In 2005, engineer and inventor Peter Crawford was on his way to Cape Lookout, N.C., in his sailboat, being buffeted by 30-knot winds.
“I had to do a lot of anxious sail adjusting, reefing and keel lifting in the choppy, shoal waters,” Crawford said. “It became clear to me that I needed something quick and dependable to hold the tiller – something that I could operate without a thought while dealing with the boat. I wanted a third hand, and it eventually dawned on me that others could use one as well.”
Inspired by that challenge, Crawford spent five years developing the TillerClutch, a robust sailboat steering accessory that lets a sailor “lash” the boat tiller with the simple click of a lever for moments of hands-free steering. It can be released quickly with the flick of a finger to revert to manual control as sailing conditions change.
Crawford’s engineering and creative skills are complemented by his wife, Katherine Smart, who has a background in marketing, public relations and journalism. The two joined their talents and established WaveFront, Inc., a family business based in Pittsboro, to market their patented TillerClutch. Crawford is company president and Smart, vice president in charge of marketing.
Smart launched an intensive branding and media campaign before the product’s formal debut at the Annapolis Boat Show in 2010. The TillerClutch was a hit. It is a “Made in the USA” product, with all the parts custom-manufactured by local and North Carolina-based specialized machine shops. The final assembly is done in the couple’s home workshop.
It was not all smooth sailing in establishing and running a small business. The couple realized they needed more information and guidance on the challenges entrepreneurs must deal with, so they turned to Central Carolina Community College’s Small Business Center in Pittsboro.
CCCC operates a Small Business Center in each of the counties it serves: Chatham, Harnett and Lee. Each provides free services to would-be and existing small business owners, assisting them with counseling, coaching, education and networking to establish and maintain their businesses. The SBC is part of the North Carolina Small Business Center Network, whose goal is “to help develop the local economy one business at a time.”
“Katherine contacted the Chatham SBC director, Gary Kibler, soon after the product was market-ready and the patent application was filed,” Crawford said. “His free and generous guidance and instructions were key to getting our small business off the ground, especially considering our shoestring budget.”
Crawford and Smart had already set up the corporation with all the necessary documentation, but they credit Kibler with giving them a crash course on the many aspects of running a successful small business. Based on Kibler’s own real-world business experiences, he encouraged them and helped broaden their understanding of business fundamentals, such as researching their potential market and understanding costs, distributor incentives, and customer price expectations. He also helped them develop terms of sale for local and international distributors and connected them with other resources for advice and networking.
“They’ve been a client now for over three years and they’re one of my favorites,” Kibler said. “I’ve helped them address the decisions they’ve faced on how to distribute their product, how to price it, and how to create terms of sale.”
WaveFront now has 13 retail distributors: 10 in the United States, and one each in Canada, Australia and Japan. Other dealers in the U.S., Japan and the United Kingdom have contacted the company, wanting to distribute the TillerClutch. In addition to the TillerClutch, WaveFront retails related accessories from other manufacturers. Sailors in 42 states and 23 foreign countries have purchased the product and WaveFront has shown significant sales growth each year.
“CCCC’s Small Business Center and Gary have played an essential role in the development of our business,” Smart said. “We definitely would advise others who are starting a business to contact the SBC. We have received invaluable business counseling and assistance and will continue to stay in touch with Gary for advice. We still have a lot to learn and do!”