Local entrepreneurs to be featured on season premier of Shark Tank

Published 6:33 pm Sunday, September 24, 2017

Vicksburg based entrepreneurs and outdoor enthusiast Richard and Juli Rhett took a swim in shark infested waters in hopes of securing an investor for their company Sierra Madre Research and their innovative camping gear.

The couple will be featured on the season premiere of ABC’s Shark Tank on Oct. 1, at 7 p.m. three months after pitching their product, the Nubé hammock shelter, to sharks Daymond John, Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec and special guest shark Richard Branson.

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“It was incredibly exciting and very, very fast paced,” Juli said. “It wasn’t like a normal sit down business meeting that you would expect. It was everybody talking at once and it is all happening so quickly. Exhilarating is the word for it.”

The Rhetts filmed their episode three months ago after being given only two weeks’ notice they were selected to appear on the show.

Their appearance on Shark Tank will be their second foray into television as they were featured on CNBC’s show Adventure Capitalist last season where they made an advisory deal with professional kiteboarder Susi Mai.

Richard Rhett said that experience helped prepare them for Shark Tank and feel more comfortable going in.

“When I got into the tank, it was pedal to the metal, incredible pressure, incredible stress, incredible amounts of energy that was coming at you from five different multi-millionaires and billionaires that know everything about business,” Richard said. “They all ask these incredible questions simultaneously. It was a mess, but it’s a good mess.”

Richard started the company in 2010 after a mission trip to Honduras sparked two desires for him — design a better hammock and find a way to help solve the water crisis that plagues so much of the world.

“I witnessed firsthand the devastation from the lack of clean drinking water,” Richard said. “While I was on that trip, I was sleeping in a hammock the entire time and I had a miserable experience with that hammock. I came back determined to face both of these problems that had been presented to me.”

A mechanical engineer by trade, Richard was employed at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg when he began working on his first prototype.

“I went and bought a 1972 Sears and Roebuck sewing machine, ordered fabric and started sewing and started making products,” Richard said. “I used my mechanical engineering background and I just have a problem solving mentality.”

Six months later, after countless tests that involved creating a prototype and testing it himself by sleeping in it and then refining it, Richard said he had a product that he was “ok with leaving my room and not holding onto any longer.” That included a design he felt solved the issues he had experienced in Honduras and also a product of acceptable craftsmanship.

The next step in the process was manufacturing. Instead of going the easy route, Richard and Juli decided to work to set up their own manufacturing facility in Nicaragua where they could create jobs for people living in communities impacted by the water crisis they were committed to solving.

They opened the facility in 2013 and operated it for three years before the demand for the product exceed the capabilities of the facility.

“We ended up just not being able to keep up so we moved to larger contract based manufacturing facilities that could support our growth without the long extended lead time that was happening due to corruption and government issues in Nicaragua,” Richard said.

Charity and a commitment to ending the water crisis is still a key part of the business though.

A portion of every sale is used to build clean water wells in Central America.

Sierra Madre Research’s signature product is the Nubé hammock shelter, which is designed to protect a camper and his or her gear no matter the weather.

“What we see a lot in the outdoor camping world is there is just an acceptance to being able to be rained out or stormed out,” Juli said. “Or you set up your tent and a storm comes in and you get flooded out and have to pack up and go home wet. We were like that shouldn’t be the case. You should be able to stay out when the storm comes through.”

They have multiple patents on portions of their design including the “closure sleeves”, which synch the ends of the cover closed around the hammock’s support lines keeping water from running into the hammock.

There is also a gear storage space where your bags are elevated off the ground and protected from the elements.

“We evaluated a lot of the downfalls that we personally were experiencing in our gear and then created a brand new piece or functional system so that isn’t a downfall anymore,” Juli said.

The Nubé was the product they pitched to the sharks on Shark Tank in hopes of securing a deal.

They are not allowed to talk about the results of the show until it airs Oct. 1, and even they don’t know what will actually be shown on in the episode.

“You have an hour and a half, hour and 45-minute conversation that is fast paced and all over the place,” Juli said. “Everybody is talking. Everybody is shooting out questions. Nobody listens to a full answer. Then they are going to take all of that and make it look like a cordial conversation that took 20 minutes. We have no idea. We are right along with everybody else, in having no idea what is actually going to be on TV.”

They currently sell their product in a small number of retailers including 601 Sports in Vicksburg, but the vast majority of their business is through their website www.sierramadreresearch.com.

They are expecting to see a boon in business following the airing of the episode and have been spending the time since they filmed preparing.

“We have been building a completely new website that can handle the influx,” Juli said. “One thing you hear a lot is when businesses go on Shark Tank, their website crashes the night it airs. We are trying to avoid that so we have been spending a few weeks building a brand new website on a new platform that we need to have up and running and ready to handle the traffic.”