Lever Gear, The Maker of the Toolcard Pro, Moves to Greenville and Launches Second Kickstarter Campaign.
Recently, Doug Kim, the Chairman of SCMFG’s advisory board and intellectual property attorney at Douglas Kim Law Firm, sat down with Mike Scully, the Founder and CEO of Lever Gear in Greenville, to discuss his company’s recent move to South Carolina. Here is what we learned.
1.(Doug Kim) Tell us about your background and where you were prior to Greenville, SC.
(Mike Scully) My background is in mechanical engineering and industrial design. When I completed my degrees from NC State in 2000, I moved to San Francisco and worked as a product design consultant for 15 years. I started Lever Gear in January 2015 and my son was born that same month. My wife, April, and I decided to move back east to be closer to family and settle down, so we moved to Asheville and ran the business out of our garage.
- We understand that you have been designing cool products for years, can you tell us about some of you past projects (solar inverters, kayaks, etc.)?
As a consultant, I got to work for some great companies and with some very talented development teams. I liked that each project was different, with its own challenges and opportunities. The interesting part was learning how different companies operated and how decisions were made.
In high tech, there’s a real balancing act between getting the design right and keeping up with the fast-paced technology timeline. For example, on the solar inverter project you mentioned, we were chasing a moving target. The startup company I was working for had a great technology, but it was constantly evolving, and our understanding of the market kept improving so there was a temptation to keep improving the product. With the market moving so fast at some point you have to say, “Ok, this is our product and we’re launching.”
That reminds me of another project I worked on early in my career. It was a very high end, cutting edge server for videos and music that would be found on private jets or personal theatres. Then five years later it’s completely obsolete because you could get any movie from the cable company or even stream them from your phone.
I think that experience in high tech is what made me realize I wanted to be somewhat lower tech, so I could take the time to get the design right without the pressure to launch.
- What is Lever Gear and why did you decide to start this business?
Lever Gear designs innovative tools and accessories that make it easy for people to be prepared to handle everyday tasks. You’ll often hear entrepreneurs say the you should start a business to solve a problem, especially one that you experience.
I wholeheartedly agree with that, but that’s not what drove me to start the business. To some extent, I designed the Toolcard to solve a problem I had in my life, namely that I wanted to be able to have tools with me, but I didn’t want to carry an extra multitool in my pockets. But really, I always just knew that I wanted to start my own business designing cool products and the Toolcard was just the right idea to start with.
I guess if I really think about it, the problem I was solving when I started the business was the same reason I went into product design in the first place; I find poorly designed products frustrating and infuriating so I wanted to create something better.
- What are the biggest issues you face running your business?
The biggest challenges for me are cash flow, managing my time, and legal issues. I’m trying to build the business organically without selling equity. I was surprised how time consuming and frustrating raising money can be. It’s a catch 22 for new businesses who need money to start and grow their business but don’t have a track record to get funding. Cash flow has constrained our growth path and it can get dicey at times when you’re scrambling to make ends meet.
When I began the business, I was basically running everything with my wife doing our marketing. I knew if we wanted to scale we’d need to hire people but it’s a lot of time taken out of your already packed schedule to find the right people, train them, and then manage them. Some stuff just must get dropped or pushed off in the future. Now that our team has been in place for a while I’m able to focus more on building the business but I’m still learning how to delegate without micromanaging or providing too little direction.
The last issue is that I’m basically allergic to reading and filling out government forms and doing taxes. I kind of botched moving the company from California to North Carolina so that was a setback that our accountants had to clean up. Thankfully, our bookkeeper has years of experience in business and takes the lead on that stuff.
- Tell us about your team.
We’re thrilled with the team we’ve been able to assembly here in Greenville. We were originally looking to hire two full time people, but we had three candidates that we really liked so we ended up creating a third position. Scott is our operations manager who just gets things done.
I like to start projects and he finishes them. He’s also been instrumental in dialing in our operating procedures for things like inventory and fulfillment. Jen and Anna work with April on the marketing side with Jen doing a bit more video production and analytics and Anna more social media and copywriting.
We also have Matt working part time for us handling shipping among other things while he awaits his assignment as a nuclear engineer for the navy. (we’ve been a bit spoiled with him) They all have great attitudes, so it’s been fun working with them.
- You moved your company from Asheville to Greenville last year, how has that move been?
The move itself was a pain in the butt. It’s a big effort to switch your business to a new state and our office wasn’t ready when we moved so we had to operate out of our apartment for a few months and then move again. But the decision to move was the right one long term for our business and family. We really liked Asheville but felt like Greenville was the place we wanted to plant our roots. We’re loving Greenville.
- Do you feel like Greenville is the right business environment for your company?
Absolutely. There’s a great mix of small local businesses, aspiring startups and multinationals. We’ve begun to get involved with some of the entrepreneur groups in town like NEXT and there’s a real sense of camaraderie and wanting to help others succeed. Greenville is growing fast yet in a considered way and the city has done a great job listening to business owners. There seems to be an excellent talent pool here to find great employees, but if we find the perfect candidate elsewhere it’s not a tough sell to convince them Greenville is a great place to live.
- What would you change?
There’s always things you could’ve done differently as a business owner in hindsight, but it’s hard to say I would change anything. If you evaluate your decisions (good and bad) and learn from them it’s part of the process to figuring out the best way to lead your business in the future. Asheville was the right place for us to launch our business and that experience led us to Greenville.
- We understand that there is a growing trend for “cool pocket stuff”; can you tell us a little about this?
Ha. I think you’re referring to the EDC or “everyday carry” market. This is a term I hadn’t heard of before we started the business, but we quickly found out that it’s a thing and it perfectly describes our market niche. If you’ve ever seen images where people neatly lay out their personal items, like a phone, watch, pocket knife, multitool, etc. on a table that’s an EDC fan. There are elements of preparedness, personal style, minimalism, and a love of well-designed objects.
- Who is your ideal customer?
Our ideal customer is conscientious about the things they buy and takes the time to find the best products they can, whether for themselves or as a gift. They appreciate good design and share our belief that if you’re going to buy something and carry it around every day, get the best thing you can find. Now if that person happens to be a business owner who wants to buy a hundred Toolcards to put their logo on and give as gifts to their best clients, then that’s even better.
- Your products are made in the United States, what do you think about the current trade “negotiations” between the US and China?
It’s true that the Toolcard is made in the USA, and we hope to make most of our products in the US, but we will manufacture our products in the best place for each product. We first look locally, and then domestically, but we also understand that there are some excellent manufacturers around the world.
I’m a free trader at heart and believe people should be able to trade with whoever they want, wherever they want. But I also understand that when governments are involved it’s a complicated issue. My hope is that the current trade discussion is beginning with some initial public bluster that will be followed by more tempered negotiations that will result in an agreement that’s fair and with minimal government interference.
- Are there more cool products in your future?
Yes, in the very near future. We’re launching three new products on May 17th through Kickstarter. They’re a series of handheld tools that can fit on your keychain and share a similar design but can do different things. Their functionality isn’t anything new but the way they combine features, optimize utility and are easy to carry makes them unique. There’s nothing quite like them on the market and we think there is going to be something for everyone in this campaign. We’re excited. Beyond that, we’ve got a ton of ideas in the pipeline, but we’re focused on executing this launch.
- How do we find out more about your Kickstarter campaign?
We will be releasing more info and sneak peaks in the next few weeks on Facebook and Instagram so you can follow us there. But the best way is to sign up for our mailing list at levergear.com and we’ll keep you posted on updates and let you know when we launch. If you’ve never backed a Kickstarter project, it’s a fun and exciting way to help companies launch their ideas and go along for the ride with them. We’re still in contact with many of our original backers and their support is what got this company off the ground.
- Anything else you want to mention?
Yeah. If you live in the Greenville area we’re going to have a launch party on May 17th for our Kickstarter campaign which will be a lot of fun. We’ll have prototypes you can check out and hold in your hand and we’ll have the Campaign live on the bigscreen which is exciting to watch. It’s open to all, so come out to our office at Hampton Station and meet the team. You can find more info at eventbrite and look for Lever Gear.