The sun was just burning through the morning mist as a pair of sport utility vehicles followed a bumpy road through a number of farm fields separated by a series of gates.
Riding on the bumper of the lead vehicle, Austin Bousman was able to hop off and open the gates.
All the quicker to get to the water.
Once at the edge of the James River, Bousman opened the hatch and called to his black Lab, Porter. The dog jumped down and wagged his tail in anticipation of a nice canoe ride.
"I like to take him every single time I go because I can tell how much he enjoys it," Bousman said.
Porter played a small role in the creation of a device Bousman and business partner Drew Arney created called the Wingman. Once strapped to a canoe, the device secures a large cooler on either side to prevent the craft from flipping over.
It really works.
Bousman and Arney assemble the units in their garages and market them primarily on social media.
"All we need to do if we want to sell a few units is make a Facebook post," Arney said.
The pair has sold about 250 units in 44 states since they launched the small company two years ago. Soon, they hope to distribute in Canada as well. They are still refining the product and their business model.
"We still haven't figured out who our ideal customer is," Arney said. He explained that some people want the stability the unit provides so they can safely take dogs and children along. Others use the extra space for canoe camping. "We've also heard good things from how it helps people with disabilities," Bousman said. Fishing is another prime use.
Bousman said that the device was born of necessity. "We were doing a lot of winter trips out west. And we had a lot of camping gear had the dogs and the waters were pretty frigid. So we had to figure out a way to keep the boat upright," he said.
Bousman paddled the canoe with Porter riding on the carpeted platform that spans the gunnels. Even when the dog jumped in the water, the canoe barely tipped.
It was the same when Bousman pulled Porter back on board.
Bousman and Arney, who have been friends since they attended Lord Botetourt High School, have tested the device on local rivers and some serious rapids on the New River in West Virginia. They make a strong case that a Wingman-equipped canoe can go pretty much anyplace a rubber raft can go.
Bousman also points out that it's easier to access the river with a canoe since you don't need a trailer and boat ramp, as you would with a raft.
"With the raft or a drift boat, generally you need a trailer. You need good river access. And with our product, you can still drag a canoe down through the woods and then carry the outrigger and put it on the boat just about anywhere that you want," he said.
New in 2018 is an add-on that holds oars, so the boat can be rowed instead of paddled. It's the latest tweak in what the pair hopes will someday become a big part of their professional lives -- a sort of river-based side hustle.
"Right now, we’re doing small, short productions, which the cost can be pretty high for us. So we make a small amount of money on each one. But, really, to get into big-box retail stores, we need to do larger productions," said Arney, who is a CPA.
They are looking for an infusion of capital that will allow them to scale up production. Though several potential investors have approached the duo, they say they still haven't found the right fit. They are planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign in 2019.
In the meantime, they are focused on their more traditional careers, while thinking that maybe someday ...
"It would be a dream to work in a field that you're so passionate about -- and that's being outdoors," Bousman said. "We'd be very lucky to have that opportunity if it came about."
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