Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Bob Healey, I’m the inventor of the GrillGun and the entrepreneur that created the company that sells them, GrillBlazer LLC.
GrillGuns are high-power propane torches that look like awesome slide-action pistols and they are called GrillGuns and Su-VGuns. We sell them mostly online (97%) directly to customers worldwide via our website (grillblazer.com) and other online retailers, but we are also slowly developing a dealer base of brick-and-mortar retail stores distribution outlets.
The tedious and time-consuming development of the brick-and-mortar sales strategy is necessary to drive longevity, brand permanence, and maturity.
Our target customer is either an outdoorsman or a chef who is a slightly more affluent male aged 25 through 55 or someone likely to be buying one for their friend, dad, brother, or husband who falls into that demographic.
That niche target marketing strategy has yielded an annual average of $2.5 million in product sales since our launch three years ago in February of 2020, despite the worldwide malaise caused by governmental attempts (worldwide) to crush their respective economies over Covid19.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The idea of the GrillGun first came to life in December of 2017, while I was standing outside, under my covered porch, in 30°F snowy weather, cooking steaks on my charcoal grill, visiting with my sons and sons-in-law, and drinking a Guinness.
It is exceedingly hard to tell a story or solicit help for something that is just in your mind… write it down.
After having just used my propane weed torch to light my barbeque grill, as I had done countless times before for over a decade and a half, at all times of the year, in any sort of weather, I posited the question to my audience: “What would it take to make it a “Thing”, to light a charcoal grill as I had just done?
For years, friends and family had seen me light my grill with all kinds of high-power propane weed and roofing torches, but none of those people ever went out and purchased the necessary items to be able to adopt the process and make it their own.
Even though the notion that a person can nearly instantly light a charcoal grill using a 400,000+ BTU propane torch was nothing new, and despite the speed and efficiency of the technique, the fact remained that this method of lighting a grill hadn’t caught on as the most popular grill lighting option.
For any one of many very good reasons, lighting your grill in this manner is far superior to any other method of lighting a grill or wood-fired bbq pit; however, we decided that the main reasons people didn’t readily adopt the methodology, were: 1) people didn’t understand propane and considered it dangerous, and 2) the clumsiness of the entire setup was simply off-putting.
What was needed was an exciting, manly, purpose-built, very hot (3600°F), high-power propane torch. It had to work every time without fail, it had to look cool, it had to be easy to use and lightweight, and it had to be a hand-held torch that was extremely clean-burning so that it could both 1) effectively light charcoal and 2) directly safely sear a steak with its flame.
We decided that to popularize this way of lighting a grill, a new kind of culinary torch was needed that could please everyone from the backyard griller to the master culinary chef. It would need to be “cool, safe, fun, and effective” to have people flock to it, and this “perfect torch” simply had never been designed and put on the market.
This kind of torch could revolutionize charcoal grilling and professional cooking all over the world by enabling people to readily light charcoal or wood in outdoor grills/ovens, or sear slow-cooked meats, in seconds rather than tens of minutes.
After a lengthy discussion with my sons, we decided that the perfect torch would have to look like and be as easy to operate as a handgun, and if this kind of torch was ever going to exist, it would take someone with my skill sets to make it happen…so after a couple of weeks of deliberation and research on the idea, I decided to make it happen.
I had to take the first step on the trail which was to build a prototype. I had to specify the design requirements and see if I could build something that would meet my demands.
In January 2018, I started working full-time on creating the perfect torch that had to look like a gun and meet all of my stringent design requirements, and by May 2018, I was holding the very first prototype of what would one day be called the GrillGun. So four months after I started down the path of building a prototype, I knew it would be successful when I walked into the dining room of my house and showed it to my loving wife. She simply smiled from ear to ear and said to me: “I think you are going to sell a lot of those, honey”.
Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.
So that was just the beginning of what I knew would be years of hard work and tireless effort. I had the advantage of having been the product development lead on many products that I had created for other companies I had worked for in my prior work history, so I knew how to find contacts and develop resources.
The only thing different about this endeavor was that it was entirely for me, not for someone who was paying me for my expertise. So what I needed most was the assurance that I had a plan and the support of everyone I needed to help me, most importantly my wife, because it would be hardest on her.
Here are a set of high-level milestones I needed to consider in undertaking a project of this magnitude and I needed to sit down and write all this down to see if my wife and I had the fortitude to see it through together.
Here is a simple piece of advice: It is exceedingly hard to tell a story or solicit help for something that is just in your mind… write it down. (Note: each one of these milestones would be a chapter in a book which is well beyond the scope of this outline):
- Build a prototype or proof of concept
- Build multiple prototypes to test and put into the hands of users for feedback
- Build a marketing plan
- Build a financial plan
- Build a manufacturing plan
- Build a distribution plan
- Build a team
To prototype a GrillGun I needed first to spec it, then visualize it, then design it, then model it with 3D CAD software, then print all the plastic parts on a 3D printer, and machine or source all the metal parts from some other manufacturer using prints that I would need to create in the CAD software.
I had never learned to use 3D parametric design software before, but I figured that if others could learn to do it, so could I. So I picked out a software program and started learning it and modeling my project all at the same time. I figured that there was no better way to learn to use the software than to jump right into it and create something meaningful and useful.
The days blended into nights and the nights into days in the endless wash of create, learn, build, re-create, re-learn, and re-build. So it took me four full months of iterative design, model, print, machine, test, and iterate again until I had the working prototype that I showed my wife in May of 2018. Next up on the docket was to start figuring out what this would cost to build, where I would build it, and how I would pay for it.
The next thing I needed to do was to determine the feasibility of the entire project now that I had a working prototype. I needed to know where I would have it made and what it might cost. Then I needed to figure out how I was going to pay for this, so I attacked these issues in just that order.
I reached back into my past business relationships and made lots of phone calls to people, looking for consultants who could give me advice. I looked at manufacturing costs all over the world and talked with dozens of people to put together a plausible manufacturing plan from which I could start getting cost estimates. That took about three more months before I had a fairly good idea of what it would cost and where I would make it.
Financing, Marketing, Manufacturing
Now that I had a product I needed to figure out how to pay for making it. Conventional bank financing wasn’t an option because I didn’t own enough property to collateralize everything I owned to borrow the $500,000 I determined I needed to get myself into production.
As it turned out it was exceedingly hard to get venture capital or Angel Investor capital for anything that wasn’t a dot-com or a pharmaceutical device. What I found out was that regardless of how cool and exciting my product was, no one wanted to pony up that kind of capital on a risky venture of selling a gun that shoots fire into a market segment that didn’t exist so had no history or product comparisons.
Therefore, in February 2019 I decided that I needed to use crowdfunding to raise that kind of money, but unfortunately, only 20% of crowdfunding projects are ever successful, and only about 1% of crowdfunding campaigns ever break into 6 figures so the odds were stacked against me for raising half a million dollars with that strategy.
The best way to bootstrap a business is through influencer marketing using real people with real audiences who like your products.
I took that challenge as an opportunity to learn from those who had gone before me, learn from their successes and failures, and hopefully mimic their successes. I just needed to learn how to do crowdfunding and when to pull the trigger.
So I again started working tirelessly to:
- Learn how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign by studying several successful Kickstarter campaigns to model my campaign after theirs.
- I built a Kickstarter campaign and learned how to drive traffic to it.
- I built more prototypes and started sending them to you-tube influencers in the grilling world in a coordinated effort to see if they would promote my product on their channels to let their audiences know to go support my Kickstarter campaign when it would launch later that spring
I built my website and started selling GrillGuns to people to learn how to reach them and see if they would put their credit card numbers into the cart and buy if they had the chance.
Obviously, I refunded their money since I didn’t have any product to sell; however, this exercise gave me actual data, taught me how to read the interest level per click, and helped me to anticipate the conversion rate.
I went to gun shows and showed my prototypes to would-be customers.
I explained to them what Kickstarter was and took their contact info so that I could notify them when the Kickstarter campaign started.
By doing the preliminary research, I was able to run a successful crowdfunding campaign, and between the Kickstarter and IndieGoGo crowdfunding platforms, I raised just over $560,000, validated my product viability, started manufacturing, built a market segment, and started selling GrillGuns in February 2020, just eight months after the launch of my crowdfunding campaigns
Describe the process of launching the business.
Crowdfunding gave me street credibility and access to capital. I also learned to build my website on the Shopify platform and figure out what works online, initially by modeling my website based upon what I did on Kickstarter and subsequently by AB testing and modifying.
Youtube influencers, Facebook, Instagram, google shopping, search engine optimization, and Google ads are the mainstay of my online marketing strategy. Type in Grillgun or GrillBlazer into your search engine and you will see what I mean.
I have also leveraged Amazon, Touch of Modern, and a handful of other online retailers. Each of these platforms comes with its foibles so don’t count on them to make you a superstar, they are just pieces of the puzzle.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My products are considered “durable goods” rather than reusable items. They are not like food or soap, or other things that you use up and need to replenish, They are items that you buy once and they will last you for years.
The website looks to broadly find new customers and sell them once, with a little bit of secondary opportunity to get them to re-buy for gifts, so customer retention is limited to keeping in touch and offering customer service and a look to the future.
We run a small shop on my farm in Eastern Oklahoma, doing sales, service, and fulfillment with 3 to 5 full-time employees and our focus is on customers and customer service. You can read any of our 500+ Google Reviews and you will see what I mean and why we mostly have 5-star reviews.
We focus on customer service and creating the happiest customer possible. We believe that this constant drumbeat of sending out high-quality products and servicing our customers is the best possible business model. It is a rarity in our world to give more to the customer than they are asking for, and we believe that in the end, that will be a winning strategy for us.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Marketing is everything. You can have the best “whatever” and if no one knows about it, then what good is it? The problem is that advertising is expensive and the best way to bootstrap a business is through influencer marketing using real people with real audiences who like your products. Treat everyone as the most important person that you have to deal with and it will pay you back in spades.
And more importantly, there is no substitute for really hard work and determination. A side story to the GrillBlazer story is one about cancer. The little-known fact is that I was diagnosed with advanced, stage 4, incurable, terminal, metastatic prostate cancer at the same time as I launched my business in February 2020.
Not only was I facing the most challenging business situation that I had ever created and was just taking off, but I now had a race against time on a matter that was infinitely more important than the success of my business. Somehow I need to excel in business and excel in beating cancer simultaneously.
My disease was so advanced that there was nothing that they could do to cure me. The world of oncological studies had to write me off because my disease was so advanced that no one gave me any hope of long-term survival, and yet, that was three years ago now, I charted my course of treatment and I no longer have cancer today.
Someday I just might write a book on how I beat cancer.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Google: GrillBlazer, or GrillGun and see for yourself what dominating search engine optimization can do for you
- Search GrillGun on Amazon
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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