The invention grips tools to keep them from getting lost.
Tom Burden could feel his big chance slipping away. “I bombed; it was really bad,” he says of the dress rehearsal for his appearance on “Shark Tank,” the popular reality television show in which entrepreneurs vie for the investment of the sharks.
It was June 2017, and Burden was in Los Angeles for the make-or-break moment for Grypmat, the Columbus-based company—and product—he'd sunk his heart and life savings into. “I asked the director if I could go one more time and he said, ‘No,' ” says Burden, 27. “But everyone was really excited about the jet and figured, ‘He'll bomb on stage, but it will make for good TV.' ”
The jet was a prop. And the story behind Grypmat.
Burden enlisted in the Air Force Reserve after high school and joined the 180th Fighter Wing Squadron in Swanton, Ohio, as a mechanic for the F-16 Fighting Falcon. “I was working on F-16s, installing Gatling guns, and I was tired of my tools constantly sliding off the aircraft. I said, ‘I'm going to solve this problem.' ”
Over the next couple of years, starting in 2013, Burden developed a bright-orange, flexible tool mat that can stick to the curved surface of an aircraft. Or car. Or boat. Tools adhere to Grypmat, and it can withstand temperatures up to 600 degrees.
Burden began attending startup weekends and military business accelerator programs and won some competitions.
“Tom has a lot of drive, and he sets goals and figures out the plans to achieve his goals, and if there are roadblocks, he doesn't quit,” says Michael McNett, executive director of Bunker Labs Columbus, a chapter of a national nonprofit that supports military entrepreneurs. Bunker Labs Columbus is affiliated with Rev1 Ventures, a Columbus organization that provides venture capital and support for startups. Burden works from shared office space at the Rev1 headquarters on Kinnear Road.
Grypmat made its debut at the 2016 EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, the massive Wisconsin airshow. “I brought 600 Grypmats and on the first day I sold 13,” Burden says. “But, by the end of the show, we sold all 600.”
Lindsey Danforth, an IT entrepreneur, met Burden at a startup event in Toledo. She now lives in Colorado and works on cars. “I was taking things apart and laying the bolts and the other pieces on cardboard, and they'd roll away, and I'd lose track of everything,” Danforth says. Then she remembered Burden and Grypmat. Danforth bought one. “It's one of those simple products that makes such a huge difference,” she says. “I have three and bought five or six for my friends.”
Sales of the Grypmat were increasing at a steady pace, and Burden's “Shark Tank” appearance could be a huge boost. Or bust.
After the disastrous dress rehearsal, “Ray [Ferreira, Grypmat's marketing director] and I went in the parking lot behind our hotel and practiced over and over again,” Burden says.
The practice worked, and Burden strode confidently onto the stage and stood next to his jet. “Have you ever been inspired by a really good idea when doing maintenance on a fighter jet machine gun?” he asked the sharks.
“Every day,” Mark Cuban joked.
Burden hoped for a $200,000 investment in return for a 10-percent stake in Grypmat. He told the sharks he'd already sold 10,000 Grypmats with revenues of $400,000.
“Our engineering teams would welcome something like this,” Richard Branson said. The team of Cuban, Branson and Lori Griener won the bidding, investing a combined $360,000 for 30 percent of Grypmat. Those were the sharks Burden says he wanted.
Burden's “Shark Tank” episode aired in November. “I work with members of their teams mostly,” Burden says of his new—and famous—partners. “I work with Mark's team the most and talk to Lori directly the most of the three. She's great with retail.”
Burden recently left the Air Force Reserve and is “all in” with Grypmat. Sales are up “about six times” since Shark Tank, Burden says. “We want to capture all the markets Grypmat can get into. We want to rebrand from an aviation tool into a tool for every market. … And then, the next step is to create a market for accessories that fit in with the Grypmat.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.