Custom designed organizers for your tools
If you have the entrepreneur blood running through your veins, chances are at some point you have considered creating and manufacturing your own product to sell. By creating the product and producing it yourself, you have the opportunity to control quality, cost, pricing, and margins more than if you are acting as a “middle-man” selling the product of other companies.
With OfficeSupply.com, we were fully integrated through Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) with the two biggest office supply wholesalers in the industry: SP Richards in Smyrna Georgia and United Stationers in Chicago. Those wholesalers warehouse office supply products from hundreds of manufacturers and then serve as the fulfillment partner to thousands of independent office supply dealers. Both are world-class companies that offered next day shipping for our orders at OfficeSupply.com. However, it was at a cost of course. Not only were they between us and the manufacturer—thereby adding their piece to the product cost, but after they threw in picking, packing, and freight, our margins got thinner and thinner.
As a result, I found my mind wondering off at times pondering a world where I made my own product and shipped it myself . . . controlling every aspect of cost, storage, pricing, shipping, a bit daunting, but all issues I could work through. But what stopped the train? Knowing how to design and manufacture my own product.
With these thoughts in mind, I can say that Pete Mayer of FoamFit Tools out of Wisconsin, a mechanical engineer, does what many of us wish we could do in the land of “entrepreneurship.” Mayer has the background to design his own product, which he now manufactures and ships: custom designed organizers for your tools using the Computer Aided Design (CAD) System.
Pete, let’s start by getting a better idea of your background in mechanical engineering so we can have a clearer understanding of how you were able to make use of a CAD system to design and market your FoamFit Tools product.
I’ve been fortunate to have a good deal of hands-on experience in my career. Engineering is obviously a very academic field with a focus on calculating how a thing will work, with CAD being one of the tools engineers rely on to communicate their work to others. The challenge for an engineer is that they don’t get much time to get their hands dirty and miss the experience of actually building product.
One of my early experiences was working on a collegiate design team, designing and building a small race car for the Formula SAE competition. We actually built the car we designed and raced it against other schools. Keeping a race team composed of engineering students organized was quite a challenge.
That experience, working long hours on cars with time in short supply, definitely helped me understand the need for an organized set of tools. It also got me interested in manufacturing, and I’ve been fascinated by how things are made ever since.
Which came first…
Did you realize your background and experience with CAD systems could be applied to designing and offering custom product, and then land on the tool organizer as a good product to put it to use on?
Did you see a need for a better, and more cost effective, tool organizing system and then realize you could use your CAD experience to create your own?
I knew that keeping tools organized was a real challenge, but the idea for FoamFit Tools didn’t occur until I had a bunch of experience with CAD software. Anyone who draws in CAD can tell you that it’s extremely complicated. It takes a lot of clicks and a lot of time to get things done. For me this was always a source of frustration, and by trying to speed up and simplify the drawing process in CAD we learned many of the tricks that make it possible to design custom foam tool organizers quickly and economically.
Are you targeting individuals like Brian Null sitting in the middle of Missouri needing an organizer for his tool set? Or do you focus more on marketing your tool organizers to businesses and other organizations?
Our goal was to appeal to individuals by offering a custom product without a minimum order requirement. We also put all our prices right on the web site, so people could see that this wasn’t a solution just for the big guys.
In reality, our customers are a mix of individuals and businesses. We’ve expanded our product offering a bit since our initial launch, and we’ve found that our custom-designed organizers are a big hit with small businesses. We’ve added ready-made organizers which are a simple solution that appeals to individuals.
Marketing has been an area where we’ve learned a lot through trial and error. We’re confident in our products, but there’s plenty we don’t know about the best way to reach our customers.
How long did it take you from initial idea, to having a tangible product and making your first sale? Can you take us through a brief outline of the steps it took to go from idea to launch?
We toyed around with the idea for a year or two before really jumping in. From that point, it was about 12 months to develop the manufacturing process and get our first sale.
There were several interesting tasks along the way. Some of them were technically challenging while others were interesting just because I had so much to learn. Looking back, it seems like the technical tasks went the quickest. We modified our computer-controlled cutting equipment and ran trials with different materials and cutting tooling. Once we had the manufacturing process somewhat sorted out, we wrote a bunch of software to streamline the process of creating a drawing and generating g-code, the computer instructions that control the CNC cutting equipment. Then it was building a web site, getting setup to take orders, and learning all about shipping.
What marketing strategies are you employing to get the word out about FoamFit Tools? Are you currently doing any Internet marketing or primarily “feet on the street” marketing and word of mouth?
We do a small amount of internet marketing, but it’s been a challenge to reach potential customers because our product is so unique. There isn’t a great deal of search volume for custom foam tool organizers.
The strategy that really got things started for us was selling foam organizers on eBay. Many customers who bought pre-made organizers from us on eBay came back and had us design custom foam organizers for additional drawers in their toolboxes.
You’re an entrepreneur from Wisconsin… so I feel compelled to ask: Who had a better year, Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre?
An entrepreneur has to be focused on today with one eye toward the future. That being said, Aaron Rodgers is doing a great job, and he’s going to do fantastic things for us next season.