“I designed the GO because I needed a job,” says Tom Dempsey, a soft-spoken entrepreneur.
Before committing himself to starting his third company, Tom needed some feedback. He showed sketches of his innovative travel trailer to colleagues in the recreational gear market. Their feedback was spectacular: someone wanted to buy it.
Just four months after its conception the GO was a hit. Tom signed a seven-figure contract for his sketches–not the finished product–just the sketches. Unbelievable…could he retire for life after just four months of work?
Unfortunately, within weeks the dream offer evaporated. Tom was disappointed with the loss but he gained two things:
- Confidence in the GO.
- A sizable non-refundable deposit…which he would use to get SylvanSport off the drawing board.
This is a true story. If conjuring a company from nothing were as magical as this example, who wouldn’t want to give it a try? Sounds easy…like falling off the couch and not spilling your beer. Heck, anyone with a brain could be an overnight success.
Wake up and smell the sofa. The protagonist in this tale is a very unique man who has worked hard all his life. He has been employed by a large corporation, worked in a couple of small businesses and created two of his own.
Is this Tom Dempsey a super power who was catapulted from the cover of Business Week directly into Brevard?
No, he’s a soft-spoken guy who notices things around him. He notices what people like to do, what they buy and how they buy it. He pays attention to how companies represent themselves, what they make, what consumer need they are satisfying.
Tom says he’s not gifted; he calls himself a “matchmaker of ideas.”
During his studies at Auburn, he and classmate Clay Johnson had such a match in mind. Why not make an X-ray machine mobile? For a class project the pair designed a mobile base for a digital X-ray machine. Good call, the project won the ISDA Gold IDEA award in 1989 and a write up in Business Week magazine.
The first job out of college for Tom was with Coleman, where he worked as a product designer for the camping division. He had a good boss. He enjoyed the camaraderie of his co-workers. He even joined the company bowling team. He was a team player.
Someone very close to him passed away; it was life changing. The team player decided that life was too short to do just what everyone else does, namely work for a large company until retirement. Tom let his grief empower him to go out on his own. He wasn’t married, had no car payments and he didn’t own a hous; he had nothing to lose.
Tom resigned from Coleman and started Design Principles with his college design buddy, Clay. They targeted a crucial piece of gear used by ambulance and rescue workers.
Back in 1990, accident victims were strapped to spinal immobilization boards made of plywood. They were not x-ray permeable, meaning that the victim would have to be moved off the backboard for x-rays – this is painful and risky for spinal injuries. Additionally, the wood based boards could not be sterilized against blood borne diseases.
The product from Design Principles was called The Stabilizer. It was constructed of plastic, which was lightweight, could be sterilized, and most importantly, would allow x-rays to pass through without distortion.
Tom and Clay were creative industrial designers with little business experience or training, making things up as they went along. They worked very hard at all aspects of growing their company, and it started to show.
The large distributors discovered the Stabilizer and wanted quantities of them, but Design Principles didn’t have sufficient funds to get the product into large-scale production.
In the early 1990’s, there was no Internet, and no magazines like “Fast Company” to aid the fledgling entrepreneur. Virtual companies –where everything from marketing to production and order fulfillment is subcontracted- did not yet exist. The old paradigm was still in place: a company did everything within its walls. This required a great deal of money and numerous employees.
“Capital allows a company to take advantage of success,” says Tom. “We were undercapitalized: didn’t know we needed it, didn’t know where to get it or how to go about raising it. ”
Design Principles may not have understood the need for monetary backup, but they had what every successful entrepreneur has: perseverance. Clay and Tom did whatever was necessary to get their products out of production and into customers’ hands. It worked.
Five years later, the product line was sold to Allied Healthcare. To this day, you can see the three products on Allied’s website: The Stabilizer, the Spine X and Life Lites. This clever product enables places like airports to be fully prepared for disaster relief using very little space, because Life Lites are disposable, recyclable stretchers that come 5 to a box which measures only 4” deep.
It’s natural to assume that anyone who starts a business, then sells it, is instantly wealthy. Most entrepreneurs exhaust their personal savings on their venture and cannot afford to pay themselves very well from the proceeds. The large sums paid for a small company, when amortized over the years of struggle, equal an average American’s income.
Stepping into Liquid
After selling the company, Tom was recruited to run a plastic molding house. Next, he served as the VP of Design and Engineering for Perception Kayaks. His tenure with Perception allowed him to use his self-taught management skills as well as his plastic design experience. While there, Tom gained valuable business insight from Bill Masters, the company’s founder.
“Bill taught me that your logo will not always be visible to consumers,” says Tom, “so we gave the product line a distinctive appearance which was recognizable from a distance.”
Within three years, Perception was sold to an overseas holding company, which renamed it, Watermark. They began to pursue the low price/high volume kayak market. They also terminated the management team. Tom was out of a job, but he spotted the silver lining. Watermark was turning their back on the high-end kayak market. He contacted a plastics company that was skilled in rotational molding. If they provided the plastic molding knowledge and manpower, Tom would provide the kayak designs as well as a team of experienced paddlers to mobilize the new venture. Not wanting to be caught undercapitalized again, Tom and his new partner secured investors for the fledgling company and thought up a name: Liquidlogic. Names are important. “Always name your company in such a way as to keep the future open. Design Principles, Perception, and Liquidlogic. These names are all flexible. They keep the company options open for unexpected market change.”
Tom was the team recruiter. He pulled in Shane Benedict and Johnny Kern, two of the most talented boat designers in the game. For accounting, sales, marketing and anything else, Tom persuaded active kayakers to join him. Why?
Authenticity. If a company is selling a product to a discriminating buyer such as a whitewater boater, everyone on the team needs to be passionate about the sport and speak the lingo. This excitement for the product is something that a large company cannot sustain.
Once assembled, Tom turned Liquidlogic loose. Everyone was a rabid marketer.
One day, Tom was listening to the National Public Radio business segment, “Marketplace.” He thought that his company would make a good story, so he tapped out a two-line email. His phone rang within the hour. It was NPR. An entire show was devoted to the paddlers from Western North Carolina.
The company was a market success. During the second year of operation, Liquidlogic was voted Manufacturer of the Year by Canoe and Kayak magazine. The award is the result of an annual poll sent to 800 retailers to see products and services really stand out above the rest. During the four years that Tom was piloting Liquidlogic, his designs made significant impacts on the kayak industry. He personally affected changes in sea kayak hatch cover innovations, as well as seating design concepts for all types of boats.
Kayaks contain blocks of foam to support the driver, which were traditionally glued in place. Tom had the idea of molding supports into the deck plastic to accommodate the foam, which made them visible to the world. He used this new feature and took it one step further. Tom elongated the mold grooves into sweeping curves that ran the length of the boat and in so doing, created a signature appearance. Anyone standing on shore could identify a Liquidlogic boat.
The company was running at full capacity and customers were clambering for kayaks. These were halcyon days, but Tom and his partners didn’t agree on some key management strategies, so he left.
This was no Hollywood ending where the business hero pilots his jet into the sunset, $100 bills fluttering in his wake. Tom left, and he needed a job right away. It was 2004, the year SylvanSport was born.
Coolest. Camper. Ever…
The phrase was coined by National Geographic Adventure when the magazine awarded the GO their Gear of the Year award. These words are permanently displayed across one of the structural members of the two wheeled trailer whose colors and lines would make any industrial designer proud.
It can haul up to 800 lbs. of gear: bikes, boats, ATV’s, motorcycles, household or garden items. You can tow it with a compact car, and you can sleep in it because once unloaded, the GO’s roof drops down to transform the trailer into a camper 8 minutes later. The problem with the other pop-up campers is twofold: they weigh a great deal, so a larger vehicle is needed to tow them, and they cannot carry much of anything, so all of a family’s gear must be kept in the tow vehicle.
A product this complex doesn’t just spring off the designer’s sketchpad fully formed. Tom knew that he needed help to transform his drawings into road ready hardware, so he began to build a team. He hired Kyle Mundt, an industrial designer as talented as himself. Then he hired an engineer. Not just any engineer, mind you, but a gent with a masters degree from MIT in mechanical engineering who just happened to live in Western NC. His name was Tom Reeder.
Kyle and the two Toms spent the better part of a year designing every piece that makes up a GO trailer. Drawings had to be made to show tubing bends, cast fittings, hole locations and weld lines. Materials had to be chosen that would make the trailer lightweight yet very strong. All these parts had to undergo stress analysis to assure the team that the product would stand up against the rigors of use.
Designing anything with moving parts is not trivial, because they all have to fit together during manufacture, and once assembled, move as the inventor intended. The higher the part count, the more difficult the task. SylvanSport’s product had 400 unique parts with a total count of 800.
From Dream To Reality
At this point, a large corporation would have hired a dozen more people to complete the mammoth task. Not an entrepreneur. The passion to bring a dream to reality is many times more powerful than money in the bank. It does make for long days, though.
“I’m not a workaholic, I’m more of a ‘work on a fun project’ –aholic, “ quips Tom. “In the early stages, I felt like a kid on Christmas who receives a gift that requires assembly. He works all day on it, goes to bed late and cannot wait to get back to work the next day.”
The design phase was so well executed that when the first trailer was built, all the parts fit together as planned…all 800 of them. Moving parts spun, lifted, swiveled and snapped together effortlessly. The GO could morph from a trailer to a camper and back without any human intervention. Additionally, this is a local product; 80% of all the pieces that comprise a GO are manufactured within 100 miles of Brevard.
They launched production immediately. Dealers were signed; tradeshows were attended. Everyone who looked at the trailer was impressed. Four years after conception, SylvanSport received an ISDA Gold IDEA award in 2008 for the best product in the recreational category.
2008 was every business owner’s nightmare; the financial meltdown changed the marketing plan for SylvanSport among other things. If banks would no longer provide loans to purchase a GO, dealers couldn’t secure credit to buy an inventory of trailers to sell.
“As an entrepreneur, you’re never out of the woods,” says Tom. “The challenges come when you least expect them, so all you can control is how you react.”
GO-ing ahead with marketing
How could a small company market such a high value product solely over the Internet? The answer resided with SylvanSport’s 300+ customers. The trailer caused a stir wherever it was parked…why not enlist the owners? Why not turn them into commissioned sales people to perform product demos?
Go Getters is the new marketing plan. On the website, all a prospective buyer has to do is click the “See One” button. A US map appears showing flags where a Go Getter sales rep lives. Clicking on the flag sends a message to the factory where the request is followed up by customer service. If a sale is made, the customer gets a check. Brilliant.
The target market for the GO was young family and adventure sports fanatics. The actual buyers have turned out to be active retirees and empty nesters who want to travel economically. This makes sense. As fuel prices increase so does the viability of a light pop-up trailer. Pulling or driving a large camper becomes less appealing at the gas pump. The GO, with its lightweight and ample on-board gear storage can also be towed by a compact car.
Tom and his talented staff are committed to their investors and to their product as they continue the effort to reach new customers. They have recently hired Backbone Media, touted to be the best marketing firm in the outdoor lifestyle arena. Search engine visibility is being increased by JB Media. The GO is being displayed at trade shows for previously unexplored markets.
Media rumors have gas prices reaching the $5 mark this summer, which could only help to drive more sales. January 2012 yielded more sales bookings than previous years and the month’s Internet searches for the product bulged by 3500% compared to last January. (That’s not a typo: 3500%!)
What is it like to be the creator of a successful company?
“In the beginning, you solve the problems that arise each day. You put one day behind the other and string them into months. Then one day you realize that you and your team have kept yourselves employed for 8 years…and that’s a wonderful feeling.”