James Murdock, 51, says he inherited his penchant for thinking up far-out inventions from his entrepreneurial father. So it's not surprising that the idea for his $30 million company, Aston (Pa.)-based Endless Pools, originated with his dad as well. In the late '80s, the Murdocks were reminiscing when they came up with a swimmers' treadmill—an 8-by-15-foot pool with an adjustable current. The 100-person company sells more than 1,200 pools annually, for $19,900 to $25,000.
FATHER OF INVENTION
My dad was always inventing something. There was an electric hair cutter attached to a vacuum cleaner that he used on me when I was a kid. I remember it hurt. But he gave me a rich sense of possibility. He'd grown up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and he'd talk about swimming in the irrigation canals as a kid. He would jump in the canals and swim like hell only to stay in place. It was quite dangerous, I think. But his stories made it vivid in my mind.
I went to Princeton University to study architecture. I migrated to civil engineering because I liked the idea of building things and creating systems. That is really what a business is: a collection of systems to design, manufacture, and market something.
While in college I built a solar-powered drying machine. Oil prices were high, and companies were spending a lot to dry out materials such as sugarcane waste before burning them and disposing of them. I started a company called Solar Dryer. My dad's company built industrial furnaces in a factory in Aston, and I built the dryer there. Then oil prices dropped, and a solar-powered dryer didn't make much sense. That was my first failure.
After going to business school at Columbia University, I started a business swapping rent-stabilized apartments in New York City. That didn't work, either. Then my dad and I kicked around the idea for a machine that replicated his experience swimming in canals. I built one that was small enough to fit indoors and had a current people could swim against. The materials cost just a few thousand dollars. My idea was to sell it to swim teams to use for training. In September, 1988, I set it up for Columbia's swim team.
Robert Goldberger, the provost at Columbia at the time, had multiple sclerosis. Swimming was great for his condition, but he could only use his outdoor pool in the summer. He asked me to build a swimming machine he could install in his basement. Then he asked me to build an elevator to get down there. I thought, ``Oh my gosh, how will I build an elevator?'' It wasn't that difficult. I remember him coming down on the elevator to see the pool, and he couldn't have been happier. He convinced me that there was an even bigger market.
THANKS, BOB VILA
I ran a single ad in The New Yorker in early 1989 for about $1,500. I received more than 300 inquiries. Eventually I sold 30 pools to people who found us through that ad. I hired my first employee in 1990.
But I wasn't making any money because I had to go to each customer's home to install the pool myself. I redesigned the pool in 1991 so it could be mass-produced and installed as a kit. I wanted someone who had never installed one to be able to do so. We got another boost in 1997 when we were featured on the home makeover program This Old House. That was big. Since then, we've grown about 20% a year. And last year we introduced a $5,900 unit that fits into an existing backyard pool. That's selling very well.
We're still operating out of my dad's old plant. We have three pools in the showroom, and my father comes over a few times a week to swim.
As told to Amy Barrett