Stephen Opie

Be true to your passion.


Charlotte Helm began thinking about the stigma of cane use long ago when her young father became quite ill. In an instant, with a cane in his hand, people saw him as a frail and elderly stereotype. That experience stayed with her and led her to research perceptions of cane and walker use for her master’s thesis at Tufts University. Today she’s an experienced occupational therapist working with individuals of all ages to help them lead a self-determined life.

Stephen has consulted for over 70 clients, specializing in sport design, brand creation and most recently creating an innovation-based design methodology. He has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, won three Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA), been awarded twelve patents, and his industrial boot product was featured in the Museum of Modern Art.

Prior to OpieDesign, Stephen worked for Nike as the Running Designer, for Converse as the Design Manager, and for StrideRite as the Design Director.

Steve and Charlotte are the co-founders of Sweetmobility. With their combined insights and skills, they are delivering products that support mobility while celebrating the lifelong desire to be seen as an individual.

Together, Charlotte thinks about perceptions and Stephen designs products that consider the human factors needed for an easy interface between people and materials. With 30+ years of experience as an industrial designer in consumer goods, Stephen is the driving force bringing Sweetmobility’s first product, CaneWraps to people who want to stay active and be seen as an individual.

Where did the idea for Sweetmobility come from?

Charlotte is an Occupational Therapist and her passion for solving the stigma of cane use first came into play when her father became very ill. She saw how the use of a cane became a social problem for him but he needed to use it! He felt frail and people, even his friends, began to treat him differently – to stereotype him. This family experience stayed with her and led her to research perceptions of cane and walker use for her master’s thesis at Tufts University.

In addition to this observation, Charlotte felt that the world did not need another cane. There are thousands of canes out there. Well engineered, well designed, lots of configurations, assemblies, and options galore. What the world needed was not another version of a cane, but rather a compelling reason to use one! Her mission became more about the cane users’ lifestyle, about their desire to be seen as an individual, to have the chance to personalize a cane and to express their taste.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Our business is young! We are constantly shifting during the day from reinventing our designs to developing sales channels to visits our local gift stores to pitching new consumers and investors to developing our B2B2C and other e-commerce opportunities. Making our days productive is tough! We’ve realized that looking at each day as a separate entity is not wise. We view each day as a link to the next day – things are constantly in flux – one meeting full of good news and lots of hype followed by another meeting that is a downer. But overall, each day links to the next and over weeks and months real progress is made. Keeping that perspective helps us moving forward in a positive direction. Start-ups are tough!

How do you bring ideas to life?

Charlotte began her professional career as a Designer. Her partner, Stephen is an Industrial Designer. So, we have a unique and very beneficial advantage of being professionally trained to “bring ideas to life.” Having said that, it’s still a challenge. Stephen focusses upon observing how the users actually use their canes, how it becomes, or should become, part of their lifestyle. We are currently focussed upon the fashion element of our CaneWraps. We have the functional benefits on each cane – the reflectivity for nighttime visibility and the hidden identification label, but when we changed over from solid colors to more fashionable prints, our users started talking about whether they liked the houndstooth, the florals, or the plaid patterns. They were no longer talking about the cane! They shifted to the fashion opportunity and how the CaneWrap would now match to their scarf or shirt or pants. Our focus is to provide the ability to self-express and to transform the cane from a symbol of disability into a statement of style.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Personalization is a huge trend. Consumers want to make their product choices reflect more about themselves and their personalities. Enabling our consumer to quickly change from one CaneWrap to another – it takes about 15 seconds – they can very quickly personalize their cane to match to the moment of the day as well as their outfit. For example, Sunday morning perhaps our beautiful Plum Blossom print to match to the moment and her church dress suit, then back home to get ready for the afternoon at the museum and our Monet Waterlilies inspired CaneWrap, then back home to get ready for the night at the local theatre and a switch to our classic Leopard skin CaneWrap.

Also, we are going to start producing CaneWraps that are designed by our consumers themselves. Imagine a Steam Punk design for a CaneWrap or one with flames like the old roadsters.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Tenacity and the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Running a start-up is a constant battle. Rarely do things go smoothly. A morning meeting goes very well, followed by an afternoon disappointing phone call. Constant changing of plans, of goals, of events. Being able to handle quick change and being responsive in a positive way is really a necessity.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Write a business plan, learn the numbers, be willing to go out on a limb. Put yourself out there and ask lots of questions.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

That’s a great question. I often tell people who ask about worrying about competitors, “Figure out what you want to do as an entity or a company and just plain do it.” Your company should not be created in reaction to your competition, but rather be created as a result of your passion. What do you believe in? What problem is your company/product solving? Why will people want to invest with you?

We feel that CaneWraps is all about Charlotte’s passion and insight. She saw this problem and it was personal to her. This led a unique resolution with CaneWraps and, we should let everyone know, we have more products coming in the next year.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

We know that things have to keep moving forward. If we find ourselves repeating the same thing from one Monday to another Monday, then we have to stop and change that repeat. If we are working on the same problem or still making the same statements, or making the same phone calls or not working on something new, then that is a problem. Work week to week to constantly keep moving forward.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We mentioned it before, but it’s our chang-over from mostly functionality to now mostly fashion. This changed the perception of our CaneWraps from a novelty type product into a full-fledged accessory. People now stop and look and say “Well, that’s a nice print.” or “My mom likes classic fashions and the Houndstooth print is just want she needs.” This strategic move changed everything.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Not willing to show our early prototypes to enough users. We created quite a few, let’s say, non-winners! They were just ok, and we knew they needed more work. We tended to keep working on it ourselves, probably too embarrassed to show them out in public. But then we started to show them to friends and then to some groups of people like the local Councils of Aging in Arlington, Belmont and Winchester, MA. and people gave us great feedback. Mostly negative, but that’s where you learn. If you are not failing, you are probably not trying hard enough! Now, we show anyone everything we do!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Our next product is going to be called WalkerWraps. Yep, there are a lot of bags for walkers or rollators out there, but ours will be based upon their lifestyle and a blend of function and fashion. The same as we did for CaneWraps. Look for thee WalkerWraps in about a year.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A night away from it all! Nearby Airbnb for a 36-hour respite. Sometimes you just have to turn it all off and realize that it will be there when you get back. Personal sanity is helpful.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Just keep your email and Xcel files well organized and easy to access. Throw out all those half done files (start-ups should have plenty of those to delete!) and be able to make them usable. Outside of that, any system to keep track of consumers’ emails and contact info is paramount.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Quintessence, by Cornfeld and Edwards. It delves into products that have “the quality of having it!” It creates a quick set of case studies about why each product became the icon of its peers. It is a constant reminder to keep it simple and functional, streamlined and purposeful. Highly recommend it.

What is your favorite quote?

Capitalism – The higher level of income you gain is equal to the higher level of poverty you obtain.

Key Learnings:

• Recognize that being productive is a relative term
•. Review progress week by week not daily
•. Show your early prototypes/idea/thought to as many of your users as possible
•. Become more business aware
• Be true to your passion