From tiny start, Austin mat maker becomes industry power

Aug. 01--After installing a new tile floor in their kitchen, Robb and Lisa McMahon realized there was a problem.

"I love cooking, but standing on that tile for any extended period of time made my legs and back hurt," Lisa McMahan said. "I told Robb, 'This floor looks great, but it's killing me.'"

They tried using various foam floor mats, but the mats were cheaply made, had an unpleasant rubber odor and did little to relieve pain.

For Robb McMahan, an engineer who previously designed wheelchairs and hospital beds for a medical device company, creating a better mat became an obsession.

"We wanted to come up with something that looked good, didn't smell and actually lasted years instead of months," he said.

The result -- gel-filled, anti-fatigue floor mats that absorb shock and reduce pressure that tires the feet, legs and back -- became the flagship product of the McMahan's fast-growing Austin company, Let's Gel Inc.

Today, the 11-year-old company sells its products at specialty stores across the country and through national retailers including Bed Bath & Beyond, Target.com, Staples.com and Amazon. Prices for the mats, which are sold under the name GelPro, typically range from $99 for a three-foot mat to $199 for a six-foot mat.

At Faraday's Kitchen Store in Bee Cave, GelPro mats have been a top seller for several years, said owner Tony Curtis-Wellings.

"We put the mat in front of the register, and when people check out they stand on it and say 'Wow, what is this?' " he said. "It's really the gel inside of the mat itself. It's just soothing, you feel at ease."

Now the company -- which has already sold more than 2 million mats -- is getting ready for a wave of expansion. Its retail business got a boost this year through a deal to expand its partnership Bed Bath & Beyond, which will allow shoppers to custom-design mats, choosing from hundreds of colors and patterns. In addition, the company will begin selling mats at Wal-Mart stores in China this month.

Let's Gel has also branched into new markets, with workplace mats for stand-up desks and assembly lines, along with a product line for the health care industry, including surgical booties, floor mats for operating rooms and head and neck rests for medical procedures.

"Any situation where someone is tethered -- at the kitchen sink, behind a desk, on an assembly line or in the operating room -- there's a need for an anti-fatigue mat," said Mark Benden, director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center. "GelPro is really the leader in the industry because they've got the top-shelf stuff. They make quality products that last."

To break into more new markets, the company in December purchased a 64,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Waco, which will allow it to move from a third-party manufacturer.

"This lets us be in control of our own destiny and control the quality," Robb McMahan said. "We can add new ergonomic comfort-related products like pillows, mattresses and mattress toppers, and we may eventually spin out whole companies."

The company, which has raised $975,000 from friends, has 22 employees at its headquarters off Metric Boulevard in North Austin, and about 40 in Waco, with plans to expand in both locations in 2016.

The privately held company doesn't release sales information, but the McMahans say it is profitable.

In a business where you can land a huge contract from a major retailer one year, only to have it not be renewed the next, predicting the company's future financial performance can be difficult, Robb McMahan said.

"Most companies grow in a linear fashion," he said. "But when you add major retail partners at 1,000-plus stores at a time, it's very different. Growing in big chunks is a challenge."

Robb McMahan spent two years developing hundreds of floor mat prototypes. Once, he bought a turkey fryer to heat a gel he was experimenting with and it caught on fire, burning his eyebrows off.

Eventually he developed his own formulation, for which he now holds several patents. In 2004, with the final product in hand, he quit his job to launch GelPro.

"I had spent my entire life savings," he said. "We bought ads in the back of dozens of magazines, and the orders starting coming in. We were selling $300,000 in mats a month when I was still a single employee working out of my house."

Among the company's first customers were small gourmet retailers, and the mats caught on with celebrity chefs like Rachael Ray, Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse.

Currently, Let's Gel's fastest growing market is stand up desks, which have become popular because of studies showing the health benefits of movement while working.

"Businesses of all sizes are investing in them, but they're quickly realizing that if you don't have the right floor mat, your lower back, knees and ankles start hurting and it fatigues your whole body," Lisa McMahan said. "So now they're realizing you need the whole package."

That's what Suzanne Merritt, an office manager at a Portland software company, learned when she and her co-workers moved from traditional desks.

"We have hardwood floors, and they're great to look at, but not so good for the standing option," Merritt said. "Your joints just get a little ache to them."

After doing online research, Merritt discovered GelPro and placed an order. "Having the extra cushion makes a huge difference," she said. "Because of how awesome it has been for my desk, I bought one for my home office and one for my art studio. Now I just want to know why we can't have shoes that feel like this."

This article was published by the Austin American Statesman and can be found here