It all started with a smiley face, a handheld fan and an incoming storm.
“I just used what I had, and it worked,” said John Smith, an Orlando-based entrepreneur who’ll be familiar to fans of “Shark Tank” as the inventor of Storm Stoppers.
Smith — who appeared on the 100th episode of the popular, innovation-focused TV show on ABC — said he’s generated about $10 million in sales since rolling out his more effective alternative to the plywood-and-nails approach that most homeowners turn to when a storm is approaching.
Smith’s storm stopper panels are lighter, stronger and don’t require nails or screws to secure them over a window, he said.
The idea for the product was borne out of necessity nearly 14 years ago when a looming hurricane sparked a run on supplies that left Smith unable to find any plywood to secure his Florida home.
He fashioned his first, makeshift panel out of thick material he had handy as part of a business he ran making branded palm fans, a successful enterprise, and easy fasteners he used in another venture making smiley face wheel covers for golf carts — a less successful business, he admitted.
“I failed at a bunch of stuff before creating Storm Stoppers,” Smith said Thursday afternoon during a presentation at Roanoke Catholic School. “But the failure was a lesson.”
Speaking to a class of the school’s juniors, Smith stressed the importance of never giving up on yourself or losing the determination to work toward your goals.
His appearance on “Shark Tank,” for example, didn’t yield any deals with the sharks. But he learned from the experience, and every time the episode re-airs more people hear about his product and he gets a spate of orders.
“You can’t get down on yourself,” he told the students.
Smith, who now makes his panels out of a storm-tested plastic material, spoke to a series of Roanoke Catholic School classes Thursday in a visit aimed at getting the students thinking about entrepreneurship.
Next year, the school plans to launch a new entrepreneurial studies program in partnership with Mary Baldwin University that will introduce its upper school students to the nuts and bolts of starting and managing a business.
The goal is not only to teach the students valuable skills but also to encourage them to embrace their own entrepreneurial spirit and build the confidence to pursue their ideas.
“We see the incredible potential in all of you,” Principal Patrick Patterson said to students Thursday. “We know how gifted you are.”
Patterson, who has known Smith since high school and invited him to share his experiences, added the new program starting next year. It is the latest in a series of steps the school has taken to expand post-graduation opportunities for its students through dual enrollment offerings and other measures.
He said one of his hopes was to show students that the opportunity for success exists for them here and to see them return to the valley after college.
During his visit, Smith spoke about the importance of hard work, dedication and resilience. He followed that up by announcing he was donating $500 as seed money that the students can use to develop their own business or product.
How that money will be used will be decided through discussions among students.
Jorge Aguero, a Roanoke Catholic junior, said he hoped to be among the students who pitched ideas. He was already trying to think of proposals by the end of the presentation.
“It was great the way he kind of inspired us to be better,” Aguero said. “I don’t know what I want to be yet [after high school] but listening to him kind of gives you the hope to have more faith in yourself.”