Inspiration for the next best thing when it comes to licensed sports products can come from anywhere. Some people brainstorm in their offices or in collaboration with their business partners in a group setting.
But Bill Ellis and his brother, Jeff, turned that convention on its head when they hatched the idea for Jack-its, which are removable magnetic propane tank covers. They were inspired while watching the Daytona 500.
“As [the cameras] were cruising the infield, I was like, ‘Man, they sure put a lot of swag out there for all their favorite racers,’” Ellis says. “But the only thing that was the eyesore when they were panning the infield was the propane tanks.”
Anyone who has been to or seen a NASCAR race knows that licensed flags, shirts, koozies — even coolers — display particular drivers’ numbers and colors. And while grilling is a huge component of any tailgate, Ellis says he didn’t notice anything decorating the propane tanks.
As owners of Ellis Graphics Inc., a screen-printing company, the brothers realized they had a potential business opportunity to decorate bare propane tanks.
“I thought, ‘There’s something there,’ and our first original idea was to go with a rectangle, like a bumper sticker,” Ellis says. “We prototyped one real quickly and found that because of the round edges and the weld marks (on the propane tank), a rectangle wouldn’t hold on.”
Because of a tank’s unique shape, the brothers had to get inventive, and eventually came up with a design that was contoured to fit the curve at the top and bottom of a propane tank.
PATENTING AND PRODUCING
“We played around for about three months with different patterns and shapes until we figured out that we’re looking at this the wrong way,” Ellis says. “So the patented type of idea comes in that we have a dye-cutting process. The first stage allows the flat magnetic sheet to take a rounded edge. It’s all about that problem that you can’t make a flat piece of paper go round. Well, you can if you put some folds in there and score it through the magnetic sheets.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Once the design was perfected, the Ellis brothers applied for a patent, which was finalized in October 2014. And with the patent, Jack-its began production.
Getting the product to market was reasonably straightforward for Ellis, as the brothers’ screen-printing shop allowed almost all production to be conducted in-house at their Clearwater, Fla., facility.
“[We handle] everything except manufacturing the raw magnetic sheets themselves,” Ellis says. “We were fortunate enough to have a couple [of] really good graphic artists working for us that were working on designs before we figured out whether we could actually make this a viable product.”
Jack-its now are available online via the company’s website, but more than half of the company’s in-stock magnets are available through Amazon.
“We haven’t had a single complaint or a returned product,” Ellis says. “We’re getting really good feedback.”.
Jack-its’ designs include animals, cars, fantasy, textures, scenes of nature, sports, technology and more. But the company’s recent deal with Mossy Oak has the owners excited about the product’s future.
BABY STEPS TO LICENSING
Since Jack-its’ inception during that fateful Daytona 500, securing major sports licensing deals always has been the goal. However, the Ellis brothers realized accomplishing that feat wouldn’t be as simple as snapping their wishful fingers.
Through a friend, Ellis got in touch with representatives at Mossy Oak, a camouflage and outdoor lifestyle company. After negotiations, Jack-its signed a deal and began designing magnetic tank covers in officially licensed Mossy Oak camouflages.
“We knew that branding was something we needed for this to be a viable product,” Ellis says. “I didn’t want to get into a sports licensing deal right away because we’ve never done any sort of branded agreement before. We went in with Mossy Oak and it’s a really good learning curve for us. Mossy Oak has a really good, dedicated and loyal fan base, too.”
Indeed, the outdoor and camping communities have proven to encompass Jack-its’ best customers so far, and they have 32 Mossy Oak designs, and many more outdoors designs, from which to choose.
“The biggest market to date has been campers, especially with the retro and vintage camper market,” Ellis says. “They really like to customize their campers with their own style.”
He says the camping market and Mossy Oak were great places for Jack-its to start because both have produced an ideal customer base foundation and a taste of the licensed space.
“This year was a learning experience with Mossy Oak and now that we’ve learned how royalties are done and distribution of the product, it has helped us out immensely,” Ellis says.
The next step is into the sports licensing world, where the Ellis brothers hope to secure a foothold within a year or so. And since a NASCAR race was where the Jack-its product idea was born, the owners’ next goal for licensing is to secure a deal with a racing team.
“I think we’re going to take it in stages,” Ellis says. “We’ve already been talking to Hendrick Motorsports. I think we’re going to take baby steps but we’d like to be involved in racing, along with a couple [of] NCAA teams, hopefully.”
A Hendrick deal could be huge for Jack-its, as that company is a NASCAR giant that currently sponsors Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, among others. Working with the NCAA also would be a coup, as popularity of collegiate athletics — particularly basketball and football — are increasing.
Nevertheless, the Ellis brothers are pleased with how far the product has come in only a year on the market, and are even more excited about the potential its future holds.