Young South Portland entrepreneur launches outdoor gear rental site

Jake Viola of South Portland has just launched a new website designed to connect people who own outdoor gear with those who'd like to rent it.

Suffering from what he describes as “cubicle sickness,” South Portland native Jake Viola has just launched a new website designed to take advantage of the newly evolving sharing economy and allow people to enjoy the outdoors at a price they can afford.

Called JOTL Rentals, the website, found at www.JOTLrentals.com, seeks to connect people who own outdoor gear, like tents, kayaks, canoes, mountain bicycles and more, to those who would like to rent the gear for a day or a week at a reasonable cost.

For example, Viola’s site has a listing for a three-person, Starlite dome tent going for $10 a day, along with a set of men’s golf clubs, going for $12 a day, a pair of water skis, also going for $10 a day, and a paddleboard, going for $25 a day.

Viola does not set the rental price, he said, relying on the gear owners and the free market to create rates that people are willing to pay.

The website has two portals, one for those who have gear they’re willing to rent out and one for those looking for gear that they won’t have to buy to enjoy. All Viola does is connect the two, as well as monitor the site closely to answer any customer questions and ensure no one is getting scammed.

It’s up to the gear owner and the renter to decide where and when to exchange the items being loaned out. Gear owners are protected by a fairly lengthy contract, Viola said, and renters are protected because payment for the items is done through PayPal or Stripe, both of which are reputable online payment companies.

In addition, Viola said he doesn’t release the funds to the gear owner until he’s been notified that the gear exchange has taken place. There is a nearly 3 percent processing fee for each transaction, and Viola also charges an additional $3.99 for the first item rented, along with a $1 for each additional item.

The pay structure is designed simply to reimburse Viola for the time and money he spent creating the business and the website. In the future, if the site takes off, Viola hopes to maybe attract advertisers or find some other way to monetize the venture, like with corporate sponsorships.

For now, though, he thinks it will be a great way to spend the summer before he heads off to graduate school in the fall.

Viola is not new to entrepreneurship. While in high school he launched a successful ice cream boat business on Sebago Lake, and his hope is to continue to operate JOTL Rentals, even while studying for his master’s degree in economic and domestic policy at Harvard.

He believes that summertime would be the busiest time for his site, but also anticipates a market for winter gear, such as snowshoes or even snowmobiles, so the site would be operational year-round. At least that’s  his current goal.

Viola left a career working for the federal government in Washington D.C. to return home for the summer. His ultimate goal is to move back to Maine and become a local business owner and employer, before moving on into political office, he said.

Now 25, he graduated from South Portland High School and earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale University.

Initially Viola envisioned JOTL Rentals as being mostly for tourists, but since being back home, he realized there are many locals who would also like to get outdoors but may not have the room or the income to purchase their own kayak or paddleboard or tent.

He calls the website “a peer-to-peer marketplace.” “This concept allows (gear owners) to conveniently grow their incomes while helping (others) enjoy our beautiful state without the costs of ownership and the burden of transporting outdoor gear,” he said.

Susan Ruhlin, manager of the Top Gun entrepreneurial training program at the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development in Portland, said that what separates entrepreneurs from other business owners is their ability to “envision ways to improve on an existing service or technology or have an idea for a product or service that they just can’t shake (and) it becomes their calling.”

That’s the process that Viola went through. He first had the idea for a website like JOTL Rentals more than a year ago, but it took some time for him to work out the details and create a concept that would work and had the potential to really take off, like the Airbnb or Uber car sharing services.

Knowing that many people come to Maine for a week or so and rent a cottage or camp, Viola thought they might also have the need for outdoor gear, particularly boats and bicycles, that could help them better explore the state’s natural beauty.

Along with connecting gear owners with renters, Viola’s site also lists a variety of special places to explore, particularly in southern Maine, from hiking to great places to ride a bike or to fish.

Viola said one of the other reasons he launched JOTL Rentals is because “I am passionate about the outdoors and the state of Maine. Having left Maine, I now have much more appreciation for everything it is.”

One of Viola’s own favorite activities, for instance, is fly fishing “in any of the rivers in southern Maine.”

What he most missed when working in Washington D.C., Viola said, was the more relaxed pace of life and the fact that in Maine, “your title isn’t important” and “it doesn’t matter who you are or what job you have.”

What he doesn’t want, is to be someone who looks back and “wishes I’d taken that chance or that leap. Even if (JOTL Rentals) fails, I’ve learned so much by doing it.”

Jake Viola of South Portland has just launched a new website designed to connect people who own outdoor gear with those who’d like to rent it.

The new JOTL Rentals website has two portals – one for people willing to rent outdoor gear and one for those wishing to rent a tent, mountain bicycle or paddleboard and more.