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Mullins: Have a seat for this next trend tale ... or not

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Published:   |   Updated: February 16, 2014 at 12:45 PM

The other day, I received an invitation to coffee with Dean Akers, the man who built Ideal Image into a breakout success and introduced Americans to the idea of laser-zapping every hair on their bodies.

If you see a woman (or man) smooth as a hairless cat, there’s a good chance Ideal Image, or one of its copycats, and hence Akers, was behind it. Besides, Akers is an interesting character, so I was game for coffee.

“So, Dean,” I asked, “what are you zapping next?” Man, I was not ready for his answer, and let me tell you right up front that before you read any further, you might want to be sitting down — or standing up, as the case may be.

“Take a guess what was the No. 1 procedure we did in all the time we ran Ideal Image,” Akers asked me. Being the consummate salesman, he always starts the conversation by getting the potential buyer (me) talking. “Dunno, Dean,” I said. “This is Florida, so maybe zapping everything head to toe?”

“Nope,” he said. “Women with pesky facial hairs. Women wouldn’t even tell their husbands how much they hated those mustache hairs, and no matter how bad the economy was, they paid to have those hairs removed.” (Here’s another warning to think carefully before reading further.)

“OK, so … ” I asked, “so your next venture is zapping … ?”

“Hemorrhoids,” Akers said. I put down my coffee cup. This was not the interview I expected, but Akers continued.

Yup, hemorrhoids. Technically “prolapsed” or swollen blood vessels in the lower-most digestive tract that can become so painful that people often spend thousands of dollars to have them surgically removed.

Now, bear in mind, Akers built a fortune with Ideal Image, so I was willing to hear more — albeit cautiously. (Akers was forced out of Ideal Image in a power struggle with investors, by the way, but that’s another story.) Akers figures that Ideal Image really prospered by bringing something embarrassing into the open. A couple of years ago, Akers was approached by the maker of a medical device that uses low-voltage zaps that basically damage the offending vessel and “trick” the body into re-absorbing it.

Akers was fascinated and soon found stats suggest maybe half of Americans will “suffer in silence” at some point in their lives, roughly clustered in three groups: Super-athletic teenagers, women who have just given birth, and older men and women. Tens of millions of them, by Akers’ count.

So he launched the brand HemWell America. Here, the tactics of Ideal Image and HemWell begin to diverge. Whereas Ideal Image built out retail centers, HemWell will work through doctors’ offices. Whereas Ideal Image banked on people’s vanity and ability to show off hairless skin, HemWell will focus on something many people won’t even tell their spouses.

But laser hair removal started off in the shadows, too, Akers said, and only through very extensive marketing did they bring it into the mainstream. To do the same with HemWell, Akers will work directly with doctors, who Akers says are sitting on (no pun intended) a gold mine of data — thousands of patient records. HemWell will sell them a hem-zapping machine for about $300, help comb through those patient records for likely candidates, then market to those people and handle much of the wider brand marketing under the HemWell name. Akers figures he can immediately bring in tens of thousands of dollars in new revenue to a practice.

To answer what I know is a pressing question, does it hurt? Nope, Akers said. The process does involve a one-time-use, ahem, “probe” ($80 apiece charged to the doctor) but there is no need for anesthesia like a colonoscopy, and there’s no electrifying sensation — and no, I cannot believe I am typing these words right here on my keyboard for publication in a mainstream newspaper. But Akers is persuasive and has a track record of success, so don’t count him out so fast.

A medical literature review by the University of South Florida found piles of studies that ranked the “Ultroid” machine that HemWell uses as effective in nearly all cases, with nearly zero side effects.

Dr. Chris Pittman of Tampa signed up almost immediately. He runs Vein 911, a varicose vein zapping practice, and is especially well plugged into the local medical community. Since signing up with HemWell in January, he’s treated dozens of women at local OB-GYN practices.

“There’s no preparation or anything,” he said. “You literally hold the probe on the hemorrhoid for a few minutes, and that’s it. No injections. No surgery. And most people are feeling better in 12 hours. It’s incredible.”

But is this not the mother of all marketing challenges? Will anyone get excited about the prospect of an electric probe coming at them from behind? Here’s one indication. Akers turned on a Facebook page for HemWell about 30 days ago. With no marketing whatsoever, the page already has more than 400 likes. For the voyeuristic people out there, just bring up that page on Facebook, and you’ll see if any of your Facebook friends have “liked” the page. Thanks Mark Zuckerberg! If TV is now littered with ads for drugs like Viagra and Zoloft to treat ailments not normally mentioned in mixed company, why not HemWell?

Akers has already signed up more than a half-dozen local doctors who run more than a dozen clinics from Tampa to Orlando. Later this month, they’ll be giving lectures to potential physician customers at the downtown USF CAMLS facility.

At some point, he may bring in some investors in the venture. For now, what keeps Akers going are little anecdotes like these. The other week, he was at a fancy business dinner at the University of Tampa. A group of three esteemed businessmen asked what he was up to lately (post-Ideal Image). Then, he told them about HemWell, and added “What if I told you that out of the 100 people here, at least 25 have this issue and suffer in silence, not telling anyone?” One by one, they laughed and said that number was down to 24, then 23, then 22. They all faced the issue. So Akers signed them up right there with a local doc for a HemWell treatment.

So, moving on to other less delicate matters. Here’s a few bits of news about trends in retail, restaurants and consumer issues:

Cold Storage still brewing

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears mentioning again. No, Cold Storage Brewing on Florida Avenue is not closing down. Its sign changed recently, which started people buzzing, especially because its beers, like Florida Avenue Ale, are rocketing to popularity across the Southeast. That presented founder Bruce Talcott with a problem. He originally thought Cold Storage was a good umbrella name, with variety names underneath. Buy everyone knows the company as “Florida Avenue,” since that’s the beer it makes and the street where its factory sits. So, it’s changing the name to Florida Avenue Brewing. Meanwhile, it’s growing like mad and adding more equipment. Last year, it made about 2,500 barrels of beer for bars and bottles. This year, it’s on pace for 4,000.

SideBern’s stays put

In other debunking news. SideBern’s is not closing, either. Recently, a sign appeared on the door out front that said it’s moving to the nearby Epicurean Hotel, which is a joint project with Bern’s/SideBern’s. We checked, and true to the original plan, only the wine shop is moving over to the Epicurean. SideBern’s the restaurant is staying put and will use the former wine shop area for extra space to hold events.

New way to pay

Keep your eye out for a new generation of cash registers. The payment startup Square has already become the standard gadget to process credit cards at farmers’ markets and other mobile spots. And recently it signed up Starbucks. The next generation is a design called “Stand” that looks like a Star Trek-worthy white platform, iPad atop. Customers sign the bills with their fingers and receive email receipts. I’ve started spotting them around Tampa, and Square has signed a deal with Whole Foods, so expect to see more Squares around in the future.


rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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