By Todd Ceisner
ORLANDO, Fla. – John Crews, Jr. watched Jimmy Houston and Hank Parker parlay their success in bass tournaments to lengthy careers as outdoors television personalities. He witnessed Lonnie Stanley do the same; only he went the lure-design route.
Now 34 years old and with 10-plus years under his belt fishing the pro tours, Crews has been waiting to see which door was going to open for him in terms of off-the-water endeavors. Many BassFans are familiar with his signature series line of crankbaits from Spro, which he designed and has helped market.
But he wanted more than to have a bait named after him. He wanted to be the artist staring at the blank canvas, the novelist sitting down to hammer out the next chapter. He wanted to put his stamp on something completely new and see how it stood up against the competition.
Instead of waiting for someone to open that door of opportunity for him, he blew it open himself earlier this year when he launched Missile Baits, a company specializing in soft plastic baits.
“The tournament side of it is fun, but it’s just me being ambitious and wanting to do more,” Crews said as he sat at a small, round pub table in the Missile Baits booth at ICAST. “I’ve learned a ton from Spro about lure design and getting product to market and what marketing tools are effective.”
Initially, the business was supposed to be a three-way startup between Crews and two other anglers. However, the two other partners withdrew and Crews was left to decide whether to proceed on his own or put his ambition on hold. After some consideration, mainly to see if he could swing it financially, he opted to go forward and launched the company in January.
With a no-frills, look-you-in-the-eye style, Crews is all business when it comes to talking, well, business. Every encounter is an opportunity to implant the Missile name into someone’s mind, just like every tournament is a chance for him to put his name in the minds of prospective sponsors or fans.
Starting Missile Baits was not an overnight thing, done on a whim and launched from his basement. He devoted the last couple years to planning and calculating and trying to factor in all the what-ifs. Money, obviously, was also a factor.
“One of the biggest hurdles is it costs a lot of money to start a company and to do it full force,” he said. “You can start halfway and start with one or two (baits) and not hire full-time employees, but you’re not going to be a legitimate business until you go full force.
“I went in full force. We started with two full-time employees and plenty of office space and warehouse space to grow. Nothing will hold us back other than what we’re not able to accomplish.”
Some might call it a leap of faith, jumping headlong into the artificial bait business when the economy’s in flux and with a tackle marketplace seemingly flooded with innumerable shapes, sizes and colors. Carving out a meaningful niche can be daunting, but Crews thinks he can rise above the rest by being patient and not trying to do too much too fast.
“It’s a long battle,” he said. “It’s not a 1- or 2-year flash to get this done. It’s going to be a long battle and it’s a constant battle. You have to continue to stay ahead of people with new designs and new colors and keep people wanting to know what’s coming next.”
Freedom Of Choice
To start, there are five baits available in eight different colors under the Missile Baits name. Crews said the plans are to roll out a couple new colors each year and the expectation is to have two new shapes on the market in the next 12 months. One is in the prototype phase and actually saw the water at last month’s Lake Michigan Elite Series, but will require some cosmetic tweaks before it’ll be considered a finished product.
“The next two baits that we’re probably going to come out with, I’d say are completely unique,” he said. “One of them is not really inventing a category and one of them kind of is, so it’s exciting.”
Crews' company got a welcome boost in business when Ish Monroe won the Lake Okeechobee Elite Series earlier this year.
The designs mostly come from Crews, who’s spent the last 2 years without a soft plastics sponsor. That’s allowed him to sample just about everything on the market and implement the features he likes into his products.
“I’ve had (plastics sponsors) in the past, but they kind of limit your open-mindedness because you feel obligated to fish their plastics as much as possible,” he said. “When you don’t have a sponsor you can fish whatever you want, so I have a single or two bags of probably 50 different baits sitting at home – just things I’ve bought one or two of just to try out. Some of them I’ve liked, the majority I’ve not. Some have one good feature and the rest of it’s junk so I’ve taken what I’ve learned and experimented with it over the last couple years and put it all into the baits we’ve got out and the ones we’re continuing to work on.”
His initial projections and sales goals were on the aggressive side to start and he admits some of the company’s pre-ICAST targets weren’t met, while other benchmarks have been satisfied. He said his goal of having Missile Baits on the shelves of at least 200 Dick’s Sporting Goods stores was ahead of schedule through the first 6 months.
“Other sales aspects that I thought we’d be further along in we’re not,” he added. “I still think we have a lot of room to grow quickly. It’s just a matter of continuing to push and push.”
D Bomb Boost
The company got a major boost and tons of exposure when Ish Monroe used Missile’s D Bomb creature bait to catch 108-05 over 4 days to win the Lake Okeechobee Elite Series back in March. It’s the most weight caught at either the Elite Series or FLW Tour level this year.
“The D Bomb was a touch ahead of the other baits (at that point),” he said. “Once that tournament hit, it’s gotten a little separation so the sales definitely got a kick start from that. It gave our brand an identity and something to hang its hat on as if to say, ‘They’re for real. They can win a tournament by themselves.’”
While he thinks the Drop Craw, a slender 3” bait meant for finesse presentations, is his most unique design so far, the D Bomb’s ribbed body has attracted a lot of attention.
“I can’t tell you how many people pick it up and feel how soft it is and see the ribbed body and say, ‘I can’t believe nobody’s done that yet,’” he said. “I feel like all of our baits are unique and one of the first five things someone can say about them is, ‘I haven’t seen that before.’ That’s what I’m going for and it’s not different to be different. It’s different to be better, things that nobody’s done before.”
> For now, the focus of the company will be soft plastics, which are manufactured in Georgia, but Crews hasn’t ruled out adding a terminal tackle segment to the business eventually.
> The company offices are located about 3 miles from Crews’ home in Salem, Va., so he’s able take his children to school and head home for lunch during non-tournament weeks. “My family definitely comes first and I don’t want to take anything away from them because when I’m fishing tournaments I’m completely gone so I don’t want to be gone all the time while I’m home either. It’s a hard balance to keep,” he said.
> To check out what Missile has to offer, click here.