A former marketing consultant turned amateur bodysurfer, Mike Sick set out to invent handheld flippers that allow part-time beach bums to catch waves. By: PATRICK SAUER, Posted 7/19/10
In surfer lingo, the term "sick" doesn't mean a rider is ill from swallowing too much ocean. Rather, it means something is rad awesome insanely cool. A prime example: "These waves are sick."
Entrepreneur Mike Sick, 55, hopes his surname provides a fitting description for his invention, the Surf-Grip, a pair of foam paddles that he says act "like water skis for your hands."
The idea for the Surf-Grip came out of Sick's tendency to get frustrated by his lack of buoyancy while bodysurfing, particularly on slower days. His "big fat floaty hands" would get in the way of a good ride, so he started mixing and matching household flotsam and jetsam in an effort to combat sinkage. Sick experimented with diced-up pool noodles, trashcan lids, ski pole handles and ultimately, pieces of bodyboards. In 2008, he got serious, spending $20,000 of personal savings to create a prototype and produce a run of 5,000 for summer 2009.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Sick decided to make his home in San Diego, for reasons that need no explanation. A marketing guy from way back, Sick spent a number of years helping to build brands in the restaurant industry with clients including Jack in the Box, Arby's and Pizza Hut. (Remember when the Pan Pizza debuted in 1980? He was there.) As a consultant, Sick worked with inventors of unique offerings like a self-cleaning litter box and an elevated doggie bathtub, helping create campaigns for unorthodox products. He found the experiences inspirational but also limiting, because the growth potential wasn't vast for products where the model is "wake up in the morning and see how many orders came in overnight."
Sick got the idea to create his own product when he hit on the Surf-Grip as an easy-to-use waverunner for the average vacationer, not the Kelly Slater diehards. He designed the polyurethane grips with the idea of reducing the threshold and skill required for a bodyboard. Often, bodysurfers lose steam because their hands drag them down, but the Surf-Grip cuts through the water and keeps them riding a wave all the way into shore. "The best rides are when you can see a wave coming over your shoulder and the Surf-Grip pushes you out past the wave," says Sick. "We call that the Firehose Effect."
It's been tough shredding for Sick (and employee/daughter Jaclyn), as the company is still working off its original inventory. He had hoped to sell more by this point and says the challenge of bringing out a new product in a new category has been compounded by the fact that the Surf-Grip is best introduced through live demonstrations. The feedback is always better when retailers can witness the action in the water. Seeing someone in the surf answers the question "Do they work?" better than any verbal explanation.
One lifetime beach bum who gave the Surf-Grip a tryout is Jon Reichardt, 43, a Southern California native who coaches water polo at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif. He gave the Surf-Grip a spin in 2- to 3-foot surf. "Once you're in the wave and you put both hands out, the Surf-Grip is good for going straight down the wave, which you don't want to do when you bodysurf or you'll break your neck," he says. "If you try to do one hand behind you and one in front as you would do when you bodysurf, they don't work. I had trouble swimming with them, so they worked best for me in shallow water."
On the beach, demos have a limited audience, so Sick's hitting social media hard, in addition to giving away pairs to everyday beachcombers, and hosting Surf-Grip contests in hotspots like Florida's Coco Beach and California's Huntington Beach. He's made some headway, as the Surf-Grip is available on both coasts at flip-flop-friendly shops including Island Surf in Coronado, Calif., and Espo's Surf & Sport in Amagansett, N.Y. Sick believes large-scale, profitable, multimillion-dollar success is "not inconceivable," if he can sell just 100-plus pairs each summer at stores along the coastlines, wherever people are beaching around the globe. At a cost of $20 to $25, the Surf-Grip is less expensive and bulky than a quality bodyboard, so if word spreads, it's just the type of impulse purchase that week-long surfing safaris are made of.
And while not everybody across the USA has gone surfin' this summer, it's essential to Sick's business plan. He admits he doesn't get to ride the waves as much as he'd like, but on good days, like when he opens a new account at Rusty Boardhouse in La Jolla, Calif., it's essential. "I went directly to the beach a few blocks away, changed into my swimsuit and spent an hour doing demos of the Surf-Grip," he says. "I guess you could call that 'post-sale promotion.'"
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