Entrepreneurs

This 31-year-old quit his job to make 'zombie' fish—and the idea just got a $125,000 investment

Jessy Cusack had a solid job as an engineer designing products for the Gillette brand at Proctor & Gamble, but he couldn't shake feeling restless. He wanted out of the 9-to-5 grind to build a business for himself.

"I always somewhere thought that I'd really rather somehow do my own thing," he tells CNBC Make It. "But I wasn't totally sure how to do that."

Eventually, that feeling led him into an unfamiliar industry: dead fish.

In 2017, Cusack, 31, quit his job to pursue Zombait, a product he created with co-founders Rink Varian and Matthew Borowski.

"Zombait is a battery-operated, waterproof, completely durable, reusable product that you can put in a dead fish to make it swim again," Cusack says on CNBC's "Adventure Capitalists," while pitching the $69 product to judge-investors Shawn Johnson East, Jeremy Bloom and Dhani Jones.

The idea is for dead fish to look alive.

Zombait co-founder Jessy Cusack
CNBC | Adventure Capitalists
Zombait co-founder Jessy Cusack

"If you go out fishing, live bait is the best thing to use — it smells right, it looks right, it moves right. That is the dinner bell to a fish. But it is just often not available," Cusack explains on the show.

It was a problem that Varian experienced again and again during his 40 years as a commercial fisherman. Cusak recalls Varian saying, "I'm always trying to get live bait, it is a huge pain in the butt, and I've got dead fish coming out of my ears."

So, Varian had a request for Cusack and Borowski, who is a friend of the family and also an engineer: "Give me a wiggler.'"

The pair got to work on his idea, and Zombait was born.

 

A post shared by Zombait (@zombaitlures) on

In 2014, the founders began to prototype the product, with Cusack and Borowski providing the engineering know-how and Varian bringing the fishing-industry experience. Cusack himself had a lot to learn.

"To me, fishing was something you do out of a canoe," he says. "This is a lot more like sport fishing, deep-sea fishing, big-game fishing. I've gotten more into it as we've developed the product."

Once they nailed down an early version and filed for a patent, "We went to some fishing tournaments with some prototypes and an aquarium with dead fish in it," Cusack says. The response was positive. So, they took feedback and launched a Kickstarter campaign in November 2015 which raised $29,419 by January 2016.

So far, that campaign has been the bulk of the business.

"All of our sales right now are just through the Kickstarter campaign," Cusack explains on "Adventure Capitalists." The investors were skeptical, because although the campaign closed in 2016, Zombait didn't ship products to fulfill those orders until over a year later in August 2017. Cusack says the delay was due to a manufacturer burning down and having to redesign elements of the product as they learned more while it was being produced.

In the end, the product's success during a test run fishing with it in open water won the investors over.

"The Zombait worked, I'm really impressed," Bloom says on the show.

A post shared by Zombait (@zombaitlures) on

Zombait got offers from three investors: Dhani Jones, Shawn Johnson East and guest judge and current NFL tightend for the Washington Redskins, Vernon Davis. Cusack opted for Jones' offer, selling a 10 percent stake in his company for a $125,000 investment.

With that money, he hopes to work on scaling the business and accomplishing its next set of goals, like being sold in retailers like Bass Pro Shop, Cabellas and on Amazon. And, he's focused on the business after quitting his job at the beginning of this year.

"Eventually I just had to make a decision," he says. "I was just like 'I don't exactly know what is going to happen, I don't know when I'm going to have income, or how I'm going to figure it out, but this is what I want to work on.'" Still, Cusack says he does some contract engineering work on the side a few days a week in order to keep the lights on.

But for him, the risk is worth the chance to build something of his own.

He jokes, "I'm kind of glad we didn't know how hard it was going to be, because I don't think we would have gotten here."

Watch CNBC's "Adventure Capitalists," Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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