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THE MAN BEHIND THE SMART STEP LADDER

 

My name is Donald Freeman and I am an electrician by trade and started my own electrical company in June 1990. I did the electrical contracting for Natal University campus as well Natal University Medical school. The lecture theatre's are in abundance, and I am sure when the architect designed the lighting positions, he had it in for the poor guy trying to repair the light's or change the lamps. I needed a ladder that could work on stairs and there was nothing around at all. I proceeded to take my old wooden step ladder and convert it into a ladder for stairs by means of two short wooden planks, secured by G clamps. Not the NOSA or HSE route, but this allowed me the ease of being able to install new fittings in the lecture room, purely by moving from light to light. I now had a ladder that could work on stairs, but certainly not the way to use a ladder. I often encountered the problem of not having the right size ladder for a job, carrying a six and eight foot ladder, a 10 or 12 foot ladder was also required. This meant driving around with so many step ladders on the roof of a vehicle and because they are stacked on top of each other, guess where the long one is, at the bottom of course, so one is forever taking ladders on and off the roof carrier, in order to have the correct size. Try taking a 10 or 12 foot ladder in a lift when you need to get to the 23rd floor, enjoy the walk up the stairs. One thing led to another, I approached an architect to draw up some designs for me. They were complicated and advanced and probably would never have worked due to the cost and complexity of the product. Nonetheless, I approached the only two ladder manufacturers in South Africa, in 1991. One would not sign a non disclosure agreement, the other proceeded to tell me that this will never work, had been tried before and why would a ladder manufacturer want to sell a single ladder that replaces 6 ladders. I found out later in life that ladder manufacturers have a heart attack when they see my ladder for exactly the same reason our South African friends had mentioned.

   
 

I left Johannesburg rather despondent, but thought that I will never ever give up. In 1992, I had my first working sample that had been made up, a weird looking ladder with round tubes for legs etc. This is the ladder or contraption that Engineering News did the write up for me. I proceeded to modify the ladder for the rear section and came up with the square tubing with interlocking pins. I used this ladder for many years, locked to my roof carrier, in order to prevent theft. I had tried to find investors and that was extremely difficult. I cannot tell you how many people I approached for funding. I felt like Col. Sanders from Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everyone loved the idea but interest rates were high in 1997/1998 and money was tight. I shelved the project for a while, but kept my ear to the ground for possibilities. In 2001, I went over to the USA and lived in Dallas (TX) where I looked at ladders and still could not find anything like mine.

I returned to South Africa in 2002 and tried again. Lady luck helped me out for a short period of time. I found some investors and we proceeded to make an excellent ladder, too good in fact and way over engineered, but a really good ladder. I was in a lot of newspapers, Sunday Times Business, Natal Mercury, Natal witness etc.

I was involved with Willie Van Straaten(Former CEO of VERIMARK), Brian Steinhobel, a top designer featured on Carte Blanche. One will notice that the company logo for Smartstep has a duck carrying a ladder, that became the logo, due to the fact that my investors paid tribute to me for my invention, hence Donald Duck carrying his ladder, a wonderful gesture and people love the animation. Our problem was still financial, and as the ladders cost a lot to manufacture, we could only afford to make 100 ladders at a time. We approached Castor and Ladder, to see if they would like to manufacture the ladder on a royalty basis. They made a ladder, which was nowhere nearly as good as ours, and it took them such a long time to get their act together. They had no marketing drive, no vision. We cancelled the contract and my two investors pulled out completely. I retained the patent in my name. I was approached by the Argent Group in 2007 who loved the ladder, but were not ladder manufacturers and wanted to purchase the patent and were hoping to acquire a ladder manufacturing company in order to proceed with the ladder. I decided not to drop my price and the deal fell through.

Donald Freeman (Smart Step Ladder)

Donald Freeman (Smartstep Creator and Owner)
 


They had indicated to me that they would be interested if they could purchase a ladder manufacturing concern. I continued my quest for investors and found out that Argent had bought Castor and ladder/ Paint and Ladder. I called Marc Allen from Argent and asked him if he still had an interest in the Smartstep ladder. He did indeed, and told me to approach the same people in Pretoria that I had originally spoke to. No drive, no vision, was my first thought and I left it at that, to pursue my investor search. In October 2008, I had a meeting with a possible investor who did not extend the courtesy of returning phone calls, but I knew what changes were required to make the ladder more affordable and easier to manufacture and he instructed me to sort that out for him. I really should thank him, because the ladder is where it is today due to that action. Alsysco, a division of Euro Steel has a director by the name of Brad Pepper, who used to supply our metal through Wispeco when he worked there, had seen me at Virgin Active and we started chatting. I told him what I needed and he introduced me to a company called Extreme Manufacture in Dec 2008, who could manufacture the plastic components required. They told me to go away and come back in February 2009 as they were busy completing other projects. My supposed investor was a waste of time, and come Feb 2009, I went back to Extreme Manufacture to see what could be done. I approached them about investing in the ladder, and I am the first person to be involved with them. New design and tooling, moulds changes all take time. We completed the ladder toward the end of 2009 and decided to wait for 2010.

March 2010, I sent an email to Riaan from DIY met Riaan(Die Nutsman) and asked if he would put the ladder on TV. The answer was yes, because he loves the ladder and wanted to try help me fulfil my dream. I have just done a TV shoot with him on Tuesday 8th June for the television show, (DIY met Riaan) I am also involved with the Euro Steel group (Alsysco) who are supplying all the metal for the ladder. I finally have the right product at the right price for the end user. I am trying to create as much exposure as I possibly can, with all the help I can possibly get, in order to fulfil my dream and hopefully enrich the lives of others at the same time.

I thank you most kindly for your consideration and time and I really do appreciate it, ever so much.

Donald Freeman

 

PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CONTACT US FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, QUERIES AND ORDERS ON:

Contact Person: Adrian Gardner

Cell: 082 375 3280

Tel: 011 326 4146

Fax: 011 781 4392

Email: adriang@lantic.net

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