Industry Watch

Top, left to right: Dan Wade, Spencer Howell, Gwen Wakem & Kyle Seeman. Bottom, left to right: Jonathan Keller, CEO & Jason Bahrke. Photo by Tate Carlson

Jonathan Keller, CEO of Life Floor.

Not slippery when wet

Life Floor added U.S. jobs by moving manufacturing from Vietnam to South Dakota

By Erica Rivera
Monday, July 20, 2015

Manufacturing may be facing a shortage of workers, especially throughout the Midwest, but Jonathan Keller, CEO of Life Floor, hasn’t had any problems filling the positions to manufacture the company’s unique wet flooring system.

“We’ve had great success in finding the talent,” Keller says. “People have been excited to work on our product because it’s new and different.”

According to Keller, Life Floor primarily recruits in-person and through social networking, such as Facebook or LinkedIn. “Culture fit is a critical element to us, so we spend a lot of time getting to know people in person.”

The Minneapolis-based company was founded in 2011 by Keller and three friends. “I would regularly discuss business concepts with my friends when I was working at McKinsey,” Keller explains. “When I was a consultant, I also noticed that the best projects included a team. In starting the company, I saw potential to have the best of both worlds: working on a real business with people I enjoyed.”

Life Floor’s 24 x 24 inch foam and rubber tiles are used in facilities and homes where people walk barefoot on wet floor. Commercial uses include pool decks, water parks, gyms, locker rooms and senior residences. Life Floor’s slip-resistant surface means that traction actually increases when the floor is wet.

“This is a really innovative product,” says Tim Welsh, a Life Floor investor. “I don’t think there is a competing product out there.”

Life Floor’s North American manufacturing was formerly located in Vietnam, but Life Floor moved its operations to Falcon Plastics in Madison, South Dakota, earlier this year. Three workers are currently on its line, which runs up to three shifts a day, five days a week.

The move to South Dakota was prompted by the desire to shorten lead times and to better serve customers. Keller wanted to base manufacturing within a day’s drive to the plant; he also wanted a manufacturer that could serve as a partner in accelerating growth and making manufacturing processes as efficient as possible. Falcon was the perfect match. The company and Keller connected through the Community Venture Network (CVN), a development program that unites business looking to expand with rural communities. “CVN helped us find local funding sources that could finance the project,” he says. Three different loan funds from Madison as well as angel investment funds help finance Life Floor’s operations.

“We approached approximately 100 different angel investors that we met through friends, family, networking and searching through the Minnesota Angel Tax Credit approved list,” Keller says. “Apart from the founders, we were fortunate enough to have four initial angel investors who invested in our team and vision.”

In the long run, Keller, who is 28 years old, has found the team’s youth to be an advantage, even with investors. “Early on there were both investors and customers who turned us down because of our relative youth and lack of experience,” he says. “As we have gained momentum, many of the people who turned us down have realized we are on to something and started coming back. Youth can be an advantage sometimes in that we are seen as being innovative.”

On the distribution side, Life Floor relies on a hybrid model, with people in-house tasked with brand awareness and big accounts like Six Flags. Life Floor also opened an office in Southern California this year to build a network of people who could represent the brand in the residential and commercial markets. “Our goal is to have a network of partners who can meet with customers face-to-face no matter where that customer is,” Keller says. New distribution partners come to Life Floor on a weekly basis, often from word-of-mouth, referrals and its website. The company’s goal is to have distribution partners throughout North America and, eventually, around the globe.

Along with manufacturing and distribution, Life Floor’s installation practices have also evolved over time. “Pretty much everybody who has been in the company has installed Life Floor at some point,” Keller says. He personally installed the floor in his grandmother’s bathroom at a senior living home. Now the company has grown enough to offer a certification program for installers across the country. At present, there are 15 certified installers; Keller plans to certify 75 more within the next 36 months. Typically, flooring subcontractors or concrete workers are the ones seeking out certification. In cases where Life Floor sells directly to a customer, the company will subcontract installation labor. More frequently, dealers and reps have their own trusted installation partners or teams. Since its inception, Life Floor has grown to about 300 unique installations for customers such as Great Wolf Lodge, Carlson Companies and Merlin Entertainment.

“Jonathan figured out how to manufacture cost-effectively in the U.S., which not only creates jobs in the U.S. but allows him to meet the needs of his customers by being able to respond to his customers more quickly,” investor Tim Welsh says. “It’s revolutionary.”

Keller is optimistic about the future of the company and hopes the state of manufacturing will improve along with it. “Sometimes manufacturing has a bad rap when it shouldn’t,” he says. “It’s partially because there are younger people who aren’t interested in manufacturing, which I think is a shame, because it’s a high-paying field and there’s real value that can be made from it.”