FliteBrite’s Ethan Davidson on the challenges of building hardware

After spending four years with Rüster Sports overseeing production of the company’s carbon fiber triathlon bikes, Ethan Davidson is helping spearhead the creation of a different product.

What began as a fun project between friends has transformed into FliteBrite, a hardware product that allows breweries and other businesses to offer smart flights. Last year, Davidson joined the team at Cedar Rapids-based BeraTek, which manufactures FliteBrite’s smart paddles.

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

C&M: What are you working on right now?

ED: Both of the things I’m working on relate. FliteBrite came first, though. I’ve been working on that for about three years, and BeraTek is the manufacturer of FliteBrite. Through that relationship, I ended up getting an interview with (BeraTek founder) Gerald (Beranek) and joined forces with him to build BeraTek, which has grown really quickly. We are a small startup company with about 10 employees. We specialize in taking a product from the idea stage all the way to the end. We offer engineering services, manufacturing services, fulfillment services, and even marketing or pay-per-click advertising.

FliteBrite is another exciting thing that’s been happening. We just went live last week in Ohio with 15 paddles. Already we’re seeing some awesome, exciting statistics are coming back. The first night they sold 31 flights. They didn’t have flights before FliteBrite, and that continued on into the weekend. It’s been fun building FliteBrite and watching it blossom alongside (co-founders) Ben McDougal and Ben Sinclair.

C&M: How did you get involved with FliteBrite?

ED: Ben McDougal and I were the co-founders of FliteBrite initially. It was a “Sunday Funday” to be real honest. We were at 515 Brewing and we both ordered flights and received a paddle setup with numbers. We just looked at each other and wondered why the process was so archaic.

You know how it is. You have ideas all the time, and one of the difficult things is trying to navigate and decide which one is worth pursuing. We kicked this around with a low-tech way —at least compared to how involved FliteBrite is — just using a phone app. Then it grew into this idea of merging electronics with a flight system of any sort. The idea itself is pretty big. It’s outside of just beer. We have wine flights, whiskey flights, scotch flights. There are even cheese flights and chocolate flights.

We knew it was going to be a key component to bring on a developer just because of the cost. We also knew we’d need to find a developer who understood hardware, which can be hard to find. So, Ben Sinclair joined as a co-founder of FliteBrite as well (for a hardware perspective).

C&M: At what point did this go from a “Sunday Funday” idea to something you knew you needed to pursue?

ED: Before we had a bank account set up or a company was even formed we decided we were going to explore this. We leveraged some engineers and some local development talent to help us build the first version. I milled out the first wood version of our paddle on a manual mill, which was a really cool experience. We started to see that this was pretty achievable with the technology available today and how easy it is to assemble an Arduinos or Raspberry Pi. Those little micro-computers are so capable. It just sort of hit us that this could be achievable.

C&M: How did your previous experience help you with FliteBrite?

ED: I’d say the biggest strength I bring to our team is manufacturing. I spent four years running a carbon fiber manufacturing facility that was making the Dimond triathlon bicycle, and there were a lot of lessons to be taken from that experience. Generally, building products is hard. It’s time consuming. From the standpoint of an application, you assemble a team of developers and bring something to life. Manufacturing has so many moving parts that it’s really difficult to bring a physical thing that you can hold to life. Going through the experience at Rüster Sports and experiencing some of the failures and some of the milestones we achieved there, I had a really good handle on the pathway of taking a physical product to market.

C&M: What have been some unexpected challenges getting this product to market?

ED: Hardware is hard. It’s just hard. We’re three years into this and we just physically launched the product. I guess it was unexpected that it would take this long. All the waves of up and down were unexpected. You feel as if you’re at the finish line only to find out you’re still two steps back, and then again you’re almost there but no, you’re really 10 steps back. It’s just been a challenge overall with a hardware product and assembling all of those elements so the stars align.

C&M: What’s something that keeps you motivated through all of that?

ED: As an entrepreneur, failure is what keeps me going every day. I know it’s achievable. There are ways around (challenges). There’s always a way to sift through and make things happen.

On the FliteBrite front, what keeps me going is our team. I think team is really important, but without the team we have, this wouldn’t be achievable. Sinclair’s hardware experience as well as Ben’s social and marketing perspective and then me being able to oversee our manufacturing with BeraTek, those are really three key components that people pay a lot of money typically to try to assemble. Just having those guys by my side as we try to bring this to market is definitely a motivator for me every day.

C&M: What’s the best advice you ever received?

ED: I think probably one of the strongest pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from (Beranek). One thing he says a lot that I think is something everyone should take away is “Don’t think. Just do.” I can’t tell you how many moments there have been with FliteBrite, especially in the early days, where I was almost talking myself out of it. Like “This is dumb. Why are we pouring our money into this? We’re not going to be able to build this.”

It’s because when you start thinking about things, your mind is a very powerful force and it starts to influence you. I think just doing and trying it is important. That’s what happened with FliteBrite. We just decided to go make one and now that’s the motivation to keep moving forward.

About Ethan Davidson

Age: 27
Location: Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Twitter handle: @ETHANergy

Megan Bannister is a freelance writer based in Des Moines and a regular contributor to Clay & Milk.