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Building a specialized business? Special Tomato and Adaptivemall Understand

By Michael Goodwin | Small Business

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When Chairman Tim Bergeron started Adaptivemall.com in 1998, the notion of actually earning a profit doing e-commerce was a mere gleam in some futurists’ eyes. Amazon had opened its doors only two years earlier, and was losing money hand over fist. Even Bergeron’s kids had their doubts.

Katie Bergeron Peglow, Adaptivemall.com’s COO (in this case it stands for Chief Online Officer) laughs about it now. “In 1998,” she recalls, “my dad came to my brother and me and asked us what we thought about him selling adaptive equipment online. I was a Pediatric Physical Therapist, working with children who use a lot of this equipment, and my brother was studying for his MBA at Cornell. The internet was just starting and we went, ‘OK Dad, sure, give it a try, why not, have fun with it…’”

But Tim had a vision. He knew that while insurance companies pay for some special needs equipment, they usually don’t cover everything these kids need—and eventually families have to pay out of pocket. He realized he could provide information and products at a fair price because overhead costs for an internet site would be lots less than having a retail store. “Little did we know!” laughs Katie. “Well, he knew, even if we didn’t, that a successful business would grow out of it.”

Which is how, with Aabaco’s help, Adaptivemall.com became the first online web site selling special needs equipment for children directly to families. Today, 18 years later, with a staff of 10, Adaptivemall.com still offers the best selection of adaptive equipment on the internet. Their products range from special needs strollers to special needs car seats to toys for children’s therapy.

And just as their motto says, they really do understand. Carrie Bergeron, Katie’s little sister, was born with Down syndrome in 1976.

Sit Up, Walk, Ride a Bike

Unless you have a family member with Down syndrome, Cerebral palsy, or some other developmental disability, you may have only a vague idea of what adaptive equipment is.

The term refers to products that are made specifically for children with different types of disabilities. Adaptivemall.com tends to focus on children with gross motor disabilities, like kids who can’t sit up on their own, or walk, or ride a bike. The site sells a variety of equipment that will help them be more independent in performing these tasks.

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“Lately we’re getting into something called 'sensory integration,’” Katie explains, “which is something you see in children with autism. A good example is when you have a child sitting on a chair too tall for their feet to reach the ground. They swing their legs back and forth. They’re not doing that because they want to be disruptive; it’s actually giving feedback to the body on where their feet are in space. One way to get around that is to provide a chair that has a footplate—so their feet are supported and they’re 'grounded.’ Now they know where their legs are.”

Two-Cushion Shot

Tim and the Bergeron/Peglow families have devoted a major part of their lives to designing, building and selling adaptive equipment.

Long before he started Adaptivemall.com, Tim was an industrial designer creating and manufacturing “cushion technology” products for children with special needs—huge rolls, balls, and wedges made of soft foam in vibrant colors enjoyed by parents and therapists alike. They are still found in Physical Therapy Departments across the nation.

In 2001, a few years after Adaptivemall.com made its appearance, Tim launched another company, Special Tomato, based on an advanced reinvention of cushion technology that improved upon his earlier creation.

According to Katie, “the cushion technology my Dad developed for Special Tomato is what separates us from our competitors. It’s comfortable and soft to the touch, yet it’s strong enough to prevent tears and punctures. Durability is important since these products are used in schools and hospitals as well as in homes.”

Another benefit of Special Tomato’s proprietary cushion technology is that it allows for curves, creating a contoured surface that mimics the shape of the human body. This is important for children that have limited mobility.

“You and I are able to shift our weight in a chair to relieve pressure,” explains Katie. “A lot of the children that use our products don’t have the motor skills necessary to do that. With our contoured cushions, more surface area comes in contact with the body, which helps to distribute the pressure on the body. It is also easy to clean which is always a bonus with children.”

It’s no surprise, then, that several Special Tomato products are best-sellers on Adaptivemall.com. One popular favorite is the EIO Push Chair, an extra-wide baby stroller designed to accommodate a taller child comfortably. By three and four, most children with special needs have outgrown the “typically developing” stroller, but the family still needs something to take a quick outing in town – something easier to use than a wheelchair. Special Tomato’s Soft-Touch Sitters are also best-sellers.

Aabaco (Yahoo!)

With close to 10,000 products and accessories to track, and a huge amount of need-specific information to navigate, Adaptivemall.com’s web site is the linchpin of the operation. And for almost 20 years it’s counted on Aabaco Small Business (formerly Yahoo Small Business) to keep it running.

“Our biggest challenge as a startup was navigating the ever-changing internet to stay at the forefront,” Katie declares. “To be high in the top searches, to understand how to develop our site, how to present our products effectively. Tim has no background in computer coding, and neither do I.

"Aabaco made it super-easy for us. You just fill in the fields and the site deals with all the code in the background. We input all our data and it comes up and looks nice. Maria, who’s been our account manager for as long as I can remember, helps point us in the direction of third parties when we need them. Like the MyAccount system which allows customers to save their account information, and gives us history on users. Aabaco has been a great fit for us. They even recommended third-party players to manage our recent web site redesign.”

Occupational or Physical

Like most ecommerce businesses, Adaptivemall.com uses social media and a variety of other marketing methodologies to attract customers—but even more important is the unique customer service that keeps those customers coming back. Adaptivemall.com puts licensed Occupational or Physical Therapists, including Katie, on their Customer Service staff. The therapists are there to provide assistance for families in choosing the most appropriate equipment for their child.

In addition, therapists write the descriptions for each product, to ensure that the therapeutic benefits of each device are explained.

Greatest Triumph

Ask Katie what the company’s greatest triumph was, and her voice softens.

“We get thank you cards from families with pictures of their kids using the equipment,” she says, “and knowing that the products we sell are helping to make their lives easier is what keeps everyone in the company going. We love what we do, and we love that we get to make a difference in the lives of children all over the world, each and every day.”

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