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Super Freak? The Story of ELEV8 & The Silver Surfer

No Pressure, No Diamonds: How the Silver Surfer Vaporizer Was Born

Steve Kelnhofer is a freak—and we mean that the best possible sense of the word. That’s not just because he continues to defy the odds. The Silver Surfer Vaporizer inventor’s highly relatable, yet totally DIY approach to innovation, business, and success speaks for itself, sometimes in loud and proud defiance of the gone-corporate, button-down world that has evolved in today’s smoke shop industry.

As the CEO of Colorado-based ELEV8, Steve’s enterprise offers enlightened consumers everything from the latest designs in glassware to hands-on classes in glassblowing, to healthful CBD and artisanal cannabis flower products. All that plus heaps of educational and research resources on their main page, elev8presents.com, as well as community outreach in veteran’s health and agricultural sustainability projects, means that being a freak is still being the good guy.

An innovator and maverick at heart, Steve’s first offering was the Silver Surfer Vaporizer, a revolutionary concept when it was introduced in the early aughts. Notably and reliably, the Silver Surfer was the first vaporizer in the industry with a ceramic ruby crystalline heater.

More than that spectacular innovation, Steve and his work are important references, a keystone of sorts for what a business can become if guided by vision and personal commitment to both oneself and the customer-collaborators that grow business.

Steve came up during a time when the industry was mostly homegrown. The business models that flowered during those potent and past times tended toward the anarchic, in total contrast to those of today. More than twenty years on though, you can count on Him to offer an effective alternative to the mainstream—an alternative that remains innovative and profitable.

Talking to Steve to get an idea of what he represents in the new-fangled world of smoking accessories is easy enough if you have time to acknowledge the past and can see the future, and the market as something that is dynamic and consumer-driven.

Steve’s story sounds like the stuff of myth, but the thing is, it’s all true. Speaking openly about what got the dude to where he is today, he recounts that it all started when he was working as an electrician, tinkering around with an idea that would spawn a smoking revolution.

Silver Surfer Vaporizer Inventor Blows Glass

“So, I was already an electrician at this point,” he begins. “I was in IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), But I got busted growing pot. And in Colorado, even back then, it was illegal as fuck. I got charged with a felony. We were in a recession and I was working on Riva Air Force Base. And so, I got laid off, and I taught myself HTML. I started out actually selling sex toys, and that’s how Seventh Floor (Steve’s first cyber-venture) came about . . . it was originally called ‘Sex Sellz.’”

This inauspicious introduction to early internet-based marketing of lifestyle products led Kelnhofer to some profit, but more importantly it allowed him time to think about his big idea: a vaporizer that actually worked.

“Because of that internet business, that’s where I started to get into this vaporizer project,” he recalls. He soon found that his main hurdle was sourcing the glass components he would need to complete his design. “I went around to glass places around here and they didn’t know how to do it. One place said that it was a crack pipe, but they would make them for $80 each . . . So I got a book and I taught myself how to blow glass. I had a vision, and luckily, I was an electrician. I was already working with three-inch pipe . . . so I knew I could make it out of a piece of aluminum tubing. I came up with some ideas, but the glass was the problem that needed solving. Once I started blowing glass in 2004, that was it.”

Steve’s conundrum eventually resulted in a production breakthrough, and once he got the materials sorted out, it was full steam ahead; the Silver Surfer was born. 

“I started selling them on Craigslist,” he says. “I’d go to Home Depot, which was just a little bit down the street (from my apartment) . . .  and I’d pop my trunk, and people could just pick one out. At the time we had different color bases so they could pick their bases or their knob, and it was just crazy. Next was eBay. I sold a lot on eBay at the time.”

Navigating that new frontier of online and in-person sales wasn’t without challenges. In those early days, when social media was still in its infancy, guerilla marketing was really the only avenue available, especially for a fledgling accessories company.

“It was all word of mouth,” Steve tells me. “I sold them to my friends. The internet was small, and Craigslist was easy; people would just hit me up and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to get one of those. My friend had one,’ and I’d say, ‘Sure, let’s go meet at the Home Depot parking lot.’ I didn’t know these people. But what was super dope about that is that my market really started opening up. I had people that were interested in the same thing as me. It was so tight . . . they would call me up like, ‘Hey man, did you think of this? Could you try it?’” This sense of collaboration, or “fan-involvement” as Steve puts it, not only increased brand visibility, but also gave him a built-in group of beta testers. As a result, the Surfer continually improved, and sales soared.

“Slowly,” he summarizes, “the whole Surfer has been designed by fans saying, ‘Hey, can we do this?’”

The Silver Surfer Vaporizer

It was all word of mouth . . . people would just hit me up and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to get one of those. My friend had one,’ and I’d say, ‘Sure, let’s go meet at the Home Depot parking lot.’

The aughts proved to be a massive success for Steve and his crew. Sales continually climbed, and production expanded to the point where he found himself taking trips to China, at one point even entertaining the idea of buying his own factory.

“We were growing exponentially until about 2011,” he tells me, his voice oozing with nostalgia. “That was my best year.”

It stands to reason that his admittedly haphazard, nearly pirate-like operation would peak around that time. Massive changes to the industry were on the horizon. The first pen vaporizers showed up that very year, and not long after, Steve’s enterprise took a “downward turn.” He rightfully attributes it to the corporatization of the smoke and glass industries that came with the turning tide of mass acceptance and legalization.  “That’s when big money started coming in,” he says bluntly. He then describes the scene when he visited the Pax headquarters, back then, called “Ploom,” and observed a wall of their warehouse covered in storyboards. The boards didn’t outline their design ideas or their production schedule, but rather, as he tells it, their marketing plan.

“And I was like, ‘This is all just marketing. This is bullshit.’ And how stupid was I? Because it was about marketing. [Those guys] ended up selling their idea to Japan Tobacco International . . . now it’s us little people competing against literally the best marketers in the world.”

As the narrative unfolds, it’s hard not to think about the story of the Blackberry, the world’s first smartphone—designed and manufactured by a ragtag group of American tech entrepreneurs—that took the world by storm around the same time. It’s almost a mirror; the variables might be worlds apart, but the formula is the same. Self-made visionaries revolutionized the space, only to be outpaced by the next wave of big-money competition that was developing right under their noses. It’s such a beautifully tragic story that it was recently adapted as a film starring Glenn Howerton (Always Sunny) and Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder). The difference: Blackberry is gone. Steven and the Silver Surfer are still here—and Steve is still creating.

For Steve’s part, he’s at least tried to adapt—and has made a valiant effort of it to boot. In 2016, he released the Sidekick, ELEV8’s answer to the market’s ever-growing demand for portability in vaporizing—and he pulled out every stop in its design. Consumer reaction was tepid at best, but Steve stands by his creation.

“I truly believe that there’s nothing out there that can touch my Sidekick,” he states with not a trace of hesitance in his voice. He has a good argument on paper. The unit, lovingly designed by a veteran connoisseur for the veteran connoisseurs, boasts a 16” air path, a removable battery, a unique cooling rod system, and a built-in stir stick that allows the user to mix up the plant matter without removing the lid. Some may complain the unit comes in just a bit large, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a portable dry herb vape with a better price/value ratio. Your customers would be lucky to have one.

The Silver Surfer's Little Brother-The Sidekick

I truly believe that there’s nothing out there that can touch my Sidekick.

Steve blames the product’s mediocre sales on his own perceived shortcomings, repeatedly emphasizing throughout the conversation that he’s “a creator, not a businessman.”

“I don’t know how to get out there,” he admits, later candidly groaning “marketing is freaking crazy, man; it’s hard.”

The conversation is refreshingly frank. Nothing is rehearsed. There is no PR agent advising on what to say. Not once does Steve backtrack with the requisite “don’t print that.” In fact, it’s clear that his “bag of fucks—if you will—is completely empty. He’s comfortable in his skin, content with both his place in the industry and the legacy he’s created, whether the market cares to heap the praises he deserves for his pioneering role or not. He doesn’t hesitate to name the distributors who came into the space and tried to bully him into submission, nor does he recoil from giving credit where its due. In fact, he’s lavish praise for his contemporaries.

“I wouldn’t be here without Bert,” he gushes, referencing the founder of the Vapor Brothers, yet another early innovator in the zero combustion space. “He created the first whip style, and I loved it.”

Corporatization may have complicated the market, but Steve has maintained an equilibrium nonetheless, managing to drive his business to a level of success that allows him to give back to the community. ELEV8’s Veteran’s project has been an outright success, providing free Silver Surfers to qualified military veterans. Meanwhile, ever the creator, Steve continues to branch out with new ideas, each a budding branch from the tree that is the Silver Surfer. His newest project might be the most daring; Elevate Pizza promises classic pies with a smoke infused flavor that Steve swears will electrify the most jaded of palates. “It’s cooked at 800 degrees, but underneath it, I’ve created a system where it shoots smoke over the pizza while it’s cooking. We infuse smoke into the pizza, so when you eat it, you can taste it’s fucking smoked.”

Despite the occasional setback, the successes have outweighed the losses.  Steve’s still very much in the game as the pizza venture tastefully illustrates. He isn’t a billionaire, but he’s still at the helm of a multipronged business that is by all accounts, a success.  Most importantly, he’s content. He loves what he does and has no intention of stopping.

“I hope to be doing this till the day I die. No pressure, no diamonds. I’m down here building my Silver Surfers, and helping my team put them together. But man, I fucking love this!  I love my customers. I love the people when they get involved.”

He pauses, for a minute and then punctuates his thought with a shrug. 

“So how do we stay afloat? Get lucky with a great idea, I guess.”

By Rudy Carrillo

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