This summer, Trinity entrepreneurs Sarah Fordin ’19 and James Procter ’19 took their prototype hammock on a series of sales trips to Colorado, the unofficial American center for all things camping and outdoors.
The feedback from retailers—the gatekeepers of the camping industry—wasn’t good.
“No one liked our product,” Fordin says. “They told us, ‘This is just another hammock, no matter what spin you try to put on it.’”
“This hammock was something we’d invested so much time in,” Procter says. “And it was like the rest of the world had just gone, ‘no, we don’t want it.’”
To add more stress, Fordin and Procter’s startup behind the hammock, Relax and Do Designs (RADD), was gearing up for a showdown at Trinity’s third annual Stumberg Venture Capital competition in October, a shark tank-style event with a $20,000 prize at stake. To boot, the team was facing a slew of challenges from production issues and juggling academic life as undergraduates.
“We needed to pivot our business, and we needed to do it fast,” Procter says. “We realized that people weren’t just looking for a another hammock, they were looking for a simple way to camp.”
In a surprise move, the RADD team pivoted to a new prototype just in time to win the Stumberg competition. The new hammock, in addition to the original features of adjustable straps and convenient unpacking setup, includes an integrated bugproof net and an overhanging rainproof cover.
Now, the product isn’t “just another hammock,” Procter says. “This is just like a tent, but off the ground.”
This move stole the show at the Stumberg competition, where RADD competed against fellow Trinity startups Dbuntu, Pok-It, Modern Knights, Coldeclara, and Baking Britney.
“Everything was at stake for us in this contest,” Fordin says. “We both come from backgrounds where we can’t ask our parents for money—this was all on us.”
The Stumberg competition, now in its third year, was founded by an endowment from brothers Herb ’81 and Eric Stumberg in honor of their father, the late Louis H. Stumberg, a former member of Trinity’s Board of Trustees. The contest consists of two rounds: one in the spring that narrows the field of entrants to a handful of finalists and awards a $5,000 prize to each; and the second, final round in the fall that selects a winner.
Even after making it through the spring 2017 round, the RADD team labeled themselves as “longshots” to win the final round. Procter and Fordin spent the rest of the spring semester and summer dealing with seemingly endless challenges.
Both students juggled undergraduate research responsibilities and classes, all while dealing with a production issue that forced the team to drive up to Tennessee in the middle of their summer. Later, during the pair’s sales trip to Colorado, this same production issue threw off the team’s schedule, forcing the pair to ship out orders of their product to each sales stop on the road.
“That was a pain,” Procter grimaces. “We’re out at campsites, literally boxing up packages to ship around the world—and then stopping at the next post office in the next town we stop at to send them all out.”
“Just chilling at a few national parks with a whole bunch of USPS boxes, packing them up,” Fordin laughs. “That was an emotional roller coaster.”
Navigating these challenges in spring and summer 2017 and winning the Stumberg competition later that fall also took support from Trinity’s entrepreneurship resources.
“The ‘convenience factor’ at Trinity is amazing,” Procter says. “You’re given a shared office to work from in Trinity’s Entrepreneurship center, and the Stumberg Competition creates a huge opportunity for investment capital. That was one of the things that enticed me to come to Trinity in the first place.”
“Not only do they give you the capital,” Fordin adds, “but the mentorship under Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) David Girault ’91 and entrepreneurship director Luis Martinez ’91 has been amazing.”
Martinez says the RADD team’s experience at Trinity—pivoting to a new product after an original idea “fails”— is not an unusual journey.
“This is something that all our startups at Trinity learn in their first few months,” Martinez says. “The RADD team decided to focus on what their customers needed, rather than what RADD wanted to make.”
While the team benefited from Martinez’s feedback, Procter says Girault also played a large role in the team’s success as Trinity’s EIR.
“Here at Trinity, I remember going to the EIR with a question about manufacturing,” Procter says. “I’m in (Girault’s) office; he says ‘hold on a second,’ and starts typing on his phone. I’m standing there, wondering what’s going on, but seconds later, the phone beeps, and he tells me, ‘Oh yeah, my contact is recommending these three manufacturers.’ It took him five minutes to connect me with real-world manufacturing contacts.”
Girault, a longtime finance executive, attorney, and business leader, says he was happy to provide mentorship to the RADD team.
"With their first product, RADD was trying to 'play in a sandbox' that was already crowded," Girault says. "But with their new prototype, they're going after a 'sandbox' that they can be the first to enter. This is a lesson that's great for future generations of Trinity entrepreneurs to learn, too."
Beyond Trinity’s faculty, the RADD team also drew on the University’s alumni resources. The team’s sales trip to Colorado this summer was made possible by alumni Dave ’76 and Carol ’83 Mansen, who offered Procter and Fordin a place to sleep at their house in Colorado after connecting at the spring round of the Stumberg competition.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today, if not for all these connections and resources,” Fordin says.
Heading into winter 2017 armed with funding and a revamped prototype, the RADD team has another bit of good news on the way.
“Remember those same retailers who didn’t like our product this summer?” Fordin says. “We were able to get back in the door with them—they’re interested in seeing our new prototype.”