Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
A quarter century ago in the old seaport community of Port Townsend, Washington, Richard Walcome invented an elegant device for washing down boat decks and anchors. Today, his son, Cash Walcome, is taking that innovation from ship to shore. In a state with a vibrant young startup community focused on tech, the Walcomes are disrupting that most prosaic of goods: the humble outdoor faucet.
Nestled at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Port Townsend is home to boat builders, boatyards, and other businesses serving a community steeped in maritime history. Among them is New Found Metals, started by Richard more than three decades ago to make port windows and other hardware for ships. In 2014, New Found Metals became home to Aquor, the nascent business of Richard's son, who saw an opportunity to take advantage of a piece of the family's intellectual capital. (Aquor recently shifted its corporate offices to Seattle.)
"I can manufacture damn near anything if I know I can sell it," says Richard, who put up the seed money for Aquor and owns a 30 percent stake. "But marketing is everything. The next generation will make this product big."
The product is a "house hydrant system" that eliminates the need for homeowners to crouch on the ground screwing a hose into a rusty outdoor faucet every time they want to water the azaleas. Instead, they or their builders install a stainless steel outlet that is flush with a building's outside wall. A connector attached to a hose pops into the outlet and locks with a light twist. Remove the connector and the valve in the outlet automatically drains and seals, which prevents freezing and burst pipes. Water doesn't spray from the sides when the system, which costs around $55, is turned on or drip from the spigot when it's turned off.
Among other accolades, Aquor's house hydrant has been featured on This Old House and on the "Lou's Life Changers" segment of the Today show. The three-employee startup, which brings in $250,000 in revenue, has just started signing major distributors, including Amazon and large plumbing wholesalers Ferguson, Grainger, and Keller. Most of its sales so far are direct, about half to homeowners and half to builders and plumbers.
When Darryl Sykes heard about the invention by a fellow Port Townsend resident, he asked his contractor to install one in the new home he was building. "It's really a great product," says Sykes. "Screwing a hose onto a spigot was kind of difficult. This, I can just put something onto the hose, then walk over and with half a turn crank it into the house."
Having owned a home in brutally cold Minnesota, Sykes was accustomed to protecting his pipes each winter "with a Styrofoam cover on the spigot that looked ugly and wasn't always effective," he says. "This is always effective."
The dirty deck problem.
In the 1970s, Richard Walcome left his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, in search of adventure. He served in the U.S. Army Security Agency and then in the CIA as a globetrotting communications officer. After seven years he succumbed to the call of the sea, moving to Port Townsend to build himself a sailboat. "I wanted to go cruising like Gardner McKay on the TV show Adventures in Paradise," says Richard. Boatbuilding is an expensive hobby, and Richard quickly ran through his savings. He met the owners of a foundry that served local artists; they taught him how to cast metal. Seeing a way to simultaneously advance his own project and make money, Richard started New Found Metals in 1985 to manufacture bronze hardware for boats, with a specialty in portholes.
In the early '90s, Richard invented a boat-washing device that is the forebear of Aquor. What with bird excrement, fish slime, and mud drippings from raised anchors, decks can get pretty filthy. Cleaning them typically required a faucet mechanism that stuck up from the deck, with threads onto which a hose could be screwed. "But boats rock and move, so people trip over the faucets," says Richard. In addition, "on a boat oftentimes you are holding onto something to keep yourself from falling overboard. I wanted to be able to use [the faucet] one-handed."
His solution: a valve that is built into and flush with the deck, and a connector that attaches to a hose. A sailor pops the connector into the valve, twists to lock it, and sprays. When she's done, she pops out the connector. The valve seals off the water behind it, preventing leaks.
Richard patented the device for marine applications. But while he knew how to sell the device to boat builders, "going into a whole new huge market would be a major endeavor," he says, Financially comfortable and getting up in years, Richard wasn't hungry for the challenge. Cash, his son, was.
The Shark Tank test.
Cash Walcome was a junior at University of Washington in 2013 when he realized the faucet might be his future. He brought it up to his sales-minded frat brothers at Kappa Sigma. "A couple of guys thought it would be fun to brainstorm a brand name and make our own marketing plan," says Cash.
Soon after, Cash learned that Shark Tank auditions were coming to Seattle. Father and son viewed the event as part one of a feasibility study. If the faucet system aroused interest as a home product, then Richard would consider funding a startup.
Cash asked Kamil Slusarski, a Kappa Sig who had graduated two years earlier and was working at payroll processer ADP, to help make a video to support the audition. Aquor, as the Kappa Sigs had named the product, made it all the way to Shark Tank's final cut. In the end it didn't quite pass muster. The producers said it wasn't right for that season's startup mix and, "frankly, it was not a fully baked company," says Cash. "We did not have a website. We did not have any marketing materials."
Part two of the feasibility study was an appearance at the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas. "Lowe's, Home Depot, Ferguson--basically every large company that I never thought I'd be able to talk to came to the booth and talked to me," says Cash. The Walcomes were convinced. Slusarski left his job, and they launched operations in the family's Port Townsend foundry.
Richard set to work modifying the product for home use. Among other changes, he made it frost-free: a feature less important on boats, which rarely ply the sea in bitter cold. While the system is activated from outside, the valve that opens and closes is behind the wall, so water remains the same temperature as a home's interior. To test it Richard asked a tuna fisherman friend to install one in his commercial refrigerator. "The temperature where the water met the valve stayed at 52 degrees--the temperature in the hallway--even though it was minus-29 degrees in the freezer," says Richard.
He also tweaked the connector so it could be plugged in and the water turned on with the lightest touch. A grandmother watering her roses can use it with one hand. And he created a cover for aesthetics. All that's visible is a small blue disc on the side of the house.
From trickle to torrent.
While Richard was improving the house hydrant, Cash and Slusarski raised more than $38,000 through Kickstarter, worked the trade shows, and sought wholesale accounts. To gain credibility with and access to potential customers, they joined a professional group called the Master Builders Association. Slusarski attributes some early sales to that membership.
The company has already released new products, including a faucet that can be plugged into the outlet to fill a bucket or dog dish and then removed. Lack of a permanent outdoor faucet has an advantage: no one can steal your water. Richard has sold house hydrants to several people he's met at Florida boat shows who have experienced such thefts. "If people don't see a car in your yard they will pull up, connect to your water, and fill up their RVs," he says.
Aquor is growing 30 to 40 percent a quarter and anticipates profitability this year. To keep costs low, the Walcomes are manufacturing at the family's factory in China but say they will soon bring production home to Washington.
The founders are also crashing Seattle's investment scene, where as makers of hardware--and not the computer kind--they are a refreshing anomaly. "When we do our investor pitch the first thing I mention is that we don't have an app," says Cash. "Everyone goes, 'Oh really?' And they are interested."