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Massachusetts-bred umbrella entrepreneur prepares to jump into "Shark Tank"

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 13, 2010 07:10 AM

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Alan Kaufman says that the idea for the Nubrella -- a radical reimagining of the staid old umbrella -- occurred to him as his prior business was imploding. 

In his twenties, Kaufman started The Wireless Company in Newton, selling cell phones and service plans, and advertising heavily on local radio. Later, he ran Cingular Wireless authorized re-seller stores in the Boston area and Manhattan. But his expansion to New York ended in a lawsuit and arbitration with Cingular. About the time he was acknowledging that he'd have to shut his five New York outlets, he was walking around on "a miserable, rainy, windy day, watching people struggle with their umbrellas." He drew a stick figure wearing a new type of aerodynamic umbrella that would better block the wind -- and wouldn't be blown inside out by a serious gust.

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He put the sketch into his pocket and forgot about it. But three months later, looking at it again, he thought the idea had merit. "I was entangled in the lawsuit with Cingular, and I said, 'I'm going to build this.'"

On January 29th, Kaufman, who grew up in West Peabody and attended prep school in Danvers, will present his $49 Nubrella to the investors on ABC's reality show "Shark Tank." (The show features a panel of five investors who listen to short presentations by entrepreneurs, ask tough questions, and sometimes agree to put money in after a bit of hard-nosed negotiation.) According to a short video that ABC briefly posted to its "Shark Tank" Web site, Kaufman accepted an investment from one of the sharks, FUBU Clothing founder Daymond John, but he won't talk about the specifics. 

Kaufman says he worked with Continuum, a West Newton-based design firm, to create a dozen prototypes of the Nubrella between 2003 and 2008. Along with Mitchell Robbins, a local real estate developer (and sometime movie producer), he estimates he invested about $1 million into the product's development.

It's not exactly like those wacky umbrella hats that were popular for a blink in the 1980s, but it is a wearable umbrella. (It kind of resembles your own portable plastic biosphere.) 

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"It rests on your shoulders, and straps under your arms," Kaufman says. "You can ride a scooter with it on, or walk around in 40 mile-per-hour winds. It also blocks the wind chill and keeps you warmer." Kaufman says a first batch of 3000 Nubrellas that went on sale in 2008 sold out, but that he didn't have the capital to ramp up production or increase his marketing expenditure.

He decided to go on "Shark Tank" primarily for the publicity, he says, but also because he needed new investors. Kaufman shot his episode last August. 

"I went in thinking I'd ask for $200,000 for 25 percent of my company," he says. "I figured I would take the deal, going in, because they said they were shooting more entrepreneurs and inventors than they needed for the show, and I figured they'd air the [companies] they invested in." Kaufman wound up agreeing to part with 51 percent of the company's equity.  ("Shark Tank" investor Kevin O'Leary bought a Nubrella from Kaufman right after the taping.)

With a bit of money from his family, he had a Chinese factory crank out another 4000 Nubrellas, which he's now selling through his Web site. Kaufman estimates that he might sell about 1000 units as a result of his "Shark Tank" appearance, but his real hope is for distribution deals with mass-market retailers like Target, Costco, and Bed Bath & Beyond. "It's a mainstream product," he says. But today, the business is still virtual, with no employees or office.

Interestingly, Kaufman says he has yet to get his hands on any actual capital from Daymond John. The on-set negotiations are really just the first step, he explains, and there's a due diligence process afterward. But waiting more than four months to access what is probably about $100,000 or $200,000 of funding must be frustrating.

Kaufman, who has lately been living in New York and Florida, says he's hopeful that Nubrella will at some point blossom into a business that can support him. But his near-term plans involve returning to Boston to take a job with a paycheck -- at least for a while.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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