Mothers of invention
Danville moms saw a need and filled it
Michele Wong didn't like the mess when Courtney, 3, maneuvered her veggies around her plate with an unsteady spoon all the way to the edge and down to the floor. Meanwhile Paige Akabane saw her little guy, Kai, becoming frustrated because he wasn't as adept at using silverware as his older sister.
"I was at Michele's having coffee and we said, 'There's got to be something out there to help,'" Akabane recalled last week. The Danville moms searched stores, catalogues and Web sites to no avail.
Clearly they had to invent something themselves. And they did: My Plate-Mate, a plastic spill guard that fits onto any regular 8 to 9-1/2-inch plate, designed for children 2 and older.
The timing was perfect. Akabane was just phasing out of work to raise her children after years with a bio tech company in Palo Alto. Wong had already left the workforce to raise her three children but her youngest was becoming more independent.
"Paige is an entrepreneurial spirit at heart, and we were both ready to talk about other things we could do," said Wong.
"We wrote down the features we wanted and started looking for a design engineer," recalled Akabane.
"We knew nothing about plastics. We just started calling," said Wong. "We had to play with materials. We needed something flexible but with a memory to keep its shape."
"We knew nothing about anything," Akabane added with a laugh.
They plunged into the male-dominated world of engineers, patent attorneys, designers and bankers, bringing along their toddlers with toys and DVDs to occupy them in a corner as their mommies were in a meeting. They interviewed only those in the Bay Area they could visit and still be back in time for carpools for their older children.
"We had to learn something brand new in every part of the process," Akabane said.
My Plate-Mate was launched in spring 2008. It looks like a large head band and is curved so the food falls back onto the spoon or fork rather than over the side. It comes in white, pink and blue. Nothing stains it, including tomato sauce; it contains no lead, PA, PVC or phthalates and is FDA-approved; it is made in the United States; and the packing is "green."
Acceptance was immediate, and product awards began to pour in. Within five months, the Today show flew Akabane and Wong to New York for a segment on its "big idea" feature. They also appeared on NBC.
"What is also instrumental to us in the social media," said Wong. "So many blogs embraced us, close to 100."
They created an adult version of My Plate-Mate for 8-11-inch plates in muted colors for the elderly or those with special needs. After appearances on television they see a big spike in the eldercare sales, they said, and occupational therapists recommend it.
"We got lots of calls from the generation that doesn't go online," said Akabane. "They will say, 'My husband just had a stroke.'"
One great thing about My Plate-Mate is its portability, noted the women, which makes it perfect for restaurants or grandma's house.
The initial order was for 1,500, which they funded themselves. Now they order 3,000-5,000 at a time, have recouped their investment, and have a line of credit in case they need to finance a huge order.
They said they have learned how important their multi-tasking skills are as they created and launched their product while raising their families. And they feel they are being good role models for their children.
"The kids are really excited about the experience," said Akabane. "They got to see an idea come to fruition. We were in Hawaii and my son saw it for sale and said, 'That's cool.'"
My Plate-Mate received the Mom's Best Award for spring 2009, and its Web site, www.myplate-mate.com, lists dozens of other recognitions. It is sold at stores throughout the country and the Bay Area although only locally at Bella Maison Boutique in Alamo as well as on their Web site. The suggested retail price is $6.50, but it costs $7.50 online, and $10 for the larger adult version.
"We don't want to compete with our retailers," explained Wong.
My Plate-Guard is already available in Canada, Australia and the U.K., plus the women have new partners in Benelux. Also they just found a new distributor to help the product enter more markets.
Akabane and Wong named their product development company Hatch, and hope My Plate-Mate will be just the first of quality goods that focus on independence.
"Michele and I wanted a name that embraced everything we are moms first but also that we come from a workaday world," said Akabane. "Now that our kids are in school, we have time to focus on another 'child.' Hatch: from conception to invention." For now, however, the focus is on My Plate-Mate.
"We're having fun with other ideas," Akabane added, "but this one is still in its infancy."