Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Aloha! I’m Dr. Rob Yonover from Honolulu, Hawaii. I am a Ph.D. volcanologist, big-wave surfer, and rough water fisherman that invents survival gear for the military.
It seemed like I was always on the edge of dying, so I began to invent survival gear to save my own ass! I went down the patent road on my initial invention, the SeeRescueStreamer, which is now approved and used by military and civilians worldwide and has even saved 4 lives already! I even met one of the people that it saved and they thanked me -that felt better than all of the money I have made on my invention.
I have also invented the LIFE/FLOAT Rescue Board, the Pocket/Floatation device, Pocket DeSalinator, Video Search and Rescue (vSAR), and the upcoming Fin-propelled Water Bike.
The SeeRescueStreamer really took off with the military approvals and more recently with my appearance on ABC Shark Tank and CBS Innovation Nation. My main customers are international military groups, including Navy, Air Force, and Army groups and more recently the consumer sector is taking off (sailors, hikers, divers, etc.). I run a small lean and mean a company with sales of $20,000 per month with a significant portion of the sales coming from International accounts.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in Miami and dreamed about volcanoes and becoming a big wave surfer, but unfortunately, all of Florida is flat (topographically and relatively surf wise). I worked hard in school and fell in love with science. I learned that if I got straight A’s, no one could mess with me and it leads to full scholarships to get my Master’s working on gold deposits in Nova Scotia and ultimately to get my Ph.D. working on submarine volcanoes in Hawaii.
I was a polite pain-in-the-ass and would call media outlets for years until they would write about the technology, years later my media book is so large, I can’t even carry it to meetings with all the reprints of articles and stories!
While in Hawaii working on my Ph.D., I was flying with a rented single-engine plane with a friend and it started to backfire and I started to prepare for a crash. I looked down and all I could see was blue water. I knew I could swim, but I also knew the plane would sink and they would have a hard time finding us. I know about smoke signals, flares, and even electronic devices, however, I kept looking at all that blue water - I would be a coconut floating in the ocean - How would they see me?
This is a photo of what a person alone treading water looks like from 500 feet of altitude
Fortunately, the plane made it to the runway, but I could not stop thinking about trying to solve the problem of being seen by your rescuers. A few weeks late I flew over the artist Christo’s pink plastic art project that surrounded islands in Miami - that was it - if I could just make a long pink tail, I could be found. Well, the pink turned into orange after a macho Navy officer told me to lose the pink color and I immediately embraced international orange as my color. I invented a long segmented streamer that was visible at sea or on land from great altitude and distances.
The same person from 500 feet, this time with my SeeRescueStreamer invention!
At the time, my wife told me to stop playing with that piece of plastic and get a real job (she would later (gladly) eat those words!). I was working on my Ph.D. at the time so we were scraping by financially and to add to the challenge we had a couple of rugrats (children). Times were tough and although I was pressured out to pursue more conventional jobs, I knew the SeeRescueStreamer was a great idea that would one day save lives.
As a scientist, I knew how to attack problems and although it sounds simple, it was very difficult to get a long piece of plastic to float without twisting up and sinking. I looked to nature as I commonly do to solve problems as nature has been solving problems for billions of years (see Darwin/Evolution). I tested repeatedly and kept good lab notes and finally figured out a way to make the streamer segmented like a centipede (or your spine) as that is one of the best ways to reinforce an elongated object. Thus the SeeRescueStreamer with struts (spread bars) was born, patented, military-approved, and launched. (I even wrote a book on the inventing process if you would like to learn more: Hardcore Inventing).
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
To build the streamer, I realized that it would be best to control the variables myself instead of farming it out overseas and getting a bulk order of streamers that potentially didn’t work. Therefore, I built all of the first generations of the product at my own home laboratory. That way, I could control things and pivot as necessary. I started out by obtaining free samples of materials from companies all over the country. They would send me samples of film or struts (straws) in return, I told them I would come back to them once I had production going to purchase materials in bulk.
I built prototypes, tested them, and repeated the process until I was comfortable with the performance of the streamer. It was difficult to keep persevering through the failures and money problems/challenges, but I kept my idea on the prize - that being I knew this idea would one day save lives! (See Hardcore Inventing). I was fortunate to have the Pacific Ocean as my backyard testing lab as it definitely delivered the tough conditions that I knew any survival product had to withstand. Also, the volcanic terrain of the islands was a good lab for the land portion of the testing.
The other thing that was readily apparent was that I was entering into the big leagues of large corporations that sell to the military and outdoor consumer sector. I knew my only chance was if I could obtain a patent to defend my idea.
The first step in going down the patent route is to keep good notes to establish a timeline of when you invented something. Here is a 1985 image from my notebook showing my original idea (Safety Roll! Ha! - This is when I thought I could use bubble-wrap, prior to me figuring out I need struts/spreader bars).
Many iterations, hard aches, and struggles later, I obtained a U.S. Patent! That was a major milestone because not only had I obtained a patent, but it was for a simple idea and ironically, the simpler the idea - the broader the patent coverage! Here is an image of one of the original patent drawings:
Describe the process of launching the business.
My strategy for launching the business revolved around the media. My brother was an advertising guy and he told me that editors are sitting on their butt all day looking for things to write about (this was pre/early internet days, so that is quite different now, but editors are still always looking for content).
I pursued two main tracks: 1) Go after the media publications by sending press releases; and 2) Go after the military to get military approvals/adoptions. I obtained lists of editors and military officials from a variety of sources with the most coveted contact information in those days being in the form of fax numbers! I fashioned a simple 1-page press release with photos/images/patent information with a few but very compelling words.
Most people make the mistake of writing too many words on almost all their sales/pitch material. I like to approach it like a slide presentation where you only should have 10-20 works maximum on any slide. No one wants to read much, especially if it’s boring. You have to write compelling words that sell the BENEFIT of the product, not its features! Be dramatic and try to capture their interest and compel them somehow to contact you.
On a practical note, after 11 pm phone/fax calls were way cheaper back in the day, so I would start faxing the same 1-page release to my fax list every night into the wee hours. It was like fishing, I put out 100 lines with bait and hoped for one bite. If I got a bite, I then would fax that article to all the others and say “look what the Miami Herald is saying about this technology, should you tell your readers or equip your troops with this technology? (note: the Miami Herald was the first to write about it”.
I was a polite pain-in-the-ass and would call media outlets for years until they would write a blurb about the technology, i.e., I called Outside Magazine for 3 years until they wrote an article. They would blow me off at first and then I would call the weeks or months later with new development and ask if now was a good time for them to inform their readers? Years later, my media book is so large, I can’t even carry it to meetings with all the reprints of articles and stories! (CNN, Discovery Channel, Outside Magazine, Playboy Magazine, Army Times, Sailing Magazine, Scuba Diver, Air Force Times, Men’s Journal, etc…).
The next step for me was going after and securing a licensing deal. I created a Profit Sharing Licensing Agreement with my attorneys that were a win-win for both parties and it enabled me to grow the company astronomically by bringing real financial support and expertise on board. By the way, I obtained my licensing partner via one of the media plays I received on the technology (Pacific Business News was the outlet that covered the story that drew the attention of a potential licensee.).
Instead of going into debt to build a business, licensing was an excellent vehicle to get the company profitable and up and running in a short time. It turns out that my challenges at home had exploded as no longer did we have just two young children to take care of, but my wife was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and was in a wheelchair within a year (and for the next 19 years). The challenges of running a business paled in comparison to that struggle! (For any of you that are going through similar challenges, my book Caregiver’s Survival Guide could be very useful.)
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Initially, our strategy working with a licensee was to pursue both the consumer and military markets through a combination of direct marketing and lobbying, however, it quickly became apparent that the military was the market to be in. The military was much more serious about safety as it is their job to keep their personnel safe, whereas the consumers typically would rather buy another 6-pack of beer for their boat then a safety device.
We pursued the military through getting military approvals for the SeeRescueStreamer by all branches of the U.S. Military and then brought in sales representatives from all over the world to sell their technology in their regions. We became active numbers of professional organizations and groups that specialized in safety and survival. In this facet of the business as in most, relationships are key. We attended specialized military/survival trade shows to become part of the community.
Trade shows are a love/hate thing for me personally. They are a bit of a pain in the ass, especially relative to the cost and distance to travel (especially from Hawaii), however, there is no doubt that you can meet the critical people in your field by attending trade shows. There is no better equalizer, as if you dress up (and even shave), you can be face to face with critical decision-makers that normally would never take your phone call or answer your email. You can simply walk the floor with your technology in your pocket and meet potential customers at their booths or you can splurge for your own booth and have them come to you.
One of the things I learned from trade shows is what not to say to attendee’s passing your booth - Do not say “hello” or “can I help you”. These are dead-end statements that no one really wants to hear. “Hello” only gets a “hello” back and no one things they need help at a trade show! The line I came up with that I still use today are these simple 4 words: “Have you seen this?” If they say no, you show them your wares. If they say yes, you show them the new features you have added or the latest developments for your technology.
A couple of years ago, I scored a big coup and was on ABC Shark Tank. 9 million people saw the SeeRescueStreamer technology and it has aired over 20 times as a rerun on CNBC in the last few years and counting! This has re-launched the business for the consumer sector and proven a point I have contended for years - women are more likely to buy safety gear than men. Guys are too macho to admit they need safety stuff, where women definitely want their loved ones to have the best in safety gear (assuming they want their particular loved ones to come home - ha!).
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
At present day, my licensing agreement has ended and I am running the business as a family business as it was originally. We have retained military and civilian sale representation groups across the globe and we continue to sell to military and civilians in those sectors. Shark Tank (and the subsequent reruns) have helped build our domestic consumer market as we have built-in exposure from the airings and the overall web presence. We have stayed lean and mean and sell predominantly in that sector through Amazon or direct, with additional sales reps in different domestic sectors.
We are always bringing more reps. Groups on board and we enjoy the simplicity of that arrangement. We have maintained a lean staff and stay profitable and are able to weather storms of varying nature. The consumer and military dual sectors are excellent in that we have multiple independent customer bases. We are constantly approached by groups that want to invest, however, we are not presently interested in pursuing that option.
We plan on continuing to organically build both sectors and keep supplying people with an essential piece of gear that could save their lives. We are driven to that end!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One thing that I learned is that low overhead wins the day because you can protect your margins and stay profitable, thus becoming the proverbial tortoise that eventually passes the hare. Be careful not to take on too many investors/partners, especially if you are building a business for the long term.
One of the best pieces of advice I can share with upcoming entrepreneurs is to not quit their day job until you can quit your day job! Don’t put all your eggs in your new business startup as typically most projects in life take twice as long as you think and require twice as much money! Be in it for the long haul if you believe in your business/technology.
The other goal that keeps things simple is to try to invent or come up with a product that is small and light in size. That way your storage and shipping charges are minimal. That is critical if you need to run your business out of your closet for a few years until it really takes off!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our strategy is to keep it simple and sell either through sales reps or directly through Amazon. At the same time, we are constantly trying to promote technology organically through social media and the internet in general.
Although our social media presence is small (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) our web presence through searches and in having created a new technology is respectable. We also have patents and military approvals (including National Stock Numbers) that are worth their weight in gold and speak volumes to the credibility of the SeeRescueStreamer technology.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Stand Alone Inventor is an influential book for anyone interested in starting a lean and mean company.
Blue Startups was another great resource and we are proud graduates of that program. Any networking that you can tap into is advised. Sometimes niche marketing is better than going for the home run the large market.
I am honored to be part of a (private) Shark Tank group that consists of people that were on the show - they have provided immeasurable information as we all share our experiences in business.
Google Patents is also my go-to resource when I first come up with a new idea to see if it has already been patented (and thus save me some time pursuing a potential dead-end). Even if something has already been patented, it can’t hurt to reach out to the patent holder and see if they want to go into business with you.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Make sure you are passionate about the business/technology that you are preparing to pursue as there will be so many hurdles and dark days that without the passion you won’t have near enough perseverance to make it in the long run and unfortunately, there is no easy way to successfully launch a business or technology! You’ve got to be hardcore in your approach to your effort because there are a lot of people that are as hardcore as you attempting to capture the same market! You have to show them (and yourself) what you’re made of!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are not looking for internal hires, but we are always looking for additional sales reps that might have an angle for a certain sector that could help us get more of our lifesaving technology into the hands of the people that might need it!
Where can we go to learn more?
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