Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Alex Corstorphine, founder of AR Catch22. AR Catch22 produces and sells bolt catches for .22lr converted AR-15 rifles.
Before getting into the business side of things, it’s probably worthwhile to explain a bit about what a bolt catch is and does.
Standard AR-15s shoot a .223 caliber round and, like most other semi-automatic rifles, the bolt (the part that moves back and forth to load new rounds and eject old ones) is automatically held open by a bolt catch after the last round is fired. This feature is helpful because an open bolt shows the rifle is clear (i.e. no rounds are loaded) and helps with quicker magazine changes.
Frequently, people will convert their AR-15s to shoot .22lr caliber rounds instead of .223. It’s a quick conversion (~30 seconds) and, since .22lr is about five times cheaper per round to shoot, you can get considerably more shooting practice for less money.
An issue when converting an AR-15 to shoot .22lr from .223 is that the bolt catch stops working. This causes problems because the bolt then closes once the last round is fired, and you can’t hold the bolt open without putting something in the way of it. It becomes harder to show that the rifle is clear, slower to change magazines, and just generally inconvenient.
The AR Catch22 is a bolt catch that brings the bolt-hold-open functionality back to .22lr converted AR-15 rifles! We also sell a few accessories that enhance the functionality of the bolt catch, but the Catch22 is the biggest seller.
I have been selling the Catch22 for about 10 years now. Sales average $600 a month, with about a half-hour per week spent on maintenance and shipping. The business is a fun side project away from my day job. I grew Catch22 from a need I experienced and knew I could fix it.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I have always been a tinkerer, inventor, and aspiring entrepreneur. I still remember coming home crying in third grade because I had an idea to make shoes that fit on LEGO characters (I was convinced that “LEGO Loafers” would be the next big thing), but I couldn’t figure out how I would end up making them clip to the LEGO man’s feet. Since then I have always enjoyed finding creative solutions to problems by inventing new products.
As a child, I grew up shooting but shooting became a more serious hobby when I was in college. It was during this time that I bought my first .22lr AR-15 and started taking it to the range. After a few trips to the range, it gradually became more annoying to show that the rifle was clear during a cease-fire since I couldn’t lock the bolt in the open position. I ended up putting my keys in the way of the bolt, but it was a hack solution to the problem. It was then that I decided to try to make a new bolt catch that would restore the bolt hold-open functionality back to that of a standard (.223) AR-15.
There has never been a better and easier time than today to create something out of an idea, regardless of your background or skills.
At the time, I was working with an electronics recycler to resell components that still had value. From that venture, I had some money that I used for initial prototyping. I didn’t do much market research before starting the process since I was trying to solve a problem for myself more than I was trying to bring a product to market.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Once I decided to make the bolt catch piece, I started with crude prototypes using the stock .223 bolt catch and modeling clay. Today I’m an avid modeler, 3D printer and would go straight to Fusion360 for prototyping, but 10 years ago that industry was still in its infancy. After a week of preliminary prototyping, I ended up with a piece that I thought would work, but was presented with a big challenge: I had no idea how to take this from clay into a working prototype! I went hunting on Craigslist for someone who could help me create a 3d model of the piece, as well as a machine shop that could help make the first working prototype.
Once I found a person to create the drawing, and a machine shop to manufacture the design, we worked together to create an initial prototype made out of aluminum. I was thrilled when the piece arrived. I put it on the rifle, and lo and behold, it didn’t work! There was too much material, and I couldn’t even get the rifle back together. Frustrated, I started cutting away at the piece with a Dremel until I had something that would fit, and within 10 minutes I had a working prototype! I took the hacked up V1 back to the machine shop and asked them to make an updated version. V2 of the bolt catch was almost perfect, and the V3 piece worked flawlessly.
Since I didn’t have any modeling experience at the time, all of my update requests were done in Microsoft Paint.
I took a couple of trips to the range with the V3 piece to validate that there weren’t any “gotchas” I was missing and then went to the forums to show off my new creation.
Once I made my first post on ar15.com, things got crazy. I thought that I could make/sell a handful of these, but I was unaware of the real demand for the piece I had created. What I hadn’t taken into account was how large the forum was and the sizeable number of manufacturers that frequent the site. The third comment on my “show-and-tell” post was from a .22lr AR-15 conversion manufacturer who, after a handful of clarifying questions on the function, said they’d like to place an order for 1,000. To say I was shocked was an understatement.
I got in touch with the manufacturer and validated that there was a genuine interest in the piece, then I started doing research on how I would get these made. The most basic issue I had when starting to try and manufacture in bulk was that I had no idea what I was doing. I quickly realized that the manufacturing side of things is much more complicated than making a working prototype. First I went to the shop that made the prototypes to see if they could help, but their per-piece quote was more expensive than the price point I had set for selling the piece. In shopping around, the questions I needed to answer quickly piled up.
- How did I want these made? Cast or CNC’d?
- What kind of tolerance was I OK with?
- What kind of finish did I want on the pieces?
- What kind of metal did I want these to be made of?
- How many did I want for an initial batch?
The process of finding a manufacturer who could help with the production, and then actually getting the pieces produced ended up being an absolute nightmare. First, I struggled to find companies that were willing to machine a firearm part. The piece is not a regulated gun part and meets all legal requirements, however, there are many companies that shy away from any production related to firearms. Second, I eventually found a manufacturer who said they would be able to make the pieces for a good price if we cast them, however, the production batch ended up being significantly worse quality than the samples originally sent, and I had to return them all.
At this point, I went back to the drawing board and found a small shop that needed business and set a reasonable production price. They manufactured 1,000 pieces reasonably quickly and it seemed my production nightmare was over. In total, it took 15 months to get the pieces from when I first started shopping for manufacturers. With the bolt catches in hand, I reached back out to the initial company who was interested in making a purchase, and I shared with them the great news that I finally had the order ready to go! Unfortunately, by the time I was ready, this company had exited the market that my product was intended for and they were no longer interested in purchasing the piece.
Since then I have been successful in mostly selling direct to consumers. The part is intended for a relatively small market, and advertising tools like AdWords will not advertise products related to guns or firearms, so a lot of the business comes inorganically.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The name was step number one, but it came together quickly. AR-15 + .22lr bolt catch = AR Catch22!
While I had been working on getting the parts manufactured, I was also developing the website. I had done some basic web design in the past and so, I put a landing page together with a couple of videos and a PayPal ‘buy’ button.
On the business side of things, I decided to form an LLC that I would use for selling the bolt catches. While that was a good decision from a liability aspect, it ended up being an issue the following year since California has an $800 annual business tax for running an LLC. With a thriving business, that’s just another expense, but as a start-up that was about as much as I was doing in sales and it just didn’t make sense to keep it. I dissolved the LLC and have since been selling the catches under a sole proprietorship. A few months ago, I moved to Colorado where the LLC annual business tax is closer to $15/year, so I’m now moving back towards establishing an LLC.
Financially, I was able to cover the cost of prototyping on my own but needed a loan from my parents to cover the initial production. Since the initial order didn’t come through, it took me longer than expected to pay it off, but it has all been paid back.
The initial batch of catches cost $11,000. Since the financing was all through a family loan (and the payback was slower than promised), I put 100% of the sales towards paying it down until the business was debt-free. The nice thing about this approach was that by initially diverting all profits towards the loan, any catch sales beyond that were pure profit. The bolt catch sells for $27 and so it took slightly over 400 sales to break even (excluding small operating costs like PayPal fees).
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The biggest thing that led to an overall increase in sales was investing in a proper website. I knew that the original site I had created was far from stellar, and over time, I realized that I wouldn’t even buy from my own site in its current state...that raised a big red flag, and I knew it was something that I needed to address.
A website doesn’t need to be the most incredible thing ever, but it should be nice enough to look like there’s more of a business than a college kid selling things out of his dorm room. I started doing research and settled on Shopify as the platform for the new site. Besides moving to a new hosting platform, I wanted someone else to do the design.
I have come to terms with the fact that visual design is not in my creative wheelhouse, and so I chose to enlist the services of a team of developers and graphic designers who could do the job better and more efficiently than myself. I found the team on Upwork and explained to them what I was looking for.
The Shopify development took a couple of weeks to get all my material moved over, but the developers did amazing work and my conversion rate immediately spiked after getting the new site deployed.
Beyond the website, there are a few accessory pieces that increase the functionality of the bolt catch and have helped increase sales.
The bolt catch by itself can hold open the bolt if it’s manually engaged, but to have true functionality like a .223 AR-15, the bolt needs to be automatically locked back after the last round is fired. This is challenging because the bolt catch and magazine have to work together to provide this functionality, and not all magazines have the ability to work with the bolt catch.
I now sell small adapter pads that stick to a specific type of magazine which allows the bolt catch and magazine to work together as described above. This gives people the exact same functionality as a standard AR-15 and an overall better shooting experience. You can see the last-round-hold-open functionality in the video below:
Below are the sales stats for the last 3 months.
Total sales: This is about par. Some months are higher than others, but it averages out to right around $600/mo
Online store sessions: More is always better, but I have had a challenge finding new advertising sources since many will not advertise products related to firearms.
Returning customer rate: There are generally two times that people will return. One is when they buy a new rifle and they need another catch for their new gun. The second is to buy some of the accessories for the catch (like the magazine adapter). Most of the returning customers fall into the second bucket.
Online store conversion rate: This isn’t as high as it could be. I’m actively working to improve this workflow and see where people are falling off (especially between adding to cart and checking out).
Average order value: This is about average for one bolt catch and an adapter or two.
Top products by units sold: It makes sense that the catch is #3 on the list since you can use multiple adapters with one catch.
Sessions by location: The majority of my customers come from the US. For international sales, I have a partner in the UK who resells them through his storefront. I have to send them to him through an exporter since there are a bunch of legal hoops to jump through to send any firearm part overseas.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, about 80% of my sales are sold through the Shopify storefront and the other 20% is through eCommerce stores that buy from me in bulk. I have looked into selling on Amazon, but unfortunately, that is not an option because the product is a firearm accessory.
Since the initial batch of 1,000 bolt catches, I have produced a second batch of 1,000 that I’m currently selling. I financed that myself, and the manufacturing costs of batch #2 are paid off. I’m working to improve my social media presence, (which is definitely not where it needs to be today), as well as my store conversion rate. Beyond that, the majority of my attention is going into new product development!
One downside that I haven’t mentioned about the Catch22 is that it’s more or less a dedicated bolt catch for .22lr conversions. Installation requires you to punch out a rolling pin and remove the old bolt catch before you can put the new one in. For people with dedicated .22s, this is fine, but for people who want to switch back and forth between .22lr and .223 with ease, it’s a harder sell.
Look for a mentor. I was ‘winging it’ throughout the whole process. I could have saved a lot of hassle and heartache if I had someone with relevant business and engineering skills to guide me through the process.
Over the last year, I have restarted my efforts to develop a bolt catch that can work with both calibers. Eight years ago, I attempted to create this but never reached a good-enough idea of how I could design one piece for both. Recently, however, inspiration struck, and I came up with a new working design. I have been able to produce prototypes much faster using 3d printing, but now I’m reliving the challenge of manufacturing. Though still a challenge, the manufacturing process is still smoother than the last time, and I am about three months away from having a new version to sell. This piece will appeal to a much wider audience, and I expect it to sell much better than the original piece.
On another completely unrelated note, my passion for solving problems has continued, and I’m working on an entirely new project (the new bolt catch manufacturing is a very start-stop process and so I have time to spare for now) as well.
The new project is a phone app for renters and landlords that I have been developing after listening to how many of my friends have had problems with landlords and security deposits. Frequently, there is little or no documentation when renting a space, nor are there any pictures of the state of rental during move-in and move-out. This can lead to conflict, as disagreements about how much money should be returned at the end of the tenancy often come down to a “he said/she said” argument, rather than the use of facts and documentation.
The new Reposit app will be a guided workflow that generates move-in and move-out reports that can be shared with the tenant and landlord so that everyone can be on the same page about what has changed during the tenancy. The goal is that improved documentation and subsequent communication will lead to less conflict and a smoother rental process overall.
The development of Reposit is almost wrapped up, and I hope to have it on the app store within a month. You can learn more about the app here, and sign up for a reminder email when it goes live: Reposit
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have learned an incredible amount of lessons (both good and bad) throughout this process and continue to learn more every day.
During the initial order and manufacturing of the Catch22, there was a multitude of things I could have done differently to improve my situation:
Think outside the box. The company that was going to buy the catches was a manufacturer. I could have asked them to manufacture the pieces and just license the design, but I had tunnel vision and only thought about making them myself.
Keep people in the loop. Delays happen, but without communication, people will frequently assume the worst and make decisions without you. When you keep people up-to-date, they’re more likely to be understanding or offer help.
Look for a mentor. I was ‘winging it’ throughout the whole process. I could have saved a lot of hassle and heartache if I had someone with relevant business and engineering skills to guide me through the process.
Ask for help. Especially now with social tools like Reddit, it’s incredibly easy to get quick answers and advice from people in a particular industry.
Always try to learn more and grow your skills, but don’t be afraid to delegate and lean on outside experts for things that you aren’t passionate about. Tasks you aren’t passionate about can be big-time sinks, and oftentimes an expert can do the job faster and better.
Something I keep in mind with all my business ventures is a simple motto: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I have developed a number of resellers and partners just from reaching out to people and asking for their input and feedback. Targeted cold emails to people you want to work with are usually well-received, and everyone loves some free samples. Networking is key!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Hotjar (See where people are looking and clicking on your website)
- Upwork (freelance help)
- Pirate Ship (for cheaper USPS rates)
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My two favorite books are:
- 4-hour workweek - My goal isn’t to turn AR Catch22 into a massive corporation. Instead, I want to grow it as large as possible while still keeping it almost completely self-sustaining. This book really lined up well with my goals around that and is a fantastic read overall.
- $100 startup - I have seen so many stories of people putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into a startup idea. That can be a completely valid approach, but this book is fun because it flips that around and shows you that it’s possible to start big businesses without big investments. It’s an easy read and a great way to get the creative gears turning.
Two websites I look through every morning:
- Indie Hackers is more focused around people starting up apps, but it’s a really positive forum for people to share ideas and get advice.
- And of course, Starter Story.
- How I Built This - The podcast is a lot like Starter Story as it interviews entrepreneurs and they tell their stories about building their companies. I love hearing about this kind of story. They’re so inspirational!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
There’s a lot you can do without a lot of expertise or money. If you want to design a product, UpWork can help you with the design and there are 3d printing prototyping services all around. If you want to make an app, there are free wire-framing sites that are easy to use and a ton of forums where you can get advice and look for partners/investors.
Looking back 10 years ago and seeing how much has changed in the maker industry, I firmly believe that there has never been a better and easier time than today to create something out of an idea, regardless of your background or skills. All you need to do is stop talking about it and start taking real steps forward to make it a reality!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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