A metal shelf flies from the back of a pickup in Shoreline and kills Gavin Coffee, 43. Sandy Harmon, 23, swerves to avoid a tarp that flew onto Interstate 5 in Tacoma and he dies in a collision. Seven members of the Bellevue High School football team are hospitalized after their bus overturns when avoiding an unsecured ladder. A pick ax tumbles from the back of a pickup onto Interstate 405 and sails through the windshield of an SUV.
Unsecured loads – cans of paint, tools, rocks, furniture, ladders, pipes, plywood and other debris – regularly fall from the backs of pickup trucks. There’s a law against it, but still it happens.
Three Tacoma friends think they have a solution.
They have developed a product they call TarpX, which recently went onto the shelves at Costco.
For Dan Kinley, “It was just a thought I had.”
He was in high school near Yakima and one day in 1995 drove to Seattle. “I had to re-tie the tarp five times,” he said.
The idea lingered, quietly, for nearly a decade.
“Being from Eastern Washington, we did a lot of stuff with trucks,” said Trevor Colby, president of the Tacoma-based company that makes and markets TarpX.
“We were always dealing with bungees, ropes. Then Dan had an idea.”
It’s simple enough – so simple that someone might wonder why someone else didn’t think of it first.
TarpX is essentially a thin blanket made to cover a load in the bed of a pickup truck or a trailer. It is constructed of a ripstop nylon fabric that has been sewn to include elastic ribs – some lateral, with extra-strength elastic in the “X” – that compress a load.
Properly tied and hooked to the truck or trailer, TarpX, the business owners say, will not flap in the wind and will not allow the release of objects that can injure, maim or kill other drivers.
But success requires more than just a good idea.
“We’ve gone down roads, and we’ve gone back and started over,” said Kinley.
In the beginning, he said he and Colby contacted “one of those inventor’s help lines. We basically blew $6,000.”
After “spinning our wheels,” he said, they contacted their friend Mike Walters, who is versed in such business matters as marketing and branding.
Colby and Kinley know about some areas of business – they own a commercial real estate office in Tacoma – but they were novices as to making, marketing and succeeding with a new consumer product.
“We knew it was a solid idea – it can save lives,” said Colby. “But where do you go from here? You have no idea where to go.”
Patrick Raymond, executive director of the nonprofit, New York-based United Inventors Association, estimated last week that 50,000 independent inventors file patents every year in the United States.
“There’s no hard data on the success rate, but the industry agrees it is somewhere between 1.5 percent and 5 percent who ever make their money back,” he said.
“They’re not good odds.”
He said that an inventor could expect to invest at least five years before an invention caught the interest of a major retailer.
“The difference between an idea and the invention is the work,” he said.
Colby, Kinley and Walters have done the work. They have also invested their own money. Add money – they are reluctant to say how much – invested by family or friends.
A minority partner in the venture, marketing expert Mike Walters said he recognized TarpX could become a successful product.
“I knew there was something there,” he said.
His initial research showed more than 38 million registered pickups in the United States – plus some 30 million utility trailers. He found that Washington recorded the country’s 10th-highest number of registered pickups – with 1,070,208 in 2007.
He also found that 25,000 accidents in the country, and nearly 100 deaths, could be annually attributed to vehicle-related road debris.
The original TarpX was patent-pending when the three Tacoma men decided to try for the next step.
“We knew we could do better,” said Kinley.
They hired a Seattle engineering design firm to develop and refine the product.
“Most people who think of ideas – they think somebody else must have thought of it first,” Kinley said.
“You have to have faith,” said Walters.
“It’s exciting, something that started from nothing,” said Colby. “I was so excited when I saw it for the first time on a pickup.”
SELLING AND MANUFACTURING
“Once you get into Costco, it does give you credibility,” Colby said.
“We are out there constantly looking for those products that meet our needs and meet our customers’ needs,” said Mike Parrott, Costco vice president for hardware and automotive.
The company sells TarpX in stores in the Puget Sound region as well as in Colorado, Arizona and Southern California.
Parrott said he has spoken with the Costco buyer who approved the deal for TarpX.
“She has seen the product. She has tried the product, and she has bought the product,” he said.
Which makes it sound simple.
“Being on the shelf – they are in the last and most nerve-wracking part,” said Patrick Raymond, of the inventors association.
“Being on the shelf is different from flying off the shelf,” he said.
He did seem surprised by the success so far. “It’s exceedingly rare that a retailer will accept a single-SKU (single-product) company,” he said.
Most inventors who get this far, he said, license the product to an experienced manufacturer or marketing firm.
The most difficult part of the process for Colby was finding a company that would produce TarpX to exact specifications.
“Sourcing a manufacturer was the toughest part,” he said. “We hoped to say ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ but the cruel reality is that it would have cost us three times as much.”
“We’ve used four different sourcing firms for manufacturing,” said Kinley.
“For the big retailers,” said Walters, “we need approvals on working conditions, environmental, and child labor. They have to have a track record of delivery.”
“We had representatives in China,” said Kinley.
Finally a Chinese manufacturer was selected.
The first manufacturer just couldn’t meet product standards. The others were rejected for financial reasons.
And there were some things the trio never thought to consider.
Factories had shut down because of the poor economy and dwindling demand for exports. Some factories closed for a brief period during the tea-picking season, when workers can earn a relatively higher wage by going out into the fields. Shippers have mothballed ships, thereby reducing the supply and increasing the demand for – and the cost of – cargo space.
“You’re at the mercy of everyone else,” said Kinley.
But still it sells.
Along with Costco, TarpX sales representatives have contacted other major retailers. The product is for sale on the company website. Much of the sales today come from word-of-mouth.
“It’s amazing how this has reached the East Coast,” said Kinley.
Walters predicts that the parent company, Load Control Systems Inc., will produce 50,000 units this year – and by the end of the year, the three expect to generate a corporate profit.
“We want to see a TarpX on every pickup on the road,” said Kinley.
“It’s a neat feeling,” he said. “You’re helping people. You’re seeing something of yours on the shelf in stores. It’s neat to see we’ve taken an idea and made it reality.”
Said Colby, “Noting beats the school of hard knocks.”
• A covering made to secure and compress loads in pickups and utility trailers
• Made of heavy-duty ripstop nylon; the X and lateral ribs comprise strong elastic; secured by tie-down hooks and bands
• Cost: About $50 at Costco; more on the TarpX website, www.tarpx.com
• Produced by Load Control Systems Inc. of Tacoma
• Officers include founders Trevor Colby, 34, president; and Dan Kinley, 33, secretary, both from Selah; and friend Mike Walters, vice president. All three live with their families in the Tacoma area.
• Day job: Colby and Kinley own a commercial real estate firm
Why TarpX could make a difference:
• In Washington between 2004 and 2008, there were 28 fatal collisions involving loose objects that struck a vehicle.
• “How many times do you drive and see a mattress on the side of the road? You can get a sense of what’s not being secured that easily can be picked up by the wind and take flight,” said Kim Schmanke, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology. “It would be worth it if only one accident was prevented.”
• In 2009, there were more than 290 collisions on Washington roadways caused by debris that fell from a vehicle. Those collisions caused 42 injuries, three very serious, according to the Washington Sate Patrol.
• Washington State Patrol Sgt. Freddy Williams was driving with his wife near Salt Lake City when a metal object came flying toward his windshield. “I’ve been shot at before. This was absolutely as bad,” he said.