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'Big Idea' winner faces highs, lows

By JOHN PFEIFER jpfeifer@paducahsun.com

When Jason Carnes won Paducah's first Small Town, Big Idea (STBI) competition a year ago, his Cooler Commander invention had already been manufactured and orders were starting to come in.

A year later his fledgling business has seen as many downs as ups, prompting him to advise fellow entrepreneurs, "You need to make sure you have the determination to get through it."

The idea for the Cooler Commander - an easily adjustable tie-down that secures a cooler to an ATV or other outdoor vehicle - came to Carnes because he's an avid ATVer who became frustrated with keeping his own cooler attached.

"I invented something that I use," Carnes said. "I love to ride."

He made a prototype of his invention in early 2015 and consulted with Ben Higdon, co-owner of Higdon Outdoors, to determine a way to mass-produce it.

"He was making them by hand," Higdon said, "and we took care of the manufacturing by trying to keep his costs down."

Carnes wanted to have them manufactured in the U.S. but couldn't find a viable option. Several vendors didn't respond to his requests, and two came back with prices of $40 and $72 to manufacture.

"I wanted to sell them for $40," Carnes said.

Higdon eventually found a manufacturer who would make the first 4,000 for less than $20 apiece delivered.

"We are designed in America, made in China," Carnes said of his patented product.

He received the delivery in December 2015, and "I got my first order for 96 on Christmas Eve, and I was excited," Carnes said. Thirteen months later, he has sold between 1,100 and 1,200 from that original order.

Carnes, a lineman for Paducah Power System, said he has a passion for the Cooler Commander but confessed, "There are times when I'm thinking 'Why am I doing this?'"

"I'm not a business guy," he said, but added he's learned a lot in the past 18 months.

"Any education is worth it. Hopefully we can get to the point where it's sustainable."

He used all of his 2016 vacation time traveling to ATV shows like Mud Nationals in Jacksonville, Texas, and Rally on the Rocks in Moab, Utah. He's tried connecting with buyers one-on-one at the grass-roots level and "gone after the big guys," but he's still searching for the best sales strategy.

He told the story of meeting with, selling and installing a Cooler Commander on the ATV of someone who owned a 14-store chain. "He loved it and ordered a few cases to be shipped to every store," Carnes said. His initial excitement waned when he started following up with individual store managers.

"They showed up at a store, but the manager didn't order them or know what they were" and they were often placed in storage.

Higdon has now helped connect Carnes with cooler manufacturers, and the website https://coolercommander.com/ -- designed by Socially Present as part of his STBI prize package - is a fully functioning e-commerce site that lists 28 dealers throughout the southern U.S. that carry his product.

Though he admitted sales only "trickle in" from many dealers, he said a recent re-order from Cool Springs Powersport in Franklin, Tennessee, was encouraging.

"They sell Yeti coolers," Carnes said, speculating that $40 for his Cooler Commander was just a small upcharge to protect a cooler that costs between $400 and $800.

Carnes plans on attending sales shows in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and Utah this year. He said he sold 94 Cooler Commanders at last year's event in Moab.

"A lot of our best dealers are contacts from shows and events" despite the $600 cost to reserve a spot along vendor row, he said.

Carnes still exudes enthusiasm for his product and remains committed to learning more about running his business.

"Although it's not supporting me," Carnes said, "I enjoy doing it."

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