ORLANDO, Fla. — Jeff Stafford appeared ready for combat as he stood high over the ICAST showroom floor, perched atop the lure testing tank. But the bandolier draped across his chest held not shotgun shells, but Shell Bobbers – a new twist on an old fishing tool.
Jeff Stafford works his Shell Bobber booth. (Steve Wright photo)
"Using the Shell Bobber is the most fun way to fish there is," said Stafford, as he made repeated casts into the tank and reeled back a bobber that looked exactly like a 12-gauge shotgun shell.
He added a laugh, then said, "I'm not sure I'd want to say that for print."
Looking up at Stafford from his nearby booth was another one-hit wonder, Ray Jesse, who invented the Kombo Tool – a 4-in-1 device that includes a fish club, fillet knfe, knife sharpener and gut scoup. The colorful device floats as well.
It's when you walk around the ICAST showroom floor in the Orange County Convention Center that you realize the enormous task guys like Stafford and Jesse are facing: They are attempting to stand out amidst a churning sea of fishing related items produced by companies that have been here for decades.
"It can be a little intimidating," Stafford admitted.
These two one-SKU wonders bear some closer examination:
1. Shell Bobbers
Product: Shell Bobbers
Company: Fishing Ammo (www.fishingammo.com)
Location: Oviedo, Fla.
President/CEO: Jeff Stafford; Co-Founder
Previous occupation: Marketing software for auto dealers
Longtime hunting and fishing buddies Jeff Stafford and Dusty Holloway were duck hunting a few years ago when they noticed a fired shotgun shell bobbing in the water. If you've ducked hunted, you've seen this countless times.
But for these two Central Floridians, a light bulb switched on: Why not make a fishing bobber from a shotgun shell hull?
Neither had a background in manufacturing, much less marketing a new product, but that didn't hold them back. They did come to ICAST with an impressive item on their resume: They had survived the ABC-TV series "Shark Tank" and emerged with billionaire investor and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as a 1/3 partner in their venture.
"We had no sales before taping the show," Stafford said. "The night it aired we had 50,000 visitors to our website."
Yes, that will give you some confidence before coming to the ultimate "shark tank" – ICAST. Enough confidence to keep a smile on your face.
"'Shark Tank"’got us a lot of attention," Swofford said. "That definitely helped. But I think this is just a unique product. It's not like we're one lure in 100 new lures. It's just a fun product, so that helps."
The Shell Bobber is also practical. An 1.5-inch hard plastic arm lined with a spring is attached to the bottom (brass end) of the shell. The empty shell hull is crimped at the top, like an unfired shotgun shell, so it's sealed not to sink. Lift up the spring that surrounds the bottom plastic protrusion, place your line in the guide located there, release the spring and you're ready to cast.
Stafford made good money is his old job selling software contracts to auto dealers, but he wasn't having fun.
"I love doing this," he said. "It's a passion. And it's been a huge challenge along the way. You're always second-guessing yourself."
Of course, having Mark Cuban as a partner can ease the road bumps.
"It's crazy just knowing I can shoot him an email and get a response," Stafford said. "It might come back 1 a.m., and a lot of the words will be misspelled, but he's a very busy man. He's not a fisherman, but he saw something in us and our product. It has provided us a ton of resources."
2. The 4-in-1 Kombo Tool
Product: The 4-in-1 Kombo Tool
Company: KOMBO (www.combotool.com)
Location: Vancouver, Canada
President: Ryan Jesse
Previous occupation: Commercial painter
Ryan Jesse admits he's more of a "gadget guy" than a fisherman. That's reflected in his 4-in-1 Kombo Tool, which combines a fillet knife, a knife sharpener, a fish club and a gut scoop, which works well in removing that blood-line clinging to a fish's back bone.
This isn't his first ICAST rodeo, so to speak. But he learned enough last year at the show in Las Vegas that he didn't consider skipping it this year despite the move to Orlando, much further away from his Vancouver home.
"It's more about innovation than fishing with me," Jesse said. "I'm always coming up with new ideas as a way to solve problems."
Speaking of problems, Jesse found last year at ICAST there were a few design flaws in a previous version of the Kombo Tool, at least as far as some potential distributors were concerned. A safety latch needed to be added to the knife sheath and the packaging needed to be redone so the knife was made more obvious, rather than being tucked into it's scabbard.
So Jesse came back to ICAST in Orlando with a new and improved Kombo Tool. It has a manufacturer's standard retail price of $29.99.
"That's pretty much what you'll pay for a good quality fillet knife," Jesse said. “They've sold like hotcakes around Christmas and Father's Day. We were featured about eight or nine months ago on 'In-Crate.com,' with is basically a gadget show. Sales went through the roof when that happened."
Jesse expects he and his other two partners will soon unveil other products, including one more for the camping than fishing market.
"We've got a few more coming down the pipe," he said.
But every minute spent at ICAST will only serve to educate Jesse in his newly chosen field.
"ICAST is all about building relationships," Jesse said. "You can learn a lot from guys that have been in this industry for a long time. There's a wealth of information here. Mainly, you can learn a lot about what not to do, so you don't have to pay the price yourself."
His previous career as a successful commercial painter appears increasingly in the distance.
Added Jesse, "Flying to Florida versus slinging a roller, yeah, I'd rather do this."
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