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Forbes Middle East


How A Former Air Force Mechanic, 29, Built A $4 Million Business With A Simple Device To Hold Tools

Amy Feldman
How A Former Air Force Mechanic, 29, Built A $4 Million Business With A Simple Device To Hold ToolsImage Credit: Grypmat

Tom Burden, now 29, was working as an Air Force mechanic on the F-16 fighter jet in 2013, and was frustrated by how his tools kept slipping. That meant that either he had to climb down a ladder from the wing–nearly seven feet in the air–each time he needed a new tool or have someone else act as a runner for him. “You can’t set your tools on the aircraft because they slide off, and putting them inside the jet is against regulations,” Burden recalls. “The only way to hold your tools is in your hands.”

So he developed his own solution, a bright orange sticky mat that could be placed on the wing without slipping. With help from Kickstarter and Shark Tank, and a lot of moxie, he turned the idea for the non-slip tool mat for tools, which he called Grypmat, into a business, and made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in Manufacturing and Industry last year. Today, the business expects $4 million in revenue, more than double what it brought in during 2018. And Burden is planning an expansion into retail, with a lower-priced, smaller-version of the Grypmat for home mechanics.

Grypmat is just one of the country’s more than 2.5 million veteran-owned businesses that include Black Rifle Coffee, Rumi Spice and Combat Flip Flops. All told, these businesses bring in more than $1 trillion and employ more than 5 million people, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners. “I don’t know if it’s my personality, but I see only huge advantages to being a military entrepreneur,” Burden says. “There’s such a strong community supporting the military.”

Burden grew up in the small town of Celina, Ohio, around 100 miles from Columbus, and joined the Air National Guard where he worked as an F-16 weapons mechanic at the 180th Fighter Wing in Toledo.

He was in college at the University of Toledo studying mechanical engineering at the time, and as he grew frustrated with going up and down the ladder to get his tools, he believed there had to be a better way. “I was like, ‘I want to solve this problem,’” he says. “People were telling me, ‘This is part of the job, you have to deal with it.’ I was really resistant to that.”

He considered a magnetic vest where the tools could hang like refrigerator magnets, and wondered about the possibility of tying tools on strings. “Then I was in my mom’s car, and I saw a non-slip mat on her dashboard,” he says. “I thought, ‘We could make these larger for tools and put them on top of the aircraft. The aircraft is made out of aluminum so you can’t have a magnet up there to hold your tools.”

It was a smart idea, but took Burden three years of prototyping – while simultaneously continuing to work as a mechanic and going to college – to develop a product. In 2016, he went to his first trade show, the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, an annual gathering of aircraft enthusiasts. He loaded up a trailer with more than 600 Grypmats that he intended to sell there. “Going to the show, I couldn’t see out of the passenger window, I had so many Grypmats,” he says.

The first day, he sold just 13 from a makeshift booth made out of a garage door with a bedsheet over it. Anxious about failure, he decided he needed to do more. “I crashed people’s after parties, and just starting selling Grypmats at the after parties,” he says. “I was out of my comfort zone. Then word started to spread.”

He sold 101 Grypmats to enthusiasts. Then a guy with a display across the hall asked if it would work for automotive. “He said, ‘I sell things to automotive, and if you’re okay with it I’d like to be a distributor and I’ll sell everything you have left,’” Burden recalls.

Buoyed by that success, Burden went home, and sold his house, raising a total of $17,000 (after repaying his mortgage) to fund the nascent business. “I was couch-surfing,” he says, with a laugh. But things took off.

In 2017, he raised $113,000 on Kickstarter, and then got on the hit television show Shark Tank, raising the company’s visibility dramatically. He also gained funding there from Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner and Richard Branson, a guest shark on the episode, who invested $360,000 for a 30% stake in the business, valuing Grypmat at $1.2 million. Burden continues to own the remaining 70% of the company.

Today, the company offers small and medium size of Grypmats, all made of the same non-slip rubber, that cost $29.99 to $44.99, and Burden is focused on expanding the lineup beyond military applications. He’s introducing new, do-it-yourself Grypmats for retail (priced at $19.99 and $29.99) that can be made more cheaply because they don’t need to stand up to the chemicals used for de-icing aircraft. And Burden is looking at moving the manufacturing for the military-grade version back to the United States, and hoping to gain more sales to the commercial airlines.

He recalls meeting Cuban in his Dallas office and flying to an American Airlines’ hangar to talk about how Grypmat could help make the planes’ maintenance more efficient. “It was cool,” he says. “We ended up getting a meeting with their maintenance team.”

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