John Singleton got the idea for his business, Valve Boss, because his customers wanted a more flexible solution to opening and shutting wastewater valves, but there wasn’t a portable product available.
Singleton’s employer at the time, Wilson Supplies, sold an electric valve actuator, an electric motor that was permanently bolted to the valve, he said. The devices cost around $4,000, and plants have anywhere from 20 to 40 of the valves. So plants either went all the way, installing wiring and conduit for each device, or workers had to go through the laborious process of opening and closing the valves by hand.
“I’m like, ‘There’s got to be something in between,’” said Singleton, of Livingston.
Singleton, who said he’s always been a bit of a “gearhead,” decided to make a device that could be easily moved from valve to valve. He wanted the machine to be light enough so that a single person could operate it. Fortunately for Singleton, Honda made a very light, miniature 4-stroke engine that runs in any position, even upside down.
He began building the prototype in 2005 and used his contacts in the water industry to test the device.
Singleton took his device to a plant in Lockport where a friend took one look at the machine and nearly changed his mind about serving as the test site. The first thing his friend asked was whether the device was safe to use, Singleton said.
Singleton said the machine was safe — but it was also a failure.
So he returned to the drawing board and changed the gearing. A few months later, Singleton returned to Lockport, tested the device and it worked well.
“At that point and time, I said, ‘I think I’ve got something that’s marketable,” Singleton said.
The problem was the market for the Valve Boss — wastewater and sewer treatment plants — is limited.
Singleton might never have gone into business full time if a worker in St. Charles Parish’s water company hadn’t seen the device and asked about it.
Singleton said he didn’t know much about water distribution systems then.
He had always looked at water systems from a residential perspective: There’s a little valve out by the street, and a person can buy a wrench at a hardware store if he needs to turn the water off to the house.
But those aren’t the only valves in the water system, Singleton said. Baton Rouge Water Co. has valves in its main water distribution lines that are up to 36 inches in diameter, big enough that a man can crawl through them.
The American Water Works Association recommends that all distribution valves be exercised, or opened and closed, on a periodic basis to maintain their reliability. If possible, the valves should be exercised on an annual basis, according to the association.
“Well, if you have 20 or 30 valves that wouldn’t be a big deal,” Singleton said.
But a water system can easily include thousands of valves, Singleton said. Alexandria has around 9,000 valves in its water system; Atlanta has somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000.
Opening and closing those valves can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, Singleton said. A 6-inch valve takes 21 turns to close and 21 more to open.
As the valve’s size increases, so does the number of turns required to operate it, and it’s not a linear progression, Singleton said. A 36-inch valve takes 540 revolutions to close and the same number to reopen. That’s hours of work for one person.
“It’ll just wear a man out,” Singleton said.
So can starting a business.
Singleton began selling the Valve Boss in 2006. But he didn’t quit his day job until the end of 2011.
He spent that time lining up reliable suppliers for the device’s parts, engineering and re-engineering the Valve Boss’s components, working out a business plan and seeking lots of advice.
Singleton said he has sought advice and help from a variety of groups, including the Louisiana Business and Technology Center, which helped him with his business plan, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and Louisiana’s economic development department.
But for the most part, those groups haven’t really had the answers he needed, Singleton said.
He did find some answers in Startup Weekend, one of the opening events of Baton Rouge Entrepreneurship Week in 2011. Singleton said the experience was huge because he met William Davidson, owner of Hybrid Racing in Baton Rouge.
Davidson, one of the mentors at Startup Weekend, turned Singleton on to mfg.com, a site that helps manufacturers connect with suppliers. Meeting Davidson saved him thousands of dollars, Singleton said.
Eventually, Singleton settled on seven domestic companies for the 75 components in the Valve Boss, he said. It takes around an hour to assemble the machine, and that work is done entirely by Singleton or his son.
“I’ve learned over the years it’s very easy to make mistakes that will affect the quality and the performance of that machine,” Singleton said.
That’s one reason Singleton said the assembly work will always be kept in-house.
Singleton said lowering production costs remains an ongoing challenge, particularly since he wants to have as many of the components as possible to be made in the United States.
But getting his device to distributors is the key to Valve Boss’s success, Singleton said. The company recently set up a representative in Ontario, Canada, and now has 10 dealers overall.
Valve Boss has customers in 27 states and Canada.
Last year Valve Boss sold 89 of the devices, enough to reach six figures in revenue. But Singleton jokes that he took a 50 percent pay cut because he spent twice as many hours working for himself than he did in his old job. He expects to double sales in 2013 and projects a similar increase in 2014.
Originally, Singleton tried targeting different water organizations, but he found that was a tough sell.
His goal now is to focus on selling to dealers, rather than selling the machine, Singleton said.
“A one-man organization can’t sell enough to make a living,” he said. “What you have to have is some sort of distribution network. You have to have other people selling your product for you.”
Singleton, who is 58, described himself as “kind of a late bloomer.”
But so was one of his heroes, Ray Kroc, who turned McDonald’s into a national chain, Singleton said. If it hadn’t been for Kroc’s entrepreneurial efforts, McDonald’s would just be in San Bernadino, Calif., the home of the original restaurant, Singleton noted.