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Inspiring Conversations with Leah Jean Shafer of The UNspilt

Today we’d like to introduce you to Leah Jean Shafer. 

Hi Leah Jean, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
It was mid-July. It was hot. Magnificently hot. Fry-an-egg-on-the-hood-of-your-car hot. And we were getting ready to venture into the desert backcountry for a 9-day float trip down the San Juan River. I knew I needed a way to bring a hydrating beverage out on my stand up paddleboard (SUP). I wanted it to be super insulated. I wanted it to be secure. And I wanted it to be easy to access. Is that too much to ask?
Well apparently, it was a tall order. I searched high and low for a solution. After trying literally every single product on the market, and finding that none of them actually worked… I realized it was ‘on me’ to create it! So, I guess you can say, necessity really is the mother of invention. And it turns out, that SUP’ers aren’t the only people with an unfulfilled need to stay hydrated while on the go. Rafters, fishermen, golfers, kayakers, canoers, hikers, snowboarders, and even those on riding lawn mowers – all suffered from “beverage insecurity” and were (literally) thirsting for a solution…

The original prototype was pieced together from parts I found at Home Depot. It wasn’t pretty, and yes, it involved some duct tape… but it worked! The first time I took it out on the water, people flocked to my SUP asking, “Where did you get that?!” When I wiped out in a class III rapid, they exclaimed, “How did your drink stay on your SUP? And how the heck did it stay UNSPILLED?!”

So, I made another, better one. And then another. And then another. Eventually, I teamed up with a couple of brilliant engineers to dial in the details (Orban Designs, Paladin Tech Works). Working by day as the Director of Programs at a local Denver nonprofit (The Park People), I spent my nights in the garage entranced by ‘specialized polymer suction cup technology’ and ‘neodymium magnetic properties.’ Then after nearly 7 years, the final prototype was ready! So, I switched gears into bringing it to market. My friends and colleagues were my consultants as I dabbled with logo design, packaging construction, branding, color themes, online platforms, and the like.

From there, it’s been a vigorous grassroots effort. I’ve worked with amazing local businesses to both produce and sell The UNspilt®. (Method Manufacturing, KSB Die Cutting LLC, Down River Equipment, Larson’s Ski & Sport, Inflatable Technologies). Despite the challenge of being a one-woman start-up in a COVID world, I’ve met amazing mentors and supporters as well as made long-time friends in the process. Grateful doesn’t even cover it!

The UNspilt® soft-launched in Sept 2020 both online (www.theUNspilt.com) and also at my first retail location, Down River Equipment in Wheat Ridge. The response was incredible, and the first round of production sold out in a month.

I knew it was time to hit the ground running. So, with a heavy, but happy heart, I stepped back from my nonprofit job in urban forestry to pursue The UNspilt® full time. The holiday season was ‘go time,’ and between gift wrapping and snow shoveling, I dedicated myself to ramping up the business. Things went ‘gung ho’ in spring 2021, and I’m walking on air to say that The UNspilt® is now available for purchase in ~20 locations across CO, UT, and the Bay Islands in Honduras.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved creating things for other people to use and enjoy. Whenever I see an unfulfilled need, I can’t help but seek a solution. Back then it was things like a mini drive-through car wash for My Little Ponies… now it’s specialized gear for people enjoying nature! I couldn’t be more excited by people’s response to The UNspilt® and to what the future will bring.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
It was early March 2020 and I was beyond excited to launch. I had spent the last 7 years developing, refining, and perfecting The UNspilt®. My heart and soul were on elated pins and needles. Most of my savings had gone into prototypes and the patent application, and the rest into materials and building a website. The summer season was coming soon, and my big launch was going to be at in-person festivals, boat shows, and other public events.

Then along came COVID.

Events were canceled. Unknowns, tragedies, and uncertainties put the world into a tense and fearful standstill. Everything changed. My unopened pop-up tent, business cards, and banner just sat and collected dust in the garage. As ‘shelter-in-place’ became an everyday phrase, my dreams of entrepreneurship took an abrupt and harsh backseat.

In the first tenuous months of the pandemic, it seemed there couldn’t have been a worse time to start a business. Why this?! Why now?!

Then came a new wave, a resurgence of energy for people to go outside, enjoy nature, and find a glimmer of socially-distanced hope. The outdoor industry waited with bated breath and then the frenzy hit! Never before did more people want to paddle, float, camp, and generally #optoutside. From the ashes, rose a renewed opportunity.

On the business front, I had suffered major setbacks. My game plan simply wasn’t applicable anymore. In-person events and face-to-face outreach were in a shattered state of limbo. But in such a void, new paths forward often materialize. Looking back, I believe the sudden pivot was a blessing in disguise for The UNspilt®. I was still juggling a more-than-full-time nonprofit job and trying to launch a new business from the ground up at the same time. The speedbumps forced me to slow down and develop an improved business plan, find better materials, focus on critical business relationships, and become a more resilient, well-prepared entrepreneur. It also gave me a chance to focus on wrapping up my role at The Park People and pass the torch to the new team. And in a bigger sense, it taught me to be adaptable, keep marching forward, and have faith that even when circumstances seem insurmountable, perseverance really does pay off!

What does success mean to you?
Success, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. This elusive subjectivity makes it an amazing, personal, powerful, albeit tricky, thing to grasp. I think that defining it is almost more difficult than achieving it. But I believe that if you boil it down – if you really stick it under a microscope and examine the atomic structure of it – success comes down to feeling.

We all know that what constitutes success to one person is different than that to another. Yet both are motivated by a core root. Our thoughts, actions, and behaviors all revolve around the desire to feel good. It’s not shallow or selfish, it’s just a ubiquitous reality. Denying this is like trying to disconnect yourself from your own shadow. Your only means of gauging something is through your own mind and heart. This includes the concept of success.

Often, people correlate money or power with success. They chase after material wealth, prestige, and fame. Others pin their sights on physical achievements, sports, and bodily appearance. Some dedicate themselves to environmental causes, improving mental health, or entertaining others. And for each of these metrics of success, there are obviously infinitely more.

So, what’s the common denominator? Even the most “selfless” acts are ultimately motivated by feelings. Like a three-year-old that asks “why” and then unsatisfied asks, “but why” after every answer, we are best served to ask the persistent question of ourselves… “But why?”

In the years directly following college, I was a marine biologist. Passionately dedicated to sea turtle research and conservation, I hopped from beach to beach, living in St. Croix to Barbados, Australia, and Padre Island. I monitored, studied, and strove to protect these endangered creatures from extinction. I made a pittance financially, but I went to bed most nights feeling successful.

If you had asked me “why?”, it was because I was doing something positive for our planet. But why? To make it a better place for current and future generations to live. Yes, but why? Because I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. So… WHY?

Whether your definition of success involves saving sea turtles or buying a Ferrari, examine closely and you’ll find it pivots around how you feel (or think you will feel) when you’ve done it. At different times in life, what feels good will change and evolve. But one thing remains a constant, feeling is the invisible core of success.

So, for me, at this particular point in my life trajectory, success is:

• Creating more enjoyment and peace for others. Seeing smiles… by helping people go outside and stay healthy, comfortable, and well-hydrated.

• Protecting the environment and our incredible, limited, and fragile resources. Loving the planet… by keeping cans and other beverage-related trash out of waterways.

• Building something from scratch and watching it grow. Nurturing an entrepreneurial dream… by starting a business and having the courage to give it all I’ve got.

Why? Because it feels good! I encourage everyone to take a moment to examine what you’re doing. Does it feel good? If yes, keep up the good work! Put your heart and soul into it. If no, find something that does. Then you will experience the true meaning of success

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