With a scorching weekend lined up for Vancouver alongside the new Dragons’ Den season creeping closer, this weeks Vancity Entrepreneur comes at a timely moment. Most of us have performed the “towel trick” when changing at the beach, and a chunk of us have either fanned on it or seen someone not execute it to its full potential – which can be a good or bad thing, depending on who they are. A beach lifeguard by the name of Dan Plante put on his entrepreneurial hat and pitched a revolutionary changing towel to the dragons last September. He calls it, Chawel.
Who are you? Tell us about your business/core idea and how it got started.
I am Dan Plante, a beach lifeguard and mailman turned small business start up from my idea of making changing in public easier. I call it Chawel (CHAnge toWEL). Originally it was created to make life easier for moms at the beach, instead of having to hold a towel up for each kid to change behind. Over time, I started finding more uses for my prototype as I used it on my travels. Because the way I traveled, “less is more,” I often packed items that could be used for more than one thing. I adapted that thinking into Chawel. Functionality of Chawel is what really blows people away when they see the demo. From towel to changing room to neck pillow, sleeping bag, blanket and more.
Tell us about your Dragons’ Den experience, what did you get out of it?
Being selected for the taping of Dragons Den was great news but, it was also a little rattling. I still didn’t know if I was going to be one of the “entertainment at my expense” pitches, or if I was going to be a quality product pitch. I studied past episodes, taking notes on almost every question that Kevin asked and even had friends of mine tear me apart in mock pitches. I didn’t expect Chawel to be so well received by the Dragons. I never rehearsed or prepared for that possibility. I only prepared to defend my product and prove to them that it was something for everyone, and could be a long term profitable product. So that was one thing I learned was to prepare for both scenarios.
Hearing the Dragons enthusiasm for the Chawel through their offers, that gave me more confidence in what I was doing and how I was doing it. I know family and friends always encouraged me to keep going with it, but I never listened to them, because that what friends and family does, even if it’s not a great idea. To hear it from the Dragons, and especially Kevin, that has made me more focused on making this a house hold name. My Chawel demo blew them away. So that is one thing that hasn’t changed, and continues to turn window shoppers into “I have to have a Chawel” buyers.
The Chawel has more functions than just changing at the beach. What else can it do and looking forward, do you see it evolving into something else?
Here are just some of the more popular uses: Towel, blanket, sleeping bag, travel/neck pillow and Changing room . The Chawel has also been used by many for privacy as an emergency road side bathroom, laundry and gear bag when traveling, emergency diaper, and change table for a baby. Additionally, it has been used as a first aid blanket pillow and bandage for a cyclist who crashed downhill on the Coquihalla last summer. We get many submissions on the website, which will soon get it own “uses” page soon.
What do you see as the biggest challenge you’ll have with Chawel moving forward and how do you plan on overcoming it?
Right now the biggest challenge is getting the customers in the retail shops to fully understand what the Chawel is, and how they would benefit from it. I know there are many ways to do this, but finding the least costly format isn’t quite there yet. We have QR codes on our packaging that take the customer to a demo video, but not many people know what a QR code is, or they don’t have the app for it.
Securing the funding for the infomercial and the distribution was pretty much all lined up, but for whatever reason both fell apart in the last two months
How does this improve the city of Vancouver? What is the real world problem you’re solving?
Less accidental skin/body parts being shown in public could be one improvement. But also, I get a lot of guys that feel that the Chawel stealing away the possibility of them catching a glimpse of more skin on women. But for those that used to do the long walks to the bathrooms at Spanish Banks and Second Beach pools to get changed, I think there will be a lot of happy Chawelers now, that can save the time and quickly change right there. As well as the cool winds we get at sunset. Turning your Chawel into a windbreaker/blanket will make the evenings at the beach much more comfortable.
World Problem? Getting more functionality from one product. Maybe that equals less waste? One thing we try to do is turn every piece of fabric waste into something useful, rather than just throwing away fabric. In the Chawel Hybrid package you also get a sleep mask for the plane and a mesh carry bag.
Advice for other entrepreneurs?
It helps if you are organized. I have redone my packaging three times now, and that has been costly. Both in money and my time spent repackaging large orders. The first time for MEC, my packaging it was rushed, and I didn’t have the time to test it, and it turned out that it wasn’t strong enough to hold the Chawel Sport on the hooks, and it fell apart easily. The current packaging is much better, but still quite expensive. My branding and banners, truck wrap, etc. Were also done and redone.
Unfortunately for me, I learn by doing, so I’m sure it will continue to go that way. I will always find something to improve the product, packaging, message, etc.
Also, like it has been said by many before, Don’t give up! I am usually quick to move on to new ideas, and then never stick with them. The Chawel has been in my brain since 2002. Now it is a part of me. I eat sleep and breathe it. Most of my sales come because people see my passion in it. They are buying into my passion for the Chawel. They love the story and thought that went into Chawel, and that carries into when they first use their Chawel.
And one more: Maybe don’t create a product, and then have to create a demand for the product. After reading many business books and articles in the search to find a great way to get the awareness out there, I have found that it would be easier to find a need for a service or product, and fill that need, than to create the product, and now have to create the need for it.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dan at a recent event that featured four past participants from Dragons’ Den that gave us an insider look on the show and its dragons (who have a new member joining the clan this season). It’s quite interesting to get the entrepreneurial thought process and learning path of someone who literally stumbled onto the thought of being an entrepreneur while following a completely different career path. It just goes to show that we are all entrepreneurs, problem solvers, and change agents, who when motivated to do so, make things happen.
You can follow Chawel on Twitter and Facebook.
Stay in touch @pauldavidescu
Photo Credit: CBC
*Vancity Entrepreneurs is a weekly feature on the city’s most notable entrepreneurs or startups that are making Vancouver a better place. If you think your venture deserves to be on the series, send [email protected] an email explaining why*