By Eric Peterson | Aug 02, 2020
Santa Cruz, California
Sand castle tools
On a family vacation to Hawaii in 2018, Ott thought he would build sand castles with his kids. He found the standard tools of the trade: cheap plastic shovels and buckets. "They would just break almost instantly," says Ott. "It was really disappointing."
The disappointment led to the startup of Pufferfish a year later.
Back home in California, he searched high and low for better tools for shaping sand. "I thought, 'There must be a nice version of one,'" says Ott.
But it didn't exist. "There was no nice one," he says. "There are lots of toys, but no tools."
On the other end of the spectrum, pro sand shapers use heavy-duty implements, but Ott notes, "Most people aren't going to put a five-foot garden shovel in the trunk -- or fly it to Hawaii."
The Pufferfish line launched in 2020 with three products -- the Really Big Shovel, Better Bucket, and Super Scoop -- that fill the void between brittle plastic buckets and work tools. They're sold in kits that include a bag.
Developing prototypes was "a ton of fun," says Ott. "My office is the best office in the world. It's the beach."
He proved the concept on a return family trip to Hawaii before officially going into business. "My family spent two or three hours building sand castles on multiple different days. It was the exact opposite of the experience the year previously."
Digging into the science of sand, Ott learned sandcastles require wet sand, leading to the durable, collapsible Better Bucket and its 16-liter capacity. The Super Scoops and Really Big Shovels are similarly strong; the adjustable shovel is aluminum and the scoops are recycled plastic.
Then came manufacturing. "I'm a software guy, so I thought, 'How do you make a physical product? It can't be that hard,'" laughs Ott, who worked for Yahoo!, Palm, Skype, and several tech startups before starting Pufferfish. "It turned out to be way more complicated than I anticipated. We pretty much had to learn every vector of product manufacturing that there was."
Part of that was due to his desire for eco-friendly materials -- he ultimately landed on "insanely strong" Akulon RePurposed polymer from DSM Engineering Materials made from abandoned fishing nets for the Super Scoops -- but he says finding contract manufacturers proved even more difficult.
After a fruitless search in th U.S., he connected with four different contract manufacturing partners in China with the help of Alibaba and a pad printer for the scoops in Southern California. Warehousing and distribution are in the Bay Area.
For upcoming products, the precise manufacturing strategy has yet to be decided. "We are currently in China, but we are very strongly evaluating moving a bunch of that manufacturing to the U.S. if we can find the right partners," says Ott. An injection-molding plastics shop and steel parts manufacturer are high on the list.
For the launch, most domestic shops weren't interested in the lower volumes, complex designs, and recycled materials. Ott says moving production stateside would be good for marketing while boosting "attention to detail" on the product side. "A quick feedback loop with the manufacturing partner is critical," he notes.
Ott describes domestic contract manufacturing as a tricky market to navigate. "There are so many strengths the U.S. manufacturing market brings to bear," he says, "but for a direct-to-consumer brand that is starting from scratch, it is nearly impossible to start in the U.S. -- and it's very easy to start in China."
Challenges: Ott points to two big challenges. The first is marketing. "We have created a new category," he says. "Our number one job is getting the word out."
While the products were already manufactured, Pufferfish launched on Kickstarter as a means to this end.
Scaling is the second big challenge. He says he is moving to expand the Pufferfish line in 2021 with "really great partners."
Finding the right materials for working with sand has also been a tall order. "It turns out the beach is a crazy abrasive, corrosive environment," says Ott. "Figuring out if a material was going to work with that -- and a post-use waste material -- was incredibly difficult.
Opportunities: Being a first mover. "We have created a new category and a new product for the category," says Ott. "Our number one job right now is to get the word out."
Because of its newness, that makes the potential hard to gauge: "What was the snowboarding market when snowboarding was introduced?"
The company will release additional shaping tools for castle construction in 2021, but he sees Pufferfish evolving long-term into a "beach lifestyle brand" with tentacles beyond the sand. "We're not a surf brand, we're a beach brand."
While Pufferfish launched with a direct-to-consumer retail model, the company also aims to distribute to beach shops and resorts in the longer term.
Needs: Building a better supply chain. "Finding the right partners," says Ott, for materials, molding, and manufacturing. "We did it down and dirty to get it to exist. Now we have a lot of work to do to optimize that."