The Soloflex Story
Soloflex revolutioned the home fitness industry with the introduction of the Soloflex Muscle Machine in 1978.
I have been urged by friends to blog about the beginning of Soloflex. They have insisted there are many of you out there who would enjoy the story, or at least parts of the story. I find it interesting but then again, I lived it.
My first memory of Soloflex began when Jerry, my husband, started looking high and low for a home weight lifting machine. He had me on the look-out for anything that was similar to a Universal machine but one that was small enough for a home and cheap enough so we could afford one. There just wasn’t anything like that so he decided to try his hand at designing just what he wanted.
Jerry was a jet charter pilot at the time and we lived in Las Vegas. Jerry started obsessing about this and drew possible designs everywhere, mostly on napkins when he was on charter trips. He did come up with his design but only after speaking with a lot of serious weight lifters to get their prospective on weight machines. They all told him they much preferred free weights and explained to him why. One very important point was the bar must be “free.” This makes one’s weaker side work harder to balance the body’s symmetry. Thus Jerry incorporated a “floating” lever arm, not fixed. The result was a machine that later obtained the endorsement of Arnold Schwartenagger. Arnold said it was just like lifting a free weight bar.
For Jerry another big consideration was safety. When you lift free weights you should always have a spotter in case you get into a jam like being pinned down by the bar. With his design, Jerry built in safety. The bar can’t fall on you thus no spotter needed. His machine was the best of machines and the best of free weights.
So now he had the mechanics done. The only problem he was stuck on was the resistance. What could he use? He built his home weight lifting machine in our garage and showed it to our neighbor who was an architect. He recommended a lighter, thinner wall steel. Seems Jerry had built a machine that could easily lift a car! It looked good-it worked good but the means of resistance was still a puzzle. In the middle of the night one night he woke me to announce he had it! He felt sure bungee cords like he had put on his little airplane landing gear would work great. Sure enough they did.
Now to sell some. We placed an ad in the Las Vegas Nifty Nickel. And he sold one to everyone who answered the ad. Jerry made all these first machines himself with the help of a very kind man named Arthur Curtis. Mr. Curtis owned a steel distributorship in Las Vegas and he let Jerry use his welding equipment and offered his experience. Jerry bought some welding equipment and a steel saw and began building the first Soloflex machines in our garage.
Jerry applied for a patent in 1976. By 1978 we were in El Paso trying to get this Soloflex thing off the ground. In that same year we excitedly flew to Las Vegas to pick up his newly issued patent.
We contracted with a company in El Paso to build 100 Soloflex machines. And we moved to Roswell, New Mexico, our home town. We decided Roswell would be a good place to start our new business because rent was cheap and grandparents could help us with our 4 kids.
We rented a small office and placed a regional ad in Playboy. Things didn’t go so well. The phone company had given us the wrong 800# so no one could call us and the 100 machines came out awful. We went to El Paso and worked on these machines till we salvaged 80. Then we ran another ad with the correct 800# and we sold all 80 machines. ( One guy wrote to ask if we had torn the porch decking off old adobes to serve as benches! Ouch!)
It had become clear we had no choice but to manufacture the Soloflex ourselves so we began in the garage (again!). Jerry hired some work release prisoners to help us. It was a struggle but we were able (barely) to keep up with orders. After a few months we rented the veterinary hospital at an old deserted air force base there in Roswell to manufacture our machines. Things went so much smoother. Almost any place is better than a garage. We hired more people. Jerrry and I worked in the factory in the evenings and week-ends. I washed steel, drilled holes in the spline and packaged the machines for shipping. This is when we placed our first ad in Sports Illustrated. Things really took off! We were on the phone non-stop. We would stay till midnight and still each morning there were hours of recorded messages from people wanting a free brochure or to place an order. We worked on making newer and better brochures and ads. You need to understand, these were things we had never done before, like creating brochures and ads and running a manufacturing plant. Thank goodness we had such an awesome product. It saved us time and again from many mistakes.
The orders were coming in so fast we couldn’t keep up with demand. The shop couldn’t keep up. One day Jerry shot the time clock off the wall. He put everyone on a quota and when they had their quota done they could go home. Within a week they met an even higher quota and were going home by 11:00. Within a few more weeks production had gone from 8 a day to 48 with the same number of people. They received raises all along the process to match their increased production.
In early 1980 we flew to New York City to talk to an advertising agency. When we got there we were told the agency did not want our business because our ad budget was too small. But 3 of their employees wanted to work on our ads and brochures.
In the summer of 1980 we moved to Hillsboro, Oregon (outside Portland) because we were having a hard time getting technical support for our business machines and purchasing our raw materials. Roswell is an isolated little town in southeast New Mexico. The closest town of any size was at least 200 miles. Our new ads hit right after we got our office and shop set up in a rented space in Hillsboro. These were the professionally done ads and they just bombed! We went to the bank for another loan and to our pleasant surprise, they gave us one. Jerry re-worked those ads and we were able to change some of the ads appearing in the magazines. It was truly touch and go but when Jerry’s ads played the calls came pouring in. Thank goodness for Jerry’s skill as an ad man.
When we decided to move from Roswell we invited our employees to move with us. Most did. We all drove up to Oregon in a big caravan meeting each night at a motel we had made prior reservations at for all the crowd. We loaded all our shop equipment like saws and welding equipment and spot welded them to our flat bed truck. At one weigh station we were told we were over-weight and had to rent another truck and re-load everything. What a mess!
Incidentally, we chose Oregon because it is so beautiful and we chose Hillsboro because it had a nice little airport. Jerry has to be close to an airport.
Anyway, we made it to Hillsboro and we did pretty good. We paid back the bank and in 1983 we bought our own land and built our own office and factory.
Lots of stories. Will share more.