Making It
Friends Have It Made In The Shade With Their Canopy Chair

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, May 25, 2008

WHEN DAVID REEB OF COLUMBIA encounters a problem, he tries to figure out if there's profit in fixing it. Take those ubiquitous folding sports chairs, the ones that don't come with any shelter from the sun or rain. To address that shortcoming, Dave and his business partner, Paul Robinette, created the Renetto Canopy Chair. It was their breakthrough.

Dave and Paul grew up together in Columbus, Ohio. Dave, 41, was a self-taught mechanical engineer laying tile for a flooring company, and Paul was working at Waste Management when they designed a better locking mechanism for trash dumpsters in the early '90s, an invention that's brought them about $500,000 in earnings since then. "From that moment, we knew what we were going to do the rest of our lives," Dave says. "We were going to invent products and license them to companies."

Dave relocated to Maryland in 1996 to work for the Baltimore plant that had purchased the locking mechanism, then moved on to jobs in research and development, winding up with a company called Kelsyus, which sells outdoor recreational equipment. He and Paul, who had his own eclectic career, including a stint as a Christian rock musician, continued to search for an idea that would allow them to quit their day jobs yet support their families (Dave, who was divorced shortly after the move to Maryland, has three sons; Paul has four children). They had some success with a portable hammock, which they licensed to Kelsyus. But with licensing fees only 4 to 8 percent of retail sales, Dave says, it's often tough to hit it big by licensing. "I finally got enough expertise and confidence to say, 'Paul {lcub}hellip{rcub} We need a product to sell on our own.'?"

With the help of a third partner, an investor/friend of Dave's named Steve Tinto, they designed and patented their canopy chair, manufactured it in China and hired a sales group to woo retailers in 2005. The three men formed a company called Renetto (an amalgam of their last names). The $40 chair, which unfolds like the typical sports chair but has a waterproof canopy that serves as the carrying case, was a hit. At this point, Dave says, close to 1 million of them have been sold. (Last June, the partners licensed the chair to Kelsyus, though they retained the right to sell directly to customers through their Renetto Web site.)

Dave now works full time on new products to put under the Renetto name, doing computer-assisted design and building prototypes out of his house. "It's given me freedom that you can only dream of, " he says of the chair's success, including the chance to spend more time with his sons. Paul moved from Ohio, where he established a candle shop, to Arizona where he continues to help with the inventions and is working on a new Web social-networking application for Renetto. The partners plan to unveil a no-assembly tent this month, inspired by the fact that Dave, who likes to camp with his kids, was tired of putting tent poles together. He and Paul often joke that their success has as much to do with laziness as anything else. After all, who wants to have to hold an umbrella while sitting in a sports chair?

"There's always a product that can be made better," Dave says. And he recommends never taking no for an answer. "When someone tells us it can't be done, it just lights a fire under us."

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