Grip6’s BJ Minson talks belt flaps, Chinese manufacturing, and marketing mess-ups
Taking risks, accepting failure and doing things himself are all part of Grip6 founder BJ Minson’s recipe for success. The American belt manufacturer, and ShopCreatify client, sold 350,000 belts in 2019.
Grip6 has humble beginnings. For 10 years after school, Minson did odd jobs from construction to painting houses. He also tried to start a business making and selling specialized hospital beds, but was frustrated when he was faced with structural problems he couldn’t solve.
“I was sawing and welding and doing what an engineer without a degree would do. I realized projects weren’t working out as well as I’d hoped,” says Minson. During this time, he started a family and soon realized he couldn’t afford a house or reach his other financial goals on odd jobs alone. So Minson went back to school. It was a long process and he had to take six semesters of math before he was at the level of the other mechanical engineering students.
While Minson wrapped up his studies, he worked as a junior engineer for a medical company. He continued with his own side-projects in the hope it would give him the experience he needed to apply for a product design job.
One of Minson’s side-projects was a wallet: small, flat and rectangular. It fitted six cards which popped up when the sides were squeezed. “The wallets were fairly complicated inside, mechanically, and I couldn’t just make them myself because I knew nothing about manufacturing.” After failing to find an affordable, local manufacturer, he gave up on the wallet.
Demonstrating the strength of the G6 belt in a video on the Kickstarter campaign back in 2014
Soon after that he designed a belt – Grip6’s signature product – after being irritated by his own belts. He’d thought cutting his leather belt shorter to stop it from flapping around was a good solution, but his wife disagreed. “She said it was the ugliest belt she’d ever seen and that it looked ridiculous!” He then used a nylon army belt, but didn’t like how the thick buckle stuck out under his shirt.
“I then thought if I design a belt that’s really simple, it should be easy enough to manufacture myself.” The belt he designed uses a single piece of webbing, a single piece of metal for the buckle, doesn’t require any sewing and has no buckle holes. Unlike traditional belts, the material properties of the Grip6 belt creates friction that holds it in place without slipping.
In 2014 Minson launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. He was stunned when he received 10,000 belt orders. He reached out to local manufacturers to make the belts but was met with slow responses, long timelines and quotes that were much higher than he’d priced the belts. Even worse, Minson was repeatedly encouraged to manufacture his belts in China. “Everybody told us that if you don’t make your belts in China, you’re dumb and probably not going to succeed.”
Minson was dead set against this. He’d been astounded by the bad quality of his children’s toys, most of which were made in China. “They’d use the toys once before they’d break. It made no sense from a moral perspective that people were producing garbage and shipping it around the world just to be thrown away almost immediately.
“I wanted to make the belts locally in the United States, so that the quality would be high and to reinvest in ourselves as a country and in manufacturing.”
Without a manufacturer, Minson and a friend set about making the 10,000 belts themselves, by hand. “I bought a couple of small hand tools and started production in my garage. For six months we worked our butts off. We’d finish at our full-time jobs and then work another eight to 10 hours at night. I had got myself stuck in a situation that I hadn’t thought through very well, but at least I had a product people wanted.”
Minson spent the following year figuring out how to market his belts. “We didn’t know anything about marketing and that scared me.” He hired the best marketing company he could find, paying them with money left over from his Kickstarter campaign and by selling belts at county fairs and trade shows.
But the marketing company let Minson down with a website that despite being attractive, was built on the wrong platform and marketing campaigns that lead nowhere. He then hired someone a friend recommended to do Facebook marketing for his company. It worked and Grip6 sold 70,000 belts in its third year.
Now in its sixth year, Grip6 employs 43 people and its sales are up 80% from 2019.
Grip6’s belt sales have increased significantly since it launched in 2014
After his negative experiences with manufacturers and marketers, Minson decided to do as much as he could inhouse.
“If we can do something ourselves, we should so that when a problem comes along, we’re not relying on somebody else to fix it. We like to be in control. This concept of relying on somebody else just means you’re running away from gaining the knowledge yourself.”
This philosophy has seen Grip6 invest significant amounts in machinery, people and learning processes. “Ultimately that’s meant we’ve been able to do things cheaper, more efficiently and at a better quality.”
Grip6's conversion optimized product page showcasing their unique products.
Despite this, Minson says it wouldn’t have made financial sense to hire a full-time web developer. After using numerous Shopify developers, they found ShopCreatify two years ago and have been a client ever since. “Ross [Allchorn] fills that gap and his team does well as an extension of Grip6. If you have to use outside people, use those who are as close philosophically and capability-wise as you are.”
Minson’s philosophy doesn’t stop at doing things in-house. He isn’t afraid of taking risks or failing, so much so that the Grip6 website says: “Follow us as we struggle, misstep and learn.”
He’s trying to add two new products to the Grip6 range: the wallet he designed eight years ago, and socks. Both have already seen Grip6 make significant investments into failed manufacturing, new machinery and time spent learning how to use the machines. Six months after starting on the wallet and a year after starting on the socks, Grip6 is at last producing test products before being manufactured for sale. The socks endeavor alone cost the company around $250,000.
“If we’re not risking something, we get into a mental state where we’re too afraid to grow, because growth involves risks. We’re willing to take many risks as long as it’s not so big it puts the company out of business. It might cost us a lot of money but if we’re successful it really pays off. I’m perfectly fine with failure as long as it comes with a lesson to be learnt.”
Minson says that despite taking so many risks he’s actually financially conservative. Grip6 has only ever taken out a loan to buy a particularly expensive laser cutting machine. “Every other machine in our shop, millions of dollars’ worth, has been paid for in cash. We’ve been cash positive from the garage onwards. We don’t believe in getting into debt.”
Minson believes that these philosophies have helped Grip6 weather the Covid-19 crisis. When the virus hit the USA, sales dropped by 25%. But Minson’s best friend, who is now in charge of Grip6’s marketing, noticed that online advertising had become significantly cheaper after many people stopped advertising when the pandemic started. Grip6 decided to increase their ad spend and “all of a sudden we’re hitting months that are far above what we’re used to and very similar to our busiest time of year”.
And because Grip6 manufactures everything itself, it wasn’t affected when international trade came to a grinding halt. It’s business as usual at the Salt Lake City, Utah plant, with staff wearing masks and adhering to other safety and social distancing protocol.
Despite this, Minson is nervous about the future. He knows that Covid-19 is likely to slow the world economy down for the next 12 to 18 months and is aware that his good business run is unlikely to continue indefinitely.
“We’re being extra cautious financially and building up the bank account in the expectation that the sales will probably drop off in the near future. We’re saving our money, launching new products and looking for other growth opportunities.”
He has encouraging words for other online businesses:
“There’s this once in a lifetime thing happening, and it’s pretty bad. But if you’re smart and you look around, there are opportunities to grow and to find silver linings.”