Sleeping under the stars can be appealing, but not when you’re working as a logistics contractor in Afghanistan.
Story by Lisa Allen + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott
Bluffton native Ryan Pirkle, 33, spent two years trying to sleep without privacy or comfort and said he knew there had to be a better way. He started investigating the possibility of a bed tent that could collapse to fit into a pack.
Pirkle tried PVC pipes and other materials, until lifelong friend Tyler Smith suggested an inflatable design during a brainstorming session. After a few sewing lessons from his mother, using a $50 sewing machine, Pirkle went to work.
Still shooting for a bed tent, Pirkle set up a Kickstarter funding site and set a goal of $20,000.
“Military is a challenging market from a consumer perspective. Tents are very competitive,” Pirkle said. His fundraising campaign barely made it to the halfway mark.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said.
They scaled up the idea from bed-sized tents to 10-by-10 feet. Latching onto the inflatable components used by kite surfers, Pirkle found a “bladder man” in Florida.
Since the company changed its focus after six months, orders have poured in, both from companies to private customers.
Pirkle landed a licensing contract with Clemson and the University of South Carolina. Both schools use the tents on the practice sports fields, alumni events and recruitment days. Many are popping up at tailgate parties on football game days.
Airemos also earned business from Disney, MGM, DuPont, Verizon and ESPN.
“The structure is their storefront. We create a branded, custom environment. We did a wood grain for a craft brewer. We can do photo quality panels. There is no industrial look to ours. It’s an immersive environment,” Pirkle said.
Pirkle’s marketing challenge is pushing past peoples’ perceptions of inflatables.
“There is a big stigma with inflatables. This is not a novelty product. It’s not a bounce house or pool toy. A big advantage of our product is that one person can set it up. It’s easy and there are no pinched fingers. Easy-up tents are dated.”
“We know we have the best product,” Pirkle said.
A graduate of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Pirkle earned a degree in construction management. He knew owning a business was in the cards.
As a young boy, Pirkle didn’t just build a tree house, he hired subcontractors and had his own construction crew at age 11. “My parents were always yelling at me because I was always taking things apart. My grandparents just set aside a pile of appliances for me to dissect,” Pirkle said.
Eager to give his business the nurturing it needed to grow, Pirkle moved from Charleston to Bluffton.
“Too much noise is a bad thing. In Charleston, everyone is coming at you with opinions. Bluffton has a wise population. It has allowed me to see the business as it is. I can step back and build a strong foundation. There are a lot of young people here who are hungry. Charleston is saturated,” he added.
The next step was growing the business. With Pirkle as the only employee, Airemos is nearly at its limit.
“People here are groomed to run small businesses,” Pirkle said. “We need a sales force. Our next challenge is finding the right people. This is the right spot to grow.”
Eventually, he wants to move into custom product design.
“We can scale. If it works for Clemson and USC, then we just go further and further.”
His advice to other entrepreneurs?
“Trust yourself. A lot of people will tell you a lot of things. Self doubt is the biggest killer of any dream.”
For additional information or to purchase an Airemos tent, visit www.airemos.com.