When Karen Larson and her husband, Brian, first began thinking about launching a business in about 2013, they got one big thing wrong. Their market.
First they thought they would be selling their pre-cast concrete “plunge pools” to the trades—landscapers and such. But, it turns out, the homeowners began contacting the company directly. And it was NH SBDC’s business advisor Warren Daniel who helped the two redirect their initial marketing efforts.
“Once we figured out who our market was, things really began to take off,” Karen explains. In 2017, sales doubled and, so far in 2018, the business is doing even better than that. “Warren just listens to us, to our whole story, and he plays devil’s advocate. He’s been really helpful in the overall concept and in helping us determine our mission statement.”
Plunge pools are small, deep swimming pools, and the ones Karen and her husband have been selling can range in size and options, up to a maximum size of 8 by 10 feet.
Soake Pools are appealing to a wide range of customers, Karen reports. They’ve attracted millennials and retirees, and their pools have been installed at homes with just a tiny city lot and at those with sprawling backyard country views.
Customers have been finding Soake Pools the same way Karen and her husband did. Back in 2012, Karen and Brian had experienced a plunge pool at a hotel while they were traveling, and enjoyed it so much they began a search for one for their own backyard.
“We wanted nothing bigger than 8 x 16 feet,” Karen says. “We couldn’t find one in concrete, and at a reasonable price.”
So, her husband decided to invent his own. He found an engineering company that helped him design the plans for a pre-cast, concrete version that was affordable. Ultimately, it was built and installed in their backyard as a kind of test case.
“We worked out the kinks, but ultimately we loved what we had created and decided to go ahead and produce our own pools that could be manufactured in one place and then delivered by truck any place,” Karen said.
The next task was to determine if anybody else thought this was a good idea, Karen said. “Would anybody actually buy one, we wondered? It would be a totally new product on the market.”
Ultimately, Karen decided to sell the business she already ran—a beloved candy shop in Durham—to give her full attention to the burgeoning plunge pool business. Today she serves as its only employee, coordinating publicity, marketing, and a cadre of subcontractors who manufacture the pools in Concord, and then deliver them to homeowners.
“The homeowner wins all around,” Karen explains. With a final price around $24,000, which includes the equipment to run it and some options, the homeowner can put the installation work out for bid and have complete control over that process. “They end up saving a sizable amount of money,” Karen says.
Customers can choose from a variety of options. The pools can be above or flush with the ground; because they’re made of concrete, they can be tiled on the inside, in a larger format tile than possible with vinyl or fiberglass. The exteriors are finished on site, by the homeowners’ own contractors.
Soake Pools has been getting a lot of good press lately. That’s Karen’s doing, as public relations was her background. Since re-thinking their market—from trade to consumer—Karen says all her energy has gone into sending out press releases and working with advertisers and publications.
“There’s been a flurry of phone calls and emails and suddenly I can’t get to everybody,” she said. “We want to grow and grow fast, but not by allowing quality or customer service to suffer.”
Warren has been instrumental in helping the couple think about growth. “We needed to expand our manufacturing space, which could only produce two pools at a time. We can now do eight at a time, and Warren is so helpful in making our growth plans work.
“We recently bought a company van and Warren gave us referrals for financing that,” she said.
“Warren is great with spreadsheets and analyzing things,” she says. “That’s a weakness of mine—even now. He’s helped with projections and given us templates to work from. He’s very good at that.”
Sales have doubled every year and projections for next year are at a 30 percent growth rate. “Plunge pools have become a ‘thing’ across the country,” Karen says. “That really validates and legitimizes us. And word-of-mouth is working. Our customers are referring others to us.”
Even with success and expected growth, Karen and Brian continue to work with Warren. “To have someone like that looking over our shoulder and helping us make good decisions, it’s just been a Godsend. A business like ours could not afford to pay a financial or business advisor for everything we needed done,” Karen said. “I’m just so grateful for the funding that NH SBDC puts into this and for all the people that can benefit from their services.”