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RaftUp: An Arkansas entrepreneur’s startup journey

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Corey Boelkens left behind a successful corporate career to pursue his vision for RaftUp, and made some significant sacrifices to pursue his dream.

Read his story via Tim Freeman at HARK.

December 2014: After 10 years as a highly successful strategy consultant, Corey Boelkens was ready to leave the office, leave it behind, and spend more time on his boat. The first part worked out, but the boat, ironically, will have to wait.

“Man, I loved that boat.”

Growing up in Mountain Home, Arkansas, straddled between two lakes (Bull Shoals Lake and Norfork Lake), Boelkens lived the lake lifestyle. His first job was at the marina on Arkansas’ Bull Shoals Lake. By 14, he was driving 50ft. chartered house boats around the lake for clients of the Marina. “We were canoeing, kayaking, fishing, diving every other weekend.”

After graduating from the University of Arkansas with degrees in Information Systems and Business Administration, Boelkens began a career that would take him around the world, working with some of the biggest companies in the Big Data world, while pulling down a six-figure salary. But after 10 years, he was disenchanted, bored, and looking for something different. “I wanted to do more than work from a cube or live out of a suitcase,” says Boelkens.

By early 2015, Boelkens and his wife Erin were actively making plans to take the entrepreneurial leap, and making connections in the Arkansas startup community. Boelkens met Jordan Carlisle, a local leader in the Little Rock startup ecosystem, following a 1 Million Cups event in February, and shared his idea for TOAD (Towing Assistance and Delivery), a service he was developing in his spare hours.

“Corey had just finished a small business course that helped him think through components of a traditional business plan for his idea, so he asked me ‘What are the next steps to building a team and creating the product?’”, Carlisle explains. “I encouraged him to compete in Startup Weekend because it would get him to build a minimum viable product and talk to potential customers.”

By chance, Boelkens was already making plans to dedicate that weekend to building out his business model. “My wife and I originally planned on staying in Heber Springs to white board and plan Toad and do our own, private ‘Startup Weekend’, without knowing that there was a real one going on in Fayetteville the same weekend, so we changed plans and drove up to NWA,” says Boelkens. “Our car was already packed with white boards, sticky notes, laptops, and note pads.”

Over the same weekend, Boelkens distributed a survey through Facebook and a boat owners forum to get feedback on TOAD, and received positive feedback, what he learned was even more valuable. “We originally considered being an inclusive land/water towing service, but discovered that while water towing services existed, they were not on demand,” said Boelkens. “We pivoted literally 4 hours before we pitched at that first Startup Weekend.”


Following the weekend in Fayetteville, Boelkens began taking the idea for their towing service to Marina’s to tell them about the service. The Marina’s were enthusiastic about the concept, but raised questions about how the startup would get people to use the service…and keep using it. “They had trouble finding people on the water who needed help.”

A “Raft Up” is the roping-together of several watercraft to form a raft-like structure, and the term is applied in the boating community to describe social gatherings that form upon such a structure. Boelkens knew he could use location awareness through an app to solve the problem of finding lost or stranded boaters, and struck up on the idea to develop a social service that would allow boaters to connect on the water and share experiences – the towing service would be just one of the features such a service would offer, or enable. RaftUp was born.


Boelkens took his idea for social boating service to Innovate Arkansas, a state-funded initiative established to scaled promising tech startups in the state, who hired a 3rd-party research consulting firm based in Australia to validate the concept for the business. Is it unique, is there a market, will it be useful? The response was wildly positive. Nothing like it existed. Based on that evaluation, RaftUp raised $50K in a Friends and Family round, hired a CTO and a small team, and began development in September. Boelkens took RaftUp through the Venture Centers Pre-Accelerator program (an opportunity he almsot passed on, saying “I thought my professional experience and books would be sufficient, but I wouldn’t have been able to engage with the startup community and develop relationships with other entrepreneurs and mentors had I not”) through the Fall of 2015, and officially launched the RaftUp app to iPhone users the following Spring.

Since launch, RaftUp has released for updates to its iOS app, and picked up almost 2000 users, all while still operating as a bootstrapped startup.
The sacrifices Boelkens has made to bring his idea to this point have been significant, by most anyone’s standards:

  • Gave up $120K a year salaried position, plus bonuses
  • Continued to work 80hr weeks
  • Driven 18,000 miles since March 2016
  • Spent less time seeing friends
  • Stopped going to the gym, gained 20lbs
  • Prospects or investors have said “…‘no, or ‘get back to me in a year’, more times than I have ever heard in my life…”
  • Sold his 2yr old 3/4 “dream truck”

And last but not least…

  • Sold his “dream boat” Chaparral 287 SSX

Not that Boelkens counts these as regrets – only the price he’s been willing to pay to accomplish his goals, and move onto the life he wants to build for he and his family, and stressing that the risk and the sacrifices have allowed him to inspire other friends and family to pursue their own challenges or entrepreneurial visions; something he considers a surprising reward of his journey thus far. “It’s ok to be afraid. You shouldn’t make decisions based on fear. Stop doing what fear drives you to do.”

It doesn’t sound like Corey Boelkens will be abandoning ship anytime soon.

This story was originally published by our friends at HARK. Be sure to check them out!