Steve Abbit has had a busy couple of years doing things that most people might find hard to imagine doing.
When the longtime Ahwatukee resident wasn’t on the phone at all hours of the day and night lining up nine different companies around the nation and the world to execute his vision, he was grappling with metal cylinders, plastic molds and cardboard boxes.
That all this activity started with a bottle of Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce is startling enough.
But when you know what this activity created – and the potential Abbit sees in it – you could easily end up thinking, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Abbit has invented the mother of all funnels.
Christened Freestand, it’s an adjustable funnel that fits just about any bottle, jar, can or other liquid container.
Its purpose is simple: draining every last drop of liquid from those containers without having to shake them, spank them or even hold them.
Freestand’s applications – and market potential – appear endless.
It can drain bottles, jars and other containers that hold almost anything you can pour: ketchup and barbecue sauce, moisturizer and other liquid cosmetics, detergent and dish soap, even motor oil and the containers baristas pour flavored syrups from.
“There are guys out there who want to use this for transmission fluid and brake fluid and very expensive motor oils and things like that,” he said.
“I’ve got friends who are race car drivers and spend $98 a quart for some of their fluids and now you start thinking about this: If they waste 20 percent on average of all fluids that come out of bottles and it’s 100 bucks a quart, that adds up.”
Abbit believes he can convince the Jiffy Lubes, Starbucks and Mary Kays of the world to see that his product can save them big bucks in product costs and worker time.
Freestand is not all about dollars and cents for Abbit, a retired psychologist and corporate consultant who, at 50, has paved a new career path.
“I’ve made a lot of companies a lot of money and I don’t want to do that anymore,” said Abbit, who helped launch the IPO for Lifelock, the identity-protection service.
“I want to help you and me,” he explained. “I want to save us money. I want to save our environment. I don’t want to do corporate anymore. … It’s bureaucratic and there’s lots of red tape and lots of politics and I just don’t want that. I want to feel good about what I do.”
Abbit figures Freestand can help save the planet – and even some marriages.
His research has discovered that 26 percent of couples “fight about getting the last drop” out of one container or another.
“Then there are those people who are cutters,” Abbit said. “They just cut open bottles and they scoop it out. Well, 14 percent of the time, those people wind up in the hospital.”
As for the environment, he cites data indicating that every one of the approximate 79.2 million families in America uses 150 plastic food, cosmetic and other containers annually.
If every family had Freestand, he reasons, “Americans could save 3.6 billion plastic bottles from ending up in landfills” while saving $250 to $400 per year buying new containers of ketchup, motor oil, makeup and whatever else replace before every last drop is gone.
Every step Abbit took to develop the $29.99 Freestand involved painstaking, methodical and sometimes frustrating hours as he assembled a small army of independent contractors to give birth to his baby.
And it really did start with a bottle of Baby Ray’s.
He was barbecuing chicken on his lakefront patio in Lakewood when he started pounding the bottom of the upside-down bottle, then finally laid it against another bottle in an effort to drain the remnants.
“I’m thinking to myself, man, I have done this like a thousand times and it falls over and I started thinking, ‘How many people experience this?’”
Abbit got on Google and Ebay, looking in vain for something that would save him the time-consuming – and somewhat tiresome – task of slapping container bottoms or just holding one upside-down to drain the contents.
Then, he started doodling on napkins, sketching designs for the device he couldn’t find online.
It took him 18 months to find and coordinate the nine companies he hired for different aspects of the protyping and manufacturing that produced Freestand.
Abbit’s baby has three aluminum, telescopic legs that lock in place at three different lengths that hold a high-density polyethylene funnel. Two detachable narrow arms made with the same polyethylene can be snapped into the funnel rim to hold any container upright as it drains away.
The polyethylene is BPA-free, free of the cancer-causing chemicals found in lower-grade plastic.
“I’m totally over-engineered,” he said. “It’s made to last forever and that was really what I wanted.”
“Every single piece of this is recyclable, including the box,” he added.
In addition, there are disposable funnel liners. Each box comes with 15 and when someone runs out, they can just go on myfreestand.com and order another 15 without charge – for as long as they want.
Each piece of Abbit’s invention took many trials and errors to refine during a process that included two engineers – one that helped him work out the structure of his device and a box engineer.
“I’ve been through probably four or five different iterations,” Abbit explained. “The first iteration was a catastrophe. It was a major failure. I probably hit a thousand reasons why I should have stopped.”
“But I knew I could get there if I just kept going. It’s like the light bulb, right? There are 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb. So, I came up with 1,500 ways not to make Freestand.”
He worked with protypes made on a 3D printer in Florida and then with Moldworx, a Gilbert injection-molding company, to advise him on pricing the molds used to produce the parts.
The legs were particularly challenging.
“I probably interviewed 20 companies that make these legs,” he recalled.
“I researched all kinds of different telescoping mechanisms and I wanted something that locked because what I didn’t want to have happen is have somebody put a container up there and it slides down,” he explained.
In his early designs, he used plastic legs – but they collapsed. He finally settled on aluminum legs with stainless steel nubs that lock into place.
He spent months calling companies to get manufacturers on board.
Because domestic manufacturers would have forced him to set too high a price for his product, Abbit found two overseas companies – one that made the legs with the other to make the molds and the plastic parts.
That meant calls in the middle of the night because of time zone differences as well as overcoming language barriers.
“I’m on the phone overseas and with my engineers here at all hours of the night,” he recalled.
Concerned that his idea would be stolen, Abbit also decided to have separate overseas companies each manufacture a different component. He has a patent pending, but the process takes two years.
“One company makes the legs – they know nothing about the bodies and the arms. Another company makes the body and arms – they know nothing about the legs. Then I have a third company to do all my boxes. …So, no company has all the parts to put it all together.”
They also signed nondisclosure agreements to ensure against leaks.
A separate overseas company prints the boxes – designed by a Midwest firm – and another makes and shrink-wraps the funnel liners. Then there’s a separate company that puts all the pieces together in the box. Abbit handles the shipping himself.
Eventually, Abbit said, “I introduced them to each other right at the end because I wanted everybody to be a family.”
Looking over all the companies he enlisted to protoype, manufacturer and ship Freestands, Abbit said he likes that they are mostly freelancers or mom-and-pop companies.
”I like knowing that when I pay them, it supports them, that it goes to them and their family. It’s not a huge company that’s going to keep their lights on and pay for their electric bill,” he explained. “I just feel closer to supporting a local business.”
Two days before Thanksgiving, Abbit got his first Freestand shipment at the warehouse a friend loaned him for storage.
Eighteen pallets with 5,000 Freestands were waiting for him.
And even though Abbit and his wife were planning to host 71 people for the holiday in two days, he was “in the warehouse with the pallet jack.”
“I’m pushing pallets around and I’m stacking stuff,” he said, “and I’m thinking, ‘It’s awesome. It’s awesome.’”
He puts a personal touch on each order.
“I put my business card in the box and I put a handwritten note in it,” he said, adding that he often includes an envelope with an extra 15 funnel liners as “just my way of saying thanks for helping us get started.”
Abbit feels like he’s just getting started as he plunges into marketing his invention.
While working every social media angle, he’s formulating approaches to the companies he thinks should consider Freestand.
With Starbucks’ flavoring syrups alone, he said, “they save instantly over $8 million,” he said.
Then there’s makeup.
“You know what the number one complaint of all cosmetics users?” he asked. “It’s not that it’s too expensive. It’s not that it’s too oily. It’s not that it’s too hard to find in the store. Number one complaint: they throw a lot away…Women throw away 25 percent of their cosmetics because they can’t get the last drops. That’s a lot.
“So, imagine I walk into Neutrogena or Mary Kay and I say: ‘I know that you can’t change your bottles. You invest millions of dollars in gorgeous bottles that sell, that look beautiful, that women want to leave out on their counters because they look pretty. You shouldn’t have to change your bottles.”
“But the number one complaint from all of your customers is they can’t get the product. They can’t get the last drops and they want to.
“’So, you know how about I make for you a Mary Kay pink Freestand and you give that away to every single customer who spends more than $100 or $150 whatever?’”
He looks forward to such encounters.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said, “but quite honestly, the journey is beginning now. It’s mind boggling. Now I turn the corner and I’m like, ‘Okay, Steve, it’s here. Time to put on your marketing and selling hat.’ And so, it’s a whole new journey for me. It’s pretty exciting.”