Lifelong entrepreneur Thomas Contreras wasn't about to let a storm, even one as destructive as Hurricane Charley, wreck his window-tinting business.
So Contreras got creative. When local homeowners and business owners called glass contractors to replace their windows in the aftermath of the storm, which bombarded Charlotte County in 2004, Contreras would follow the companies out to the worksites. Then, right after the new windows were installed, Contreras would knock on doors for work.
The aggressive move worked. Contreras's business, Port Charlotte-based Glass Master Tinting, survived the storm, and more recently, it survived the recession.
“It was my mom who taught me how to be an entrepreneur,” says Contreras, a recovering alcoholic who dropped out of high school when he was 14. “If you want something in life, you have to work for it.”
Contreras, who proudly talks up his newfound life recovery, will certainly need that kind of dogged attitude if he's to make it with his next business venture. It's the TAC lobster snare and dive flag, a patented invention that solves two issues in one product: It's a fiberglass, eco-friendly lobster snare that's also a safety aid and flag for scuba divers coming back to the surface. TAC is an acronym for Contreras's initials, Thomas August Contreras.
The device, which Contreras initially conceived of two years ago, recently received several statewide accolades. It won the Enterprise Charlotte Economic Council's 2012 Innovation contest earlier this year, a competition open to inventor-entrepreneurs all over Florida. Contreras was awarded $7,000 and two years of warehouse space.
That capital and space enabled Contreras to begin to assemble the product on a larger scale. It costs $125 and is sold, so far, online and at a few dive shops in Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
The invention also drew the attention of Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office, which sent Contreras a letter of congratulations on the Charlotte County contest, and an offer of future support. That letter, in turn, brought Contreras more publicity. The Miami Herald, for example, recently called Contreras about writing a story on the product.
“My device will revolutionize diving,” says Contreras. “As soon as I demonstrate this to divers, people's jaws drop. If I can reach the right people, this can be huge.”
The challenge now, of course, is to reach those people, and turn the wows into sustainable sales — a task Contreras has dived into. He sold his pickup truck, his Toyota Corolla and a camping van for money to reinvest in the business.
“I bet it all,” Contreras says. “Everything I have is in this business.”
Contreras has turned away potential investors, mostly out of fear he will lose control, especially in the manufacturing process. A few possible backers, for instance, wanted Contreras to get supplies and materials overseas to aid faster production.
Contreras, however, balked at that option. Says Contreras: “I don't want anybody to abuse this.”
Maintaining tight control fits the personal nature of the invention. Contreras says the idea for a scuba dive flag came to him soon after two near mishaps while diving, once with his son. “When you go to swim up in diving,” says Contreras, “you are taking your life into your hands.”
The scuba dive side of the TAC device has a simple process. When a diver heads for the surface, he holds the snare stretched out above his head. A flag with the bright red scuba diver's symbol will then push through the water. Boaters can see the flag, and be aware that a diver is near the surface. Divers using the flag, meanwhile, should give themselves about a minute to surface, says Contreras. This way a boat has time to move out of the way.
Contreras nonetheless faces several challenges to break into the diving industry in a big way. For one, the invention is technically covered by U.S. Coast Guard regulations: Divers must put a scuba flag on their boat when they go underwater, for safety, though some divers complain that non-diving boaters often overlook the flag.
Plus, there are already similar products on the market, say several Gulf Coast dive shop owners. Most stores carry inflatable flags that divers can use to alert boats to their presence, for example.
Contreras's device, however, might make the surface return process easier and more convenient, says Al Jeffrey, co-owner of Sarasota-based Scuba Quest, a chain of seven scuba gear stores on the Gulf Coast. Jeffrey says he's heard about Contreras's device, but hasn't seen it.
Another hurdle for Contreras could be price. Other similar safety products range from $20 to $30, which might make the $125 price tag for the TAC device steep for most divers.
The lobster side of the invention comes from Contreras's appreciation of marine biology. Having been involved in the fishing industry at various times in his life, Contreras knew lobstermen constantly sought a better tool to aid the catching part of the job. “When I came across this problem,” Contreras says, “it was like a godsend that I had all this knowledge of marine biology.”
The TAC lobster snare, about 4 ½ feet long, looks like a red broom handle that opens underwater. The snare's stainless steel shaft allows users to grab lobsters without using their hands, and without touching and scratching delicate sea life and coral.
Contreras, 49, is somewhat new to inventing, though he's been in business for himself for since he was 12 years old. His first business was a golf ball collection service, where he fetched balls that went into the pond near a driving range. He would sell balls back to golfers, charging $1 for four balls. “I always had the heart to make money,” says Contreras.
The New York native left home when he was 14, and moved to Charlotte County. He later earned a GED.
Now Contreras's mind constantly churns out new ideas, both for the snare and diver's safety tool, and other inventions. On the TAC device, he already has thoughts on enhanced versions of the product, such as one with an LED flashlight on the end. Contreras also has several other inventions in the works. One is a formula that removes gum from concrete, and another is a solar-powered tool to help boaters decipher and navigate tides.
Contreras has so many ideas, in fact, he sleeps with a pad and pencil on his nightstand because the visions usually come overnight. “Every time I think I'm done with this thing,” quips Contreras, “I think of more ideas.”
The ideas, and Contreras's zeal for invention-led entrepreneurialism, has helped build a network of local supporters. “This guy has got the true entrepreneurial spirit,” says Bruce Laishley, a prominent Charlotte County developer and businessman who has advised Contreras on several projects. “He's someone who can really make things happen. He's a hard-working, dedicated guy.”
Praise like that isn't something Contreras would have expected two years ago. Back then Contreras says he spent most of his nights drinking at local bars. He had some marital problems, and that was how he says he dealt with the stress.
But Contreras says he hasn't had a drink in two years. He stopped through the help of a few people he met at church, and more recently, Alcoholics Anonymous. The move was a lifesaver. It also gave Contreras a renewed sense of purpose. Says Contreras: “It wasn't until I quit drinking that I started to get these ideas.”
Contreras's next goal is to get the TAC lobster snare and dive flag in more stores. He plans to use the same determination he's utilized for other projects.
“When I hit road blocks, I might get mad,” says Contreras. “But I never give up. You just have to keep knocking on doors. Then you have to open them.”
A recent entrepreneurial contest succeeded in its mission: It found some of the best, and the quirkiest, inventions in Florida.
The contest, the 2012 Innovation 2 Industry Florida Entrepreneurial Contest, was a partnership between the Charlotte County economic development office and the Enterprise Charlotte Economic Council. It was open to inventors and entrepreneurs statewide, and nearly 40 people entered.
The winner was Port Charlotte resident Thomas Contreras. His invention is a lobster snare device that doubles as a scuba dive safety flag. Other winners included:
• Paul Marcuzzo, president of Punta Gorda-based Energy & Design, who was awarded second place for his invention, a portable electronics charger made in a protective case;
• S. Sitharama Iyengar, a computer science professor at Florida International University in Miami, who won third place for a device that helps detect glaucoma.