ICAST50: Making it Small

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Walking in the front doors at ICAST50 in the Las Vegas Convention Center is like trying to watch SportsCenter in the summer — It's nothing but ads.

Huge banners with some of the most recognizable names in the sport hang from the ceiling. Their booths, sometimes two stories high, have big screen TVs and eye-catching displays.

But while the gaudy setups and shelves of product might take up about 50 percent of the 350,000 square-foot show floor, they only account for about 5 percent of the companies represented.

Rows of smaller bait companies looking to make it in the business, line the walkways, hoping to get a piece of the pie. Their product is almost always unique and the ideas range from silly to practical to innovative. But one trait they all share is a unique story of how they got to ICAST50.

"Five years ago I was injured badly in a work-related accident," said Blake Muhlenbruck, owner and founder of Naked Bait Company. "I had my right arm ripped off from the inside, and I'm going blind. My right leg is paralyzed below the knee."

Muhlenbruck said he spent the four years of his life after the accident angry, and he said it only got worse when he tried to take himself off the pills that were keeping him alive.

"I tried to commit suicide six times, and the doctors told me I was going to die," he said.

But in March of 2006, he picked up a Bassmaster magazine that was featuring handicapped angler Shorty Powers.

"I called Shorty and told him who I was and he said, 'Blake, you need to get over this,'" Muhlenbruck said. And so he did.

A little over a year later, he is at ICAST50 selling a product he thought up to help him fish through his handicap. The Naked Bait Skirt Kit is his first and most popular product. Muhlenbruck said it is easier to manage than most of the skirt builders that are out there.

"All the expanders on the market are too hard to use," he said. "They don't give you enough space to put the skirt through and I couldn't do it. So I developed this product to make is a little easier on everybody."

There are a lot of Muhlenbruck's on the floor — people who created their own products through a set of circumstances. Then there are couples like Guy and Annette MacDonald.

The MacDonalds put their time and savings into a product that already existed — Spanyid baits.

"We were small little retailers and we bought a bunch lures that we know are successful," Guy MacDonald said. "We're like the little league pitcher who's now pitching in the World Series."

And when he says "bought a bunch of lures," he's not kidding. The MacDonalds paid $150,000 up front to get a chance to bring these lures to the United States.

Guy was ordering a couple thousand Lures from Sanyid, a successful lure company out of Australia, and they asked him if he wanted to represent them in the United States — a venture Spanyid had tried before, throwing a million dollars into the campaign, and failed.

The MacDonalds got samples from the company and gave them to all their fishing friends for testing.

"Everybody came back and said they worked awesome," Annette said. "The fact that we got feedback like that, helped us make the decision to actually carry the line out."

They launched their project at the start of this year and brought it to ICAST50 not only to sell the product, but to get more familiar with the business.

"We knew we could do it, but it was frightening," Guy said. "We had a lot to learn about the business. That's why my teeth are screwed up, I've been grinding them at night."

But both the MacDonalds and Muhlenbruck have a strategy in place that should make themselves successful. Their booths may never match the size of the Pure Fishings and Strike Kings of ICAST, but they can still be successful.

"It takes a lot to get into this business," Muhlenbruck said. "It's all about networking and becoming involved with other people. As a small company, you have to understand that success doesn't just come overnight.

"We are always reorganizing and restructuring. As a small company, you have to come up with something innovative and you have to be able to change from day to day."

The MacDonalds see it as a numbers game.

"In Australia, they sell 300,000 to 400,000 lures a year," Annette said. "Based upon those figures, our market should be selling a minimum of 1.5 to 2 million lures a year.

"And they work. We've had nothing but positive feedback from everyone who has used them."

Muhlenbruck said business, whether small or big, is a lot like life.

"I just stay as positive as I possibly can," he said. "The more negative you ask for, the more you're going to get."