too!"). Their relatively flexible work hours and the fact that both children are in school have helped them handle the extra Spaloo work, Kate says. "I like having different things to manage at one time," she adds. "It's certainly not a boring existence."
After exploring markets from luxury hotels to senior centers -- and learning along the way that high-tech toilet seats alarm folks with dementia -- the Santhuffs have been especially intrigued by Spaloo's potential among people who are disabled, for whom it offers ease, control and privacy. Some proceeds from their sales go to provide seats for disabled U.S. troops.
The Santhuffs aren't alone in thinking the United States is the next market for high-tech toilets: Giant manufacturers such as Toto, which has sold 17 million such seats elsewhere, are targeting Americans. But Bruce is convinced the more affordable Spaloo will take off.
"It's going to happen, absolutely," he says. "I want to do this full time. It's such a great product."
Have you turned an improvement on a household necessity into a business? E-mail Elizabeth Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org.