Middle school teacher Elias Ruiz joined the podcast to talk about his journey from garage inventor to a successful business owner. Starting in his garage with a piece of plywood and empty 2-liter bottles, Elias has gone on to invent the Feather-Raft, a lightweight raft perfectly suited for a variety of outdoor water sports. The patented design was an iterative process to craft, and Elias shares an array of hurdles he had to overcome while bringing his product to market. Starting from meeting a personal need, Ruiz has created a successful and growing business selling Feather-Rafts all over the United States.
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Elias Ruiz: How A 6th Grade Science Teacher Became An Unlikely Entrepreneur
I’m speaking with Elias Ruiz, a middle school Math and Science teacher who became an unlikely entrepreneur. As an avid outdoorsman, he stumbled into a unique opportunity as many entrepreneurs do by simply trying to scratch his itch. With nothing more than a sheet of plywood and some empty 2-liter bottles, he created what would become the Feather-Raft, a patented ultralight watercraft that is now being sold across the United States. In this episode, we’ll discuss the mindset and the methods that enabled him to transform a simple idea into a sustainable success. We’ll also discuss some of the important lessons he learned along the way. Without any further ado, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Elias Ruiz.
Elias, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
We met when you came to one of our Entrepreneurial Mindset trainings. I got to know a little bit about your story, and it’s an amazing story. I want to dig into it a little bit deeper. Can you start by telling our readers what it is you’ve developed? What is the entrepreneurial thing you’re doing now?
I’ve brought a new product to the market called the Feather-Raft. It’s a 6-inch thick, 8-foot-long, 4-foot-wide foam raft. It’s designed to be the simplest watercraft that you can have out there. It’s something that’s easy to transport without a trailer and takes about no time at all to set up.
You developed this thing out of a need for yourself. You had a back injury. You like to bow fish. You couldn’t carry a boat. Set me up with a situation how is this invention came to be.
I can call it an invention because I do have a patent for it. I am named the inventor for it. First of all, I’m not from California originally. I’m from Arizona. I settled out here after getting in the military and started a new career teaching. As I started teaching, I had a little bit more free time on my hands. I wasn’t going to school anymore. I started to learn the area around me, looking for places to hunt, fish, reading all the laws and getting familiar with everything out here. I’m not from here, so I didn’t know anybody. Unless you know somebody, the only way to go bow fishing and duck hunting was to be on public waterways. I didn’t have a boat. I didn’t like the idea of a kayak or canoe, something that was narrow and tippy. Plus, I couldn’t sit low in something like that because I have three herniated discs from my active duty in the military. I sit with straight legs.
I started looking on the internet, looking for products that would work. I didn’t want anything that I had to inflate or assemble. I found some folding stuff that you could unfold and put together. It looked super tedious, 30 or 40 minutes of setup on the bank sounded ridiculous. Inflatables to me, I did not want to have the risk of popping anything and having to deal with that while out there. My first idea was to make a raft. To test the concept, I ended up using a 4×8 piece of plywood, 88 two-liter bottles and some twine to weave those bottles to the plywood.
You took a 4×8 sheet of plywood and you used some rope to string 2-liter bottles to it.
I drilled a bunch of holes in the plywood and then wove the bottle to the plywood. There were no screws or adhesives. I knew it could take a beating without falling apart either.
A bunch of bottles, if one of them punctures, it’s not going to kill you.
There’s a bunch of independent bottles, lots of different independent buoyancy mechanisms. When you’re looking for an inflatable, you want a multi-chamber inflatable. If one chamber pops, then you’re not immediately going underwater. This was where I have 88 different bottles, and I could also have replaced them individually if I needed to.
I want to make sure our readers are clear on this. You were trying to find a lightweight floating device so that it would allow you to fish or bow hunt while you’re standing up on a platform. You can’t sit in a boat because you got a back injury. You’re not thinking, “I’m going to develop something that I can sell and make a bunch of money.” You’re trying to develop something to scratch your itch.
That came from my personal needs and the fact that there was a lack of items on the market. I’ve always been someone like that too, a DIY person, Do It Yourself. I have always built stuff and taken shops since I was a kid. In junior high and high school, I had shop classes. I build stuff by hand. I’ve always been good at making stuff.
That’s helpful to know, you’ve got the maker mindset. We can imagine a 4×8 sheet of plywood with a bunch of 2-liter bottles roped to it. It sounds like Gilligan’s Island. Did you build this thing in your garage and then take it to a lake somewhere or a river? What did you do?
I’ve built it in my garage. The whole thing cost me less than $50. I took it to the local river, probably a few miles from my house at the time. I was testing it out on the river and I was able to stand on it. I did all the calculations prior to even trying it. I took it to my buddy’s pool. It was the first place that I ever took it. We always joke about that. We call it Lake Ortiz because his last name was Ortiz. I had no idea if it was going to be tippy or enough buoyancy.
To test it out, I went to a pool instead of a river where you have more dynamics that you have to worry about. It worked out fine. It was super stable. My daughter and I were on it. I had some chairs that were bolted to it that were folding and I could still put it up on top of my Tahoe and make it flat enough to fit in my garage when I parked in there. It worked out great. I took it to the river and that’s where I started bow fishing from it. The first fish I ever shot with my bow and arrow was from that 2-liter bottle comply with a raft.
Have you told anybody? Does your wife know you’re doing this? What are other people saying? Do they think you’re crazy?
My wife and my family knew what I was doing. They were watching me build it in the garage. I was teaching in sixth grade at that time, and that’s where I got most of my bottles. I asked students to bring some bottles if they had any extras and gave them a little extra credit for bringing in a bottle so I could conduct the Science experiment for the most part.
I want to go back to tie this together. You did the calculations. What do you mean? What calculations did you do?
I am a teacher and I used to use a lesson when I taught Math for the Feather-Raft itself. Not specifically the bottle version of it but for the foam version. There is a lot of practical Math and Science behind building a watercraft, especially when you’re looking at the seventh-grade standards of volume. For the bottles, I had to figure out how much water each bottle displace. Anytime you displace 1 cubic foot of water, you’re getting about 62 pounds of buoyancy. This raft, in particular, could hold 350 pounds. There was enough water displacement to successfully keep up 350-plus pounds of float. I had to make sure I was using enough bottles.
You were building this, designing it and developing it but you make it in a science lesson for your students at the same time. Were you bringing your students into the design process?
I was keeping them informed. They didn’t even get to see it because I built it right around the end of the school year and I test it out that first summer. That school close to that year. I didn’t get to see the students again but they knew what I was doing. I had run into a few of them here and there afterward.
You develop this prototype. You take it to your friend’s pool. It’s stable enough. You’ve got a chair strapped to it. You take it out in the river. Now what?
It’s not a super fast-flowing river. It’s the Twomey River near my house where I was testing. I was probably 100 yards wide the river and maybe up to 15 feet deep and a nice slow current. I stood and paddle around. I didn’t have a motor or anything at first. I paddled to the other side, which was a private side of the river. There’s a lot more brush and things that I could do on that side, fishing the brush lines, or bow fishing on that side away from the park. To bow fish on the river, you have to be 150 yards from an occupied dwelling and use a weapon or whatever you want to call it. It allowed me to get away far enough to where I could legally angle aerially for carp.
Were you paddling this thing like a stand-up board?
Not a stand-up paddling because I have a chair that sits on there. I had folding lawn chairs at the time. I’ve since switched over to buckets because it becomes a storage area, dry space. The buckets now have a swivel seat, so you can easily rotate around. I didn’t like that fixed, always facing forward thing. Like on a kayak or a canoe, you’re always facing forward too. Have you ever watched kayak fishing online? It looks uncomfortable.
I’ve done it. You’re always trying to orient the boat towards where your line is.
In this case, I can turn. If I’m tracking a waterfowl or if I click into something over here, I could face it. It made it easy to look at what I was doing. I’ve seen people catch fish off to the side, and they lose it because it’s a weird angle.
I have in mind this picture of a contraption of a slab of plywood with some empty 2-liter bottles and a lawn chair strapped to it.
People would guess it. They’d see it up on my Tahoe. I’d be at the gas station, and they’re like, “Is that a raft?” They thought, “That’s pretty cool.” The biggest question I’ve always got at that time was, “How many 2-liter bottles you got under there?” 88.
That was what the calculation said. You need a 4×8 sheet.
It allowed me to do 8×11 bottles. It almost perfectly fits under the 4×8 sheet as well.
Now you’ve got this thing, tested in the pool, on the river and everything’s working, you’re thinking, “I solved my problem.” Is that the end of it as far as you saw it? Where did it go from there?
You asked about the paddle, let me answer that question. One of the first trips I took was a 6-mile trip down the river. I had a one-sided paddle because I was sitting and paddling. I found out right away that was not the way to go because you’re always having to switch from this side to this side. I ended up using a two-sided paddle, about 8-foot-long, which worked a lot better. That’s not the same as the standup paddleboards. Standup paddleboards have one long paddle and you can easily be left and right.
I tried to make it about the same length as the raft, if not a little longer. You set it on the deck when you’re not using it and it’s not sticking over. Plus, when you’re sitting there, it’s also long enough to reach over the edges of a wider platform. 8 to 9 feet seems to be about the right length of the paddle that you would need for this one. It didn’t feel like I had it solved at that point. I felt like the concept was there. That was the proof of concept. It’s small enough to easily carry. It was buoyant enough to keep me up and wide enough to give me that stability that I needed because I was trying to stand up and bow fish.
The higher your level of incidence on the water is the easier it is to see in the water. The refraction is less the higher you are. You don’t have to aim below the fish as much, depending on how higher your angle of incidence is. A little more Science. That makes it a lot easier to bow fish. If I was using it for duck hunting, you got to take that recoil of the shot. Even if you swivel sideways and shoot, you’re not flipping over. For me, that was the proof of concept. It works. It has what I need. It’s light, buoyant and stable enough. This will work.
I used that for a couple of years. There was too much drag between all these bottles. This creates way too much turbulent water between the bottles and it creates all this drag. It was slow to paddle. The first thing I attempted to do to improve that version was to spray foam between the bottles. They have these can foam bottles that you can spray in between and I did. I added about another 150 pounds of buoyancy as well. I made it a little more streamlined. As far as the drag, it reduced the drag and gave it more buoyancy.
At this point in life, you’re not thinking, “I’m going to sell these things.” You’re still trying to scratch your itch.
I’m trying to improve and making little improvements. After that, I started to experiment with bigger batches of pouring foam like building a mold out of wood and then pouring the foam inside of them, which worked but it was difficult for me to control the foam. I wasn’t experienced with the two-part foam that you pour into molds. My first one of those was a disaster. It came out to be about the same way, if not a little heavier. It wasn’t as pretty. I didn’t do a great job. That was the first one. That still had a wooden deck and a foam underbelly.
I started to explore the sheets of foam. I found out, here in the US, you can’t get anything over 4 inches thick, and my craft was 6 inches. I started to laminate foam together and that was my third model. In the third model, I had a thin plastic deck and some sheets of foam that were laminated below it. That was a great one. It was lighter. There were a couple of problems. One, the foam is exposed. It could take a beating if you’re running up against brush. I also found out that it’s illegal in certain states to have exposed foam because of the beads and broken-up bits of foam in the waterways. I had a thin coating of paint that was enough to hold it together. Anytime I was hitting a brush or the bank, it might lose a little bit of foam. I’m a big environmentalist too. I did not want to be messing up my waterways with foam either.
That’s the third iteration. Are the foam slabs?
Now what? That’s not working. Do you put a coating of paint?
The coating wasn’t good enough. I started to explore different polymers. I had a brush on a two-part polymer where you mix it and brush it on. This stuff is super hard to work with. The viscosity is changing as it cures and has a short pot life. I did a couple like that. They worked as far as they had a solid outer shell but they didn’t look great. At that point, in my mind, I had decided that I was going to try to make something like a product. If I could get it to look good enough at this point, I thought, “I could probably sell this.” That’s when I started in my mind thinking that it might be something worth sharing with other people because people would always tell me, “That’s cool. I’ve never seen anything like that. Where’d you get that?” A lot of times, they knew I built it because you can tell I built it.
Is that the first time that you ever tried to do anything entrepreneurial where you had the idea like, “I’m going to create something that I could be useful to other people?”
I don’t think I’ve ever tried to try to start a business or sell anything.
That wasn’t on your radar at all?
No. When I was a kid, I always like hearing stories about inventors, all these guys invented stuff and did something with it. I thought that was cool. That’s the American Dream. You can make something of yourself. For me, at the time, I always thought, “That’s something of the past. Who can do something like that still these days?” Your first hurdle is getting over your own doubts. You’re shooting down the idea before you even try it. That’s a huge block for a lot of people.
That happens quickly, those little nanoseconds, where you have the thought and it is immediately followed by all the reasons why it won’t work, so you never do it. I’ve thought about this quite a bit. There’s a term for it in Psychology called an affect heuristic. Your brain decides it’s too dangerous and risky. Your brain says no without ever allowing yourself to get to the point to analyze, “What’s the worst that’s going to happen?”
I remember discounting, “The American Dream was something of the past to make something from scratch and make it a viable product where you could make some money.” At that time, in my mind, I didn’t have something that the quality was high enough to where you could sell it. The next step in the iteration is I went to a spray-on polymer that’s super highly abrasive resistant. That brought it from bottles and foam to a product that looked good. I was like, “I can sell these.”
You’re wading into an area that you don’t know anything about. You’re not an expert in polymers.
I did tons of research. There are things that I use now that I didn’t even know existed.
You’re a handy guy. You’re confident in your ability as a tinkerer or a maker. Now you’re having to learn stuff that’s totally outside your area. It’s not that you’re a woodworker and trying to figure out how to build a wooden boat. You got to learn how to work with all these different materials. It’s surprising how common that is. Successful entrepreneurs don’t have any experience in their field. It’s counterintuitive but sometimes the lack of experience works to your advantage. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you’re willing to try things that an expert might write off.
That’s funny that you say that too because there are times that I play people in chess and they’re less experienced than me and you’re like, “That was a good move but I don’t think they know that.” They don’t know what they’re doing and it still comes across as a decent move. They may or may not have made that move if they’re experienced.
Back to the American Dream thing. If I went to you five years before you ever started this and said, “You’re going to go into the boat building business,” you probably would have looked at me funny.
It came about. It wasn’t something I had planned.
Now you’re advancing. You’ve got this polymer thing figured out. You’ve got something that’s decent. You finally arrived at this iteration number four.
This is probably five. Here’s what put me over the top. People started asking me not how I made it. A lot of people are asking, “How’d you make that? How many bottles?” It was obvious that I made it. People started asking me, “Where did you buy that?” In my mind that meant, “That looks like a commercial product that you purchase somewhere.” “I’m interested in one as well.”
That was your market research.
As soon as I heard that a couple of times, I was like, “I better start looking for the IP on this. At least get a patent application and try to get a brand name, trademark in.” I did that early on as well.
You got this thing to the point where it looks like a commercial-grade product and people are starting to ask you. Instead of saying, “How did you build that?” They’re starting to ask you, “Where’d you buy it?”
I remember exactly where I was at. I was at Lake McSwain at a fishing derby and a guy had flipped his kayak and lost a bunch of his gear on the shoreline. After he fixed everything up and got back in the kayak, he paddled right next to me and he’s like, “Where’d you get that thing? I need one.” I watched him lose all of his gear and he saw me with no problem balancing and standing.
Let’s talk about that. When you say, “I’m going to go for it,” what does that mean? What did you do?
The first thing I did was I started applying for a trademark, patent and then starting the company with all the paperwork side of it. I got two trademarks, one for the company called Coalface Creations, and then I got a trademark for Feather-Raft. I then applied for the patent. All the applications were coming out for these government agencies. I got my business license. I keep making them in my garage. I was selling them through Facebook word of mouth.
You get to the point where enough people have said to you, “Where did you get that? I need one of those.” You decided you’re going to start to sell them. The first thing you do is you created a legal company. You got a trademark for the name.
I put charcoal when I go hunting and fishing. When I hunt, I use a lot of charcoal and cover my scent and try to camouflage myself.
You trademark the names. You filed for a patent application. Did you go to a small business center, write a business plan or keep putting one foot in front of the other? How did you go from there?
I’m not sure why I did those things off the bat, maybe it was because I did a little internet research or not. I don’t remember what specifically made me want to get a patent or trademark right away but that’s one of the first things I did. My application was still out there while I was already selling them to the public. I put my foot out in front before I even knew where I was going.
Talk to me about the first sale. What did that look like?
One of my friends bought one because he thinks that was pretty cool and then I was like, “I’m going to put them on Facebook and advertise them.” My friend and somebody else’s would share it and somebody wanted to buy one. I built it and they picked it up. My friend still owns it. It was cool to have somebody who I didn’t know personally who thought the idea was cool and they wanted to buy one. They bought it as a surprise for their husband. It was cool for me to get that validation of like, “Here’s somebody who knows that their husband likes to hunt and fish, and wants to buy one for him as a gift.” To me, that was showing that people have valued the idea.
When your friend or your relatives or somebody buys one, it’s not a validation because people want to make you feel better or they want to be supportive. When somebody you don’t know buys the first time, it’s the a-ha moment. It’s the real point of validation. That’s an interesting part of the story.
Getting that outside purchase from somebody you don’t know is the validation there. I’ve had companies purchase them and people buy them for other people as gifts as well. I sold them now to 26 or so different states. People around the country have valued them in some fashion or form.
You get the idea that you can sell these things now. You’ve got some inclination. People showed interest in it. What I’m trying to glean from you is you’re not quitting your day job. You’re not going off and getting bank loans. You’re making this all happen in the margins. Do I have that accurate? Is that right?
That’s accurate. This whole time, I’m teaching full-time. I do have at least the summers off. I have that time off or some time during the school year to get things done on my off time. I’m still working on this as I’m teaching as well. This has branched off into different areas, and it keeps me extremely busy but that’s not the goal to always be doing both either.
I want people to understand that. They think it’s all or nothing. They think being entrepreneurial means you got to quit your job or drop out of school and go all in. Your story is typical. It’s like, “No, don’t quit your day job. You’re doing it in the margins on the weekends, holidays, evenings. You’re making it happen.” What you’re doing is taking the risk out of it. You’re de-risking it.
It helps because you’re bound to make mistakes as you go. If I had put everything all in one basket and tried to go for it, I’ve made mistakes along the way that probably would have put me under. Having that data allowed me to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and keep on chugging.
One of the points I wanted to make from this is lots of people want to have their own business. You call it the American Dream. A lot of people have that dream. They think the barrier to that dream is money. I don’t think it’s money. I want to go one step further and say that for the novice entrepreneur, having access to money early on is probably detrimental.
I would agree because there are things I probably would have invested in, went forward with and would have found out that’s probably wasn’t the best way to go. Developments over like this have allowed me to make smaller mistakes with less monetary value and step back when that didn’t come out the way I thought I was going to come out and try a different branch.
You’re a Science guy. It’s in nature. You’re growing organically and the lack of resources is making you stronger. It’s forcing you to figure it out in these small little incremental layers. Richard Feynman’s famous quote is, “The first trick is not to fool yourself and you’re the easiest person to fool.” Especially in an entrepreneurial context. “I’ve got access to these resources. I’m confident. I’m going to build it and they will come.” Often, it’s gambling. It’s not entrepreneurship and a lot of people create themselves a lot of financial heartaches.
I’ve had several people talk to me about their business ideas too, and I give them some of my advice as well because I see that they’re gung-ho, but it doesn’t sound like it’s all there that it may work for them.
Let me get back to the first couple of sales here. You sold one to your friend. That’s all fine and good. How did you sell the first one to a stranger? Did you put it up on Facebook?
It was on Facebook. I was posting, “These are for sale. I’m making these now.” I was already using the name Feather-Raft before I even had the trademark. In one of the posts that my wife shared, one of her friends had seen it. That’s where she was like, “My husband would love that.” She bought it for him.
Is Facebook where you launched the business?
I never wanted to put it in print. I knew already that paper advertising probably wasn’t the most efficient at the time. I thought, “If this was going to spread easily, I might as well use digital media.” It’s some information on a server that’s easy to reproduce. You’re not wasting paper or ink on trying to distribute this stuff. Just put it out there on the internet.
What happened after your first real sale? Take us through that. Where did it go from there?
This was early on too when I decided, “I’m going to make a company. I’m going to start trying to sell these.” From the first one, I started putting it on Craigslist as well. The area that I was covering with advertising started to spread out. I started to get people to purchase them, people that didn’t even know or somebody I knew. This first sale I was telling you about was somebody my wife knew. It’s 100% stranger. No ties to me. One of the first was a marine construction company. They wanted so that they could reach these tight-fit areas but still be able to carry it to the worksite and carry their tools. They came back several years later and bought a few more too. The validation point is that they came back and wanted more. That was good.
That’s a common part of the story that the product or service that you’re offering is being used or implemented in ways that you never anticipated when you began. Hewlett-Packard’s first product was a bowling machine apparatus. That’s part of the story that people don’t always get. Who knows? There could be a whole other market there selling aquatic contractors.
I’ve had people approaching me buying a couple dozen of them so they could rent them out. It’s not for personal use but for business as well.
You’ve got to pay ads on Craigslist and on Facebook. Are you building them and then selling them? Are you waiting until you get an order and telling people, “You’ve got to wait for the boat?” How are you doing that?
At that point, I was taking the order and then building it. I get too far ahead of myself on those. At that point, I was making them as the orders came in to play it safe. I didn’t want to get too much inventory without customers.
What roadblocks have you hit along the way? You talked a little bit about trial and error, and making small mistakes. Have you run into any big roadblocks?
The first challenge I had was getting that coating on there in a cost-effective manner. That was a price point issue where I was trying to getting the perceived value, matching the market value so that people would buy them. Getting that sprayed on polyurea was tough. I was outsourcing that. It made it difficult to bring the price down because they would only get the rate on my local outsources company. It wasn’t good enough for me to continue with the margins that I was getting. It made them more expensive, which made them harder to sell. One of my first stumbling blocks. I knew if I was going to sell them on a bigger scale or across the country, you mail them. The mailing was going to cost some money too. I had to get the price down.
You told me something about the Coast Guard. You didn’t even think about licensing watercraft, did you?
I knew there was going to be something in the making with that. Somebody had asked me, “Can you register these?” I was like, “Let me try. Let me register one.” I ended up registering one. I don’t know how everything operates at this point yet. I go ahead and register one through the DMV. I said that I built my own boat, which anybody can do and register. I’m registered as being manufactured by the company. In my mind, “You can register these. No problem.” I tell people, “You can register these. I registered mine.” I had a guy from Alabama purchase one. I don’t know if it’s the DFG or DNR. Sometimes it’s DMV that registers them. He takes to get it registered, then they’re like, “This has a company name on it. You did not build your own. You need a whole identification number.” That’s when I had to apply for the manufacturer identification code to the Coast Guard.
This guy came back and said, “You gave me the wrong information.” Was he upset?
No, he was understanding. A lot of people knew I was making these out of the garage. He’s like, “I took it in. I couldn’t get it registered because your company logo was on there. They said this was made by a boat manufacturer. You didn’t make it. You need to go through the Coast Guard to get the whole identification numbers on there and then you can register.” When he contacted me, I was like, “Let me get that fixed right away.”
It didn’t take as long as I thought because I did my homework really quick. I didn’t hold up everybody. I’m not afraid to email. I was talking before the head of the Coast Guard and they were super helpful. They helped me get through all the little processes that I needed to go through and the paperwork. The Coast Guard inspectors came out to my house and looked at the rafts here in my garage. Everything worked out. I sent him the paperwork that he needed and he got it registered within one month or three weeks.
Were you worried? “I’m going to run into a snag here. The Coast Guard is going to come up with all these specifications that I can’t meet and it’s going to sink my hole.”
When I was doing that research on my own before talking to all the Coast Guard experts, there are some boatbuilding manuals out there that are hundreds of pages long with tons of regulations and special ways to inspect things. It was overwhelming. Fortunately, I have no problem asking questions. I’m talking to the Coast Guard, emailing them back and forth or calling them and getting right down to the meat and potatoes of the situation. They were able to help me out through all that paperwork.
You said you have no problem asking questions. Are you intellectually curious or you keep asking until you get the answer?
I am super curious, for one. I do like to know how things work. I’m not afraid to ask those people in higher authority positions. I know all the manuals here. I know I can take all this time and read them but I also had a time crunch at the time. I’m going to pester you. I’m trying to get help from these people without trying to feel inferior, “I’m some little boat builder in his garage talking to the head of the Coast Guard.” I was trying to do something. I needed help and I wasn’t afraid to ask.
The important part of the story is not being afraid to ask. It’s not being cocky or arrogant. You keep marching forward one step at a time, one question at a time. You’re not deterred by a roadblock. A lot of people said, “You’ve got to get a Coast Guard certified.” That would have shut a lot of people down. They get intimidated by that.
I foresaw something like that. Coming down the pipeline, I knew there was something I had to do to build boats. I wasn’t aware of what it was exactly. Once it hit the fan, that’s when I went to work, researching, contacting and reaching out for help. The Coast Guard was extremely helpful, willing to give information and to put me in contact with even boatbuilding engineers. I’ve had opinions of experts, nautical engineers who chimed in on it as well. It was nice to hear their information. Their experts in it. I wasn’t. I was asking for help and they’re not afraid to help me or not shying off to help me.
People could learn that lesson right there. People will help you if you ask them, persistent and remain calm. If you’re trying to find answers, people will try to help you. That’s easy to overlook. I interviewed a guy who became a friend of mine, David Petite. He’s a Native American guy. He’s got 150 patents. He talks about people come out of the woodwork to help you but you got to ask for it.
You got to be honest with yourself and when you don’t know that information and you know somebody who does, don’t be afraid to ask.
Can you tell me about a time when someone came out of the woodwork to try to help you?
I could probably give you several but one of the early on parts in the business where somebody helped me was when I started selling them on Craigslist and Facebook. One of my friends told me, “You need to get into this competition. There’s a business competition, the local county-wide competition like Shark Tank.” Even though I was a public school teacher, I never was a fan of public speaking. That was scary but I was like, “Why don’t I go ahead and try it? I’ve done a few things that I thought were smart enough to start with IP protection and getting a real company going. I’ve got a few little sales under my belt. Let’s go try it.” I got into that competition.
My first audition type thing was not so well because I missed something in the directions, and my first presentation was not great. As soon as I was done, I sat back at my table, and I was swarmed by some of the staff, “You’re going to apply at the next round, right?” They want me to keep going. A lot of people from that competition sat around and encouraged me to go to the next round, go ahead and apply again. I end up winning that whole competition for the county. That was a good experience to have right off the bat too. I started the company in 2000. I applied for some of the patents and trademarks in 2013. The company started in 2014 officially with the LLC and then I won a business competition in December of 2014. It was a great kickoff of having an idea, going for it and getting some validation right off the back. It was nice.
You were worried about your public speaking, and it turns out that didn’t matter that much. Your story was compelling.
The fact that I had already secured some of the IP rights to it, I already started the company. I have a physical product that is brought in. The judges already saw it, like, “This guy’s got something.” I messed up my presentation because it was the first competition I’ve ever gone to. They have several rounds in the county, you can go to them as the month goes by and then they have a final. I never watched any of them. I barely even knew what Shark Tank was because I don’t watch. I’m busy all the time. I happened to be drawn out of the hat to present first. I didn’t have the whole format down even though they had sent me stuff prior and what to expect type. That first round, I wasn’t picked but they immediately invited me back to the next round. I kept advancing from there to win the final.
When you won that thing, what did that do for you?
It validated to me that I had something at least worth pursuing because there was a panel of judges, they’re all big business. They have patents of their own or they work for financial institutions. This was sponsored by the SBDC, which is Small Business Development Center and funded by the SBA, Small Business Administration. For me, that created a little bit of buzz in the media and local newspapers. Networking is a huge part of starting a business because you learn who has other skills that you could lean on or where you could get advice from.
That allowed me to develop a relationship with the Small Business Development Center’s consultants. You can work with them. They’re experienced and knowledgeable. It’s free. Taxpayers are paying for it but you get to utilize their services. Before that, I didn’t even know they existed. I have worked with several consultants who have excellent ideas. That’s when I started getting into writing business plans, scrutinizing the numbers and doing all the backend side of the business instead of all the no hands-on development and making the product better.
It got you thinking about working on the business, not into the business. Were you trying to raise venture capital or trying to get investors? Were you thinking, “I’m going to fund this on savings?”
I’ve always been open to investors. I thought it would be great to get somebody who had some interest in that field, somebody who’s already in the boat building business or industry. If I could get an investor in that realm, I always thought that would be a great opportunity to take. You never know when you’re going into this competition who’s watching and where the word spreads.
You weren’t actively out looking for investment. The point I want people to understand is where you are looking for investment thinking, “When I get the investment then I’ll advance,” or you were advancing regardless and thinking, “If an investor shows up, that’s great.”
I wasn’t looking for an investor, honestly, but if one came about, I would be open to that idea. There was a small cash prize with that competition but it wasn’t substantial enough to get me to the next level. It was still nice to get a little bit of cash as a reward.
Talk to me a little bit about the intellectual property, the trademarking and the intimidating patent stuff, a domain for people to wander into. How do you navigate all that?
The first thing I looked up was YouTube, how-to type of stuff. Getting the provisional patent doesn’t look too difficult. If you want to get a patent, you can do your drawings. You can easily meet the guidelines, which only lasts for twelve months. It covers you and your idea to do that test marketing to see if anyone’s even interested in it before you dive in and go for the patent. After watching a bunch of stuff and reading on the USPTO website, I still decided not to do it myself. I went ahead and went with a legal company, LegalZoom because the provisional is important, but you don’t need an expert to do it. You need to get somebody who had the experience to do it for me. It was a costly process. I went ahead and hired LegalZoom to file the provisional for me.
What’s the price range? Is it tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of dollars?
For the provisional patent application, I honestly don’t remember. I do remember the trademarks were about $1,000 and the way they wrote it up legally. I didn’t think that it was horrible for someone else to do it. At that price, I didn’t think it was a bad deal. I used LegalZoom with the trademarks and provisional patent application.
To be clear for our readers, the provisional patent is a temporary patent that gives you twelve months. It puts a big fence around your idea so you can go out, talk to people about it and develop the idea without fear of someone stealing the idea.
You can say, “Patent pending.” You can also refer back to that date that you filed. There’s no such thing as inventor books anymore or notebooks where you can date your ideas. You have to file it with the patent agency or USPTO for the dates to stick.
It’s the first to file. It’s not the first to invent.
You hear stuff like, “Go mail yourself something, so it gets date stamped on an envelope or keep your logs in your inventor’s notebook.” It’s the first to file. Getting that out of your brain and on paper and to the USPTO is crucial on dates.
That’s the other thing I wanted to say about this guy, David Petite, the serial inventor. I went to the US Patent Trade Office in DC with him. He said, “The examiners like working with garage-type inventors like you.” The perception is they’re all doing some stuff for Cisco, Ford or something like that. They’re too busy for the little guy and he said it’s quite the opposite. They get a kick out of trying to help the small-time inventor.
After the provisional, I did go searching for somebody who could do patents or was in that arena but I know LegalZoom has a huge umbrella where they provide lots of different services, but I was looking for somebody with more expertise when it came to the non-provisional patent and it was a utility patent, so those are a little harder to get than a design patent.
You had to pay a law firm, a patent attorney.
Here’s where you make mistakes. I found somebody and they were a patent agent, not a patent attorney. This person started everything up for me with the non-provisional but as time went on, I didn’t have a good feeling that they were up to the par of handling the work. It didn’t seem they were doing the quality of work I thought that they couldn’t be doing. I was also heavily involved in doing a lot of the work myself through. What am I paying you for if I’m doing a lot of the work? I ended up getting a referral. Here’s what I would highly recommend to somebody who’s trying to dive into something that they don’t know what they’re doing.
Ask somebody who knows somebody and is reliable and look for those referrals because I was doing my own research on the internet and found a patent agent who I thought was an attorney. There’s nothing illegal about a patent agent doing the work for you but I got a referral from another business partner of mine or a friend of mine who has his own business. He has an attorney and that attorney turned me on to a different patent attorney. This is a bar-certified patent attorney and was an engineer. Talking to somebody who has the goal and the analytical background.
We communicated much better and she cleaned up the patent application. It was great. After she got a hold of it, cleaned everything up and they read so much better. I was talking to this person one-on-one on the phone, it was much easier to communicate with this person because they’re the ones mostly through email and correspondence. I don’t think I’ve talked to that person on the phone maybe more than once or twice. It’s harder to communicate with the other person than the bar-certified.
Now, you’re racking up legal fees. This is a path full-blown patent. It is not an inexpensive thing to do. How are you funding this? Are taking this out of your life savings or are you funding this out of the boats you are selling? How are you doing that?
A little of both. I have a teaching job. It’s not the most lucrative job but I don’t have a super expensive lifestyle either. I like hunting and fishing. I have a small raft, not a huge boat, because you know what they say about boats, you’re always pouring money in them. I don’t live a crazy lifestyle or spending tons of cash. I was using it to fund the business. The money I was getting from selling rafts and my regular paycheck basically from my day job.
Were you ever get into getting nervous? Did you ever think, “I’m spending a lot of money on this patent?” Were you past that point where you had enough demand where you knew this was going to go?
For me, it was more about regretting not pursuing it. My biggest fear was seeing this on the market somewhere else and thinking, “I should have done that when I had the chance.” There have been times where it’s been tight financially, but I never got to the point where it’s like, “I’m not going to be able to pay the mortgage to feed my family.” It’s been tight but play your numbers. Go as low as you can comfortably go and don’t overshoot it because you could ruin your livelihood, house or mortgage.
That’s what I was referring to earlier about how the lack of money makes you smart. It forces you to focus the tip of your spear on what’s useful and what’s essential. I heard someone say it like this, “Every once in a while, somebody walks out in the desert, sticks a toothpick in the sand and a gusher comes out.” That creates a different organization than somebody that’s got to struggle for a while to get too profitable. There’s a more robust and stronger unit there when you’ve got a struggle to make something happen.
I agree too because you alluded to it where you have to play those mental games. What’s the most important thing right now? For me, it was the patent right from the beginning because getting the patent too was an insurance policy. Let’s say I didn’t have enough money to go into business on my own. One would be, “At least I could sell the patent or license it.” For me, I want to see other people using these. It’s not all about the money. Even if somebody else wants to license a patent, put these on the market and I’m only getting a few dollars or whatever per unit, to me, that’s still a success story. Someone’s using something that I created out of my garage and now they’re going and having fun on it. That is more of a metric of success to me than saying, “Now I’m a multimillion-dollar person.”
I want to dig into this for a second because I don’t think people get that. A lot of people think that people become entrepreneurs because they want money. Certainly, a lot of people go into that. They think, “This is a get rich quick thing. I want to make a lot of money.” There are plenty of people that do that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive. They overlook something that’s important and that there’s a humanistic need. We have a desire to want to create something that’s useful to other humans. That satisfies something profound within anyone.
That has been more of a motivating factor for me than financial success. Just seeing people using them. Even when I was at the lake fishing, we went out at night and somebody else was on our watercraft. You can see their lights across the water and they were yelling to me, “What are you guys on?” “A Feather-Raft.” “Me too.” A customer of mine from a few years back was excited to tell us about his Feather-Raft. We already had Feather-Raft. He didn’t even know what we were on here. He was all excited to tell us, “After I got my little motor and my lights.” I’m like, “Are you going to mix those?” He’s like, “That’s me.”
What does that look like now? You’re talking about lights and motors. Bring us up to speed. Where’s your business now?
I ended up buying my spray machine. I shape the foam and spray our own. What’s nice having that manufacture under my roof is that I can adjust stuff. I made adjustments to the design. You’re always trying to speed things up, make it easier or improve on something here and there. To have that in under my own roof is nice because I also have contract manufacturers. Sometimes changing stuff can take a long time, especially if you’re not their biggest customer because I work with these rotomold companies or companies in China. When I test marketing different designs, I don’t buy big quantities. You’re not the first customer that they’re always going to service.
You’re saying R&D is still in-house and you’re contracting the boats out?
There’s still R&D happening under our roof for the hand. We’re always trying to be lighter or stronger, better parts or cheaper parts. Also, speeding up the process of manufacturing as well. It used to take me a good week to make one and now I can make one in 4 to 5 hours.
Do you come home from work and there are new orders in your inbox? What’s a typical day look like for you?
COVID has put squash on making my own. I did some inflatables imported from China, and I’ve got a few rotomolds out of Texas that are manufactured over there, but I’ve had to stop the handmade version because I have to spend so much time at school preparing lessons and keeping things going digitally. We have no students yet on campus, so it threw a wrench in there for me. I’ve always been able to juggle both do the business work at school. There’s been such a demand at the school level where that’s pretty much all I’ve had time to focus on since school started. I’m now up to where I’m a few days ahead of the kids, lessons and grading. I need to get back into the shop. There are other customers that want the handmade version still and I sold out.
Over the summer of 2020, I built as many as I possibly can. I sold out in the first week of September 2020, which was pretty quick. As soon as I got back to school my inventory was depleted on the handmade. The nice thing about COVID is a lot of people I found now doing outdoor stuff, social distancing, kayak industry and these small watercrafts picked up. I ran out of inventory but I also got too busy at my other job.
I love the fact that you’re a school teacher and still teaching. You didn’t quit your day job. I’m sure at some point in the future, this might get to the point where you need to make a choice. I wanted to ask, how has this experience influenced you as a teacher? Is there any impact on you as a teacher?
When I moved from that first district where I built my first raft and moved over to a different district teaching only Math and Science, I’ve been doing that for years now. I only teach Science. I was teaching Math there for about eight years. That became one of our lessons. It was all about the Feather-Raft. We were doing surface area, buoyancy calculations and unit cost. All those stuff were exactly the standards that we were teaching at the time. I was in the news a few times as well. I also saved someone’s life from the raft not long after winning my business competition. I went on a national scale. I was getting a few emails from different states.
Did you use your raft to save someone’s life?
A couple of days after winning that business competition back in 2014, I was out duck hunting here at the local river where I tested my first raft and it was weird. It’s a foggy morning and I was hearing a little bit of gurgling sound in the water. I’ve seen beavers eat the highest sense out of the water there. I’ve seen the cows come down from the field and drink water. It was dark and foggy, and I kept hearing a noise every now. It didn’t raise any alarms. As the sun started to keep coming up and the fog was burning off a little bit.
I remember standing up on my raft and turning around looking. I see the skin of somebody back between their pants on their jacket because it’s lighter than the clothing and realized that they’re in the water face down. Fortunately, their head was on submerged frock enough to where their mouth was at the waterline and they were breathing. That’s what I was hearing, every time they would breathe, they were sucking in a little bit of water. I got the raft over to where they were. There were way too many weeds in the water where I couldn’t get to them, so I had to jump off the raft, climb over a barbwire wire fence, jump in the water, pull this guy out of the water onto the bank. I call 911 and waited for them to show up and take him to the hospital.
You’ve got some news attention for that.
Yes, because I was in the newspaper three days before that for winning that business competition. I don’t know how I was contacted, but I was interviewed a couple of times by the local newspapers for pulling someone out of the river while using the raft. I won a business competition for it.
You can’t make that stuff up.
It’s funny because it was right there where I tested my first model too.
I want to come back to the beginning and talk to you a little bit about the American Dream. That’s a good place to wind this down but what does that look like for you? What do you see as the end game here? Don’t you have an end game? Are you just enjoying the ride? Are you trying to sell this company? What do you see is on the horizon?
I’m enjoying the ride but I’m also am busy a lot. I do have daughters that I feel like I do need to give a little more time back to them because I’ve been super busy over the last years. I’m looking at selling a portion of the company or outsourcing a portion of that because I do have the handmade under my belt now, but I do have somebody who’s interested in taking the whole thing over. Buying all the equipment, the jigs and starting up manufacturing there.
It would be great for me because it would free up that time and still allow that team of individuals instead of just myself and a few helpers here, go up and take off on a model. I’ve also had opportunities to talk with some of the world’s largest paddle boat manufacturer companies to try to license the patent. I’ve had some near misses with some of the companies, but I’m in conversation with larger companies who may want to go ahead and take over as well.
What do you think it is about you that makes it work? You say that you’re curious, tinkerer and a maker. You like making things. What else is it about Elias that makes this thing work?
I am not afraid to work because it takes a lot of time to juggle everything. From the beginning, there was a lot of research going into what you have to do to start a company and get a patent. There was a lot of research on supplies. How do you build it? What are the physical properties? There’s so much you have to learn to make the product alone. The business side of it comes in where you have to now do the paperwork, bookkeeping, taxes, advertising, website, editing photos, stuff on YouTube, getting ads out there, talking to customers, customer mailing stuff and creating accounts with UPS for shipping. I’m throwing in a bunch of words because there is so much to do that you don’t foresee if you don’t have that business background. There’s a lot more to it than, “I have a product that sells.” Now you got to do everything legitimately and have all the supporting accounts and suppliers and supply chain. There’s a lot of stuff that goes with running a business.
The other side of the coin is, it seems to me that you’re not afraid of work, but work isn’t work when it’s your thing or you’re doing something that’s your thing. It’s not work you have to do to collect a paycheck. It’s almost like a source of joy, meaning or purpose. It’s not labor where you have to go off and work to pay the bills.
Honestly, I could walk away from this and be just fine. I still have my other job. The work that I’m putting into it to keep everything going, alive, see if it can get to that next level, if you can make that deal with these other companies or get a contract with sales. It’s an adventure. I don’t mind doing the work.
It’s not drudgery.
It’s not like I’m going to go under because I have my other job.
It’s an adventure. You said it best right there. Elias, what advice would you have for someone that’s looking for an idea or stumbled into an idea?
The first thing I would say is don’t discount your idea immediately. Don’t think it’s impossible because that’s going to keep you from trying. Also, try to get that validation from, not only your customers but also people who have some experience in that arena. I’ve seen people take ideas to the market that at least I thought I can foresee that, “I don’t think that’s going to work so well.” Try to get some validation before you go market and dive in headfirst and not have a clue what’s out there. Got to do some research.
I call it micro experimentation. That’s how you increase the likelihood that you’re going to survive by reducing the cost of failure as much as you possibly can.
Those micro-steps add up. My motto for the longest time is, “Just do something every day.” I’ve been doing this for years, so if I file some paperwork one day, design something the next day, work with my CAD designer, contact designers, investigate supplies or read a product sheet or spec sheet. Do something every day and if you think about it, that adds up over time.
You’ve been on this journey. How has this changed you, if it has at all? What have you learned about yourself? How have you changed as a result of this experience?
I’m not sure it’s changed me too much. It’s made me a little wiser when it comes to making some business decisions. Now, especially working with SBDC, I’ve learned to take a look at the numbers a lot more and try forecasting in before taking that next move instead of like I used to do, which is go in blindly and go, “I’m going to figure this out.” It minimizes some of those mistakes that you might make. I still take risks. If you don’t take those risks, you’re never going to reap the rewards either. I’ve always been a little bit of a risk-taker anyway. That’s why I’m saying I don’t know if it’s quite changed me, but it does make me think a little bit more before I make decisions or at least plan.
Look before you leap. Elias, I appreciate you sharing the story. I want people to be able to connect with you. How can they reach you?
I’m still out there on the World Wide Web. I have my website, Feather-Raft.com. YouTube channel called Face The Wild, so you can see some of those rafts in action. We do have Instagram, @Feather.Raft.
Elias, thanks so much for doing this. I appreciate it.
Thank you, Gary. I appreciate you having me.
Talk to you soon.
- Coalface Creations – Facebook
- Facebook – Feather-Raft
- Face The Wild – YouTube
- @Feather.Raft – Instagram
About Elias Ruiz
Elias Ruiz, a veteran of the US Navy, a middle school math and science teacher, an entrepreneur, and an avid outdoorsman, is the mastermind behind the Feather-Raft. He has been experimenting with raft designs since 2008. The first raft was created and made from two-liter bottles. It was designed so he could carry it single-handedly and do the things he loved; bow-fish, fish, and hunt. He eventually designed something that he thought he could bring to the market. That’s when he applied for a utility patent and registered a couple of trademarks—one trademark for the company name and one for our first product. Currently, the Feather-Raft is patented, and the idea is gaining attention.