Hold On Tight

 Hold On Tight

Troy native Ethan Smith designed and built the Shoal Tent, a first-of-its-kind inflatable floating raft with a tent topper that allows campers to sleep on the water.

Eric Spangler

Ethan Smith is on a wild ride.

Smith, founder and owner of SmithFly Designs, is in the midst of shifting the company away from making fly fishing gear exclusively and toward a more general market for those who simply enjoy spending time outdoors. The company name is also expected to change to SmithCoe.

Currently the company’s top two products are a lightweight raft that can be carried by two people into waters that were previously inaccessible to other rafts and a tent that floats on the water.

The company started in Smith’s mind more than two decades ago when he doodled ideas for outdoor products as a visual communication design student at The Ohio State University. After graduation and several years working at various design firms Smith found himself staring at a possibility of being laid off during the Great Recession.

His wife suggested he start a business while still working so in case he was laid off he would have something to fall back on. In 2010 Smith started making his first product, a fishing pack with removable pouches that could be configured and customized by the angler.

He made the products on the weekends while still working full time at a design firm. Then, around 2015, he quit his design firm job and started his business full time in a building in his hometown of Troy.

A friend mentioned that he’d like a lightweight raft so Smith designed, made some tweaks, and produced his first three-person Big Shoals raft. “By the time we had the first one done I had about 12 more sold,” says Smith.

Another friend told Smith he was running out of land for more sites at his campground on a river and he could add more sites if someone made a tent that floated. Again, Smith designed and built the company’s first Shoal Tent, a first-of-its-kind inflatable floating raft with a tent topper that allows people to sleep on the water.

“A couple months later we launched and it went kind of viral and a year later we probably had 100 million views of it on Facebook and across social media and website traffic,” says Smith. “So it kind of took on a life of its own.”

But the popularity of his products led to a delay in getting his products to customers because he didn’t have an inventory of products on hand. He needed more capital to build up inventory.

Smith was recently featured on an episode of the TV show The Profit, starring Marcus Lemonis, CEO of the multibillion-dollar corporation Camping World. During the episode Lemonis offers Smith $1 million for a 50% stake in the company, which Smith accepted.

Now Smith is ready to launch his newest product, the cabana raft, a recreational—or party version—of the Shoal Tent that serves as a swim platform with no sides. It’s another product in the company’s inflatables line that is now driving the company’s growth.

It’s all part of an exciting business ride that Smith compares to riding a mechanical bull. “You just sort of hold on tight and try not to get thrown off.”