Although he may not play one on TV, John Crews is a businessman. Known to his fans as a touring pro and perennial Classic qualifier, Crews may be more talented in the office than a bass boat. His company, Missile Baits, continues to go against the grain of the fishing lure business, selling bundles of tournament-proven products without the help of corporate kickbacks and big-money ad campaigns.
When you think of it, we rarely see this in the bass business. A few big soft-plastic manufacturers dominate the market – Berkley, Strike King and Zoom. Boutique designers, often now from overseas, have taken hold of the high-dollar, niche products. Keitech, Damiki and Jackall are good examples.
Certainly many of the successful products offered by each are the result of some sort of influence provided by professional anglers, but in almost no case does a touring pro double as CEO. Now, I’m aware of several companies that started that way – Reaction Innovations immediately comes to mind. And I know of a few that have tried and never materialized – I personally took marketing duties for one that was owned exclusively by tour anglers.
But each evolved in their personnel or ownership, or went belly-up. Except Crews.
So what is it about Missile Baits that allows him to be successful in a market viewed as impossible to penetrate?
“I always felt being a tour pro could lead me in the right direction” Crews said in a recent interview. “I originally thought it might be a TV show, but then I started working on developing lures with Spro, and I found I really liked it.”
Following a successful crankbait campaign throughout Spro’s expansion in the bass market, Crews looked for an opportunity to walk a similar path on his own. He identified room in the market for a soft-plastic manufacturer that came to the table with something unique. “I wanted to start fresh, (a company with) a new image,” he said.
As Crews had earlier predicted, his role in professional fishing opened several doors for him. The first was aligning with a manufacturer. “I had a relationship with a soft-plastic manufacturer that makes baits for lots of other companies. I asked them a ton of questions and came to them with drawings of early ideas." Crews added that his initial close relationship with the plastic producer was monumental in getting the wheels in motion at Missile.
From the beginning, unique lure designs have set the standard for the products Missile offers. “If there’s an existing bait that works, I save myself a lot of time and money and just go buy it and fish with it,” Crews said. “If a lure has lots of flaws or needs, I’ll design a better one. It’s pointless to just go out and copy another company.”
Interesting advice, considering lure copies seem commonplace in the industry.
With hot new designs in hand, Crews’ reputation as both a successful pro and marketer again helped push his company further. “It’s hard to make a dealer or distributor buy a new product with no history,” Crews said. “But we got fortunate with three big retailers (Tackle Warehouse, Greentop and Mark’s Outdoors) that took all 40 SKUs.” Again, Crews’ reputation was to thank.
With the biggest dealers in the business trusting Missile as a brand, other smaller stores and distributors were more willing to try. “Those guys carry a lot of weight with buyers” Crews confirmed. The wheels continued in motion.
As orders came in at Missile, Crews was careful to avoid the pitfalls of the lure business. “With other (attempts at) pro-owned companies, my guess is inexperience in the fishing business started to show.” Crews deduced that pricing, underfunding and supply are the three greatest hurdles to climb. Early on, he received advice that funding the company would cost twice as much as any figure he came up with. So far, that’s dead on; his savings account can attest.
In addition, Crews stressed the need for a company to have unending supply. Such is mandatory to retain sound relationships with retail outlets, but equally important to fend off copy-cats.
“If you can supply, and the lure is reasonably priced, and anyone can buy it, and you can ship it, they (customers) don’t have a reason to buy anything else,” Crews said. "The prime example of that is the Senko. Shipping was the key.”
As both a tour pro and business owner, Crews walks both sides of the fence when it comes to sponsorship and marketing. One day, he’s selling himself; the next, he’s listening to sales pitches from aspiring pros. So how important is pro-staff marketing, now that he can see both sides?
“Advertising is evolving and I’m still learning” Crews admitted. He told a story of how, when Ish Monroe destroyed the competition on the new D-Bomb bait at Lake Okeechobee in 2012, Missile Baits immediately benefitted. Buyers at Dick’s Sporting Goods heard the news and quickly took on the account. Yet, wins aren’t what Crews counts on from his staff.
“From a company perspective, (pro staff) winning a tournament is luck. Anglers must understand how to get publicity constantly.” Crews talked of the importance of social media exposure, seminars and dealing with fans. “And that’s what Ish does so well. It’s like the lottery. I pay him every month and then I (occasionally) hit.”
Crews also mentioned his expanding relationship with Mike Iaconelli and royalty programs as new directions in lure crafting and building a brand. But, in the end, Crews finds the importance of remaining a one-man show.
“No one does what I do. Well, there’s people that do, but they’re not on the pro circuit.” Crews counters that it’s the time on the circuit; tinkering, molding, dreaming, that separates him from the competition.
Or maybe it’s that he just gets it, and it shows every time we reach into the bag.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)