Founder and CEO of MAKESafe Tools Scott Swaaley talks power tools, startup savvy, and how an electrical engineer became dedicated to improving workplace safety.
Gaby: Can you briefly describe your company?
Scott: My company is MAKESafe Tools. It’s a company that develops and manufactures safety products for the manufacturing industry, like our “power tool brake.”
Gaby: That is such a specific product, what led to creating that?
Scott: Well this is just the first of many products. My day job was running shared workspaces and training people–adults and kids–to use industrial equipment. Within these shared spaces, you know, there’s often a time when one person turns a tool off and walks away. The next person walks up, and it might be loud, they might be distracted, and the tool’s still operating from inertia so they get hurt. Or it might catch their clothes as they walk by. And so I became very passionate about looking at potential danger risks and addressing the low hanging fruit.
I originally made the “power tool brake” for just the shop I was working in. And then everyone seemed to really like it and I realized this might be a good product.
Gaby: Were there any initial challenges in getting support for the idea?
Scott: Absolutely! Safety is a funny industry where people love it and hate it at the same time. They appreciate the concept but they don’t like the idea of an additional hurdle. So as soon as you point out a new kind of regulation or safety device, everyone becomes cautious because if it sticks then they would need to adhere to that new method, too. So that’s one piece of it: finding people who were willing to act on a safety risk, even if it means having to jump a new hurdle.
Secondly, on the technical front, one of the biggest challenges was making the brake a completely user friendly device, like the iPhone of safety devices. There are competing products out there that also stop manufacturing tools but you need to hire an engineer or technician to install them, and it’s a much more complicated process, creating a huge barrier to entry. I wanted to make something where people literally just plug it in and the product works on its own. And ensuring that was possible, of course, meant going through LOTS of iterations.
Gaby: How did you get involved with Bootstrappers?
Scott: When I first got started with my company I made an effort to reach out and meet people who could potentially help. I searched through Meetup and ended up attending a Bootstrappers Breakfast meeting and really enjoyed it. I felt that Sean had a lot of good advice to give to people. And the Breakfast had a more casual feel which I liked. It wasn’t that in-your-face Silicon Valley vibe. I ended up lingering around and actually stayed for lunch. I got to know Sean a little bit and he invited me to the Mastermind Group, which I attended kind of exploratorally, and also really enjoyed.
I like the people that come, and all the insight and connections we make. And I just kept going.
Gaby: Were there any insights or ideas from these meetups that resonated with you?
Scott: As I was figuring out the first steps of my company, we had a really interesting discussion about how to form consensus with a potential client without weighing it down with contracts. Obviously you need contracts, but you don’t want to go in and say “here’s my 90 page contract, be my customer” and scare them away. Sean Murphy had a lot of good tricks about how to verbally communicate your idea and start talking about expectations before actually writing up the contract. It feels more human to do it that way, and jives more with what I wanted the style of my company to be.
Gaby: Conversely, what advice would you give to fellow bootstrappers and entrepreneurs starting their own business?
Scott: I think there’s lots of advice out there. I have two main tips to give. One would be to really know what you’re trying to get out of each thing you do. Try to set some structure, like reminders on your phone, and think about whether what you’re working on right now reduces the risk for success or not. And if not, figure out what you could be working on that would be a more effective use of your time. Otherwise there’s this tendency, especially when you’re working solo, to work really hard designing stickers, for example, when you should have been cold-calling clients.
My second piece of advice is try to stay out of your own head and EVERYDAY do something that’s with a customer or potential customer that will, in a sense, loop you back into reality. Otherwise you get stuck in that inventor’s paradox where it seems like a perfect idea for you, but actually there’s no product-market fit.
Gaby: What’s the next step for you and MAKESafe Tools?
Scott: Well, I’ve realized that inspection is a huge part of this business. You need to help people understand the risks involved with manufacturing equipment and then help them with the solution. And since I have no interest in going door-to-door inspecting shops, I’ve been working with distributors to set up partnerships with the people who do go door-to-door inspecting.
Separately, in terms of products, the next things on the list are a higher voltage version of my existing brake, that will work with more tools, and a lathe chuck key device. A very common problem when using lathes is accidentally leaving the chuck-key in the chuck. Then when you turn it on, the chuck-key shoots off like a rocket, and it can easily hit the person operating it… or the ceiling. So I think that’s a space that I could step into. Lastly, and currently in the works, is an access control device that makes it easier to intentionally restrict access to a subgroup of people for any specific tool.
Gaby: Thanks for your time, Scott, and best of luck on all your future endeavors!