Sometimes a new twist on a classic product makes it revolutionary enough to capture the imagination of the masses. Ethan Smith, founder of the outdoor apparel retailer SmithFly, has found that his invention, an inflatable floating tent that lets campers wake up on the water, is doing just that.
Videos featuring SmithFly's Shoal Tent, which costs $1,499, have racked up well over 20 million combined views on Facebook. Sales are triple the estimates Smith laid out when he launched the product in October 2017, though, citing a potential deal with outside investors, Smith declines to provide total sales figures.
"I just figured I'd throw it out there and if there were a couple people that were interested I'd sell a few of them," he tells CNBC Make It. "And it took off right away. I mean, as soon as we got it posted, it kind of went viral and it went crazy."
For now, Smith says, customers ordering one of his tents can expect about a six-week wait as he works with a manufacturer in China to keep up with demand.
The tent inflates with a provided air pump and features a tear-away top and a drop-stitch floor that allows for inflation more reminiscent of an air mattress than a raft. The inflatable floor can support up to 1,200 pounds by itself, Smith says, and is supported by redundant air chambers in the underlying raft to prevent accidental sinking.
Originally focused solely on fly-fishing gear, SmithFly, based in Troy, Ohio, has slowly expanded its product focus to include other outdoor goods. First it debuted an inflatable stand-up paddle board and then a raft outfitted to make fishing more comfortable.
When Smith thought about venturing into offering tents using his same Chinese manufacturer, a friend who owned a canoe livery that had frequently run out of campsites offered a suggestion. "If you put a raft under that and combine the tent with the raft, we might have something really cool and we can rent it out on the river," he told Smith.
After a few modifications to include a detachable tent topper, the Shoal Tent was born.
The early success of the tent is welcome news for the company Smith launched in 2011, when the recession caused the marketing team he was working on at a large branding firm to shrink from 12 employees to just three. At the time, his wife feared he'd be next.
"Every week when I'd come home and they'd have layoffs, my wife would say, 'Well, when are you going to get laid off?'" he recalls. "I had this idea for this fly-fishing stuff and she said, 'Why don't you start that and then if you get laid off you can work on that.'"
After self-funding his fly-fishing side hustle with a roughly $10,000 loan from his bank, Smith started creating customized vests and fly-fishing gear. Then he ventured into inflatables.
The reactions to the tent on social media quickly made it apparent that demand was going to outstrip supply. Smith was forced to air-ship the tents over from China at a much higher cost, and even so he still couldn't fulfill orders on time. New customers have had to join a wait-list since the tents began shipping in early February.
Now, Smith figures the product he took a gamble on could dwarf everything else his company does by a factor of 10 in just a year or two — provided, of course, that he can stay ahead of the competition. Knockoffs are already popping up, which is a common hazard in e-commerce.
While SmithFly doesn't have a patent on the tent, Smith believes he can market it as the first of its kind and implement planned innovations, too.
"I know that's going to happen, we're just going to have to stick to being the original," he says.
—Video by Zack Guzman
Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!