TRAVERSE CITY – Dakota and Garret Porter are like a lot of young brothers – they enjoy snowboarding, surfing, longboarding and a host of other recreation activities.
“We’re not like the video game type of kids – we like to spend a lot of time outdoors,” said Garret, a 15-year-old sophomore at Traverse City Central High School.
What sets the brothers apart from most teenagers was a desire to meld their enthusiasm for outdoor recreation with an innate sense of invention and entrepreneurship. The result? They formed a company called 45th Parallel Lighting LLC. It’s developing a set of Action Glow products that use strings of LED lights to illuminate snowboards, bicycles and other recreation equipment. Now the teens are ready to take their bright idea to a much larger consumer base.
“I’ve been very interested in business since I was a little kid,” said Dakota, an 18-year-old student at Northwestern Michigan College. He launched his first business, called Porter Productions, at age 14. He produced slide shows of special events such as birthday parties or anniversaries.
It kept him busy for a while, but the adventurous siblings soon came up with another idea spurred by one of their favorite activities – snowboarding. They attached some LED lights to their snowboards a few seasons ago and knew they were on to something when other kids on the ski hill wouldn’t leave them alone.
“We got a huge reaction out of it…if we wanted to snowboard, we had to turn the lights off,” Dakota said. “I knew this idea was a lot better than my other business.”
The positive response to their idea gave the brothers confidence they had a product that could generate demand. But they also knew there was a large gap between a good idea and a successful business venture, and went to work on the details. They met with business counselors from SCORE, and also tapped the expertise of Heather Fortin at the MidMichigan Innovation Center.
Fortin steered Dakota to present their product at the Accelerate Michigan new product competition last year, where he finished among the top 10. Their product made the top 25 finalists at the Accelerate Michigan competition again this year, and he’ll make another presentation to that group in mid-November with a shot at a top prize of $25,000.
Locally, the brothers took part in the Boost! Traverse City sales competition sponsored by MidMichigan Innovation Center last year, and took top honors in this year’s Best Shot competition in Traverse City. That bagged a $6,000 prize package that included $3,000 toward website development, legal work, membership in the Traverse City Area Chamber and other benefits. Dakota said their presentations have become more polished with practice.
“It’s a lot easier now that I’ve been presenting a lot,” he said.
Now the brothers are ready to shift into high gear. With the Chamber Expo approaching followed by the holiday shopping season, they’ll be busy assembling at least 100 lighting kits so they can accept orders at the Expo. The family also tapped the Chamber’s new Sub-Micro Loan fund for money to buy materials for the anticipated holiday rush. The kits range in price from $29.99 to $49.99 and they can outfit snowboards, skis, bicycles, longboards and other recreational equipment.
Their mother, Cristina Porter, said her sons make for an excellent pair of business partners. Dakota has an inventor’s mind that hones in on product development and assembly, while Garret takes on the more tedious tasks of note taking and record-keeping.
“You couldn’t put two better partners together if you picked them,” said Cristina, who’s a close advisor and quasi-assistant to her two sons. Their father, Dane, helped renovate their small workshop but leaves operations to the others.
Despite their early success, the brothers realize they’re still in the infancy stages of their journey. They’re working with a handful of area retailers including the Wet Mitten Surf Shop and Don Orr Ski Haus to display their Action Glow products. They also want to expand their product line to equip other outdoor gear, secure additional patents and grow into international markets.
And Dakota still dreams of landing his product on a big-time stage such as the popular “Shark Tank” reality television show for inventors on ABC-TV. It’s been quite a run of achievement for the siblings who still find time for their studies, community service work, outdoor recreation – and their growing business venture.
“It’s been a lot of work,” Dakota said. “A lot of tinkering, trials and tribulations…and we’ve gotten a lot of help.”