The Turnaround
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A stinky business
Kurt Robinson and Kevin Columbus want to get No Sweat Wipe on every basketball court in the world.
May 16, 2005: 2:01 PM EDT
By Sarah Max, CNN/Money senior staff writer
Kurt Robinson, mopping up with his invention.
Kurt Robinson, mopping up with his invention.
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SALEM, Ore. (CNN/Money) Kurt Robinson dreamed up his stinky business idea while watching a Lakers game on television.

"My roommate and I had been talking about how far the game had come," said Robinson, 41, a former college basketball player who was working as a referee and tournament organizer at the time.

Then, Shaquille O'Neal took a tumble and the ball boy rushed onto the court to wipe up his puddle of sweat with towels taped to a broomstick.

There had to be a better way, Robinson thought. That night, he started sketching designs for an apparatus that would replace the old-school method of cleaning up sweat on a basketball court.

Sweat is a serious problem when you have the likes of 340-pound Shaq running up and down the court. "Some teams send their ball boys out [to mop up sweat] after every change of possession," said Robinson.

Robinson had the idea, but he needed the contacts and business savvy of his childhood friend, Kevin Columbus.

"He came to my office with the idea, and I liked it," said Columbus, 39, a hip-hop choreographer turned entrepreneur who produces the Magic Johnson Foundation's annual celebrity basketball games.

The first prototype proved heavy and cumbersome, but there was definite potential and not just for cleaning up sweat. "What if we put advertising on the top of this thing?" said Columbus, who is now a partner in the company.

Four years and four prototypes later, the No Sweat Wipe an aluminum pole attached to a 24-inch disk with an overlay for logos or advertising on the top and a washable terrycloth pad Velcro-ed to the bottom is on its way to becoming to basketball what the Zamboni is to hockey.

Most National Basketball Association teams use it, orders are coming in from colleges and high schools, and the International Basketball Federation has signed a three-year deal. The 2006 version of ESPN's NBA Basketball video game will even feature virtual ball boys wielding virtual No Sweat Wipes.

Even so, No Sweat Wipe is still waiting for its fast break.

"Right now we're still a small business going through small business pain," said Robinson, who poured all of his savings into the idea. He works out of his two-bedroom rental in Garden Grove, Calif., during the day and supplements his start-up salary by refereeing three nights a week.

Scoring opportunity

After perfecting the prototype and filing for a patent, Robinson and Columbus went to work getting their product in the hands of NBA trainers. They also started talking to investors. To date, the company has raised $200,000 from private investors, who have a 25 percent stake in the company.

"Our goal was to start at the top with the NBA and work our way down," said Robinson, who has been giving the product to NBA teams for free. The No Sweat Wipe debuted at the Magic Johnson charity event in the summer of 2002 and was tested by the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets during the 2002 and 2003 season. Now, 25 of the 30 NBA teams use the product.

Colleges, high schools and basketball fans in the market for a No Sweat Wipe can expect to pay $525 for two devices, replacement pads, custom logos and a wash bag. Such sales help the bottom line, but the company's main source of revenue will ultimately be advertising, said Columbus.

So far, though, they have not been able to close a major advertising deal.

"None of the bigger advertisers want to spend money if you're a new company," said Robinson. "But now that we're going on our fourth year they're willing to talk to us."

An NBA licensing agreement, now being discussed, would also open doors.

For now, No Sweat Wipe can sell ads for games that are not broadcast nationally. This in-arena advertising is worth anywhere from $30,000 to $150,000 per season, per team, according to marketing research by Joyce Julius & Associates, with the company and teams sharing the revenue.

If No Sweat Wipe were able to work out a league-wide deal with the NBA, advertisers would pay a premium for national television exposure.

"I could say with a fair degree of certainty that sponsorship on No Sweat Wipe would be worth $3 million to $5 million a year in exposure value," said Eric Wright, vice president of research and development at Joyce Julius, referring to what sponsors would have to pay to get the same exposure with traditional advertising.

The company would also have dibs on ads sold on college courts, at amateur adult tournaments, even in video games.

As with any startup, the No Sweat guys must endure plenty of nervous perspiration.

"There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel," said Robinson. Instead, he threw his energy into his towel-alternative.

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