InfernoTek – St. Joseph
Hunting is usually a rewarding experience. So why was David Helwig, founder of InfernoTek and a St. Joseph area resident, so miserable?
That the mercury was very low that morning, that he was shivering and cold and that his toes were turning numb were certainly major factors. Add that he was going through a grueling time in life, with three kids still in high school, and he had to throw in the towel.
“It was just awful,” he says from his home. “And I started praying, ‘God, I could sure use some help here — something!'”
He patented that something within 30 days: the Inferno Element Protection System (EPS), a cross between a hooded jumpsuit and sleeping bag made of tough, rip-stop nylon, treated with an anti-microbial finish to help keep human scent in the bag. A thick insulation barrier keeps the outdoorsman or -woman warm to minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit while the outer shell shields the body from wind, rain and snow. The suit’s capacious pockets have plenty of room for a thermos, snacks or anything else.
Helwig sees potential for his product well beyond hunters to shivering soccer Moms, fans at football games, police, first responders and military personnel forced to camp out for hours. The nylon outer layer is also flocked, meaning you can move around without crinkling; not very important at a football game maybe, but vital in a stakeout or when that big buck you’ve been chasing all winter is right in front of you.
A client of Rebecca Evans, associate regional director of the Northwest Missouri State University (NWMSU) SBTDC and of Larry Lee, director of NWMSU SBTDC and of NWMSU’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Helwig’s story sometimes reads like a primer on how not to introduce a new product.
He tried Kickstarter. The online funding service approved his product, but after he’d paid a professional videographer to make a video, they rejected it. “I was so angry!” he says. But he thought the concept of crowdfunding was a good one, so he tried again with Springfield, Mo.-based Crowdit. He was even allowed to partner with the Wounded Warrior Project; if the InfernoEPS became fully funded through Crowdit, Helwig would personally lead a wounded veteran on a guided hunt to be later shown on a hunting channel. “And that was just a total bomb,” he says. “Almost nobody signed up.”
Wal-Mart also came knocking. That is, he received an email from Get on the Shelf, a viral contest developed by @WalmartLabs to get entrepreneurs’ products on the giant retailer’s shelves. Helwig was wary; Wal-Mart is notorious for its paper-thin profit margins. “But I thought, ‘Well, what the heck. It’s exposure.’ And that’s the goal of any brand-new product, exposure and branding.” The suit has yet to make the grade with @WalmartLabs, either.
But like a good hunter, Helwig doesn’t give up very easily. So when Lee recommended jettisoning these trendy viral fundraising methods for the stodgier but more reliable angel investing, Helwig decided to give it a try, too.
“And Larry was right!” he says. “That was just a paradigm shift in my way of thinking. It opened my eyes. I feel like those unsuccessful crowdfunding projects helped me get a clearer version. With angel investing, you do give up a portion of your business, but on the other hand you gain the funding to match your dreams.”
His angel is a cohost of a hunting show Helwig sponsored. There are quite a few hunting channels and magazines today, and he’s put ads in both. “Having someone who understands the product, having people within your industry participating is vital,” he says. Helwig doesn’t have to explain anything. His new partner gets it.
And that’s not all. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have expressed interest in the suit, and Helwig has been invited to Washington, D.C. He’s also recently closed deals to have the Inferno EPS sold through distributors in Wisconsin, Sweden and Canada. He’s even had a professionally produced brochure translated into French for the French-Canadian market. But Sweden?
“Sure,” he says. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but Europe is full of big-game hunters. My contact in Sweden said and my own research shows that gun laws are similar in Sweden and that everybody hunts. You know in The Deer Hunter (a 1978 film with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep set in Pennsylvania and Vietnam), the whole town shuts down to go hunting? Sweden is like that.” Helwig says that he’s far more comfortable dealing with these smaller-scale distributors than some faceless corporate monolith.
It’s working. Helwig says that thanks to Lee and Evans, his angel investor and existing distributorships, he’s already sold nearly as many suits through early September as he did all last year — and the cold-weather hunting season has yet to begin.
And therein lies yet another problem. Helwig, a Fed Ex driver-deliveryman by day, prefers bow-hunting, but a heavy door recently slammed shut on his arm, resulting in a badly torn rotator cuff. “To be honest, I can’t even lift it,” he says, much less muster the tensile strength to nock, draw and release an arrow. “Then again, I’ve never shot a crossbow before. That will be fun.”
In case you can’t tell, Helwig’s a silver lining kind of guy.
A video demonstrating the Inferno Element Protection System. (1 min)
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