A Conversation with Zup Wake Board Innovator Glen Duff

July is the first full month of summer and to kick summer off we will be profiling some fun summer innovations as part of our Summer 2013 series.

Up first is a very special invention for me. The inventor is Glen Duff, who has been a client of mine for the last 5 years. Over the past year we were able to get Glen and his team their first patent on the Zup™ Board. See U.S. Patent No. 8292681, titled Water recreation device.

The Zup™ is perhaps the most cool and innovative wake board you have ever seen. There are a number of other patent applications pending, trademark applications pending and ongoing research and development for future products. The Zup™ is special because literally anyone can ride the board and participate in the fun. I knew that Glen was onto something when he showed me a video of an early prototype in use years ago. There was a giant fellow — 6’8″ and easily 290 pounds — who managed to get up on the board with ease. I thought to myself, “that shouldn’t happen!” Being a big guy myself I understand how difficult, if not nearly impossible, it is to get up on a traditional wake board. In that same video I also saw an elderly grandmother get up on the board. Neither size nor upper body strength mattered. It was then I knew Glen had something special.

Glen will easily be one of my most successful clients ever when all is said and done and we are telling our stories at our retirement parties. An inventor on several patents prior to his entry into the wake board market, Glen has simply done everything right along the way. He has listened to advice and has surrounded himself with an all-star advisory group of industry insiders who are very optimistic about the likely future success. Thus, this is a story of growing success, but also one of perseverance and commitment. It illustrates the importance of moving forward with a patent position to secure rights that can be build upon, and how critical it is to surround yourself with people knowledgeable about the industry. As Glen explains below in our interview he managed to connect with several key industry leaders who helped open doors for the Zup™ and who are on his advisory board.

This marks the first season the Zup™ is available for purchase. Overton’s, which was acquired by Gander Mountain in 2007 and is the largest watersports dealer in the world, is selling the patented Zup™ Board and patent pending DoubleZUP™ tow system. The Zup™ is also available at a number of local stores as well, and you can learn more about it on Facebook. In Part 1 of the interview with Glen that follows he explains that the Zup™ is Overton’s best selling product in their 37 year history.

So without further ado, I present the patented Zup™ Board and my interview with the inventor, Glen Duff. NOTE: if the video below does not show please click refresh.

QUINN: Thanks, Glen for taking the time to chat with me.  I know you’ve got a lot of exciting things going on and I thought it might be interesting to talk about your inventions and patents generally and your success path with the new ZUP™ Board. I’d like specifically talk about what you’ve learned, what advice you might have for other inventors and how sales are going in your first sales season. So let’s just jump right in – when you were coming up with this new water sports invention, how did you actually come up with it and when did you know that you might be on to something special?

DUFF: Well, it started in the Spring of 2008 when the associate pastor of student ministries (Tim Zeckser) and I were recalling the week before over lunch at the best little restaurant in Toana, VA.  We had been boating with several students and leaders from different several small groups, out on the James River. What we learned was that not many people can be successful, if they are fairly new to the sport of wake boarding or water skiing.  So as we contemplated wanting to get everyone riding on the water skimming across and smiling, we just felt like the existing products on the market were not providing that broad quick fix opportunity.  So my friend Tim and I saw an opportunity to try to fix that situation to help more people’s experience. We wanted to enhance the experience for the whole group that we were taking out on the boat for the day.  We had the experienced pros there, we had the kids who were naturally gifted and then we had the totally not experienced at water sports, less than athletically gifted.  Everyone wanted to support and encourage the new riders, you know, the kids who had never tried riding before, but unfortunately those are the ones that ended up using most of the valuable time up, out on the river.

We noticed that as much as we wanted everyone on the same level of success, we experienced the “coulds” and the “could nots.”

So after we made several sketches and prototypes with my buddies Tim, Brock and Jordan, we started to see the original goals being satisfied. My wife remembered a ski trainer she had tried in Michigan on one of their beautiful lakes, when she was a young girl.  We learned from everything that had been done before and kept our eyes on the clear objective: “with this board, everybody getZUP!”

QUINN: Was this a new endeavor for you?  Or perhaps it might be better to ask: how did you get into water sports?  Were you a fan or just in the right place at the right time?

DUFF: My wife Diane and I decided with our four teenage daughters that we wanted to be in the boating and water sports world.  We loved anything to do with water and once we could afford a boat, we realized that there was a water ski club, up the river. It was a Show Ski Club on the Chickahominy River. Two weeks after we had joined that organization, they had us creating pyramids and doing show style maneuvers. We thought this was the greatest thing since fried twinkies.  And I recall watching one team member who would dress up like clown and climb up onto a six foot bar stool, and ride it as it was placed on a three foot diameter wooden disk!  Then he did 360º spins to our amazement!  And I was so amazed looking at that, thinking if he could do that, you could pretty much put anything on the water and ride it. So at that point, (in 2002) I was actually contemplating what were the potential things that you could ride on the water?  Gene, people throughout the ages are constantly throwing unique items out on the water and just trying to ride them just for the fun of it and just trying to do something new and novel

QUINN: Yeah.  A little bit of a daredevil spirit as well.

DUFF: Oh Yeah!

QUINN: But you were an inventor before this as well, right?  You had several patents already before undertaking this project.

DUFF: I love design, studied it in school, and have always wanted to change the world with an idea.  I have two additional utility patents.  They were my “educational” patents.  I learned a lot, but was not as successful as I had imagined, even though they were licensed and sold ok in the market.  I spent a lot of money and felt like I paid for a college education in intellectual property through the process.  The return financially was not there. I wondered if I was a failure.  I always dreamed of getting patents and living near the water since I was 10. This is my take-a-way from our interview: my first word to anyone in the invention field is “never look at what you may consider a failure as a failure, but a step in the right direction toward achieving your eventual goal”.  At least it makes me feel better to think that!  It happens to be true for me at least.

QUINN: Yes.  The first thing I always try and tell inventors, too, is if you’re an inventor you’re not likely only going to have one invention, because inventors are creative people and creative people come up with more inventions, but as you know the invention process is not a cheap one.  So, what advice do you suggest to those who are starting down this path and trying to figure out how, whether and when to invest and when to pull back and conserve resources for the inevitable next invention?

DUFF: I think if you are lucky enough to have a mentor that has already gone through the process, you would be wise to listen to their expertise or experience, because they will prevent your excitement or ego from getting the best of you.  I think many people get taken advantage of, when their vision is so far ahead of reality, that they’re not able to see it and become vulnerable.  And in my case, I have several.  That guide is my wife, some mentor businessmen and church friends, that I trust and you, Gene.  Not that I would want anyone to squelch someone’s dreams, but I think a healthy, trusting person that you can share your ideas with to help you maintain balance is your best defense.  Everyone needs to be guided wisely, while going for the gold.

QUINN: I appreciate being included in that list, but I know in your current endeavor you have a pretty impressive list of folks who have signed on and they’re now working with you on this.  Before we go down that road too far, what can you tell us about the product, maybe describe it generally. What would your elevator pitch be so people can get a sense of what it is and who it’s for and how you’re marketing it and then how is the marketing going?

DUFF: We were fortunate enough to have a group of guys who wanted to hang out in the summer and take some lunchtime sketches from a napkin at a restaurant and go in my garage, cut out some wood and test out some rough prototypes.  And by the time we were on our third wooden prototype, we had figured out what wasn’t working and what was working better and we had begun the evolutionary process to create boards that actually allowed us to achieve our clear objectives.  The objective, number one, was to be able to get to a standing position, on the water, using very little upper body strength.  Objective number two, ride in a comfortable forward facing position on a single board.  Objective number three, be able to re-hook the handle to the board to go back to a knee or laying position with no additional body stress.  And what we found was that by adding handles to a wide board we were able to help the ergonomics of the individual get into all of the different positions very quickly and comfortably. Then you could now move into a lot of creative positions and do unique tricks we have not seen done on boards before!

QUINN: I’ve seen some of the videos on ZUP.com.  I haven’t yet ridden the ZUP Board, but I’ve seen your videos of mothers, grandfathers, little kids getting up on this board, and also maybe even more remarkable to me, given that I’m a big guy myself, is you’ve got one video of a former football player that looks like he’s 6’8” and probably 290 just popped right up on this board, which for anybody out there who is a larger person knows just how seemingly impossible that is.

DUFF: I guess you just added the third or fourth objective for us, which was diversity.  We really wanted the very youngest, the very oldest, and any size and any technical skill level to be successful on this product and grow in their confidence. And we’ve even had physically challenged people out on the ZUP Board. One guy was paralyzed from his waist down.  He got more airtime (jumps) off the wake while sitting on the board than some do, standing!  The ZUP Board actually makes your riding style behind a boat or jetski much more forgiving, much more “water friendly” and fun. No real training or long learning curves!

QUINN: And how is this being accepted in the market so far?

DUFF: It’s still early, but the world’s largest water sport retailer in the world – Overton’s – is selling the patented ZUP Board and patent pending DoubleZUP™ tow system. The folks over at Overtons.com were able to see the product, recognize the potential and give us a nice pre-order, so we could get investors and go into tooling and start manufacturing the product.  They’ve been around for 37 years, and after the first week of sales said that they had never seen a product sell as well in the last four years.  After a few weeks in the market they said they’d never had any product sell this well in their 37 year history!  So the team is ecstatic and we’re hoping that we can keep up with production. The investor team actually invested in a second tool to be able to double the anticipated production this year!  With the risk of sounding overly spiritual, we want to give God the glory first, definitely, then attribute our next success to the wisdom to seek the counsel of industry giants. First, Larry Meddock who introduced us to Jim Emmons (President of the Water Sports Industry Association)  who saw our product video, that my wife and I presented at SurfExpo 2012 on her iPad, and they immediately recognized the potential!  Jim got us connected with Chris Durham, the innovator of the original twin tip wakeboard and the owner of the first Wake Board company in the industry (WakeTech) and his family business.  Jim also hooked us up with Overton’s.  They have all rocketed us forward to our beginning successes.



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Join the Discussion

One comment so far.

  • [Avatar for Steve Adrian]
    Steve Adrian
    July 2, 2013 08:05 am

    Glen and Gene,
    Congratulations on getting a patent for a great product. I plan on buying one so that my kids can get into the sport and perhaps I can get back into it. It can be quite discouraging for kids trying to learn how to wakeboard the old-fashion way.