Hansen: With fish-skinning tool, Omaha-area inventors reel in a big one
If you want to prove that your new product is idiot-proof, get an idiot to try it.
Which is why I’m standing in the middle of a Bellevue office building, holding something called a Skinzit — an electric tool, invented here in Omaha, that is taking the fishing world by storm.
I am not of the fishing world. I’m not sure I know what “the fishing world” means. I’m pretty sure I haven’t caught a fish since hitting puberty.
Which makes me the perfect candidate to try the Skinzit, which is marketed and sold by two sets of Omaha-area brothers who say it’s an incredibly simple way to clean a fish.
I hold the Skinzit over a bluegill, hit the throttle, sort of close my eyes and — what the heck? — the Skinzit removes the bluegill’s rib bones almost perfectly in one second flat.
Soon I hit the throttle again and — you gotta be kidding me! — this magical little machine pulls the bluegill’s skin right off, leaving a nice-looking piece of bluegill meat to cook and eat as I please.
It looks like I know how to clean a fish. It looks like I’m a fish-cleaning master. What I really am is an idiot using an idiot-proof tool.
“That is ridiculously easy,” I tell Chris Kielian. He smiles. “Yup,” he says.
I’m not the only idiot who has noticed. In the past few years, this four-man Omaha company has grown from a single idea — a better way to skin a fish — to a product that’s sold by major retailers, endorsed by famous fishermen and so fascinating to the public that several homemade YouTube videos of people using it have gone viral.
The ridiculous amount of free advertising — roughly 30 million views on YouTube — has helped lead to a ridiculous amount of success.
These two sets of Omaha-area brothers who started with a single idea have now sold more than 100,000 Skinzits in the past two years, a total likely to be eclipsed this year as they go truly national and then global.
“Some people think the videos are edited,” says Perry Parks. “They think we’re hiding something. They can’t believe it’s happening.
Brian Kielian says: “So we show people firsthand.”
Says Perry: “And then they get it.”
I don’t give a whit about fishing, though I do love a nicely grilled trout. I also love a story that showcases the power of an idea. A story that suggests a great idea can become reality, if we bait our hooks and fight to reel in the big one.
This great idea, the Skinzit, was born out of desperation. Out of something close to necessity. It was born because it really, really stinks to properly clean and skin a fish.
The Parks brothers would know. As young boys growing up near Okoboji, Iowa, the school bus dropped them off at their parents’ White Oaks Bait Shop every day after school. They went inside, dropped their book bags and began to clean fish. They did this for years, along with their father Jon and brother Todd, who has since died. They got really, really good at cleaning and skinning fish, so fast that together they could clean 100 perch in 20 or so minutes.
They got really good at cleaning fish — and yet, it remained the opposite of fun.
“We probably cleaned 30,000 fish a year,” says Perry Parks. “Mostly we were trying to get done so we could go do anything else.”
The Parks boys weren’t the only ones who hated it. One day in 1976, they showed up after school at the bait shop and went in the back room to clean fish as usual. But on this day, Dad was in the back with one of his buddies. He was holding a hand-held device they had just jerry-built together.
He was trying to build himself an electric fish skinner, because he hated cleaning fish, too.
“They were trying to motorize it with a grill rotisserie,” Eric Parks says.
“This was before the cordless screwdriver,” Perry says. “They had the idea … they just didn’t have enough speed.”
The idea stayed an idea for decades. The elder Parks reminded his sons of it several times a year, even after the family sold the bait shop, and even as Perry and Eric moved to Bellevue, started and then built up a company called Computer Cable Connection Inc.
He kept saying it and saying it, but they were always too busy with work and family and adulthood. In 2007, Jon Parks died.
That made the his boys think about what they wanted to do with the rest of their careers, the rest of their lives. What they really wanted to do was make Dad’s idea a reality. So in 2010 Perry and Eric Parks decided to try. During — what else? — a fishing trip, Perry recruited Chris Kielian, who has worked at Computer Cable Connection for years. In turn, Chris convinced his own brother Brian, who has worked for eBay and PayPal.
They developed a prototype made from a stripped-down electric screwdriver. The prototype was too heavy. It was also as ugly as a homely catfish. They kept working, going through three different manufacturers before finding a Kansas City company they felt could design a sleeker, lighter Skinzit that worked.
They applied for a design patent, fought for years to get it approved, despite knowing that turning a patent into a successful product is about as likely as winning the lottery. They got that patent, then seven utility patents.
Finally, after three years of working, they had a Skinzit they wanted to show to fishermen. A gigantic marlin of a question hung before them: Would anybody actually want this thing?
They took it to the St. Paul Ice Fishing show, a big deal if you are of the fishing world. They set up in a cramped exhibition space in an upstairs hallway — basically the worst spot in the house, the fishing spot devoid of fish.
They started to show off their product. Within hours, fishermen were pouring upstairs, the human equivalent of salmon swimming upstream in the Columbia River. First 20, then 40, then 100, staring at the demonstration and then snapping up the product for $150.
“It was crazy,” Perry Parks says. “People couldn’t get enough of it.”
Soon amateur fishermen and pros alike were posting videos of themselves using the Skinzit on YouTube. One went viral, then another, and then another.
Retailers took notice, often because their own employees were using and loving the Skinzit. Today, you can buy the Skinzit at Cabela’s, many Bass Pro Shops, Scheels, Amazon and pretty much everywhere else that fishermen shop.
They sold 5,000 Skinzits. Then 40,000 in 2015. Then 65,000 more last year.
“Honestly, for the past few years, our main worry is keeping it in stock,” says Brian Kielian.
The Parks and Kielian brothers aren’t done, not by a long shot. This year they want to push the Skinzit across the United States, and also into Europe and Australia.
They have other products in mind, products that will pair with the Skinzit. And they are sure — absolutely positive — that the more people see this product, the more they will find it irresistible.
Recently Eric Parks went ice fishing. He met up with a man he’s known most of his adult life.
The man started talking about discovering this magical product that skins and cleans a fish in seconds.
“He was like, ‘Have you ever heard of this Skinzit? This thing is great!’ ” Eric Parks says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I have heard of it.’ ”
The two sets of brothers laugh. Then they urge me to try the Skinzit. Because the truth is, it’s such a good idea, such an Omaha success story, that even an idiot can see it.