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Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal  looks for a shot during the first half of NBA basketball action in Los Angeles, Monday, Jan. 16, 2006.  (MATT SAYLES/AP)

Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal  looks for a shot during the first half of NBA basketball action in Los Angeles, Monday, Jan. 16, 2006. 

(MATT SAYLES/AP)

ENTREPRENEURSHIP

He healed Shaq, but his business is still on the bench Add to ...

“The core” is technically known as the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, more than two dozen pairs of interconnected muscles that work to stabilize the spine, pelvis and hips. It is the central force that provides the foundational strength for upper and lower body movement.

The idea for the Core Board was born in the mid-nineties, when Mr. McKechnie was walking his dog. Passing a playground, he was inspired by a child bouncing on a spring-mounted horse, seeing exercise potential in the recoil and torque of the spring.

“Some of the simplest things are out there and stare us right in the face,” Mr. McKechnie says. “Like a Post-it note. How simple is it? It’s functional. In my rehab program, there was a need: ‘How can I do that?’ It was working back from that, really. It’s not like I sat and said, ‘I need to go invent something.’ ”

In 1999, as Mr. McKechnie was settling into life in Los Angeles, he made a local connection that led to a deal with Reebok, the shoe company, for the Core Board. Reebok hoped to recreate its success from the 1980s, when an aerobics instructor named Gin Miller came up with an exercise program that involved stepping on and off her porch step – an idea that Reebok turned into a sales phenomenon worth an estimated $750-million.

The Core Board enjoyed a brief spell as a hot item, with one published report indicating that 20,000 units were sold, at $249 each, in the first year – a fast $5-million haul. Looking back, Mr. McKechnie feels Reebok made mistakes marketing Core Board. By 2005, with the licensing deal set to expire, Reebok was bought by Adidas-Salomon AG, and the Core Board disappeared.

The Reebok experience left Mr. McKechnie feeling burned by big business, and he left it behind to focus on his physiotherapy practice. But not long after, Mr. McKechnie met Jeff Cowan, a businessman who had dealt in medical supplies and was running a printing and embroidery business. The two men struck a bond, and Core X System LLC was started in 2009, a company majority-owned by Mr. Cowan and an unnamed partner, with Mr. McKechnie and two others as minority owners.

The basic product cost $69.95 and included the bands that connect the arms and legs, as well as instructional DVDs and the like. An “elite” version went for $129.95.

What’s kept the company afloat so far has been the patronage of professional sporting teams. Core X says it has made sales to two dozen NBA teams, a dozen in the NHL, another dozen or so in football, as well as Premier League soccer teams such as Manchester City, and college sports programs.

“We never had to market to teams,” Mr. Cowan says. “It was word of mouth, the best marketing. It was Alex’s name.”

But reaching a broader audience, the real goal, has proved a much bigger challenge. Mr. Cowan at first plowed money into infomercials. The pitch for Core X: “Used by top athletes to strengthen and beautify the bodies of everyday people.” The results were underwhelming.

“I think we probably sold a thousand units,” Mr. Cowan concedes. “People are looking for the magic pill. Our system works, it’s backed by science, but if you leave it in the closet, it won’t move itself.”

Core X took in roughly $100,000 in those early months in 2009. Mr. Cowan, bowed by the failed infomercials and running out of cash, then turned to the Internet. He attempted to sell Core X through the company’s own website, advertised the product through Google, and secured deals with online retailers such as Costco.com.

Sales did pick up, but to this day they remain slow: Core X had projected sales of 5,000 units for 2011, up from about 3,000 in 2010.

It is a break-even proposition at best. As of September, 2012, sales were moribund, and the product was no longer available through Costco. The Core X website had been revamped, as planned. The new pitch: “Fun! Fast! Easy!”

The question of how a star physiotherapist with a slew of celebrity endorsements has failed to translate all that into a profitable business is a thorny one.

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