Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden
Why do people find hitting a target to be so satisfying? Nathan Masters, of SimpleShot, says he thinks he knows: “It’s in our DNA.”
I’m enjoying an unusually warm January sunset in the company of Nathan Masters. The French Broad River runs quickly by our picnic table at Zillicoah Beer, located on the northern end of Asheville’s River Arts District. Just hanging out, we’re talking typical “guy stuff”—oh, you know, like the importance of fun for human development and fulfillment.
“I believe humans seek play, fun, and joy as a means to live fuller and more abundant lives,” says Nathan, pausing for emphasis. A sparkle lights his eyes and a child’s smile appears on his bearded adult face: “…and that is why I love slingshots.”
“Dennis the Menace!” I reply. “Who didn’t try to make his or her own slingshot after seeing Dennis?”
Exactly. After falling in love with them, the Asheville native made artisanal versions of daily newspaper cartoon legend (and neighbor to the eternally harried Mr. Wilson) Dennis Mitchell’s famed forked stick as a hobby, and in eight short years his company, SimpleShot, has achieved 110% average annual growth, employs four workers full-time, and has become the largest online retailer of all things slingshot in the world.
If you grew up in these Western North Carolina parts, you’d know them as, “Flips” or “Bean Flips.” As a kid, I’d made my own slingshots using coat hangars, electrical tape, and rubber bands, but never managed to achieve accuracy. Still, I had fun trying. At Boy Scout camp, I was drawn to archery, and can still remember the joyful moment when my arrows actually hit the target, as opposed to the field beyond. Why was the simple act of hitting a target so satisfying? Nathan Masters, the philosopher, has an answer.
“It’s in our DNA. It dates back to when, as a species, we were just learning to use simple hand-held tools. With spears and arrows, we could reach beyond our sphere of physical influence to intentionally affect change in our world. Flips are quite easy to learn to shoot with tremendous accuracy, and this ease of obtaining skill is what makes them so great!”
Sure, a slingshot could potentially injure someone. So could darts, a golf ball, or hedge clippers, but as defensive weapons, they’re all poor choices. Flips are perfect for simple target shooting. Humans feel good when we master something, be it pottery or painting, cooking and canning, or just knocking the cans off a fence.
Go With The Flow
Nathan’s played with guns, arrows, slingshots, even blowguns, but prefers his projectiles human powered, because shooting anything without gunpowder he says, requires the shooter to achieve what he calls a flow state.
Flow, also known colloquially as remaining present, or being in the zone, is a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, deep involvement, and joy in the process.
From his own experiences Nathan believes that the ability to remain present in any activity reaps benefits in the rest of his life, because it enhances focus, relaxation, and fun.
Like most college graduates, after securing a BA in philosophy, with a minor in entrepreneurship from Clemson University, Nathan treated himself to some new experiences. In 1999 he briefly owned Green Bird Farms, a business that grew organic heirloom vegetables, and also became a certified Taoist massage therapist. He moved to Colorado, opened a private massage practice, and guided backcountry ski trips and fishing expeditions.
Seven years later, Nathan and his wife, Ashley, moved back to Western North Carolina to start a family. He found work in commercial real estate for the stable income, but it wasn’t his dream job.
Nathan uncovered something while cleaning his father’s shop one day. It was a custom flip with modern flatband elastics and ball bearing ammo. He put a ball in the pouch, pulled, aimed at a pinecone, and hit it. Cool!
As a boy, Nathan had launched pebbles from inexpensive wrist-rockets, but it was almost impossible to hit anything with them. This was different. He took another shot—another direct hit!
With the aid of internet forums, Nathan made his own slingshot and worked at his shooting technique. The joy and relaxation he experienced was a welcome change from real estate; flips were another way to enter his beloved flow state.
An accomplished woodworker, Nathan gradually designed and built more complex slingshots and shared pictures of them in those web forums. At the slingshot competitions he subsequently attended, fellow competitors were shooting off-the-shelf models and were impressed with his custom creations: People wanted them.
His screen name for the forums was “Flippinout,” so Nathan started a website, Flippinoutslingshots.com, to display the beautiful creations. Built of laminated exotic woods, dyed in complementary colors, then sculpted into sensuous shapes, his Flips were—as forum commenters no doubt enthused—flippin’ gorgeous! This hobby was a blast for Nathan; he loved designing them, building them, and dreaming up unique names for them.
At the time, you could buy a rudimentary slingshot at WalMart for around ten dollars; there was nothing else available other than custom one-off flips. Meanwhile, prices of a FlippinOut slingshot started at $100, and many were sold for well north of $500… certainly beyond the reach Dennis the Menace’s allowance.
And orders began to pile up.
In 2011 Nathan realized he could support his family with slingshots alone, so he drew up a business plan and showed it to Ashley. “OK, you’ve got two years, make it work,” was her response.
Nathan believed that any brand, once established, could become a conduit to move a variety of products. Ignoring the distraction of other modalities, his company would concentrate solely on target shooting in its simplest, least regulated form: slingshots.
Dubbed SimpleShot, the company would showcase his FlippinOut brand as well as flips by the other slingshot artisans Nathan had come to know. To further enhance the shooting credibility he’d established online, Nathan wanted his website to exude global professionalism and quality; it had to make the company look big. He hired an expert in website design and marketing to create Simple-Shot.com.
To reach more customers, the new company needed to balance their custom slingshot lines with less expensive alternatives. Nathan created another brand, ClassicCatapults. Featuring basic designs cut from Baltic birch plywood, they would be considerably less expensive to manufacture and sell.
Once the site was up and running, SimpleShot rapidly gained ground as a solid brand representing solid product lines and providing their spare parts, but Nathan realized he needed even lower cost flips. He designed another slingshot, but this one was going to be molded from plastic, which can be produced in volume.
“I named it the Scout, and the shape mimics the Boy Scouts of America logo design; I really wanted to get them involved,” says Nathan. “I was hoping that slingshots could be incorporated into some Boy Scout instruction, and maybe competition… but they never took me up on it.”
The Scout was a quality product, though, with a price point that would be attractive to mainstream buyers. To test the waters, he attended the largest national shooting trade event, The Shot Show. Armed with the Scout prototype and collateral marketing materials touting that it was designed, built, and sold in the USA, it received rave reviews.
Late in 2012, SimpleShot went live with the $40 Scout product—and it was a game changer, with Nathan selling 200 of them within the first hour. Up to this point, the company was one man working out of his family home. Not anymore. With the Scout’s success, capacity had been reached.
The new company was accepted into A-B Tech Community College’s small business incubator, based in Candler, North Carolina, just outside Asheville, in 2013. It’s a highly effective program that provides a stepping-stone to fledgling small businesses. Like magic, he now had a commercial warehouse, enough space to incorporate his wood working shop, and somewhere to shoot product videos.
Another prominent name in the sport came from Hungary. Mark Seljan had been designing slingshot frames for himself and openly sharing them with folks wanting to make their own. Nathan approached the Hungarian and asked if he could purchase one of Seljan’s designs, modified for injection molding.
A deal was struck, and the Torque model was born. Nathan wanted the product to have a different look and feel, so they decided to incorporate a hexagonal surface treatment. The hexagons reduced the mass of the part, thus lowering cost and reducing the cross-sectional thickness, which would in turn alleviate potential heat distortion in the finished product. Torque oozed quality; it earned a Hungarian industrial design award; and just like Scout, people wanted one.
Nathan’s wife Ashley’s two-year deadline for the slingshot venture was still months away, and the company was on track to double its previous year’s sales numbers. SimpleShot—which, it’s worth noting, to date has been total self-financed from savings and short-term loans—was so busy that the first full-time employee was hired.
At this point, I should note that Nathan hadn’t stumbled into an unknown deep-niche market. As I listened to him tell me his story, it quickly became apparent that he and the SimpleShot team created this market.
From the beginning, he was thinking big; he wanted SimpleShot to appear larger than it was. Simple-Shot.com was corporate-slick in appearance but also retained the down-home-vibe that Nathan himself exudes and his fellow sling shooters value. This was conveyed via video.
They produced scores of instructional tutorial videos which were distributed on the website. Nathan’s on-screen persona is everyone’s favorite high school teacher: the relaxed, fun-but-serious guy, the one all the cool kids respect and want to hang with. He is direct and well-spoken, and he smiles a lot, even when he’s giving a lecture on the physics of slingshot accuracy or band adjustment. It’s hard not to want him to turn up in your own backyard, plinking soda cans.
Site visitors will find a range of subjects, from basic nomenclature, shooting safety, elastic band replacement, building a safe indoor shooting range (easier than you think), and all the way up to filming yourself shooting to achieve a higher marksmanship certification.
All online business brands are built using Search Engine Optimization, and targeted marketing services through a Google paid service called Google Ads. This program allows a paying company’s ads to appear in Google search result lists, as banners or ads in email apps, or as videos that pop up during YouTube searches.
It’s a great tool, but for companies like SimpleShot, there was a catch: The Google Ads program will not allow advertising for an eCommerce site where a weapon is sold. Slingshots are hardly weapons, but where there’s a will…
Nathan called his close friend, Boomer Sassmann, owner of the Asheville internet consulting agency, Big Boom Designs. He suggested that Nathan broaden the online presence by using separate websites for instruction and sales. Google Ads would bring customers to the informational sites where they can indulge in product information, but the purchase function would be routed to Simple-Shot.com via a button at the bottom each page.
Instructional blogs, instructional manuals, and videos would be showcased on www.SimpleShot.Academy. Additionally, if the public wanted to read reviews and compare all the products Nathan sold, they would go to www.SlingShotBuyersGuide.com.
When SimpleShot would be launching future products, Boomer also suggested that a new website be created around each new product. Thanks to this advice, slingshot searches filled the results page with multiple websites, and they all bore SimpleShot’s logo. The company looked gigantic.
It’s key for a developing brand to be involved in as many aspects of the market as possible. To this end (and Nathan has to have fun sometimes), SimpleShot bought sponsorship at established slingshot events as well as promoted its own competitions. Nathan also continued to compete and win. In the slingshot world, he has become a bit of a celebrity.
In the company office, located on Riverside Drive in Woodfin (slightly north of Asheville), Nathan’s impressive collection of competition trophies pales alongside his giant slingshot collection. One wall showcases flips he has crafted, from the first forked stick all the way up to carbon fiber/brass masterpieces, all displayed on a custom wooden rack.
The opposing wall could be the Smithsonian Slingshot Channel: It’s Nathan’s private collection, an homage to slingshot makers past and present; many are gifts from the artists themselves. There are blacksmith-forged steel flips, an intricately formed and polished root burl complete with embedded rock, even one built from a bicycle chain. There are almost too many to look at, but each one I touch contains a story told with reverence by Nathan; flips and those who make them are very close to his heart.
In SimpleShot’s warehouse, an old fashioned red and silver gumball machine filled with shimmering ball bearings beckons from a desktop. A shooting area, complete with targets and safety netting rests along the far wall, and every horizontal surface holds at least one slingshot. The place exudes fun, and I suddenly want to grab some bearings and start shooting, but I don’t. I might hit Nathan and Aaron, his warehouse manager, who are meticulously inspecting a new shipment of molded parts.
Bins overflowing with product parts intrigue me, and with each question, Nathan astounds me with the depth of his knowledge. I pass boxes bursting with yellow, black, and red flat latex elastic bands, and Nathan points out the elastic properties necessary for competition versus everyday longevity and safety.
He hands me a roll of red latex and instructs me about the highly regarded red rubber “the old timers” used to use. “I’ve located a high quality modern source,” he whispers.
It occurs to me that SimpleShot is the Nordstrom’s of the sling shooting: a curated collection of products, all sourced with great care.
By 2016 it was time for a new product, something completely different. Nathan turned his marketing mind to SimpleShot’s customer demographic.
“They’re late Baby Boomers/GenXers, age 35-55 years,” he says. “When you look at the toys available during their childhood, you see Erector Sets, Transformers, bendable action figures—toys that are modular, can be built upon, accessorized.”
Nathan recalled that the sport of archery requires a similar mindset and body mechanics to slingshot shooting. What if he could manufacture a slingshot that with the right accessories, could launch arrows?
Nathan once again contacted the Hungarian design wunderkind Seljan, and with his assistance, created the Transformer of slingshots. At its most basic, it’s a technical looking flip, but the frame can be separated from the handle, replaced with one that’s ready for full sized arrows via multiple tubular elastics. A wrist stabilizer can be attached, even a flashlight. It was named the Hammer, which went to market in 2016. Not surprisingly, the product garnered more industrial design awards.
The Hammer was also featured on the CNBC TV show, Adventure Capitalists, a Shark Tank meets (clueless-but-wealthy) investor athletes scenario. The segment aired on Halloween 2017, and while SimpleShot didn’t secure any additional capital, it did put the company and its products in mainstream media.
Twenty-seventeen was a year of opportunities for SimpleShot. They were accepted into Goldman-Sachs “10,000 Small Businesses” program. It’s the financial firm’s pay it forward program to help entrepreneurs create jobs and economic opportunity by providing greater access to education, capital, and business support services. To date, more than 7,300 business owners have graduated from the program across all 50 states in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C..
Nathan regularly flew to Boston to attend sessions at Babson College and work alongside his classmates, fellow entrepreneurs from all corners of the small business strata. The experience has been described by program participants as getting an MBA through a fire hose, estimating the value at $50,000.
What is it about his job that gets Nathan out of bed in the morning?
“Providing for my family of course,” he says, “and I enjoy my customers. They’re having fun with the products we make—what’s not to like?”
As any entrepreneur can attest, as enjoyable as use of their product can be, things are seldom all fun and games in the manufacturing world. SimpleShot has had their share of supplier headaches, and the complex molds that churn out the company’s five core products can cost upwards of seventy thousand dollars apiece… and molds wear out.
Additionally, there are two things that keep him up at night. Being a successful business has made SimpleShot a target. Slingshots are big in China, and the company has done good business there. Which brings us to…
A year ago, the company’s Internet Protocol Address was brazenly stolen by a business associate: his own Chinese distributor. This was not just product piracy of names and logo, but SimpleShot’s entire way to make a living; it was stealing in plain sight.
Nathan immediately confronted the offender on the phone, but the gentleman hid behind cultural differences, attitudes, and business practices—Nathan got nowhere. Acting quickly, as his entire company was at stake, he sought legal advice. It cost some hefty legal fees, but he quickly got it all back. Still, SimpleShot isn’t out of the woods yet.
Bootlegged copies of all SimpleShot products are now being sold by China-based companies on Amazon at prices well below Nathan’s actual per-item costs, and all with free two-day delivery thanks in part to subsidized postage rates that Chinese businesses receive from the United States (and which domestic companies here in the States claim tilt the playing field in favor of the Chinese). They are exact copies of everything, including the company’s patented Ocularis band mounting system, right down to the word “patented” molded on the outside. Looking for someone to help his tiny business stand up to this assault, Nathan approached Amazon, but the cry fell on deaf ears. Amazon coldly stated that their allegiance is to the customer only, not the supplier—another factoid that bedevils American small businesses attempting to compete with product knockoff specialists.
Born in the USA?
Two weeks ago, Nathan ambled into High Five Coffee and his smile was uncharacteristically absent. He placed two pocket-sized flips in my lap: One was beautifully cast and machined metal, requiring a great deal of hand labor. The other was a flawlessly molded composite model.
“These just arrived from China via Amazon, I placed the order two days ago. They also came with a ton of freebies—fifty-two extra band sets! The total price was below what I could make and sell just one for, using USA labor and materials.”
Neither one was a copy of a SimpleShot product, but their existence speaks to the foreign market pressure many companies struggle with. When Nathan launched the company, he was adamant that all his products be manufactured, assembled, and sold from the United States, and advertised as such. Now that he’s singlehandedly expanded the slingshot market and his company, in turn, appears large, he’s open to attack from competitors—and criticism from customers. Yes, customers.
After years of giving away slingshot tutorial videos, sponsoring slingshot events, selling quality products at fair prices, and spending thousands of hours on the phone answering customer questions, his customers are now asking why a slingshot that looks just like his Scout product is selling on Amazon for half the amount? Out of ignorance, they ask Nathan if he has been overcharging for his products.
“I’m having to re-think my approach,” says a dejected Nathan. “I thought ‘made in USA’ meant something to people, but obviously not, because, they’ll go to Walmart or Amazon to purchase cheap goods made in China.”
For the Pied Piper of fun, this is a gut-punch. Living in the United States is more expensive than most places, so manufacturing here costs more. Other countries with a lower standard of living are known for unscrupulous business practices, which are further enabled by the retail great white shark: Amazon.
Which brings us, in turn, to…
The Ugly (and Paying the Freight)
I believe that if SimpleShot had never come along, and all slingshot sales were via Amazon, the market would not be what it is now. Ever try to get detailed technical information there? Amazon is number two behind Walmart in the global race to the bottom; they’re all about price and delivery, not the shopping experience.
I knew nothing about slingshots prior to researching this article. But I learned so much from a facility tour and SimpleShot’s website that I wanted to own and learn to shoot one, because Nathan’s love of the activity comes through every tutorial, photograph, and video. After an hour online, I felt like he was my friend.
Experienced shooters know their elastic bands wear out quickly, so they keep plenty on hand. First time flip buyers can be unprepared for breaking bands, so they seek satisfaction. When they contact SimpleShot, an employee explains the problem and usually puts a free band set in the mail to a happily educated customer.
For products sold on Amazon, though, Nathan’s team is cut out of the customer experience. If a customer contacts the internet giant about a band break, no one educates them. Instead, Amazon just ships them another complete flip, and when that band breaks, Amazon will ship yet another, but who pays? SimpleShot does, as well as associated shipping fees.
How about those reviews? Many times, regardless of how an issue is resolved, buyers will write a bad Amazon review—which SimpleShot is not allowed to answer. Negative buyer reviews are a death sentence on Amazon; companies that have them can be pushed down in the site’s search results or, worse, dropped. If you are a business owner reading this, are you sweating yet?
Rightly so, Amazon has strict rules against sellers placing fraudulent positive reviews on their page. If suspected of this, a seller’s assets are immediately frozen, including stock and money Amazon owes them.
In his article “Prime and Punishment, Dirty Dealing in the $175B Amazon Marketplace,” published last December at TheVerge.com, journalist Josh Dzieza portrayed the Wild West landscape of Amazon, where the internet giant stands as accuser, judge, jury, (and in some cases) executioner of sellers. The piece leads off with the story of a small business that had been selling product reliably via the platform.
Suddenly one morning, there were sixteen five-star reviews on this seller’s Amazon page. All were poorly written, and seemed to be speaking of a different product. The owner complained to Amazon, which took the reviews down, but later mailed the seller an official suspension letter, accusing the small company of review fraud. As it turns out, a sleazy foreign competitor had placed the bogus reviews intentionally, knowing that Amazon would freeze the target company and hobble them.
The article explained, ominously: “Amazon already has something like a judicial system—one that is secretive, volatile, and often terrifying.”
Meanwhile, an April 2018 article in Forbes magazine, “Pros and Cons of Selling on Amazon,” by Pamela Danziger, bore further witness to the Amazon vortex, admonishing small businesses that selling products there is a gamble, and Amazon holds all the cards.
The Sun Also Rises
This small Asheville company has weathered its fair share of storms by adapting to challenges, and SimpleShot isn’t about to stop fighting foreign pressure. Nathan Masters is quick to point out that he doesn’t work alone; he has always been surrounded by a network of talented people, and very good opportunities are glowing along the company horizon.
At the 2019 Shot Show, Nathan and Ashley had some productive meetings, which could yield some high-volume wholesale opportunities, further increasing the company’s reach. Additionally, the modular Hammer product is doing well, and in the coming year, SimpleShot’s on track to release a new modular version of the popular Scout.
SimpleShot.academy, incidentally, reminds visitors to check local laws before strolling around their hometown with a flip in a back pocket. This begged a question. If he were to reappear in modern times with his ubiquitous slingshot dangling from his overalls’ back pocket, would Dennis the Menace need a license to carry?
At that, Nathan’s grin returns.
“No, his permanent state of boyhood, combined with his devilish yet lovable nature, would remove any requirements for him to be permitted to carry a flip… Though Mr. Wilson disagrees.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…