What she came up with may give you the giggles. But the plastic horn-shaped device, dubbed a “ SheWee
,” has become a hot commodity for ladies looking for a mess-free way to use the bathroom standing up. In fact, Fountain has turned her idea into an international business.
The device is easy to use (though the website suggests practicing in the shower first). And Fountain says it appeals to more than just the germ-o-phobe who’d rather avoid coming in contact with public toilets. England’s National Health System gives SheWees to patients who would otherwise use a bedpan. And the country’s army supplies them to female soldiers in the field.
Samantha persevered past ridicule to build a growing business staffed with 10 employees.
“It struck me how much easier it was for a guy to go to the toilet in a place where there were no facilities or nowhere to squat behind,” Fountain wrote in an email. “So I came up with a way of effectively urinating like a man.”
The idea for the SheWee came to Fountain while she was pursuing a product design degree at De Montfort University. A professor asked her class to figure out how to improve public toilet facilities. Immediately, Fountain knew she wanted to make it easier for women to avoid touching a toilet. But her first idea—designing retractable seats that could be washed after every use—proved a bit impractical.
She kept brainstorming, and eventually built the first-ever SheWee out of plywood. Her professors were impressed, and encouraged her to refine her prototype. In 1999, Fountain received a fellowship to work on her design with plastic manufacturers. She also began working with a family friend (and businessman) to create a business plan and find backers. And Fountain’s parents lent their support in the form of a room in their house to serve as her home office.
Customers include female mountain climbers, marathon atheletes, and soldiers.
But the encouragement was mixed with sniggers and doubts. She got “few laughs and some disgusted men or women who were simply embarrassed by the design,” Fountain wrote in an email. The most public giggler was Theo Paphitis, a judge on Dragons’ Den, a British television show that invites entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to a panel of wealthy judges. The winners receive investments, and losers leave with nothing.
Paphitis laughed throughout her entire presentation, and Fountain didn’t win any start-up money. Still, she looked on the bright side. “Most people who made rude comments are those who go on to shout [and] laugh about Shewee (negative or positive) to others—so it always helps our publicity,” she wrote in an email.
Despite that setback, Fountain continued on. She left her day job to focus on the SheWee fulltime in January 2005. A year later she received an award from the British Female Inventors and Innovators Network (see photo above). By 2007, she had left her parent’s home and opened her own office. She now has 10 employees, a worldwide customer base, and a spot on the shelf of dozens of retail outlets. The Shewee is also sold on a plethora of websites which serve athletes and adventurers. Among the clientele are female mountain climbers, campers, rescue workers, and marathon athletes.
What kept her going through the toughest times? “The emails and support from people who buy Shewee and the fact that magazines were raving about the product,” Fountain wrote in an email. It seems those are in no danger of slowing down any time soon.
Amanda Erickson is a reporter at the
Washington Post where she writes about D.C.'s movers and shakers. Her work has also appeared in the
New York Times and
Chicago Tribune. When she isn't reporting, Amanda enjoys mastering new recipes, travelling on the cheap, and visiting second-hand bookstores.