NORTH SIOUX CITY -- Even with it being covered in pink flamingo koozies and red disposable cups, Jamie Wankum instantly recognized the “safety green and orange” colored mat underneath those items the moment he saw Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s photo.
Last summer, the soon-to-be retired NASCAR driver tweeted out a picture of himself and his some friends playing beer pong on a modified version of a “Rubber Dockie,” the eponymous floating water mat Wankum created.
Between that moment and the scores of Rubber Dockies he sees on McCook Lake, where he lives, the North Sioux City businessman knew his product had the potential to successfully carve out a share of the aquatic recreation market.
Living on a lake, the former Gateway executive turned entrepreneur said he was accustomed to seeing people getting one or maybe two seasons out of inflatable waters toys before having to replace them, and he thought there was a better solution out there.
His inspiration to launch Rubber Dockie came from watching his three sons play on McCook Lake with a piece of plastic foam covered in an additional protective layer of plastic that was leftover from a home improvement project.
“It was 4-feet-by-like-8-feet … so we threw it on the water and they had more fun with that than any other toy,” Wankum said. “They could climb up on it, jump off it and it actually lasted more than one season and then it started taking on water and stuff.”
Wankum said he began researching similar products and was surprised to see the market wasn’t oversaturated with floating water mats. Additionally, he noticed the ones that were available were also expensive.
“I thought, ‘We can create a better one at a lower price and better value.’” Wankum said. “We literally did probably six months of testing on different types of foam, we did stress tests, we soaked them in water for weeks at a time to make sure they didn’t absorb the water and we finally came up with this one.”
Rubber Dockies are made out a nearly two-inch, thick high-grade two-play closed cell foam, which allows the product to be incredibly buoyant in water and the “breadcrumb” coating makes the mat’s surface nearly scratch resistant.
Additionally, Wankum said the interior of the product is made from a tear-stop nylon rebar matrix that binds the foam components together and reinforces the product.
Rubber Dockies, which are 18-by-6-feet in length when unrolled and 24-inches in diameter and 6-feet wide when rolled up, can hold up to 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, depending on weight distribution.
“The main thing with the product is you can have a high-quality product at an affordable price and that’s what we’ve achieved,” Wankum said.
While there is no actual rubber in the Rubber Dockie, Wankum said the name is a play on a rubber duck, the children's bath toy.
Although he officially launched Rubber Dockie in 2014, Wankum said last year was when things really started to ramp up for the company. The mats are sold through Rubber Dockie's website, as well as Amazon, eBay, Walmart.com and Jet, an online retailer that was recently acquired by Walmart Stores Inc.
Thanks to word-of-mouth, positive reviews and his product’s availability on popular online shopping sites, Wankum said the company is growing faster than he’s expected. He recently acquired some additional office and warehouse space in the former Gateway headquarters in North Sioux City.
“We did not expect it to be as significant as they were for Christmas — it was amazing,” Wankum said of the sales numbers. “We were actually sending vouchers to customers and shipping later because we couldn’t keep up with the volume at Christmas.”
Rubber Dockies have been shipped to most U.S. states — as evidenced by the Tweet from Earnhardt, a North Carolina resident — and even some places internationally. A lot of the international orders come from resorts, he said.
The most popular state where Rubber Dockies are sold is Minnesota, an area nicknamed the “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but that’s also known for it’s brutal and drawn out winters.
“They really appreciate their summers because they don’t last a long time,” Wankum joked.
As with his other businesses, Wankum approaches Rubber Dockies with the same "crawl, walk, run," mantra. Crawl is the start-up phase, walk is when things start to get on track and run means the company is at full-speed.
"We're still at a fast walk, but we are starting to run," Wankum said.