DeForest – All Paul Claas wanted to do was take the stress out of Christmas.
Yes, Christmas trees are beautiful when they’re decorated with tinsel, ornaments and strings of lights, and glowing in living rooms. But wrestling them into the house, then making sure they don’t tip over or lean like a drunken uncle, is an annual endeavor that for many families involves salty vocabulary, arguments and anguish.
But what if, Claas thought, someone made a really sturdy tree stand? A stand that could hold up a tree of any size, from a majestic conifer to a scraggly Charlie Brown sapling. Something that could be attached in a couple of minutes with no mess.
An invention that would make tipsy tannenbaums straight as arrows.
Oh, and feature a free-standing bucket to hold enough water that no Christmas tree would ever become dehydrated.
So Claas built one. He got a patent. He contracted with companies not far from his DeForest home to build 250 stands. He got a website. He paid for an ad in a religious magazine with a Midwest circulation of 450,000. He figured as soon as he sold the first batch, he’d order another 250 stands.
And then he sat back anticipating all the orders.
No phone calls. No emails. No orders online. Zip.
“I’m thinking, what if one person out of 3,000 buys one? That would be 150 stands. Know how many I sold? None,” said Claas, 63, as he sat at his kitchen table this week.
After a couple of weeks, Claas realized he wasn’t going to get rich off his incredibly sturdy, well-built tree stands. He managed to sell a couple on eBay and through word-of-mouth.
But it’s not enough to build a better mousetrap. You need better mousetrap buyers, or in Claas’ case, people who didn’t mind shelling out more than 100 bucks for a contraption that straightens up slouching Christmas trees.
“By the first week of December I knew pretty well it was over with. I said, ‘Well, I gave it a shot.’ I knew I was going to lose money, but I didn’t feel bad,” said Claas, who has owned a company that buys, sells and refurbishes Mack trucks for several decades.
‘A fussy fellow’
That was in 2010.
After advertising in the magazine, he still had more than 200 of his stands in his garage. His cost was $84 each plus an hour to assemble each one.
He contracted with Wisco Industries and All-Color Powder Coating in Oregon, Wis., to make the parts. Cate Machine & Welding in Belleville handled the machining of the adjusting screws and brass work. Shipping boxes were purchased from ABC Box Co. in Brookfield. He bought the 24-quart water buckets and water faucet knobs from a local supplier.
Sure, he could have made the tree stands more cheaply. But that’s not his way. A gear head and tinkerer, Claas wanted them to be high quality.
An acquaintance sent one of his tree stands to a company in China to replicate, but the stand broke before Claas pulled it out of the shipping box.
“So that was the end of China,” Claas said. “I’m kind of a fussy fellow. I want it to be right.”
Fed up with his tree stand venture, he sold his inventory to a neighbor, including 50 stands in boxes and an additional 70 stands that still needed assembling. Then a Wisconsin State Journal reporter bought a stand last year and interviewed Claas. The story sparked a surge in sales. But still quite a few were left. Earlier this year, Claas decided to buy back the inventory from his neighbor.
So he’s back in the tree stand business, advertising his wares through his website –premierchristmastreestand.com – by word-of-mouth and by selling them through the Bruce Co., a landscaping firm in Middleton. He tried marketing through Google but gave up when he was charged $1.20 each time someone clicked on an ad that led to his website, “which would be fine if every fifth person bought one,” he said.
His tree stands cost $130 plus shipping and handling. That’s quite a bit more than regular stands, but some folks are willing to pay more for a quality product, especially if it does just what it’s billed to do, Claas said.
Some customers find him by trolling the Web or typing “Christmas tree stand” in YouTube and watching a video of Claas setting up his stand. That’s how Wendell Olson found him. Olson sells 500 to 700 Christmas trees each year from a lot in Devils Lake, N.D., near the Canadian border.
“They’re fantastic, they’re the best thing in the world,” said Olson, who bought 20 stands from Claas and resold them at his tree lot. “They’re sturdy. I’ve got a 15-foot tree on mine.”
After Mike Patton’s evergreen toppled over last year, breaking heirloom ornaments, his wife got so annoyed with their tree stand she got on the web and discovered Claas. He shipped one to their home in Bakersfield, Calif., and Patton used it for their 9-foot Douglas fir.
“I’ve got three small dogs. I don’t have to worry about them running into it and knocking it over. To me it was worth the money,” Patton said in a phone interview. “When you amortize it over 10 years, I think you’re talking about a stand that you spent $10 for.”
David D’Orazio bought five stands last year, for himself and his four children. This year he bought 10 more to give as gifts and sell to customers and relatives. D’Orazio, owner of Capital City Cleaning & Supply in Madison, was sick of crawling underneath his Christmas trees and laboriously tightening thumb screws.
The big balsam fir he bought this year – he had to lop 9 inches off the top to fit it beneath his 9-foot-high ceiling – is snug and anchored.
“My wife picked out a huge tree with a 5½-inch base. It took three guys to bring it out to the car. That thing is in the stand and it’s secure,” said D’Orazio.
Until they’re gone
Chastened by his experience, but still believing in his product – Claas has spent about $30,000 plus thousands of hours – Claas figures he’ll stay in business until he sells out the last of his 250 stands. He’s tempted to have more tree stands manufactured and sell them through Amazon, but he doesn’t want to spend all the time for assembly of the 41 parts, or hire someone because of quality control issues.
“You’ve heard these stories that you can have a great idea, or the best thing in the world, and still not get it to market. Then there are people who come up with a good idea and make millions,” said Claas, who figures he’ll be in the tree stand business for another year, judging by the number of stands left in inventory.
“Yes, it would be nice to make some money off of this. But there’s some satisfaction knowing that I designed something that helps take the stress out of Christmas time.”
This article originally appeared on jsonline.com and was written by Meg Jones. To see the original article please click here.