A much better user experience: Brian Davis of Fix It Sticks talks bicycle multitools, business and bird feeders

Brian Davis behind the arbor press he uses to assemble Fix It Sticks. Taken at the Wheel & Sprocket Bike Expo Sale in West Allis, Wisconsin. All photos this article courtesy of Fix It Sticks and Brian Davis.

Brian Davis behind the arbor press he uses to assemble Fix It Sticks. Photo taken at the Wheel & Sprocket Bike Expo Sale in West Allis, Wisconsin. All photos in this article courtesy of Fix It Sticks and Brian Davis.

As a former bicycle mechanic, I love tools. The reason is the same reason people haunt hardware stores: the possibility of perfection. I can install the perfect sink as soon as I get a basin wrench. I can build the perfect rain barrel support with that ratchet. That tube bender is the only thing standing between me and the perfect 10-foot wind-powered chicken sculpture.

Without tools, perfection is impossible. Even with tools, perfection is never a given. So I’m always looking for the next tool.

In June, I reviewed the next tool: Fix It Sticks, made by Brian Davis in Appleton, Wisconsin. I’ve been carrying it on my Dahon Bullhead to take care of the socket head screws that allow me to fold and unfold the bike (because quick-release levers are for people who don’t use tools, including politicians, prisoners, psychologists and that handful of sand-castle sculptors who refuse to take the easy way out).

I was also interested in the business behind the tool. Winning a tool in a haiku contest is one thing, but creating and selling a tool using the Kickstarter funding platform? How hard should perfection be to achieve?

So I emailed a few questions to Mr. D.

Your Facebook entry for January 30, 2013, was pretty simple: “Yesterday I quit my day job!” Now it’s getting toward the end of July. How’s life as a self-supporting entrepreneur going?

Davis markets Fix It Sticks as a lightweight multitool that doubles as a strong, useful shop tool.

Davis markets Fix It Sticks as a lightweight multitool that doubles as a strong, useful shop tool.

Well I am glad I quit, but the hit financially is tough on a young family (working wife and two kids, 4 and 1.) Quitting was something that had to happen to really focus on getting the Kickstarter rewards built well and shipped. I am so happy to have delivered them on time, and I am hoping that performance will pay dividends on the next projects.

I was hoping the Fix It Sticks momentum would continue at the Kickstarter pace, but it has tailed off a bit, which is normal and not totally unexpected. The initial run-up was huge, and it would be pretty tough to keep that going. I think a lot of people in the bike industry still don’t know about the tool, so it will take some time.

Working for myself is not work. It is stressful and difficult and feels like driving with a blindfold on, but I don’t think of it as work. I love the challenge.

I was impressed by your Kickstarter page. You scored $45,000, well over your $18,000 goal.

When assembled, Fix It Sticks is a T-handled tool. The steel bits are permanently mounted in the aluminum shafts. There are no moving parts.

When assembled, Fix It Sticks is a T-handled tool. The steel bits are permanently mounted in the aluminum shafts. There are no moving parts.

Blasting past the goal was great and was the result of a lot of research on Kickstarter. That was not luck by any means. Having a cool product is paramount, but the behind the scenes to get people to care and hear about it is very planned. I feel I executed that plan very well and the results came from that work. I have actually given a few speeches now on how to do a successful Kickstarter. I learned a lot from the whole campaign and look forward to new projects coming very soon.

What was it about Fix It Sticks that attracted the support of your backers? For example, I was intrigued simply because Fix It Sticks was far from another me-too multitool.

I think you nailed it right there. It is totally different, and once you see it the concept makes a ton of sense. I think people are attracted to new ways of doing things.

The truly exciting part for me is hearing from people who have used them a bit and how excited they are about the performance. Customer reaction is very good. Not a single person that I know who has actually touched a pair has complained about their usage. We had a few break, and we replaced those units ASAP with no charge, but even those people were favorable to the concept despite having a failure. The positive responses keep me going. They are a blast to read. Folks: Please keep them coming!

A good example is a bike shop owner that has been wrenching for 30 years. He got rid of his 3-way tool and only carries Fix It Sticks now. Wow! That is amazing to me.

Any price resistance? What’s your pitch to a new rider?

Two kids at home means at least one is checking in on dad from time to time. Here, Issac helps out with a quality control check.

Two kids at home means at least one is checking in on dad from time to time. Here, Issac helps out with a quality control check.

Keeping the price down is very challenging. I think over time as more people pick up the sticks the value will present itself and the sales will take care of themselves.

Right now as a newish cyclist you would certainly buy a multitool of some sort and use that as your entire tool kit for a year or so. Eventually you would get frustrated with its moving parts and terrible leverage and buy some home tools.

That’s the real value of Fix It Sticks. Having shop tools on the road is a huge user benefit–and an economic one. In the end, the $29.99 you spend is about the same as one junky multitool and one 3-way wrench–except you can carry Fix It Sticks on the road or use them in the garage.

It’s a much better user experience than any other multitool. Fix It Sticks is lighter, more compact and has no moving parts to fail.

The market for Fix It Sticks is a bit wider than people who ride bicycles. Your website currently lists sticks designed with snowboarders and skiers in mind. Who else is digging Fix It Sticks?

The initial audience for Fix It Sticks was people who ride bicycles, but other groups, from snowboarders to firefighters, have also discovered the tool.

The initial audience for Fix It Sticks was people who ride bicycles, but other groups, from snowboarders to firefighters, have also discovered the tool.

Snowboarders seem very keen on the sticks, so I think I will really throw some focus at them. The tool works very well for them, and the leverage and downward pressure that can be applied with the T shape is critical for them. Also, the other snow tools out there seem to be very bulky and not something I would board with–although I have not snowboarded in years. That seems like a good reason to go snowboarding again: product research. Hmm…

Other areas of interest have come from ski folks that do backcountry or touring trips, paintballers, remote control car folks, the 4X4 market, skateboarders/longboarders, firefighters (not sure why, really) and archery folks. I am thinking about doing models for all those sports and perhaps (not sure) changing colors of the sticks based on sport.

I’ve seen some interesting ideas on your Facebook page: tools sliding into the end of a handlebar, a stick with a 3/8-inch drive and a pair of sticks evidently joined together by a tire lever. How soon before we see these or other projects?

brian talksImagine how many ideas I have that don’t get posted. All those concepts are on the drawing board, but resources are limited by time and money.

The newest Fix It Sticks iterations are coming out in September most likely and are pretty much what everyone expects they will be, but I don’t wanna discuss them until I know they will be released.

It’s safe to say you have a competitive streak given that you’re a Cat 3 racer. But drive and ability aren’t always the same thing, and bringing a new product to market takes a knowledge of marketing, logistics, design, manufacturing and merchandising. What kind of background did you bring to the venture?

I am competitive for sure, but I don’t equate athletic competition with business competition. That concept doesn’t apply to me as much. I am pretty cut-throat on the bike, but in business I tend to go softly and try to attract flies with honey, so to speak.

I am not excellent at any one thing but fair at a number of things. Logistically, I formerly worked for FedEx as a salesperson, so that was a help in handling the shipping, and the complexity of dealing with the various vendors/business relationships, and etc, etc, etc. I also run two other businesses on the side, so I have some experience at dealing with business issues.

Typically, when I want to accomplish a goal I break it down into tiny chunks of work and then complete the “next smallest thing I can do right now to accomplish my goal.” That mantra has stayed with me for a long time and serves me well.

Are you doing it all yourself?

The logo, designed by a friend, is also a product demonstration.

The logo, designed by a friend, is also a product demonstration.

I had a friend of mine create the logo. He did a great job. The Kickstarter page was written by me and edited by my wife. The video I hired out to a pro and was very happy with.

The other guy in the video, Mark, was responsible for most of the entertainment value, and he is a great friend of mine who is also a cycling entrepreneur, bootstrapping groupride.com as a source for all group ride info. Great idea. We share a lot of ideas back and forth. He actually named the company while standing in my garage drinking a beer after a ride.

I rely on friends and their talents a great deal to help me out. Photos are done by the logo guy, who really is a friend as well. The packaging was done by the company a friend of mine works for. The laser etching was done by a friend, and the pouches were completed by kids of friends.

“If I had to sum it all up, this is tougher than I would have thought, but I love it. I never feel like I’m working when dealing with the Fix It Sticks business.”

I have one part-time employee working with me, and his help was invaluable during the Kickstarter aftermath. He is very good at details and I am not, so we work well together. Other than his help, yes, I run the company.

I don’t machine the parts (no one would want that), and I don’t anodize, but I do install a fair amount of the sticks by hand and package and ship and interview and chase media and set up trade shows and work through patents and deal with vendors, invoicing, new product developments, product testing, R&D and every once in a while, ride my damn bike!

Anything you’ve learned along the way that you wish you’d known on Day One?

made in usDealing with vendors is extremely challenging. I totally underestimated the difficulty in that process and was very underprepared in terms of protecting myself and planning for how vendors deliver. I have spent a lot of effort cleaning up from those relationships and now have a new supplier for Fix It Sticks that will be doing its first production run this week.

I am excited about all my vendors now and looking forward to meeting demand with their help. I still have everything except the bits made in my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin.

The Made in the USA badge is tough to keep going, but I would like to stick to it as long as possible. The key for me at the moment is the ability to get things fast and change rapidly. You just can’t get that overseas, so we are keeping it extremely local.

I know you’ve asked your supporters to encourage their local bike shops to carry Fix It Sticks. But retailers often want to limit the number of suppliers they deal with, which can make access difficult.

bulk sticksI think this time of year is especially tough for dealers to take on new vendors. Also, the industry is very geared toward distributors these days. So, I get that. To keep growing I have been very focused on trying to work with distributors lately and am happy to report we are in the process of completing the paperwork to sign up with the distribution arm of a very large Wisconsin-based cycling company.

Any bike shops really doing an outstanding job of moving Fix It Sticks? And how important are dealers to you when you can sell direct over the Internet?

Only a few shops have been selling Fix It Sticks for very long, and it’s moving, but I think when people see other riders using it–and eventually, shop mechanics using it–Fix It Sticks will be more easily adopted. Some of our new versions are being prototyped next week, and I think those will especially appeal to the shop-mechanic crowd and heavy-duty home users, as well.

I love bike shops, I love the industry, and I want to grow within that industry. Selling direct never seemed to be a great idea for my product. By the time I’d be done spending on advertising it would be a wash and a much less sustainable business in the long run.

What tools do you carry when you’re on the road?

I carry exactly the following items for most rides:

· One can of Vittoria Pit Stop in case I flat one of my tubulars
· Four Fix It Sticks: 4mm/5mm, 6mm/Slotted (5mm wide), 2mm/2.5mm and 3mm/phillips #2
· One iPhone

I carry everything in my jersey and do not use a seat bag. I don’t need all those bits, but I can’t not have all those tools and be the Fix It Sticks guy.

On a side note, some people early on thought the design would be dangerous to carry in a jersey. I am proud to say after extensive research (falling two times in the past month) the sticks were not an issue, and I fell on them both times.

Where do you want to be in five years? Working out of an industrial building? Part of a larger organization? Mayor of Appleton?

"...then you know all of a sudden a bird feeder idea hits me."

“…then you know all of a sudden a bird feeder idea hits me.”

I would love for Fix It Sticks and my other ideas to pay the bills so I can ride more and come up with ideas. I have tons of ideas but not tons of money, so I have a lot of things on the shelf. I don’t just have tool ideas, but clothing things, bike accessories, bike interfaces, and then you know all of a sudden a bird feeder idea hits me–weird stuff happens inside this head sometimes.

I like working at home, so getting an office or building is an option only if my wife gets sick of not having a garage. Hoping to avoid that for a long time.

I just want to be the “Brian.” Making things others have made already with no differentiation other than color is of no interest to me. I think anyone can visit Alibaba.com and order up some product, but creating products is much more fun than that. I just hope other people see that value and continue to support my ideas.

Fix It Sticks are sold as the compact, lightweight, easy-to-carry tool with no moving parts: “Everything you need and nothing you don’t.” Read all about this Wisconsin-made multitool on the Fix It Sticks website. And watch the video developed for the successfully-completed Kickstarter project. There’s also a video on how to make a Fix It Sticks case out of an old inner tube in seconds.

What do you think? Better with or without the Fu Manchu?

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About 16incheswestofpeoria

Former bicycle mechanic, current peruser of books, feeder of birds.
This entry was posted in Business, Equipment and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A much better user experience: Brian Davis of Fix It Sticks talks bicycle multitools, business and bird feeders

  1. lardavis says:

    Bad link to the Fix It Sticks website :o(
    But fabulous interview – nailed it!

  2. This was a fantastic article! I’m a little skeptical about using a “multi-tool” as a “shop tool” but the build on these things seems VERY stout! When you connect the two into a “T” shape, do they snap together or otherwise stay securely connected?

    • Brian just announced a soft launch of an all-steel version for heavy-duty torque situations. The old strength/weight trade off. I’ve used all four bits on my set for handlebars, dérailleurs, SPD cleats, and it seems plenty strong in aluminum. You did hit on the one thing I had to get used to: the sticks are a simple slip fit. If you don’t keep that in mind, you will be playing pick up sticks. But I think it’s a reasonable exchange for the utter simplicity of the design.

  3. Pingback: Polcer publishes, Citi Bike billed, Indy plans | 16incheswestofpeoria

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