Bikes, Sir Branson and Ten Million Views

Craig Ridenhour’s business start-up began small, with conversations in a Phoenix doctor’s office seven years ago. But it took a turn for the big time last week when StairCycle Innovations was named winner of the Yahoo! Search Marketing “Think Big” contest for small entrepreneurs. Between national press interviews, photo ops in Times Square with Sir Richard Branson– who judged the final round of contestants picked from 8,000 applicants– and the award of 10 million free ad impressions across the Yahoo! network, “It was the craziest day of my life, and the best,” says Ridenhour.

Ridenhour’s business was selected from among 8,000 contestants by small-business experts at Yahoo!, which used the contest both to promote its benefits to small business and to publicize its name change from Yahoo! Overture. Branson, the founder and CEO of the Virgin Group, chose StairCycle from a group of finalists and said he was impressed by the company’s “inventive product and entrepreneurial spirit.”

Ridenhour, who has worked for years as a cardiogram ultrasound specialist, got the notion for the StairCycle from talking fitness with patients during the sometimes long cardiogram scanning process. A self-professed “exercise nut”, he says they told him how inconvenient and boring it was to go to the gym and wait in line to use the machines. At the same time, few people could afford a home version of his exercise of choice, the stair climber.

“One day, the idea just popped into my mind: Why not make my favorite exercise mobile?” he says. “You mix stair climbing with lifting weights, and you can eat anything you want.”

Ridenhour hooked up with a designer in Phoenix to make his ideas real, and they came up with a product that looks like a low-slung bicycle with no seat and stair-climber paddles instead of pedals. The company offers two basic sizes of cycle in a choice of colors, along with add-ons such as a stand for using the cycle indoors on rainy days.

Once the design was patented in 2003, Ridenhour went looking for a manufacturer and started to put together a marketing plan in 2004. That plan, arrived at with a business partner who had experience in medical manufacturing, had two components from the start. “We decided to keep it direct ad do business over the Web where possible, to eliminate one cost mark-up to the end consumer,” he says. “The other was to make it visual, with infomercials, 30-second and 60-second spots along the lines of BowFlex’s direct marketing. The product is very visual, and when people see you ride it, they’re going to go hit your Web site.”

Winning the Yahoo! competition will be a big leg up on the first half of this marketing plan, Ridenhour says. As part of his prize, StairCycle will get the benefit of a Yahoo! Search marketing advisory team, which will help him develop an online marketing campaign including paid search, contextual ads and graphical ads.

That help will most likely involve planning a portfolio of about 400 keywords and then managing the bids to make sure those terms produce a workable return on investment, says Todd Daum, vice president of marketing for Yahoo! Search Marketing. “We’re helping him assemble a set of keywords ranging from broad terms that may have high volumes, all the way down to more specific keywords that may have lower volumes but better conversions.” Depending on the content of that keyword portfolio, Ridenhour may hit 10 million impressions on the Yahoo! network in anywhere from three weeks to two months, Daum says.

“I’m still learning, but I can already see that it’s the perfect first part of a two-part business plan to get this product rolling,” says Ridenhour. (Part two, the infomercial, is still in the capital-raising stage.) And while the personalized search consulting that’s part of his award from Yahoo! will be a helpful quick start, Ridenhour says that he could probably have come up with a keyword campaign on his own, given the level of automation and first-timer training available on the Yahoo! Search Marketing platform.

Ridenhour has already switched StairCycle’s Web site over to a Yahoo! Merchant platform, replacing the PayPal account that he says served well at the launch but “tends to scare people.” That Web site also contains a three-minute video of the StairCycle in use, which is crucial to sales. “When people see the cycle working and moving, a lot of them have just ordered it right away,” he says. Price point for the full-sized model is $795.

That level of consumer interest might actually work against selling StairCycle through retail channels in bike shops, where dealers— mostly independent mom-and-pops—might not be willing to handle the number of tire-kickers, Ridenhour says. The online channel, together with a ten-minute video shown two or three times on TV, is more likely to produce volume sales.

The months to come might also see StairCycle opening online shops on sites such as eBay or Yahoo! Shopping, and perhaps working with shopping comparison engines. And yes, search marketing on Google too is probably in his company’s future. “The more exposure, the better,” he says. “This has been the perfect opportunity to develop and test the online marketing part of my business plan, and I couldn’t ask for a better partner. So if that plan works well, of course we’ll feel like expanding it to reach other markets.”

After all, Ridenhour says, not everybody using the Web goes through Yahoo! Search. “Although of course I always have,” he adds.

What was he doing when he found out about the Yahoo! Search marketing award? “Scanning patients,” he says. “That’s what I do every day. I was dumbfounded when I got the call. I work for a prominent heart surgeon here who’s used to me coming and going on StairCycle business. When he learned the news, he asked when I was leaving again. I told him, ‘Give me some investment capital and I’m gone.’”

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