While in the Air Force, Tom Burden struggled with his tools constantly falling off the slanted surfaces of the fighter jets he worked on. From this problem, he came up with the idea for Grypmat. Grypmat is a revolutionary, flexible, non-stick tool mat that keeps all of your tools in one place. In his interview, Tom Burden shares a lot of beneficial information, including his own personal "key" to success and the three characteristics he believes every entrepreneur should have.
Please note that most of Tom Burden's responses are paraphrased because this interview was conducted over the phone.
Can you talk about how your experience with the Air Force has helped you on your journey?
Really recently, what I have noticed has been helpful with my personal growth is getting feedback. From my experience in the military, I am accustomed to being told what to do. If someone is like, “Hey, you’re really bad at this one thing.” I just say, “okay, let’s fix it” - there’s no “don’t tell me what to do” mentality. I have also heard I am really receptive to information and that I do whatever it takes to fix problems.
How did you rationalize the risk of entrepreneurship?
The best way to rationalize the risk of entrepreneurship is don’t rationalize the risk of entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur, your job is really to take the risk out. Think if you started a shoe company vs. Elon Musk starting a shoe company. Out of the two of you, Elon Musk is more likely to succeed because he can take the risk out of the situation - he can make it a system he will win no matter what. If you have the mindset of "I am going to start a shoe company and give it one month, and if it is not successful in one month, then I will quit", you will have a super risky shoe business, and it probably won’t work. I have a friend named Hannah Davis; she has a company called Bangs Shoes, she has the mindset of “I will do whatever it takes to make this happen”. She plows through resistance every single time. With Hannah on your team, there’s virtually no risk. When you are trying to assess the risk, you need to have the mindset that you can take out the risk. You will hear all these statistics that 1 out of 10 companies will last the first year and 1 out of 10 of those companies will actually make a dollar, but how can someone like Elon Musk do company after company and make them all successful? The next time he starts a company it’s not going to be 1 out of 10, it’s going to be almost guaranteed to be a huge success because he takes the risk out.
What strategies did you use at tradeshows when you were first starting out? What strategies do you use when you go to tradeshows in the present?
The strategies I was using were very scrappy and very new. I didn’t know traditional trade show strategies, so I did what I could do myself. Looking at today, I can guarantee that Grypmat going to a trade show will be more impactful per dollar than anyone else at any other trade show because I am doing it very scrappy, and I am finding alternative ways to market. I have personally talked to 10,000 - 100,000 users of my product. I hear them and understand them differently from a CEO sending someone else to go to the tradeshows. This gives me a lot of confidence that I have put in the leg work when it comes to knockoffs. I know the knockoffs are unwilling to talk to 100,000 users, so they won’t foresee the future as I have. They haven’t had 3,000 customers say, “Hey, have you thought of this idea” or “hey, I would buy it if…”. They haven’t heard any of this, so they don’t know how to navigate changes to their products.
Can you walk me through your day to day in the present?
On a typical day I wake up around 4 AM, and then I will go to the gym. Since I am working with people on the East Coast, I will start my work day around 7:30 in the morning and do a video chat with everyone. Throughout the day we share our calendars hour by hour so everyone knows what each person is doing.
We are switching to a five day work week to a four day work week. We are working Monday and Tuesday, taking Wednesday off, then working Thursday and Friday. The idea is that we relax on the weekend, are very focused and work very hard for two days, take another break, and then are back to being very focused and working very hard. Japan saw a 30% boost in productivity with this method, and this is something that we want to explore. Another thing is that when our employees have doctors or a haircut, they can schedule it for Wednesday. Wednesday is a personal day - the other four days are focused on working. I want to see how the team works and how we can become more focused and more effective on those four working days.
What do you think has been the “key” to your success?
As a young person in high school or college, the "key" is not being in debt. What I see a lot now with entrepreneurs is that they are constantly being pressured into going to college. They then get into all of this college debt, and struggle to start their business because of the weight on their shoulders from their debt. The way I dodged debt was by joining the Air National Guard. I went to train for six months, and after that, I was able to go to school full time and go to the base one weekend a month. If you can, as a young entrepreneur, avoid debt, this will serve you incredibly well.
Someone asked me three words to describe entrepreneurship; my answer was “persistence”, “being frugal”, and “vulnerability”.
Persistence is having the mindset that I am going to do whatever it takes to make this happen. When I was at those tradeshows, I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I would do whatever it took to perfect it. I was doing those trade shows cheaper than anyone, I still can do it cheaper than anyone, and I know I can get more exposure than most people. The only way to beat that is dumping more money into it as a larger company.
With being frugal, it really is being frugal, not being cheap or scarce. Being frugal as in “how can I stretch my dollar to get it as far as it can go?” When you are in the frugal mindset, it is really boosting your innovation by saying, “how can I” vs. “I can’t”. A lot of people say, “I don’t have any money, I can’t do that” vs. “how can I”. Typically as a young entrepreneur, you don’t have much money or resources. If you can’t get into a frugal mindset, you will not be successful. When you are in a frugal mindset, you don’t need money: you need whatever is on the other side of money. For me, I needed a prototype, but I didn’t have the funds required to get one. To get a prototype made by an engineering firm was $15,000. Again, I needed the prototype, what was in between that was money - I needed what was on the other side of money, which was the prototype. I made a prototype in my basement for $60, which is how I got over this money hurdle. I did have a table saw, some boards, some glue, some paint, and know-how. What I didn’t have was $15,000. My advice is explore what you have and try figuring out how to leverage that to get what you need.
Part 2 is going to be live next Tuesday!