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With their camping gear as props, Richard and Juli Rhett explain how their elevated tents keep campers off the ground.

Vicksburg couple gains exposure and a partner during visit to Shark Tank

By NASH NUNNERY

It’s been said that most aspiring entrepreneurs live their fears and not their dreams.

Not Juli and Richard Rhett.

The Vicksburg couple turned Richard’s desire to improve outdoor camping gear and help solve the world’s water crisis into Sierra Madre Research and a coveted appearance on ABC-TV’s hit series Shark Tank Oct. 1.

The Rhetts’ appearance was actually taped in June but due to contractual obligations were unable to reveal the outcome until after the episode aired. As with most reality network shows, Shark Tank contestants are sworn to secrecy not to discuss their segment.

“It was very hard to sit on (the news of a deal) and not share it with anyone,” said Richard Rhett. “Just getting on the show is an ordeal and then even if you are selected to tape, your episode is not guaranteed to air.”

The Rhetts’ deal was with English billionaire Richard Branson, accepting his offer of $175,000 for 15 percent of the company. The founder of Virgin Group and an avid adventurer, Branson tweeted after the show that he was “thrilled to invest” in Sierra Madre Research.

“It was incredible and an emotion that you could multiply by 10,” said Richard Rhett. “We worked so hard to get (on Shark Tank) and when (Branson) said he would give us what we wanted without negotiation, it was perfect.”

Since the episode aired, the entrepreneur said business has skyrocketed.

“It’s been absolutely insane around here,” he said. “The phones have been blowing up and our inventory has been taxed by the demand. But it’s a good problem to have.”

Rhett launched Sierra Madre Research in 2010 to create what he called then “a better camping hammock,” designed to elevate camping gear to keep ‘human and material dry.’ His inspiration came from camping trips to Central America, where rainforests are among the wettest places on the planet.

A trip to Honduras alerted the former engineer that basic drinking water in some countries is a luxury.

“The lack of clean water in that country was devastating,” Rhett said.

“It really struck a chord with us that, not only could we solve the challenges of unsatisfactory camping gear but also how we as a company could make a difference.”

Currently, Sierra Madre carries 24 different outdoor camping products that are 90 percent purchased online from their website. Rhett hopes with the addition of Branson as a partner, the company will scale even higher on the retail level.

Based in Vicksburg, Sierra Madre’s warehouse operations are located in Calhoun City. However, Rhett is contemplating a move out of state.

“With our focus on the outdoorsman, I feel we need to be in a more outdoor-centric region,” he said.

“One of the locations we’re looking at is Chattanooga.”

Appearing on Shark Tank netted the Rhetts much more than an investment partner.

According to Inc. magazine, an appearance on Shark Tank is worth approximately $9 million in market spend. In other words. If a third-party wished to pay ABC for a 10-minute commercial for its business during primetime, it would have to pay $9 million.

Sierra Madre Research got the exposure for free, and Richard Rhett is grateful.

“The Shark Tank team, including the producers and behind-the-scenes people, is incredible and were so nice to us,” he said.

“Nothing can prepare you for this experience. And to get Richard Branson as a partner was unreal.

“Juli and I knew he was the one for us.”

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