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Snorkel on Steroids

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Sarasota retiree Tom Mulvihill wanted to go snorkeling with his young grandsons, not start a business.

But a new business, based off his invention that puts a unique twist on underwater exploration, is just what Mulvihill has. His product is a Zayak, which rhymes with kayak. Made partially of synthetic rubber, Mulvihill calls the patent-pending Zayak Sea Sled a dry snorkeler. The idea is to provide more breathing room and a wider view space than traditional masked snorkeling that requires breathing through a tube and a submerged face.

The Zayak ditches the mask and tube and replaces it with a panoramic view and six small breathing holes. The product's supersized glass view space, where the user puts his or her face, is about the size of two footballs and is made to block out ambient light and reflections. The user provides the power and speed for the Zayak with hands and feet, and the bulk of someone's body can stay above the water while on the device. Flippers are suggested, but not required.

“It's a snorkeling alternative that's safer and more comfortable,” says Mulvihill, who sells the Zayak through the firm he founded, Sarasota-based Tropical Paradise Plastics. “It's designed to be sturdy and stable, in a highly visible yellow.”

In less than a year of being on the market, sales are also noticeable: Mulvihill reports at least $200,000 in revenues since last May, with models priced from $295 to $375 each.

Most of the sales have come in the last three months, says Mulvihill, and the product has reached more than a dozen countries, from Canada to the United Arab Emirates to Madagascar. The firm's two client bases so far are small businesses that provide water sports gear to resorts and hotels, in places like the Caribbean, and dealers who sell to individual end-users. The Zayak also won an Innovation Award from the National Marine Manufacturers Association in the personal gear category at the Progressive Insurance Miami International Boat Show in February.

“I'm a little overwhelmed,” says Mulvihill. “I'm right at the point where I have to consider hiring” some employees.

A retired plastics manufacturing entrepreneur who at one point owned a $5 million package design facility in New Jersey, Mulvihill conceived of the idea for the Zayak in early 2012. He wanted to go snorkeling with his grandsons, 5 and 7, but he thought they were too young. So he drew an idea of an enlarged snorkel system. “The more I sketched it out,” he says, “the more I liked it.”

Mulvihill built a prototype in his garage with heavy-duty foam. He took it, and his grandsons, to Siesta Key to try it out. Within a few minutes, recalls Mulvihill, dozens of people had asked him what the boys were using in the Gulf. Says Mulvihill: “I turned to Maggie, my wife, and said I think we have a business here.”

The couple invested more than $100,000 of savings in startup costs for the Zayak. “I figured I'm getting nothing on it in CDs, I might as well see if I can get nothing on it doing this,” quips Mulvihill. He hired a manufacturer outside Erie, Pa., to build and assemble the Zayak, all with parts made in the United States. That company also stocks and drop ships the Zayak.

The big challenge now, says Mulvihill, is to maintain the right balance of orders and inventory. He recently handled a 140-unit order, for a dealer who will be a reseller, and while Mulvihill aims for more big sales, he's doesn't want to outgrow capacity. “This is a nice little business,” says Mulvihill. “I'm not looking to get into Walmart or Costco.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon


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