Cameron Wheeler runs his company from the epicenter of Seattle’s startup community, in the same building as Founder’s Co-op and TechStars in South Lake Union. But unlike many others on his floor, his startup is developing a physical product … and the bugs he’s chasing down are real.
To be precise, they’re bed bugs. The product, developed by Wheeler and his partners, is the ZappBug Oven.
Currently retailing for around $395, it’s a fold-up portable contraption that uses a heating unit to bake bed bugs past the point of survival — in their case, 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The company promises to get rid of the nasty little critters in clothes, suitcases, couch cushions and pretty much anything else that can fit into the large heating chamber.
Yes, it’s pretty creepy.
“It’s not that glorious,” admits Cameron, the company’s CEO, a 24-year-old entrepreneur with a mechanical engineering degree from Washington State University, who founded the company with Andrew Havlis and Richard Paffrath.
But for Wheeler, the business is just the latest in a series of startup experiences — giving him a new chance to apply what he has learned, and to learn something new.
“It’s super-fascinating to learn how to build a business in a niche market like this and do low-volume manufacturing,” he explains. “This is for bed bugs, but you can imagine how many other products are out there that you could manufacture overseas in quantities of, say, 1,000, that a big company here is not going to take on.”
The ZappBug Oven is made in China and sold through Amazon.com. Bootstrapped on a limited budget, ZappBug has spread the word online by seeking to position itself in search rankings as a leading authority in how to get rid of bed bugs. For example, ZappBug offers an 8-step plan for getting rid of bed bugs even if people don’t buy one of its ovens.
No, for the record, Wheeler never imagined he would be basing a company on bugs, let alone the creepy ‘bed’ variety.
Although he studied mechanical engineering, Wheeler knew people at Wazzu who were involved in entrepreneurial programs, piquing his interest in startups. During college he took part in the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship program, which included a trip to Silicon Valley, where he met entrepreneurs including Elon Musk, of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX fame.
“I just saw that anyone can start their own company, and these guys that you read about are just people. I saw that they make mistakes, they’re not perfect, and that I could do it, too.”
He saved up the money he made working as a technical intern at Northrop Grumman and started his own nutritional supplements company, marketing an all-natural alternative to students who might otherwise abuse Adderall to help them study. He then went on help start and work as a mechanical engineer for a company called Ecowell that develops environmentally friendly, high-tech beverage dispensing machines.
Two years ago he came to Seattle to work as a product manager for a startup involved in overseas manufacturing, which opened his eyes to the potential of the approach.
Enter the bed bugs. Wheeler’s friend and now business partner, Andrew Havlis, lived in a building in Seattle that became infested with bed bugs, thanks to one of his neighbors. In researching the problem, he found out that spraying can be ineffective in keeping bed bugs out permanently, and many landlords won’t pay for the treatment.
ZappBug isn’t the only bed-bug-fighting product that uses an “oven” approach, but the founders decided they could do better.
During a trip to China for his previous job, Wheeler took a break and traveled to a manufacturing plant in Ningbo, south of Shanghai. (He had made email contact prior to his trip). Twenty-three years old at the time, he remembers the surreal feeling of riding on a train to the factory and negotiating with the managers there.
“It was a really awesome experience, and it got me pretty excited,” he says.
He was able to strike a deal to produce an initial, low-volume run of 250 units of the ZappBug Oven. The heaters are a slightly modified version of a model that is popular in Europe, with a boxy shape that tucks neatly into the opening at the bottom of the foldable ZappBug box.
The ZappBug has a large chamber (25 cubic feet) that can fit suitcases, clothes, cushions and other items. It went on sale a few weeks ago. Sales have been steady; a hotel in New York was the first official buyer.
For this initial run of products, ZappBug is handling the fulfillment itself — with Wheeler even driving a rented truck to take the initial shipment from customs to a storage facility. But he’s looking forward to outsourcing the entire process as production and sales ramp up.
Here’s a video showing the ZappBug in action, if you can stand it.