Building a specialized business? Special Tomato and Adaptivemall Understand

5 minute read

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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.”