RAFTUP / LITTLE ROCK
One of the hottest mobile applications in Arkansas is looking to change the way users take on outdoor recreations. RaftUp, according to founder and CEO Corey Boelkens, is an all-in-one recreational tool designed for outdoor lovers by outdoor lovers.
“It’s an outdoor mobile application that you can use to socially communicate where you are, what you’re doing and where you want to go,” Boelkens says from the company’s office inside the Little Rock Technology Park. “It’s essentially Facebook for the outdoors. Another way to put it is, if you’re tired of playing phone tag and want to plan a trip outdoors, you can share your location with friends.”
RaftUp was conceived as an application for recreational boating. The idea came to Boelkens while participating in a Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend, a weekend where entrepreneurial-minded Arkansans have the opportunity to develop ideas put them to the test with the help of peers and mentors.
“Three years ago, my wife and I went to a startup weekend,” he says. “We are passionate about recreational boating. We were talking about how, at times, we’ve been stranded out on the water. We thought, ‘It’s 2015, no one has really solved this.’ We took that idea to a Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend, pitched it – it was originally called TOAD, Towing Assistant and Delivery – and we took second place. That’s where the idea started.”
Using the money they earned for placing second at the startup weekend, Boelkens and his wife began to reaching out to members of the community to help develop their application, including marina owners and first responders.
“We started questioning marina owners, trying to find out if they struggled to connect with customers, find out where they are and where they’re going,” he says. “They were continuously giving away paper maps. So, we thought we could solve that. It’s not just where you are; it’s where you’re going.
“We raised some friends and family funds, used some of our personal savings, and we built our first app,” he adds. “It was really crappy, to be honest. We took it to Lake of the Ozarks to vet it. I met with first responders. I showed them that it was an app for boating, but that you could help someone if they were stuck. He told us we could take it further by adding a dashboard for 911. We built it. We’ve now expanded to twelve 911s using this service.”
Growth for RaftUp has been rapid, and the company is adding users from across the globe. Approximately 15,000 users engage with fellow outdoor enthusiasts on RaftUp from South America to Australia to Japan. “And a lot of Canadians,” Boelkens says.
To support continued growth, Boelkens and his team at RaftUp are planning to expand from their initial offerings to include rental reservation software for marinas and outfitters. Not only can users visualize water levels, find drop off points and fishing spots, call 911 and connect with other boaters, but they can also use RaftUp to reserve, rent and pay for their boats, as well. Likewise, marina owners and outfitters can keep track of their customers.
“Consider it Hotels.com for boat rentals and outfitting,” he says. “We already have several marinas and outfitters lined up. It will also provide a service for fleet tracking, that helps track boats. That’s good for the marinas who use our service. It’s a good way to keep in touch.”
One of the most significant setbacks in getting RaftUp where it is today, according to Boelkens, was finding a way to monetize their services.
“I think the biggest setback has been going in with the idea in mind that this is a solution that people want,” he says. “At the end of the day, we have to find a way to monetize. And people don’t like to pay for apps these days.”
According to Lukas Deem, RaftUp operations manager, finding a business model and raising funds has been an essential chapter in the company’s success story. That, and helping outdoor enthusiasts do what they enjoy safely.
“We’ve helped four families this year in emergency situations, including a boat fire,” Boelkens says. “I think that’s tremendous when we highlight our successes. I believe what we’re doing is fantastic … We’re going to help you get on the water and know where to go. That is huge. We’re about changing the way people enjoy the outdoors. We will educate you on where to go, what to do, how to prepare for the rental, and where they are. We’ll help you plan.”
Boelkens benefited from the advice given to him by mentors during the 2015 Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend, so he is quick to pay it forward by helping young entrepreneurs along the way. This spring, he returned to Fayetteville for another startup weekend to serve as an advisor to participants. A second Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend was held during the first weekend of December, dedicated to makers.
His advice to entrepreneurs looking to turn a dream into a reality is to sell.
“Depending on the person’s goals… That would then determine how they should sell and make revenue,” he says. “Pre-selling before they ever have something is a must. Sell it more than 10 times. Nobody funds ideas. If you have an idea, see if someone will buy it and see if it scales.”
Boelkens has successfully sold his mobile application to a number of companies and organizations that are helping him and his team turn the dream into a reality.
RaftUp recently signed a licensing agreement with Farmers Insurance, which will allow users to get a discount on insurance just for having the app. The company has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Army Corps of Engineers and will be event app for the 2019 Progressive Insurance Miami Boat Show.