By Esther Keane
When the economic downturn forced Regina Bundy to search for new job opportunities, the middle school teacher came up with an idea to show students how they can help the environment.
In 2009, the Williamsburg resident invented the WormWatcher, a lockable habitat system in a bin that contains about 500 worms. The worms feed on organic kitchen waste that otherwise would end up as trash. The worms' castings - or poop - can be used as fertilizer or compost.
In January 2010, Bundy sold her first WormWatcher bin. Since then, more than 400 of the bins have been sold to educators, schools and homeschools across the country. Loudoun County Public Schools placed the largest order of 52 bins.
Bundy and her husband, Rich, operate their business, Regina Enterprises, from their home. In addition to the bins, Bundy provides what she calls worm coaching through emails she exchanges with educators or parents not comfortable with the idea of worms in their classroom or home.
WormWatcher bins, including curriculum, sell in varying prices from $325 to $420. Do-it-yourself kits can be purchased from $55 and up. They are sold through the science catalogs Nasco, Fisher, NatureWatch, through Amazon, or the WormWatcher website. The purchase comes with the worms, which are sent when the customer is ready, and email coaching that is available for 13 weeks.
"People definitely want to go green, they just need some encouraging," she said.
Rich Bundy supports the science project. Having worked at Jefferson Lab in Newport News for 19 years, he shares a passion to create products to help solve problems. The couple met in 2009 as Regina was creating the WormWatcher design. They married and he joined the business.
Regina Enterprises' next product is the Tape Genie, an invention Rich created that started selling last week on Amazon.com. The Tape Genie replaces other frustrating tape guns with an easy-to-use tape holder that can be mounted anywhere.
"Invention stems from convenience," Rich Bundy said. "You see the need and you see the answer to the need."
They financed the business through personal investment, retirement funds and business startup loans. They were able to get the WormWatcher prototyped at NorVA Plastics in Norfolk and it is now manufactured at Virginia Industrial Plastics in Harrisonburg.
The Tape Genie was prototyped at the University of Virginia but for cost reasons, it is being manufactured in China through Concord Tools.
Rich has been using his retirement to work full-time for the business, while Regina picks up various part-time teaching jobs until she can make the switch to full-time inventor and business owner.
They did all the market research independently, attending hardware shows and invention clubs and consulting SCORE - the Service Corps of Retired Executives - for small business counseling and to gain feedback for both products.
Becoming members of the Virginia Inventors Forum also helped them connect with other business owners and inventors that could help with each stage in the process. Mike Bucci, an inventor, author and the coordinator of the Richmond Inventors Club, has been a valuable adviser and mentor, the Bundys said.
The Virginia Inventors Forum also gave them the chance to be chosen for RLTV's "Second Act," a show about individuals over 50 who are starting businesses in their second phase of life.
The Bundys, the only inventors on the show, were chosen to share their story of invention and development for the Tape Genie product. The show aired April 18, in time for the release of the Tape Genie.nib
In the owners' own words
What gave you the idea to start?
Rich: It comes from a desire to have a convenience. Invention stems from convenience. A need. You see the need and you see the answer to the need.
Regina: You are solving a problem, that is the traditional definition. Inventions solve problems.
What has been the hardest part about launching the business?
Rich: The second year or so, when you realize it wasn't as easy as you thought it would be. Every day is actually walking a path.
Regina: You will have people tell you that you just have to hang in there. And that is true. We have been fortunate to have encouragement from teachers and kids. You have to persevere. You are stronger than you think but you have to persevere much longer than you think.
What is one lesson you learned that you wished you'd known before you started?
Rich: How much money it takes. When you have a dream that is big and the dollar sign is big, you have to be a business for a couple of years and contribute some of your assets to a new venture that costs something, otherwise you can't do it. WormWatcher was more expensive so that was an eye-opener but we believe that it will now start to hold its own. The Tape Genie will hold its own a lot sooner.
What is the biggest risk you took?
Regina: Launching an expensive venture without having a research department or an investor.
Rich: It happened to be that both our inventions looked to be successful but there might be other people that don't do the research. With the Tape Genie we spent a lot of money to see if people would like it. We got good reviews and we were actively looking at faces to see reactions at the hardware shows we attended.
Regina: We did that with WormWatcher too. You really have to test the market and that is one of our lessons. Get to know your market first.
What is your greatest innovation?
Regina: It's a roller coaster really and that is one thing people don't realize. When we were trying to decide which product to launch, there was no doubt that WormWatcher was making a difference and that is what helped us pick that as our passion. The quality of our work shows through our passion.
Rich: Nothing will sell unless it's quality. But I think our heart and our passion is in making it the best.
Regina: We are always improving.
Rich: I think the best innovation is that there were moments that we thought we were at a wall and then a door opened up.
How many employees do you have?
Regina: Two and a half. There is us and then we have a part-time bookkeeper. We have professionals that we hire and a lot of that is on our financial side. We have realized how valuable relationships and customers are.
Regina: An LLC.
Is the business making a profit?
Rich: No, but we have a gut feeling that we will be making a profit in the next seven months.
Regina: WormWatcher is well branded. We work at the national level with science teachers so we have done the time and budget to have it pay off. It's all about timing.
What are some of your future plans?
Rich: Really, to be able to take more time off. We both enjoy sailing and we would like to do that more.
Regina: Family. We are good about balancing but we really want to have more time to balance. For us it has been good to have diverse products because we are always moving forward so it has been good for us to be diversified. There is strength in diversity.
How are you marketing the business?
Regina: Partnering with key distributors and finding good partners. We have met with some local business groups to ask if they would reach out and let people know about our product. As a small business you have to be strategic about how you market and spend your dollars. Tape Genie launched the same time as the TV show and that will be interesting to see how it affects sales. Our past history shows that it does not affect it.
Rich: Our researchers told us that the Internet marketability is about 10 percent, TV 20 percent, and retail makes up for 70 percent. The Internet is good, but it is not the catch-all for us.
Regina: For inventions we are told to seek awards and that is what we are trying to do.