How My Father-in-Law Disrupted the Soap Dish
His 5 steps for designing a better anything.
A few months ago, my wife and I stayed overnight at her parents’ house. The following morning, as I entered their shower, I noticed a bar of Irish Spring floating next to the tiled wall, as if suspended mid-air.
That was the moment I knew my father-in-law had achieved a goal he set three years earlier: designing a muck-less soap holder.
Had anyone else’s father-in-law told me he was pursuing such a goal, I surely would have dismissed him. But this was Bernie Cohen — my father-in-law — a highly respected Miami dermatologist, yes, but one whose string of successful entrepreneurial side projects dates back to when you were still in diapers.
If you’re an aspiring inventor or entrepreneur — or just fascinated by how you take a common household object and make it a whole lot better — here’s what you can learn from how he did it.
#1. Expect your first attempt to fail
By the time I married his youngest daughter, in 2010, Bernie had patented two ideas and brought both to market: a tool for closing skin wounds that saw action in the first Gulf War, and a device for measuring hair loss. For the latter he was summoned to Amsterdam, where he was awarded the Platinum Follicle—the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery’s highest honor.
Then, shortly before our wedding, Bernie descended into what our family calls his Velcro Period. For years he tried to commercialize a shopping bag carrier made from Velcro, only to be thwarted by anti-plastic-bag ordinances. His idea for a Velcro luggage hauler proved equally unfruitful.
“I’m just fascinated by the stuff,” he once told me.
One day, on a visit to my in-laws in 2014, I saw that the soap bar next to their bathroom sink was perched atop a Velcro strip, looped back on itself to form a ring:
“That’s a prototype,” Bernie said. “Last week I was staring at the soapy muck on that counter, and I thought maybe I could design a way to prevent it.”
Unfortunately, Velcro had fatal flaws — at least when it came to muck-less soap holding. It stuck to the bar, so you had to peel it off. And since Velcro is mostly fabric, it absorbs moisture, whereas the whole point is eliminating moisture.
After watching too many of his soggy rings collapse under the weight of new bars, Bernie began researching other materials.
#2. Define “better”
A lot of people say they want to “reimagine” this or “reinvent” that. But unless you‘re clear on exactly how you want to make something better, it’s impossible to gauge your progress.
Early on, Bernie established three goals for a winning design:
- Eliminate muck
- Immobilize slippery bars
- Accommodate full-size bars and well-used “scraps”
Isn’t it interesting that, when it comes to innovation, your goals are often at odds? In Bernie’s case, the key to eliminating muck was less contact with the bar (to promote evaporation), while immobilization would benefit from more contact.
Bernie wasn’t the first to aim for these goals, but he couldn’t find a soap holder in the market that achieved all three. For example, this one attempts to keep the bar aerated, but muck collects on the base (and there’s not much immobilization):
Wireframe models aerate and immobilize, but scraps slide through the cracks, and muck forms on the wires:
This design, popular in France, requires a specially shaped bar, and it’s so immobilized that you can’t remove the soap:
Still, if Velcro wasn’t the answer, what was?
#3. Recruit the skills you lack
One day, Bernie was roaming around Art Basel, Miami Beach’s international art fair, when he noticed a man taking pictures of people and quickly turning them into plastic statuettes. After inquiring as to how the feat was accomplished, he went home and Googled “3D printer Miami.”
That’s how Bernie met Alex Hussain. “Of all the 3D printing vendors I talked to,” he recalls, “Alex was just the sweetest guy — a great engineer and a real mensch. He didn’t charge an arm and a leg.”
Alex turned Bernie’s ideas into CAD drawings, from which they printed plastic prototypes. Their first, designed to create air space between the bar and a soap dish or countertop, looked like a bottomless ashtray:
Successive designs reduced contact with the bar:
This last one (white) was the most promising because its spikes exposed most of the soap’s surface to air, and it was the first to keep the bar stationary.
Sadly, the spikes left craters in the soap in which water would pool, inhibiting drying. Worse, the ring would stick to the bar, just like Velcro.
#4. Remove what’s not essential
Bernie replaced the spikes with tiny metal posts. He also attached a suction cup to the bottom, so the soap would come off without pulling the device up with it:
This was the first design that Bernie shared with anyone outside of close family and Alex. (He hadn’t yet applied for a patent.) His walking buddy, Gary, offered a suggestion.
“Since it’s oval,” Gary remarked, “you’d have to be deliberate about orienting the bar. Why not make it a circle?”
Indeed, Bernie found that a circle was easier to use:
“It was like a Picasso line drawing,” Bernie recalls. “We just kept reducing and reducing it, trying to find its minimal essence.”
Another bug: the suction cup often failed to hold. Bernie replaced it with a double-sided 3M adhesive that he cut it into squares, reshaping the device to fit the tape’s dimensions:
The square design wasn’t perfect, but for a long time Bernie and Alex were stumped as to how to improve it. It immobilized bars while aerating them well; the bars went on and came off easily; and the device stayed put. Yet soapy water could collect on surfaces on which it rested, compromising the adhesive and creating some muck.
“We felt like maybe we’d gone as far as we could go,” Bernie recalls.
#5. Listen for the Magic Man
I once heard the great San Francisco sculptor Fletcher Benton say that artists get their best ideas from an invisible entity he calls the “Magic Man.”
According to Benton:
If you go into to your studio…the very fact that you are there in the studio…there is this superior thing that happens. I call it a visit from the Magic Man; you can call it whatever you want. … [He’s invisible, but he sees you] and from time to time, you know, you’re struggling with how to do something, and BAM! He lays one on you. You get this tremendous jolt, and you have the answer. But if you’re not in the studio when he comes by, well, you’ve missed him.
Bernie’s Magic Man spoke through a mechanical engineer named Victoria, who worked in Alex’s shop. One day, Bernie was in the shop reviewing designs, when Victoria volunteered that she’d taken home their latest prototype.
“I don’t have a shelf in my shower,” Victoria said, “so I stuck it on the wall. It works pretty well, except sometimes the bar falls off.”
At first, Bernie reacted defensively. “Of course the bar falls off,” he said. “It wasn’t designed to hang vertically on a wall.”
“Well, it doesn’t always fall off,” Victoria explained. “I mean, if I put a big, brand new bar on it does, but once the soap gets a little smaller, it works fine.”
Bernie and Alex looked at each other: the Magic Man had laid one on them.
“That was the key insight,” Bernie says. “Because if you could orient the device vertically, you could attach it to the wall of a shower, or even the inside of a sink, and all the excess, soapy wetness would drip down the drain. The adhesive would never sit in water, and the device would vanish behind the bar, so it would look kind of cool.”
To prevent large bars from falling off, Bernie and Alex angled the rails, moving the soap’s center of gravity over the holder.
SoapAnchor: Bernie’s muck-less, minimalist soap holder
The bar of Irish Spring that seemed to float in my in-laws’ shower was clearly immobilized, yet it was easy to remove from the holder and went back on easily. Later I tried some scraps, and they stayed on too. No muck anywhere.
Bernie called it “SoapAnchor” and trademarked the name. A patent is pending. Although the tiny posts have flat (not pointy) tops, he told me to mount the device beyond the reach of kids, and above shoulder height in the shower (or in a recessed nook). He and Alex plan to address that limitation in a future version.
Here’s a GIF they made showing SoapAnchor in action:
The other day, I asked Bernie what he plans to invent next.
“Not sure yet,” he said. “Though I find myself thinking about Velcro again.”
Bernie and Alex now have a website where you can buy their latest SoapAnchor design. It’s at http://soapanchor.com.