Meet Ethan Smith, designer + fly fishing founder

June 8, 2022

There’s no one way to be an entrepreneur.

You don’t have to look a certain way, operate in a particular industry, pursue specific education, grow up in a particular household, or spend your free time nurturing any particular hobbies — entrepreneurs grow from all walks of life.

In a new video series we are excited to launch today, entrepreneurs, founders, and small business owners from across the Dayton Region share their individual stories in order to break down those pervading stereotypes about who can or can’t be an entrepreneur.

They proudly declare, “I Am an Entrepreneur”and you can be, too.

Meet Ethan Smith, designer + fly fishing founder

If you’ve been fly fishing or white water rafting out west, there’s a chance the raft you rode was created and built right here in Troy.

SmithFly founder Ethan Smith has a degree in industrial design and visual communications from Ohio State University. The Troy native spent about about a decade in Columbus before moving back home to raise his family and start his company.

“My background gave me a good foundation of how to iterate and develop ideas from start to finish from an imagined world into the real world,” Ethan said. “That’s what we do here — think of cool things and how to make them.”

Ethan actually launched his company in the tumultuous and uncertain period following the 2008 recession, as he watched the design company he worked for lay off more than half its staff.

“I’d come home on Friday, and they’d laid off 20 or 30 people,” he recalled. “My wife would be like, well, when are you going to get cut?”

He wondered the same — so he started a side hustle.

“I thought, if I start a business over here, then lose my job, I can at least collect unemployment and work on the business for a few months, and maybe it’ll be going well enough that by the time unemployment runs out, I can just do this business thing,” he said.

In reality, he spent about three years working both his day job and his side hustle. Part of the final motivation to step out on his own was frustration in corporate.

“I was working with a lot of really big businesses that are really clumsy and terrible at innovation and terrible at taking risks,” he recalled. “I was seeing the amount if ineptness that goes into these multi-billion-dollar brands, and how many fantastic ideas designers would come up with on a daily basis and present to these giant customers, and they’d be like, ‘yeah, that’s dumb, we’re not doing that.’ And so, you have enough of these moments in your life that someday, you just have to put your stake in the ground and do what you’re gonna do.”

No handholds

But there’s no straight path to entrepreneurship, Ethan said.

“A friend of mine says, it’s like climbing a mountain and you’re cutting your own handholds, and they disappear after you use them so that nobody can ever follow your same path,” he said. “In my case, I just developed some products for fly fishing and started iterating on solving problems of fly fisherman that I saw when I was out on the water.”

Design is always about compromises between engineering and execution and materials, Ethan explained.

“It’s finding a happy medium between what you conceptualize and what you create,” he said. “Being a design professional helped me to solve problems and think about business, less as a numbers game, and more about making products that make a difference in the world.”

Flexibility is important, too.

“We have to wear a lot of hats. That’s part of small business in general, always just incremental little steps moving towards the greater goal,” he said. “There’s no secret sauce, no matter what people tell you, it’s always just a battle one day to the next to be flexible and nimble and make the best with the hand you’re dealt.”

Hometown networks

Launching a business in your hometown brings a different level of support, Ethan said.

“Growing up in Troy, I had that really positive environment where people are interested in what you’re doing and care a little more than if we were in a place like boulder or Austin,” he reflected. “They might have a more robust startup community, but they don’t have the network of fiends and family and supporters around that care about what we’re doing.”

That connection is especially important on the high-stress days, he added.

“I worked in high-stress environments, Fortune 500 companies, doing pretty important design work, rebranding some clients in hospitality and retail, but owning your own business is a totally different type of stress,” he said. “I didn’t really conceptualize it until I was in that position, and it’s super important to know that support is there. The mayor of Troy was my mom’s principal when she was a teacher for 43 years — having that level of interconnectedness in the fabric of community woven around the whole business is important.”

“My name is Ethan Smith, and I am an entrepreneur.”