Until approached to star in a episode of the TV-reality show "Doomsday Preppers," Fairbanks' Craig Compeau didn't have any idea he might be readying for the coming of an economic apocalypse. He simply thought of himself as another Alaskan with a fondness for powerful machinery and a love of going into the wild at every opportunity.
Much the same could be said for Juneau friend Don Kubley, who was first approached by National Geographic TV because of his sale of InterShelters -- near-indestructible, igloo-like, portable plastic structures that have apparently become popular among so-called "preppers."
Sensing that TV might be good for business, Compeau and Kubley, a couple of Alaska entrepreneurs, played along with a not-so-real reality show, and now they're semi-famous. But there's a lot more to this story than that. Compeau and Kubley -- the accidental preppers -- are a testament to the influence of popular media today and how it affects marketing.
Compeau -- who sells riverboats -- and Kubley -- who sells the portable plastic shelters -- have both seen sales skyrocket since their appearance together on an episode of "Doomsday Preppers." Credit Kubley with being the first to answer when opportunity came knocking.
'Prepper' or just an Alaskan?
Kubley admitted he hadn't even encountered the term "preppers" until mere months before a cold call from a producer at National Geographic TV in the summer of 2012. He only knew what she was talking about because a reporter from Businessweek had called him that same spring while reporting a story on what has become something of a fad.
As reporter Victoria Black described the story she was doing, Kubley said, he realized she was talking about the people he'd long known as survivalists. He'd sold InterShelters to more than a few, and he told Black so. His comments were reflected in one paragraph of the story that appeared in August 2012 beneath the headline "Can I Sell You an Underground Bunker."
"Not all businesses that serve preppers planned on marketing to preppers," Black wrote. "Don Kubley, 57, who owns InterShelter, a Juneau (Alaska)-based manufacturer of portable shelters, intended to sell to government buyers seeking housing for the homeless; he says preppers have been spending thousands for his domes, the smallest of which (at 14 feet in diameter) costs $6,500. They can be sprayed with his bulletproof and bombproof coating, Dragonshield. 'It takes three things to survive: food, water, and shelter,' Kubley says. 'And we are one-third of that formula.'"
Black was an intern from Harvard in the state of Massachusetts, working for a magazine in New York City. She wrote a story about a guy in Alaska that was read by a television producer in California, who looked up InterShelters on the Internet.
And then she circled back to Kubley. She told him, he remembers, that she thought his domes looked "cool." He thanked her. She said she wanted to film some preppers living in one in the wilds of Alaska. He again said thanks, but added that he doubted there were any crazy folk living in such structures in the 49th state.
"That's not how we're going to survive up here" if the economy collapses, he remembers telling her. That led to more talk. Kubley mentioned his four freezers full of wild game and fish, and how he could live off the beach in front of his oceanside home outside of Juneau if circumstances required.
"If doomsday happens," Kubley said, "we'd just go back to the woods."
Yes, as you might have guessed, that alone sounded like a "prepper" to a woman in big-city California. She immediately began lobbying Kubley to do a show. He was reluctant, but he Googled up "Doomsday Preppers."
It turned out be one of National Geo's top shows. Kubley watched a few episodes. He noted the advertisers buying into the shows were marketing to a fairly upscale crowd. That did it. "I thought, well, 'yeah, OK," he said.
The two talked about where to shoot the show.
Convincing numbers, advertising coup
Compeau's name came up. He's a legitimate Interior character and longtime friend of Kubley, who met the fourth-generation Alaskan through Gonzaga University classmate Mike Stepovich, a member of another old Alaska family.
"Don went to Gonzaga with Mike...," Compeau said. "Mike and I have daughters that played high school ball together at Monroe (High School). I went to Juneau when my daughter was in a tournament, and met Don there. (He) was the brother I never had. We both come from multi-generational Alaskan families and got to be good friends and hunting partners."
About a decade ago, the two set up an InterShelter dome in the wilderness near the small Interior community of Delta Junction for use as a moose and caribou hunting camp. To get to it, they needed to run one of Compeaus' tunnel-hull, inboard jet boats -- the SJX -- miles deep into the wilderness that climbed 2,200 feet in elevation.
It's a wild ride, said Kubley, who pitched the hunting camp as the place to film a show on Alaska preppers. He described it to the producer.
"She goes, 'Perfect!,'" he said.
All that was left was to sell Compeau. Kubley admits that wasn't easy. Compeau was worried about coming off looking like some sort of Alaska whackjob. "Craig didn't want to do it," Kubley said. "(Image-wise) it was risky. It was dangerous." But being a businessman, Compeau was finally convinced by the logic of numbers.
"After telling the director 'no thanks' for the fourth time, a fifth call came into my office on a late July afternoon," he writes. "They were ready to lay out their cards.
"'Do you have any idea how many people watch this program?' they asked. 'No,' I replied. "'There will be roughly 5 million viewers in the first week it airs, and that does not count syndication, follow-up specials, and other airings.'"
As Kubley had already concluded, he and his hunting buddy were looking at getting for free the kind of advertising a couple of relatively small Alaska companies would never be able to buy.
Men on a mission
Compeau has posted an essay about his experiences with the show on his company's website. He speaks frankly there about why he decided to become a "prepper," and it's not because he was making plans to live in a bunker.
"To be honest," he wrote, "I agreed to partake in the project because I wanted to sell boats."
Kubley, admittedly, had bigger plans. He wants to sell domes, all right, but there's a humanitarian twist to it. There are 8 million people sleeping on the ground or in tents in the Middle East because of the ongoing battles in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. He'd like to get them housed.
His domes, he said, "go up as fast a tent," but are 100 times as durable. Tested in Alaska, they've survived being buried under tens of feet of snow and stood up against hurricane-force winds. They are sort of a prepper's dream, something akin to a portable bomb shelter.
"We call them 'the survival sphere,'" Kubley said. Their durability would make them ideal for housing refugees around the globe.
"I hate to sound corny," he said, "but we really can make a difference on this planet."
The domes themselves have an intriguing backstory. They were designed by a student of the late Buckminster Fuller, a famed architect and futurist famous for designing the geodesic dome. The student took that idea and built it into a collapsible plastic igloo.
The student was a friend of Kubley's with no business sense. Kubley tried to help him sell the domes. It didn't work out, and they eventually split. Years later, the friend was on his death bed and called Kubley to offer him the company. He asked Kubley to try to make a success out of the idea.
"I wish I could tell you I thought of it," Kubley said, "(but) putting gas in a car is about as mechanical as I get."
Rolling the dice
A former charter boat skipper out of Juneau, Kubley's much better at sales than architecture, and he's lucky. Shortly after he took over InterShelter, Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast. Emergency shelters were suddenly much in demand. His sales took off and have continued to climb.
They are surging again now in the wake of the preppers' show. It is the same for Compeau's boat sales. The buddies' gamble has paid off, though Kubley admits it was a little nerve-wracking for a time.
"Once you sign the paper (to do the show), you roll dice and hope for 7s," he said. "They don't tell you anything."
As Compeau feared, they could have have come off looking like madmen, but they didn't. Or at least they didn't by Alaska standards. And their episode of preppers made National Geo's list of top-five shows.
"I think I got 3 million hits on my website," Kubley said, "and it made a huge difference in my sales. I had to open up a second production site."
He was also approached by an international businessman who wants to establish a global partnership to produce InterShelters at a lower cost to help meet Kubley's long-held desire to help refugees in the Mideast.
It has been quite the ride. Kubley remembers viewing his webcounter as the show first aired across the country and seeing traffic spike as it appeared on television in each time zone.
"It's pretty amazing," he said. "My server just started smoking."
Compeau had a similar experience. A jet-boat video he put together has now surpassed 1.7 million hits on YouTube. The Orofino, Idaho, company that actually builds the boats for Compeau "has had to ramp up production with new welders and fabrication workers to handle the order backlog. We went from a six-week delivery lead time to over six months, even with the company's increased capacity," he noted on his website.
"In fact, they are continuing to hire more workers because the episode is repeatedly aired in new markets, and is sure to generate even greater demand. I guess you could say they are prepping for the future, as well."
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com