Jeremy Little wanted to be an entrepreneur long before he knew what the word meant. In third grade, when his teacher passed out index cards and told the students to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up, his answer turned out to be unique in a classroom full of teachers, nurses, police officers and doctors. “I wrote entrepreneur,” Little said. “I spelled it wrong and the truth was I didn't even know what that was, exactly, but I was growing up surrounded by that spirit – it was instilled in me from a young age.”
Little's grandfather owned a contract cleaning company. Starting in 1952 with a handful of doctors and dentists as clients, the company grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Little's father, Mark Little, a welder and fabricator, was always inventing things in his spare time and won the gold medal at the 1989 Minnesota Inventors Congress for Eagle-4, a conversion kit that could transform a three-wheel all-terrain vehicle into a four-wheeler in less than 15 minutes. So it wasn't unusual for Mark to hit upon yet another idea for an invention when he started shopping for boats in the early 2000s.
“Once he started looking at different types of boats he realized that they come in various lengths but are all eight feet wide,” Little said. “He wondered why that would be and quickly found out it's because that's the maximum width you can trailer on the highway. He thought about this and then he pitched me the idea that we come up with a pontoon that can expand once it's on the water.”
Little, who was in his early 20s at the time, loved the idea as much as his father did and the two of them set to work making the concept a reality. The first step was to build a four-foot working model that had a retractable trailer and expandable deck to allow for greater seating capacity. It was while working on this prototype that they realized their model might have actual market potential. When they showed the finished prototype to friends and family, the enthusiastic feedback they received confirmed their decision and inspired them to build a full-scale pontoon. “We didn't cut up an existing pontoon,” Little said. “My father was brilliant. He had a photographic memory when it came to anything mechanical and he could take a structure and draw it in detail. Eventually, he drew the mechanical drawings we needed for the patent on our pontoon. He sat at the kitchen table and drew every nut and bolt from memory, so we could save the $10,000 to $15,000 it would have cost us to pay someone else to do it.”
After building a full-scale prototype made of steel that also received a lot of positive feedback, they decided to build an aluminum version that, at 22 feet long and with the ability to expand to 11 feet wide, was much lighter and bigger. This model sat 17 people comfortably because its deck had an extra three feet of width when deployed on the water. It also had pontoons that were larger in diameter, with an additional, third pontoon down the center of the boat for stabilization.
The Littles paid for and built all of the prototypes themselves. The aluminum version ended up costing 10 times what the steel version had cost. At the time, Jeremy Little worked at North Star Steel in South St. Paul. “Basically, I could work all the overtime I wanted,” he said. “So I would work 40 hours and then sign up for 40 hours overtime, working 80 hours a week. The money from overtime would cover the pontoon and I'd work on it with my dad on the weekends. We made a great team. We worked together for 10 years, elbow to elbow.”
Once the aluminum prototype was finished, the Littles decided to enter it in the 2009 Minneapolis Boat Show. “Our goal wasn't to see how many we could sell,” Little said. “We just wanted public feedback. Would you buy this? What do you like about it? What are the drawbacks? We had an overwhelming response – over 30 people offered us cash for the prototype. We had a lot of interest from resort owners who wanted to be able to take large groups of guests out on it. After that we said to each other, ‘We've got a winner here.'”
A LONG ROAD
The triumph and exhilaration the Littles felt after the boat show was to be short-lived. Although there had been keen interest from existing boat manufacturers to buy the invention and patent outright, in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, the companies pulled back. Then, in 2010, Mark Little was diagnosed with pulmonary lung disease, and plans for pushing forward and bringing the pontoon to market came to a halt as he and his family coped with his terminal diagnosis and tried, unsuccessfully, for a lung transplant. Mark Little died in March 2014.
“About a week before he passed away, we were up playing cribbage at 12:30 in the morning,” Little said. “The pontoon was downstairs in our shop and he said to me, ‘You know, we’ve got our hearts in that thing down there. We did something special together. Don’t let it go to waste.’ And I promised him I would do whatever it took to make sure it went into production.”
Little is the first to admit that at the time he made the promise, he had no idea how to fulfill it. But in the fall of 2014, he transferred to St. Thomas to earn his undergraduate degree in business. His admissions counselor told him he needed to declare a major and, after talking to him about his interests, suggested he study entrepreneurship. “I asked her what that would entail,” he said. “So she read me the criteria for the program and it reminded me of my card in the third grade. Something inside me said that this was it.”
Little started out in Entrepreneurship 200 with Alec Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor of entrepreneurship. The class is known as the Lemonade Stand Class, in which groups of students each start their own make-believe stand in order to learn how to analyze information and make decisions for a successful business venture. “At first I thought, ‘I’m going to start a lemonade stand?’” Little said. “I’m going back to when I was 12! But I didn’t realize all of the underlying factors involved in running a business until I was in that class and then I realized that if I think I'm going to start a large company, if I'm going to start a manufacturing plant, then I really need these skills.”
It was through Johnson and other students in his class that Little learned about the Fowler Business Concept Challenge, a UST competition designed to encourage students to act on their ideas for innovative businesses. Little told Johnson about the pontoon he built with his dad. “Right away I saw it as a novel, technical solution that could have viability in the market,” Johnson said. “I knew it deserved a deeper look.”
At Johnson’s urging, Little entered the Fowler and his Unique Pontoons took first place in the competition. This drew the attention of Michael Moore, director of the William C. Norris Institute at St. Thomas, which supportsthe startup and growth of visionary companies in Minnesota. The institute focuses on businesses involving technology that addresses unmet needs. The Norris Institute covered the costs for the reverse engineering of Jeremy’s prototype pontoon by a local engineering firm, which resulted in CAD diagrams that were sent to manufacturers.
“The first major challenge is figuring out how to manufacture the first boats and sell them profitably to generate revenue for future production,” Moore said. “and interest other investors in putting capital into the company. Then the challenge will be competing with major manufacturers and retailers in the pontoon boat industry to gain enough market share to support the company’s growth.” Moore said this will require a team of business, engineering, manufacturing and sales managers who can work together to make the company successful in competitive industry.
Moore, along with Brian Abraham, Ph.D., associate dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, and Mike Ryan, director of the Small Business Development Center, continue to meet with Little on a monthly basis to hone his business pitch and make decisions about the first small-lot production run. Last spring, at the urging of Moore, Little entered the Minnesota Inventors Congress Innovation Expo and was the first person in 58 years to sweep the show, winning every award they offered, including People’s Choice. “I witnessed the reaction of attendees to the boat,” Moore said. “At first, some people questioned what was unique about it. But after Jeremy explained the features, everyone was impressed, and several wanted to buy one or invest in the company.”
Currently, Little is establishing a working relationship with an engineer who is documenting the improvements to the production, gathering manufacturing costs and working with a commercial real estate agent to find a manufacturing facility. “My plan is to have manufacturers build and ship sub-assemblies to my plant, where workers will put everything together,” he said. “My larger goal is to be able to hire welders to have them weld some of the smaller sub-assemblies and start to bring everything in house. Everything will be American made, in the Twin Cities.”
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
Even with considerable progress towards fulfilling his promise of production, Little remains aware of the fact that, like any entrepreneurial effort, it’s still not a sure thing. However, he remains undeterred and optimistic. “When my dad and I started this,” Little said, “our motivation was to become rich – we thought we'd make a couple million and be set. But it seemed like things never really fell into place for us and it was an uphill battle. Once I made a promise not to give up on this, my motive changed. Money is a result, not a driver.”
Once production of the first pontoons is underway the business will become a full-time job for Little, yet he is committed to completing his undergraduate degree (he remains a full-time student taking 12 credits per semester) and is determined to earn his MBA as well. “You can have a million dollars and lose it in a day,” he said. “You can have the biggest home in the world and it could burn down in an hour but one thing someone can never take away from you is your education. Once I obtain an education from St. Thomas, I'll have it forever.”