After leaving the U.S. Coast Guard in 2008, Jonathan Hoflich teamed with his brother Jay and friend Joe Silkowski to design the kind of boat he had always wanted on patrol: a jet boat that could glide stealthily in just a few inches of water and run roughshod over rocks and logs. Today, their Newton, Massachusetts-based company, ReconCraft, makes vessels for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. But, in the early days, a design flaw almost sunk everything. Entrepreneur Jonathan Hoflich told his story to Inc. contributor Reshma Memon Yaqub.
We were halfway through our first-ever trade show in 2009 when U.S. Customs and Border Protection invited us to demo our vessel in Del Rio, Texas. The shallow-water craft they were using were these noisy airboats. Our boats are quiet. So, we left the show early. I was really confident. Maybe overconfident.
In Del Rio, they took us through a huge border gate and down a dirt road to a little clearing maybe 10 feet wide, where the river separates the U.S. and Mexico. I thought, This is a really small river. I could grab a rock and throw it across to Mexico.
My partner Joe took our boat out with a couple of their guys while I stood on the bank with a senior official from the CBP.
After a while, an airboat came around the corner--and there was a tow rope behind it. No, I thought. This can't be! Our boat was being towed by the airboat we were hoping to replace. The jet intakes had gotten clogged with hydrilla, a long, stringy weed that grows in shallow water.
Joe and I jumped into the water and started pulling the weeds out by hand, begging for another chance. They agreed. Luckily, I was able to show that the boat could run in 3 inches of water and go over rocks. Then, we turned the corner and saw a small Mexican guy trying to cross the river. Normally, migrants hear the airboats and hide in the bushes until they go by. But he didn't hear us coming. The guy looked at us, frozen, like, "Whoa!"
We couldn't have paid to be in a better spot. It highlighted our boat's potential. If we could just figure out how to operate it in weeds and debris, we would have an edge. We had to solve this.
We spent four months prototyping ideas. This couldn't be solved with a computer program. We had to do it the old-fashioned way, through trial and error. Eventually, we came up with a device, which we patented, called a weed-and-debris gate. It acts like scissors--when you move a lever, it chops up all the weeds. Then, they float right out the back.
When the CBP eventually solicited bids, we went head to head with several boat companies. But this time, we were ready. Now, we're filling an 80-boat contract.
Had we not failed so miserably in that first meeting, we probably wouldn't have been so intent on coming up with a solution.