From garage to ‘Shark Tank,’ Williamsburg entrepreneur redesigns water sports to embrace disability

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Glen Duff, founder and inventor of Zup Watersports Boards, in his garage where he worked on his product's design. (Courtesy Zup.com)
Glen Duff, founder and inventor of Zup Watersports Boards, in his garage where he worked on his product’s design. (Courtesy Zup)

It took a boat, a family of four girls and a sense of altruism for Glen Duff to find his true calling.

The Williamsburg entrepreneur began developing his water sport company Zup Boards in 2008, not long after his wife recommended they purchase a boat in order to take their four daughters out on the James River. He volunteered his time– and boat– to take students from the Williamsburg Community Chapel’s ministry program on the water. Duff said his aim was to provide a day of fun to the program’s children, many of whom have various learning and physical disabilities.

Once out on the river, the children struggled to stand on waterboards or water skis — and Duff struggled to teach them how to do so. As a result, some children felt left out and discouraged as they watched their friends do what they could not.

“We wanted to flip that dynamic upside down and make everybody immediately successful and encouraged,” Duff said about the decision he and co-founder Tim Zeckser made to begin designing a new kind of waterboard.  “When you tell somebody you can do something, they believe it…We’re going to take that energy and tell people encouraging words.”

Seeing the need for a more user-friendly waterboard, Duff and Zeckser went to the drawing board — which at first were paper placemats while eating lunch one day. They took their design to Duff’s garage and began crafting their first prototype out of plywood.

The pair’s efforts led to the invention of Zup Watersports Boards, an alternative to wakeboards, inner tubes, and other leisure water equipment. Zup boards feature footholds and a patented handle in order to appeal to novices and experts alike.

Duff, who spent 30 years as a product designer with Design Master Associates, has even worked positive messaging into the material itself. Zup Boards feature encouraging words, such as “You got this” or “Do more.” Duff said his product’s calling card is its appeal to water sport novices, including children who participate in water sport ministries such as Wake the World.

“Almost every one of our events uses ZUP boards,” said Robert Sapp, founder of Wake the World in Lake Anna. “The reason we use the Zup board is because the Zup board is one of those boards where if you’re four or 94 you’re going to get up on it. We want to give these kids something they can feel good about and feel accomplished about.”

Duff said he partners with Wake the World by selling them Zup boards at a price that does not generate a profit for his company.

Duff makes his pitch before the sharks at Virginia Shark Tank. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Glen Duff makes his pitch before the sharks at Virginia Shark Tank. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Swimming with sharks

On Saturday, Duff went before a panel of potential investors as a participant in Ignition business accelerator’s Virginia Shark Tank. Modeled after the reality television show, Virginia Shark Tank presented Duff with an opportunity to pitch his growing business to those with capital and connections.

“We’ve had an increase in sales every year for five years,” Duff said.  “I just don’t want to wait 10 years for it to grow. I want to throw some money at good Facebook marketing to help promote the brand.”

Duff said he sold roughly 4,000 Zup boards in 2016, but believes it will take a coordinated marketing campaign to put the product into the 13 million recreational boats Americans own.

“We’re not a household word,” Duff said.  “We’ve trademarked Zup, but nobody know what Zupping is…Once they know, sales will take off.”

The Virginia investors expressed optimism about Duff’s Zup boards Saturday — if not their ability to turn a profit by investing.

“The question that I asked Glen from Zup was, ‘It’s not a question of can you grow a great business, because he could have a very successful business developing whole designs and spinning them off with his partners,” said Will Donaldson, Professor of Management and Director of the Small Business Institute at Christopher Newport University. “But that’s not an investable business for a shark.”

However, Duff may soon receive a larger audience and a bigger opportunity to market his boards.

Duff said he received a call from the actual Shark Tank — the reality television show — and was encouraged to audition for an appearance. He did, and is currently waiting to hear if he will be accepted on the show. If he does get accepted, he said he is grateful to have prepared with the Virginia Shark Tank experience.

“It was so exciting, because I wanted to practice for if we get to the real Shark Tank,” Duff said.  “I’m more comfortable now going into that.”

Click here to view the company’s Shark Tank audition tape.

Read more profiles of local residents in WYDaily’s section In Our Hometown