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Veteran’s Invention Spawns Online Family Business

16 Mar 2018 by BizDESIGN in FEATURES, SPRING 2018

By Tiffany Kjos –

Sometimes spouses are on very different pages. The husband insists on adopting another cat. The wife wants to redecorate the living room.

Or he gets out of the Navy and wants to sell an awesome invention online.

Here’s how that played out for Eli Crane when he proposed making a business out of his invention to his wife, Jen:

“She was like, ‘What? We’re not selling bottle openers for a living.’ ”

Well, in fact, they are. And they’re pretty darned good at it.

The Cranes and their upstart company, Bottle Breacher, were the only local headliner among a cast of crazy-successful startups that brought together seven companies on one day for a dialogue about the good and the bad they’ve faced on their journey.

The inaugural event – Ideas to Doors – was the brainchild of Scott Hessell, director of the University of Arizona’s Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing. The September event at the Fox Tucson Theatre drew roughly 200 people, including small business owners and a large contingent of UA students.

The Cranes’ customizable bottle opener has spawned a growing line of similar products – from fun, holiday-themed bottle openers to T-shirts. Bottle Breacher takes up five spaces in a northside business incubator plaza, with everything from administration to manufacturing done there.

Jen, who had two previous online businesses, was not convinced such a business could sustain itself. Her husband, a former Navy Seal, was convinced it could.

“I feel that God gave me Bottle Breacher,” Eli said. “I believe that God will set things up like this that don’t make sense – just to magnify his power.”

Jen’s fully invested now.

“Jen in many ways was the inspiration for this corporation,” Eli said. “I’ve never met anyone who works as hard as Jen does.” Eli said that includes his fellow Seals.

Eli blogs about business and has written for Entrepreneur magazine.

His advice for business owners: Keep your eye on the ball. “I’m not just selling bottle openers,” he said. “At the end of the day my goal is to make the best American-made, veteran-operated business in the world.”

Jen has some hard-won advice for fledgling business owners, too: Be careful with your time, including what activities you commit to, and always put kids and spouse first. Jen schedules work time around keeping up their family, which includes their two elementary-school-age daughters.

Eli, fresh out of the Navy, wanted a way to provide for his family and help veterans, especially special operatives, who might flounder after separating from the service. The couple had moved from San Diego to Tucson to be near Jen’s family.

He hit upon a bottle opener fashioned from .50-caliber bullet casing, like one his brother brought back from the Philippines. Jen had experience with online sales through the two websites she founded, and maybe that’s why she knew what they were in for.

Through it all, though, they never gave up.

“You only have to be right once. Most successful businesses have had three, four or five other businesses,” Eli said. “I’ve gotten my butt kicked so many times. I’ve failed so many times. But one thing I don’t do is quit.”

The Cranes founded Bottle Breacher in 2012. Two years later, they appeared on TV’s “Shark Tank” and received $150,000 in funding.

On the show Eli explained the Bottle Breacher name: “A breacher is an operator whose job it is to get the assaulters into whatever target we’re hitting. The breacher – that’s a qualification like a sniper. You got to breach into that beer somehow.”

Kevin O’Leary, normally the toughest of the Sharks, was moved. He said, “Some people think of it as an instrument of death. I think of it as bullets for freedom. It just hit me – it became an emotional connection with the product. There’s his wife at home with two kids and never knowing every day when he goes through that door if he’s going to live.”

Those couple of years between starting the company and going on national television demonstrated that the Cranes could thrive as business partners as well as life partners.

“We banded together,” Eli said. “We fought like cats and dogs for two years” to get the company off the ground.

To other startups Eli would say: Accept help. You’re gonna need it. “You’re nothing by yourself on the battlefield. Entrepreneurship is the same.”

The couple still fights to keep the company on track, but the challenges have changed.

After their “Shark Tank” appearance, the company went from selling 7,500 units a month on Etsy to selling 220,000 – and from seven employees to three dozen. Overnight.

If Eli had a do-over, he’d be prepared for that response.

“We got slammed pretty hard and had things on back order. We were pulling our hair out.”

They scrambled to find new employees and upgrade technology. And they lost existing customers who were frustrated they couldn’t get orders filled quickly. In the end Bottle Breacher had to make significant changes to its processes.

“Don’t be afraid to change things up and test them out,” Eli said. “A lot of times ‘How we’ve always done things’ is the real reason you’re in the quagmire you’re in.”

One thing the Cranes didn’t anticipate was taking some heat from people who don’t like their bottle openers because they’re made of bullet casings.

“A lot of media is turned off by the product – but people are still buying it,” Jen said.

The two have been together since high school. Jen graduated from the University of Arizona, but Eli quit high school. “As soon as 9/11 happened he left school and joined the Navy,” Jen said.

During his 13 years of service he was deployed five times – the last three as a Navy Seal to Iraq. These days he gives back by employing veterans and by making sure his products are 100 percent made and sourced here.

And the Cranes’ faith is woven throughout everything they do.

“It’s awesome to be able to continue to serve and be as blessed as we have been so we can continue to bless others,” he said. “We’re always going to wear our faith on our sleeve.”

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