After Zach Miller, Skyler Hallgren and their buddies felt a mild earthquake in 2015, the San Francisco group of friends discussed what they would do if the big one ever hit. Miller's then-girlfriend said she was prepared.
"She said, 'Here let me show you,'" Miller recounted. "She goes to the closet and there's two bottles of water, one of them is leaking, a can of food and she doesn't have a can opener and a first aid kit that's been picked through. She was like, 'You know what? I'm not prepared either.'"
For Miller and Hallgren, that moment was a realization that they were not prepared to deal with crisis, and neither were most people. It was the foundation for the duo's bootstrapped start-up Redfora, makers of "Earthquake Bag" emergency kits.
"That really opened up our eyes," Miller said. "We could not only help other people get prepared, but there's a business opportunity there as well."
The two put together earthquake-preparation kits for themselves and their friends, and as an experiment, they also decided to buy enough supplies to build extra kits they could sell. Hallgren and Miller targeted the kits to Facebook users in San Francisco, and within a few weeks, the pair sold 50 of them that they personally drove and dropped off to their customers.
"They knew they needed to do something, but they knew they were never going to do it themselves," Miller said.
What started as a side project has grown into a full business. Hallgren and Miller worked on Redfora on nights and weekends from 2015 through 2017, but by early 2018, the company was generating enough revenue that both of them quit their day jobs. Redfora claims it has driven eight figures of revenue and been profitable since its launch.
Whether it's a natural disaster like hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, geopolitical tensions like international disputes involving President Donald Trump and countries like Iran and North Korea, or the constant flood of climate change news, customers are often motivated to buy the Earthquake Bag by headlines, Hallgren and Miller said.
"That's a big opportunity," Hallgren said. "Unfortunately, it's on the right side of a dangerous trend."
The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, for example, has been a boon for Redfora. The company has seen an increase in its sale of emergency kits, especially its recently launched "N95 Mask Protection Kit," in correlation with the outbreak.
"We have sold thousands of these kits over the past month, and we were forced to set a hard limit of 10 kits per customer to prevent hoarding," Miller said.
Redfora's flagship product is the Complete Earthquake Bag. The company sells it on Amazon and its own website starting at $114.99 with enough supplies for one person to last three days. This distinctly red bag includes water, food, a sleeping bag and tools like a hand crank radio and work gloves, among other items.
The products can be further customized if bought on the company's website. There, customers can change how many people their bag supports, for how many days and for how long they want the supplies to last. Redfora's most expensive kit, the "20 Year Earthquake Bag" designed for six people for seven days, costs $741.99. Customers can also buy specialized kits like those designed for the car, the office or pets, which can be customized for dogs or cats.
"The biggest challenge is how do you get someone to go from 'this is too scary to think about,' or 'if there's a disaster, I'm going to die anyway, so why plan for it?' -- how do we get them to go from zero to the lowest-hanging fruit?" Miller said.
Redfora isn't the first company to specialize in emergency preparedness, but it has applied modern marketing tactics to an industry that has typically been spearheaded by mom and pop shops.
To do this, the company has made a point to produce educational emergency preparedness content that prospective customers can find online. This includes the company's blog, which now has a million readers, and the Redfora "Ultimate 47 Item Earthquake Checklist" that people can use to make their own kits.
"Even if you don't spend a dollar with us, having another person who is prepared is someone else who might encourage one of their friends to get prepared," Miller said.
More importantly, Hallgren and Miller rely on Facebook, Google and Amazon to target ads to folks who are thinking about getting prepared for emergencies.
Although the traditional buyers of doomsday gear have been men in rural areas who tend to buy when Democrats get elected, Redfora has found a drastically different audience. The company says its customer base tends to skew toward liberal women in their 40s.
"It's the matriarchs of families," Hallgren said. "Men who have traditionally been interested in emergency preparedness think that they can Rambo their way through a disaster. Females tend to plan ahead."
That was the case with Katie McDonagh, 27, a tech worker who lives in Oakland. In the summer of 2018, she was feeling uncertain and worried about her family as she read the news. She'd previously heard about the Earthquake Bag, and she decided that at the very least she could buy her parents a kit.
"Our world is unpredictable right now," McDonagh said. "I had this vision that the worst could happen, and giving myself peace of mind that my family would be able to take care of themselves in the event of a disaster was reassuring to me."