Walking frames. When I first met business owner Sue Chen, I found out that she made walking frames and canes. I’ll confess: this did not excite me.
We were at a global event for female entrepreneurs in Rio de Janeiro when the speaker invited Sue on stage for an impromptu talk about her business. Since I’ve never been interested in walking frames — and I don’t know anyone who is — I opened my laptop and hoped I looked like I was taking notes as I began checking my email. But I didn’t get very far into my inbox before I found myself being drawn into Sue’s story. Not only did she manage to get me more than a little interested in walking frames, but by the end of her two- minute spiel I practically wanted one.
So what was so engaging about Sue’s story? Quite simply, her passion.
This is the story that informs people — from your customers and prospects to your staff and suppliers — what you’re passionate about.
This story goes beyond explaining your qualifications and your technical skills, beyond labels like ‘engineer’, ‘chiropractor’, ‘wine connoisseur’ and ‘triathlete’. This is the story that explains the ‘why’ behind what gets you out of bed every morning.
When you can identify and communicate this ‘why’, your enthusiasm is infectious. People can see that spark in your eye. They can tell when you’re truly passionate about something. They can also tell when you’re not passionate about something. It’s an emotion you just can’t fake.
With a broad California twang Sue speaks passionately about what she does. ‘When I meet someone and they ask me what I do, I say: “I make beautiful canes and hot turbo walkers!” ‘ she declares.
Sue founded her business, Nova, when she was just 23, straight after graduating from college. With no background in science or medicine, Sue created the company to help her family. Her grandfather and three uncles lived in Taiwan and ran a factory they co-founded with Sue’s father, who had migrated to the US when Sue was four years old. He died of cancer when she was 14. The factory manufactured walking frames and canes for other medical product companies, but it didn’t sell under its own brand. Sue’s grandfather decided that had to change, and it was going to be Sue’s job to make that happen.
“I felt really proud that my grandfather had faith in me,” says Sue.
“My uncles weren’t so keen. They wanted to partner with a US company to distribute our products.” After frustrating attempts to strike up the right partnerships, Sue’s grandfather threw up his hands in despair. She recalls: “My grandfather just said, ‘Forget it. No more partners.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You start the company’.”
‘Sue began learning all she could about the industry. In 1994 she managed to bring in $72 000 in revenue. By 2011 she was named by Fortune magazine as one of 10 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs in the US. Her goal is to turn over $28 million in 2012.
When Sue first started the company, she sold the standard grey walkers that other providers were already supplying the industry.
“They were everywhere — and they were horrible. They were hard to move because to go forward you had to pick them up and shuffle a couple of steps each time. It took forever just to walk across the room. And then people would try to make them easier to push by sticking tennis balls on to the bottom.
Those walkers were so ugly!”
The more time Sue spent with patients with mobility issues, the more she realised how inadequate these walkers were, not only in functionality but also in style. That’s right, style. “There was no innovation in this industry,” she says. “Everyone was making the same products they had been for years, including us. The same walkers, the same canes.”
Sue decided to try something different. With the standard grey walker dominating the US market, she ordered a shipment of walkers more popular in Europe. They were blue and featured wheels so they were easier to push and a seat in case the user got tired. ‘I thought it was a great product but no-one wanted it. I tried and tried and tried. But we just couldn’t sell it.’ Sue literally had to give them away, and began placing them in places frequented by people with mobility difficulties, such as rehabilitation centres and hospitals.
Soon afterwards Yolanda walked into Sue’s life. And that was when Sue really became passionate about her business. At the time, Yolanda was 60 years old and couldn’t walk 10 steps. She had gained weight, become depressed and hardly left her house, cut off from family and friends. But then she discovered the new blue walker, and it transformed her life.
“Here was this spunky woman who was energetic and funny. She told me the story about how the walker had changed everything.
“She’d point to her behind and say: “My butt used to be so much bigger and look at it now. I’m walking a mile a day, and I’ve lost 30 pounds. I can do anything that I was doing before, and the most important thing is that I’m back to being myself again.”
‘She was such a dynamic and sassy lady that I couldn’t have even imagined her with the old grey walking frame … I realised that people
like Yolanda not only need a functional walker, they probably want one that looks good, too. People often choose their cars to suit their tastes and personality. Why not their walkers and canes?’
Sue was committed to making that happen. By then, Yolanda wasn’t the only person who had discovered Sue’s walker. Her idea of giving it away free to rehab centres and hospitals meant that patients would come across it. The phone started to ring. With access to her family’s factory in Taiwan, she began to design and create walkers with a difference. She introduced them in a range of colours.
“We were the first company to do that. Then other manufacturers started following our lead, which was a great thing because it helped us stay competitive. Also, an advantage of being a woman in a male-dominated industry was that I understood that people still want to have style. I look at what’s coming into fashion. I go to the Gucci website. I look at Coach and Prada. I get ideas of what’s coming, because why shouldn’t the newest trends in designer bags be something that I use to inspire the bags on our walkers?”
Apart from introducing colours and funky patterns in walkers and canes, Sue also made a point of listening to as many of her customers’ stories as possible. The seat is too small? Sue makes a bigger seat. Nowhere to hang your handbag? Add a basket. Need a cup-holder? Consider it done. Want an accessible pocket on the side of the frame? Choose from these stylish prints and patterns. Too heavy to lift into the car? Let’s change the metal and reduce the weight by half.
“I have more passion now than I did when I started,” she says. “I get to spend time with these amazing people. Being out there and hearing the stories of my customers — it keeps us alive and innovative as a company. Whenever I feel like I’m burning out, which happens when you’re an entrepreneur, I remind myself who I serve. I get back out there, get out of my office, away from my desk — the mounds of paper and the endless emails that never go away — and it always sets me straight when people share their stories with me about how Nova has made a difference in their life. Then, boom! That passioncomes right back, and it’s even greater than before.”
This is an edited extract from Valerie Khoo’s new book, Power Stories, published by Wiley and available in all good book stores. Tomorrow, check back with Women’s Agenda to find out how to identify your passion, and use it to tell your own story.