CEDAR FALLS — Shaun Linderbaum started his company, BraceAbility, in the basement of his home in 2011. The e-commerce business now resides in the renovated Woolverton Building at 115 E. Second St. in downtown Cedar Falls.After a nine-month remodeling project on the 130-year-old building, BraceAbility, an online retailer of orthopedic braces from manufacturers all over the world, moved into the new office space in April 2017. Prior to the move, it was located above Whiskey Road Tavern & Grill at Fourth and Main streets.
“I really wanted to be downtown,” Linderbaum said. “And — although it was more money and work than I anticipated — the building was a good investment. I have a thing for old buildings.”
The building — which at different times housed businesses ranging from a blacksmith shop, a hardware store and a tractor dealership to the Circle Lounge, a pizza parlor and a printing shop — now boasts an open eating area, office space, areas for the customer service team and filling orders and a garage in the rear. Design features such as steel accents and exposed beams pay homage to the building’s history.
BraceAbility employs 20 workers.
“We have a lot of UNI students,” Linderbaum said. “A lot of them started out as interns and now work for us full time. The college is a great resource for us. The Cedar Valley has a highly educated workforce.”
Linderbaum likes to promote a relaxed work atmosphere.
“We all eat lunch together,” he said. “It’s very laid back. Employees have flexible work schedules, there is no dress code.”
Linderbaum, a Cresco native now living in Cedar Falls, said his first business was delivering the Waterloo Courier when he was 12 years old.
“It was a defining experience for me,” he said. “I had to collect. I had to show up on time. It taught me responsibility. I look back on it fondly.”
Linderbaum went to school at UNI and worked for John Deere for 10 years.
“IT stuff,” he said. “I loved the company, but not the corporate environment.”
Before launching BraceAbility, Linderbaum worked for Clickstop in Urbana, another e-commerce business.
“I learned a lot there,” he said. “I applied what I liked to my business and discarded what I didn’t like.”
BraceAbility had more than 10 million visitors to its website, braceability.com, in 2017 from all 50 states and 10 other countries, Linderbaum said, and saw a 60 percent growth in sales last year, selling 150,000 braces.
Linderbaum said he is not surprised by his company’s success.
“We are a little business tucked away that no one knows about, but I expected we had a big opportunity here. I hoped for the best and planned for the worst,” he said. “You work, you adapt, you grow. That has been our focus.”
Linderbaum said BraceAbility offers great products that are typically hard to find locally.
“And, it may sound cliche, but making people feel better is a really rewarding feeling.”
Linderbaum said Cedar Falls is a good fit for his company.
“I love Cedar Falls,” he said. “I think from a business perspective, the city government is focused on growing businesses like us. Then you add UNI and the labor force and downtown with the atmosphere and all the amenities. I went to school here, fell in love and never wanted to leave.
“We are making the transition from a small-sized business to a medium-sized business,” he said. “That includes the new space, introducing a benefits packages to our employees. That is vital to attract talent and reward existing employees. It’s all part of being a grown-up business.”
While Linderbaum is creating the foundation for his company to grow, he doesn’t have specific expectations.
“I’m not too set on any hard and fast numbers,” he said. “I’m a contrarian in all aspects of my life. I like to keep it simple. We concentrate on how we interact with our customers, our products. We focus on a few things and do them really, really well. Doing those simple things over and over leads to growth. It is a simple business model. We can’t be all things to all people.
“Some companies set aggressive sales goals, but sometimes the actions taken to reach those goals can backfire.
“We have tremendous work-life balance,” he said. “I don’t like to work on the weekends. It is rare if I work over 40 hours a week.”
Linderbaum said he sees a continuing diversion away from the agriculture economy in the Cedar Valley and more focus on technology, or companies that take advantage of technology.
“Locally — and statewide — I see a shift toward science and technology. That’s the only way we can set ourselves apart.
“I think business people in this area are hardworking, smart and conservative,” Linderbaum said. “Conservative in that we don’t overextend ourselves, and we tend to focus on business strategies that contribute just as much.
“This building may not have been the smartest decision, but it is a passion project. I think it reflects my philosophy on business. Selling things to people is the oldest job in the world, yet we are putting a modern twist on it.”