How do you market a product that's unlike anything else out there? You shoot a faux-horror commercial, of course, if, like local inventor Larry Donahue, you also happen to be a writer and filmmaker (his film, The Devil's Courthouse, played at the 2004 Asheville Film Festival).
"It's been hard to get people to grasp what RoboCloset is," says Donahue. "You could show it to someone, you could literally have it in your hand, and you could ask them, 'What is that?' and they would have no clue. You've got to see it in action."
So Donahue enlisted the help of locals — actress Leah Spicer and director Troy Scott Burnett. Spicer plays a young woman who has a scary encounter with her overstuffed closet before discovering the benefits of RoboCloset. The commercial has a surprisingly high production value and genuinely spooky the opening.
So what is RoboCloset? In short, it’s a mechanical arm, attached to a wall, that can be lowered or raised by remote control. Up to 35 pounds of clothes on hangers can be hooked into slots along the arm when it’s lowered. When the arm is raised, the clothes stack together in a descending vertical fall. A valance system at the end of the arm covers the clothes so that once the arm is up, the whole thing looks like a window treatment. A casual observer would never know there were clothes hanging behind it.
Like many inventions, the idea for RoboCloset was born of an accidental oversight. Donahue, who grew up and lived in Asheville before moving to Florida in 1996, decided to move back after debuting his play Dreamland Motel here in 2011 [see "Dream on," Sept. 13, 2011, Xpress.] He bought a tiny piece of land near Beaucatcher Tunnel and drew up blueprints for an appropriately tiny house. Only later did he realize that he had failed to put in a closet.
"The house is basically a studio," explains Donahue. "It's just one big room with a separate [but] combined laundry and bathroom, and I thought, 'Oh, God, I don't want to have to frame in a closet. It's just going to mess the whole thing up.'"
Fortunately he was still waiting for his house in Florida to sell, so he had time to play around with some ideas. Eventually he came up with a compact clothes storage system that wouldn't take up any extra floor space.
The original prototype, says Donahue, was made out of wood and included an actuator he bought off eBay and parts from a high-powered paper shredder he paid $1 for at Habitat for Humanity. When the final version, made out of aluminum this time, ended up working well in his own small space, he knew he was onto something with commercial potential.
Donahue partnered with friend Jody Link to further refine and develop RoboCloset. They are now producing the final product for sale on their website. They've also obtained a provisional patent through the Van Winkle Law Firm.
"It's the kind of thing that people who are cramped for space will appreciate," says Donahue, foreseeing an eventual market in cities like New York and Tokyo, notorious for tiny living spaces. "It takes up almost no space at all."
While Donahue clearly sees RoboCloset's potential, it's definitely been a challenge trying to market a product with no history, no reviews and as of yet, little word-of-mouth. "It's been a steep curve, because it's the kind of product that's not really related to anything," he admits. "There's nothing like it; we can't tie ourselves to anything else because it's a totally new thing."
One avenue Donahue has tried was to contact Shark Tank, the reality television show that invites aspiring entrepreneurs to pitch their business or product to a panel of potential investors. While the producers were interested enough to invite Donahue to submit a video about RoboCloset, in the end, he wasn't asked to appear on the show. Still, he says, philosophically, "It's always nice to be asked to throw your hat into the ring."
Donahue is now focusing on giving away a limited number of RoboClosets to people who live in small or challenging spaces. In return he only asks that the users post a YouTube video about their experience with the product. "We're willing to give some away so we can get some reviews," he explains. "So when people actually go to purchase one, they can say, 'Okay, well, Susie bought one, and it worked out for her and it did the job and she's happy.' It's kind of tough when you have no reviews."
Donahue credits the engineering know-how that went into designing RoboCloset to his days building hot rods back in the 1950s and ’60s, cruising up and down Tunnel Road, roaring into hot spots like Babe Malloy's or the drive-in at Buck's Red Carpet Room.
"We didn't think of it as 'engineering' at the time,” he remembers. "You just wanted to go fast [and] show off and be a jackass. … But the engineering that goes into RoboCloset, the geometry of the whole thing, it comes from building hot rods. So it came in handy."
For more information about RoboCloset and to see the commercial, visit www.robocloset.com.