Several of the other parents admired her inventiveness and said they wished such cups were available commercially. Hmmm, she thought. Maybe she could fine-tune her creation and market it.
Soon afterward, she was at the park with Jasmine, 4, and Jade, 2, and she noticed many of the toddlers with pouch and box drinks. The parents all seemed to be begging them: "Don't squeeze it!" "Don't squeeze it!" Aha! she thought. She would fine-tune her invention and market it.
Two years later, Steele has her No Squeeze Juice Box Holder for sale in 26 Wal-Mart stores in California, as well as Danville shops Babies n' Bellies on Prospect Avenue and Carlie Pie, a children's store in Town and Country. Her company name is JolieCo.
"We wanted to get into the big retailers rather than start small and go big," said Steele, a Danville resident. To this end, she applied early to receive certification from the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, which opens doors to businesses such as Wal-Mart.
But first she had to develop the product. She did extensive market research to find out just what parents wanted and what would attract the children.
"I talked to carpools, playgroups, neighbors and people in grocery stores in Danville," she recalled. "Because I was in my own target market, it was easy to understand target customers."
She found an industrial designer to do a prototype and took it to the playground to test it out. There she found valuable feedback. One mom suggested a hole in the bottom of the cup so she could push out the juice box or bag rather than having to reach in the top to extract it. This change was made.
Steele also worked on the appearance of the cups.
"My mom and two girls and I spent a lot of time in stores to see what people look at and touch," she said. "We didn't want it to blend in and disappear."
She said Jasmine and Jade loved this part of the research. "My kids liked to hang out in the kids' aisles," she said with a laugh.
"I didn't realize how many shapes and sizes there were," she said. "Then there were the colors."
The final colors are combinations of red and blue; green and purple; and orange and green.
"The colors fit girls and boys," she noted.
By this time her mom Dorothy Demonteverde was fully onboard as was her father Carl, who always supplied the macro-view, plus helped out with childcare and carpooling the girls to St. Isidore's and Childrens' Academy of Danville.
Steele learned Adobe Illustrator so she could design the packaging herself. Then she hired a professional firm to fine-tune the product "so it would look like it fit on the shelf."
The packaging says the cup should be washed by hand but Steele puts hers into the dishwasher.
"It's not like a sippy cup or bottle, it doesn't need washing every time," she said.
The packaging also includes Spanish to be consistent with other products she found locally.
Steele also had the cups tested for safety in a certified laboratory in New York.
"They recommended it was safe for ages 12 months and up," she said.
The colorful plastic cups have designs in the middle with a softer surface for easy gripping.
"Kids automatically used it right," she said. "They didn't want to give it back. That was fun to see."
When it was time for production, her mother found a factory in Shanghai.
"Mom went over there to make sure the factory understood our requirement," Steele said.
She and her husband Joe - "my biggest fan" - financed the three container loads of cups.
The two women made a presentation to Wal-Mart and agreed to supply the cups right after the holidays. Before that it was available through the Web site www.nosqueeze.com for $3.99 and sales were good, especially as stocking stuffers. And Steele learned from those who made purchases.
"Lots of people were saying commuters liked them," she said, "and grandparents."
Another marketing surprise was that they are good for anyone with manual dexterity problems, such as people with arthritis who may have trouble with drink pouches.
No Squeeze Juice Box Holder was named one of the best new products in Media Guide, which helped get the word out.
"We just got into a grocery chain in Chicago," Steele said last week.
Steele, who graduated from UC Berkeley, did risk assessment for loans before she became a stay-at-home mother. She gives credit for the success of her current endeavor to her supportive family, and to Walnut Creek mom inventor Tamara Monosoff, author of "The Mom Inventors Handbook," who inspired her to dream big. She'd read about Monosoff in the newspaper and contacted her via her Web site: mominventors.com.
"She made me take this leap, actually go ahead," Steele said. "Without her I may have had more doubts."
Steele has garnered enough business knowledge to be invited with her mom to share their experiences with an MBA marketing class at UC Berkeley.
"The professor said they enjoyed our presentation the most," said Steele.
She also was accepted into a professional development program at Stanford University.
"It fits in with what we are doing," said Steele. "It should help me fill in the blanks."
"After we did one product, the ideas flooded in," she said. "Now I see products with a different eye. And I'm into problem solving, if I notice a problem that is not being addressed."
"I didn't set out to make a product," she added, "just to solve a problem."