Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
My name is Dave Cruickshank and I’m a police officer in Connecticut. I started a business called Twisted Boards out of my basement and have grown to a manufacturing plant and fulfillment center in Michigan.
We manufacture and sell a new type of product; three dimensional dry erase boards. We have a very broad customer base from college kids and office workers to schools and special needs teachers.
The sales market has been quite a roller coaster but we’re currently in about 150 stores across the US and building an intellectual property portfolio that will help the business grow.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As I said, I am a police officer so product manufacturing and design is not my career. The whole thing started with an ex-girlfriend of mine and some creativity. As a police officer, my job is fairly stressful and we liked to relax with art projects and time together. One night, we molded our faces out of plaster and planned to paint them the next day. When the molds were finished, I was holding mine against the wall and happened to be standing next to my dry erase board. They were both white and I said:
"You know what would be cool? Is if I could make a dry erase board out of my face."
At the time, dry erase paint didn’t exist and after countless hours searching the internet, I couldn’t find any three dimensional dry erase boards which blew my mind. I couldn’t believe that someone hadn’t thought of something so simple before.
After watching a few YouTube videos, I decided I was going to try to build a vacuum thermo-molding machine in my basement to mold plastic sheet and try to make the board.
I build the contraption, heated a plastic sheet in the oven, put it on the machine with the face mold laid on it and, voila! The world’s first three dimensional dry erase board was made. We began drawing faces on it immediately and were amazed at all of its cool properties such as ease of erasability, ability to make the same face look like anyone, and even how you could light it from behind at night. It was a fun night! We hung the board on the fridge and thought nothing of it.
A few weeks later I was having a party and one of my friend’s wives is a school teacher. She loved the board and asked for a bunch for her classroom raving about all that she could do with it. At that moment, I realized I might have something here. With that, Twisted Boards was born!
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
After the first prototypes were made in my basement and kitchen, I realized that I would not be able to realistically manufacture the boards myself so I began looking for vacuum thermomolders in the Connecticut area. This proved much more challenging than I expected as most vacuum thermomolders work with very thin plastics like what would be used for a tray of Oreos. After searching for a month, I became pretty frustrated. I was having a Founder’s Breakfast Stout in my backyard and saw that it was made in Michigan.
Out of frustration, I yelled, "How can this be so hard?! They make car parts in Michigan!" And with that, I decided to fly to Michigan and find a car parts manufacturer.
I ended up having beers with a small parts manufacturer in Michigan. After a little convincing and a lot of faith, they decided to accept my business and help me with my imperfect idea. We began prototyping using the original casting of my face and soon we had 8,000 units! I had rented warehouse space down the street from a box manufacturer who would soon become another key to my manufacturing and distribution puzzle.
The start-up costs were significant as the die-tool is about the size of a pickup truck bed and made from solid aluminium. The die tool cost about $15,000 but has a virtually unlimited lifetime. The next cost was the plastic sheeting, actual manufacturing, and the storage. All told, the start-up costs were approximately $100,000. There were several other expenses along the way such as marketing and patenting that quickly increased the start up costs but once we were selling, we knew we had something as the orders kept coming in.
The last thing I would tell you is that getting a simple dry erase board certified as safe for kids to use was a nightmare. Numerous testing laboratories and age certifications had to be done but we did those after the fact as we learned what was necessary.
Describe the process of launching the online store/business.
Creating our online store was actually the easiest part. Shopify has made starting businesses so easy these days I can’t say enough about them and how easy they made the process. The way they integrate with our fulfillment center and banking is seamless.
I financed the business through personal loans and a partnership with my parents who loaned me about half of the startup costs. Because we were a new business with virtually no collateral, we were unable to obtain any business loans.
The launch was eye opening. When you launch a product, you assume that the entire world sees it at once and starts buying but that’s just not the case. People need to see your product before they can ever choose to buy it so marketing was key. We quickly learned that our product was so unlike what people were used to that they needed to see it in order to understand it. We began going to tradeshows and were very quickly picked up by numerous art stores, teacher supply stores, gift stores, and even hospital gift shops. Our product continues to do well in stores while our online sales have been weak; arguably because we have very limited online marketing skills haha.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Marketing is a beast. Especially if you have absolutely no experience in it like I did. Online sales were virtually zero at the beginning. What really worked for us was going to the trade shows and seeing people’s reactions, hearing their questions, understanding their concerns, and most importantly, learning what sales pitches worked the best on which audiences.
When it comes down to it, you are really marketing to two distinctly separate crowds; your end users and the businesses that sell to them. Both need equal attention or you won’t get anywhere. The first trade show we went to was in Vegas and quite a wake up call. It was both end users and businesses. We learned very fast that our packaging was all wrong. At the time, we were using white boxes that were printed. Our thought process was that we could easily drop ship them without repackaging them. This was a huge mistake. People couldn’t see what the product was and couldn’t understand it. Our second trade show was a huge success. It was just store owners and we had switched to a clear poly bag and header card type packaging. We sold to 50 stores that second show and learned a lot.
We decided to try a few narrow audience shows such as art supply stores and educational stores. These shows were also successful for us but only on their small levels. Sticking with the larger shows was more cost effective for us even though we had broad customer bases.
Our successes with the trade shows vastly helped us improve our online marketing by being able to better target our customers with ads that reached the right people. Sadly, we are still struggling with the online marketing and physical store sales continue to grow for us.
How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?
Due to my full-time job as a police officer, I can’t continually travel to the trade shows to expand the business despite how successful they have been for us. We have instead backed off and are letting the product sell itself while we build our intellectual portfolio.
We are very excited for what the future will bring. The mind blowing fact about our company is that the face board is just the proof of concept; we can make any shape! From a heart to a football, from a car to mickey mouse, from words to corporate branding! Our long-term goal is to license our intellectual property to someone who can take the concept to the next level with multiple shapes, colors, and sizes. If the next few years are as exciting as the previous ones, it should be quite a ride.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
There is a whole "underworld" that exists to exploit you in your early stages of business. Everything from insurance to marketing.
You will receive countless phone calls and emails from people claiming they can help your business and that they have the solutions for you. At times it gets difficult to weed out the con artists from the legitimate offers. The advice I would give for this problem is listen to the service they are offering and put it on your list, if the time comes and you believe your business could use AND CAN AFFORD that type of service, do your homework and choose the company that you feel is the right fit for you. I won’t say never, but rarely is the person who contacted you the right fit.
Fulfillment centers are another beast. I would recommend fulfilling your products yourself until it becomes to much of a burden as these cost money and can hurt your bottom line in the early stages. Also make sure to do your homework as far as how your storage space is calculated in these fulfillment centers. My product stacks one inside the other and so you can have 30 or 40 units in the dimensional space of two or three units. My first fulfillment center took the dimensions of each unit and multiplied it by the thousands of units I had stored there. I couldn’t understand for the longest time why I was losing hundreds of dollars a month. I took a trip to the warehouse to "tour the operation" and found that my product occupied a small shelf but I was being charged for almost two tractor trailer trucks worth of space! Don’t assume a company is doing right by you, frequently double check what’s going on and make some surprise visits.
Also extremely helpful was making friends with other startup entrepreneurs and staying in contact. One of me biggest supporters and sources for encouragement is my buddy Gene. We met at a trade show in Las Vegas. He was walking around in a full SCUBA suit to draw attention to his product and we hit it off immediately. Gene and I talk every few weeks and keep each other on track and lean on each other for advice. I have several other friends I have met who were following their dreams and starting their businesses at trade shows and I have remained in contact with many of them. The beauty of this is that as you develop the "direct source" contacts in the industry, you can share your experiences or even put in a good word for your friends. Let’s face it, applying to the Walmarts of the world is like throwing your name in a giant swimming pool. Having a contact that you’ve made facial recognition with is invaluable and if they like you, chances are they will like those you’ve become friends with.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Shopify is a game changer. When you think about how far we’ve come in the entrepreneurial world where anyone can have an online store so simply it’s really amazing.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Unfortunately I don’t have a ton of time during the day like most people but the book "4 Hour Workweek" probably inspired me the most that anything was possible. Before reading that book, I didn’t even know that the business service world existed. I also love leadership books and while not directly applicable, I believe that they give you insight into how people work and how to make good impressions on people. Colin Powell’s book, “It Worked for Me” is a fantastic audiobook because he is the actual narrator.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
When I first started I had delusions of grandeur and said to myself that no way would I let more orders come in than I could fulfill so I started my business ready for almost ANY sized order. If I had it to do again, I would say that scaling up is probably the easiest thing to do and a good problem to have. Scaling down is not so easy and not a great problem to have. I would have definitely started my business smaller. Having said that, I now don’t worry about a lot of the growing pains and headaches of expansion, but it came at a hefty dollar value.
Where can we go to learn more?
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
If anyone reading this thinks they have an avenue for sales or wants to take a stab at marketing, I’d be happy to offer commission for any sales from a dozen units to thousands of units! It’s a fascinating product with unique challenges that are quite fun. Our product retails for $19.99/unit right now but we are hoping to drive that price down with volume in the future. Our margins are tight as "our eyes were bigger than our stomachs" to start. As with any product, the larger your production run the cheaper the cost per unit and we started with a massive first run. So massive that we are still selling from the first batch! Contact me directly at [email protected]
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business.
By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
- Pat Walls, Founder of Starter Story