Clark Whitehead spent his childhood floating on lakes and rivers with his family, and he was always the one hanging onto his parents' inner tubes or tying everyone's floaties together with ropes.
Then one night, the Petaluma native had an idea while lying in bed.
"A puzzle always holds together, and it doesn't need rope or anything," Whitehead said.
That was the seed for his new product, "Fluzzle Tubes." The inner tubes have protrusions shaped like puzzle pieces so they can be linked together, and a family or group of friends can float down the river without pesky ropes.
Whitehead teamed up with Eduardo "Eddie" De Arkos, a childhood friend he got to know during those family trips to the lakes. The two men, both in their early 20's, have landed an account with Big 5 Sporting Goods, which plans to sell the bright, bulbous tubes on store shelves by summer.
"He asked me whether I wanted to do it, and it took me 10 seconds to say, 'Yeah,'" De Arkos said.
Whitehead and De Arkos each pulled $3,000 from their personal savings accounts to pay for patent applications and fees. They received a patent for the design of their inner tubes, and have a patent pending for the "utility," which would cover any interlocking inner tubes.
Then they set out on two elusive goals: finding a manufacturer and raising the money to make the product.
Whitehead, using knowledge he picked up taking classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, found a patent attorney through an English teacher, and then a potential manufacturer in China on the website Alibaba.com. He sent drawings and the manufacturer sent back samples the young men could use to drum up interest and investment. But it wasn't easy.
"For two guys as young as us, you can imagine how many naysayers there are," De Arkos said. "We talked to investing firms, banks, and every single person shut us down."
Eventually, they met with Sebastopol business consultant Daniel Martin, who decided to invest.
"Sebastopol is a small town and when three different people from three different sectors told me about this product all in a matter of one week ... I knew something big was coming," Martin said.
De Arkos focused on sales and marketing, while Whitehead designed the product, website and packaging.
"We're constantly feeding off each other because we're so different," De Arkos said.
Just in time for the production run, they landed another investor, Tyler Burt of Sebastopol, and hopped on a plane to the factory in China's Zhejiang province.
"To see them crank out stacks was a sobering moment," De Arkos said. "I started getting teary-eyed."
The products are scheduled to arrive in about two weeks and will cost $34.99 each, De Arkos said.
"In this industry we see a lot of the same stuff just packaged differently," said Jenna Evans, who works in the buying department at Big 5. "To see something that is so unique and so different, it really stands out on the shelf."