From Startup Weekend to Shark Tank: An Interview with Tom Burden

SHARK TANK - "Episode 912" - A U.S. Air Force fighter-jet machine-gun mechanic from Columbus, Ohio, introduces a high-performance problem-solver; an entrepreneur from Queens, New York, hopes the Sharks bite into a DNA test that aims to aid and optimize medical research; a Dallas, Texas, entrepreneur duo hopes to lure the Sharks with their high-tech solution for a common household chore; robots and drones are all the rage with boys, but one Bethesda, Maryland, entrepreneur is hoping to encourage more girls to get into coding and technology, on "Shark Tank," SUNDAY, NOV. 12 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Eric McCandless) RICHARD BRANSON, MARK CUBAN, LORI GREINER, TOM BURDEN (GRYPMAT)

Startup Weekend is all about meeting great people, learning new things, and building something awesome.

There’s probably no better example of this than Tom Burden, who’s taken his Startup Weekend idea all the way to Shark Tank.

How did he pull it off?

SW Organizer Alex Bell caught up with Tom to learn exactly that.

Getting Traction

Alex: How did you find out about Startup Weekend and when did you first attend?

Tom: So, I first found out about Startup Weekend back in the day when I wanted to start doing the Grypmat, around the end of 2013.

I found the LaunchPad Incubator in Toledo and they had a business competition called Pitch & Pour. I applied to it and I got denied and then they were like “well, we’ve got an event called Startup Weekend” and I was like, “sweet, I’ll try it out” and ended up getting first place.

Around 2015, I started helping out with Columbus Startup Weekend after I realized it was like a networking powerhouse and there’s so much stuff that I could learn that I didn’t know from my startup, all of the tips and tricks of how to do things faster and easier.

If there’s a way to do it free, it’s at Startup Weekend, if there’s a way to find it as cheap as possible, it’s at Startup Weekend. There might be like a software program, like “hey, you can get a free or a trial version or if you actually use these other two softwares combined, it will give you the same output.”

So, yeah, it’s a very scrappy community.

Alex: So you had this idea for the Grypmat and you were just looking to really sink your teeth in, you wanted to go to this launch pad innovator/accelerator place and be part of their program but for whatever reason you weren’t legit enough for them, so they sent you to Startup Weekend first.

Tom: Yeah. It was just too early for the Pitch & Pour, Startup Weekend was more of where I was at in entrepreneurship – I needed to learn a lot more about startup stuff.

There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t even think about at the time, like how do you pitch an idea, make an effective presentation, how to be on stage, how do you describe your idea or get feedback from customers and stuff like that.

We tried to make a prototype over the weekend and it turned out horrible, like “OK, we’re not going to put that on stage.”

Alex: So Startup Weekend was kind of the perfect way to get Grypmat started, get some of those connections, get some of the skills built, get some of the threads of things that you can pull on to go further, like ‘OK, now I need to figure out this now, I need to learn that’.

Tom: Yeah.

Alex: That’s awesome. That first time you pitched the idea for the Grypmat and it was one of the ideas that were chosen for the weekend?

Tom: Yeah, I think they took like 10 ideas and mine was the tenth.

Alex: Was it specifically for aircraft then or what was your idea at that point?

Tom: Yeah, yeah. I was a National Guard F16 Weapons Mechanic at the time, so the idea was that whatever part of a jet you’re working on, you would have a different mat that’s form-fitted for that part of the jet.

Alex: That’s awesome. You mentioned you tried to build a prototype and it didn’t work out really well. What did that look like?

Tom: So we were trying out this grip material, like a paint that you can put on tool handles to grip them better.

I also bought some wire mesh – kind of like a screen door – and I would cut it into a shape that I wanted and then I try to coat it with the grip paint.

It just turned into a dripping mess and we ended up throwing it out.

Alex: Definitely not worthy of using in your final presentation.

Tom: Yeah, yeah. I wish I would have taken a picture of it and put that in the presentation, like ‘yeah, we tried to make a prototype, it didn’t work’.

Alex: That would have been great, judges and people in general like to see “here’s how hard we failed this weekend”

So you tried to make this prototype, did you just end up with a presentation, did you guys have some sort of like 3D AutoCAD kind of design or did you have anything for the presentation other than just “here’s us pitching the idea?”

Tom: Probably, the most impressive part of the presentation was that I had some of the material [that I make Grypmats out of].

I put the material on a stool and I put my iPod on top of it while playing a song, then I took the stool and I moved it so that iPod was vertical, still playing music.

I also had a model of a jet with little bits of material stuck to it to visually see that where we need this gripey material on the curved surfaces of a jet.

Alex: That makes sense, having a sort of visual aid that maybe doesn’t look pretty but shows what you were trying to do.

So all in all what was your impression of that first weekend? Obviously winning was a big highlight.

Staying Scrappy

Tom: Yeah, winning was super exciting and you feel like you’re on cloud nine.

Then Monday hits and you’re just like “everyone is just going to like me and everything’s going to work” and it doesn’t work that way.

I remember I was like “wow, I need to make a working prototype!”

I figured, if anyone can make it, it’s a college engineering department, so I just kept asking professor after professor after professor where I could go to get something made and people kept saying “I don’t know what you can do, and I have no idea anyone that you could go to.”

The thing you’ve got to understand is you’re not the top priority of these people’s lives, when you’re going to them, the chances of them being to execute what you need are slim – even if they can do it they might not want to make the time.

I finally got to talking with the Dean of Engineering and he was like “we’ve got this machine shop that could get it made.”

So I went to the machine shop, ended up making some stuff and none of it worked.

At the same time, I was talking to some people in charge of an innovation grant and they directed me to this prototyping company that was actually in Columbus.

That company told me that it was going to be $15000 to make a prototype and I was like “no, that’s outrageous. I can do a lot of the drawings and all the research and a lot of the stuff myself, I just need them to help make it, I don’t need $10,000 put into brainstorming, I just want this made.”

At the time there was some magic to being broke.

If I had $100,000 back then, I would have created a product that would have been complete trash but the thing is, if I have a $100,000 now, I can turn that into a million dollars probably within six months.

When you’re at that broke phase, well, there’s two ways you can go about it.

You can either say, A – “there’s no other route to go and I’m going to quit” or B – you can constantly say “how can this happen, how can we create a solution, get around this or is there another way or another avenue.”

I could have sat there – I actually did stop for three or four months when I was waiting to hear back from this prototyping company, I was just sitting around expecting them to do it.

Eventually I realized, if I work with this company, something may come to light, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to keep pushing my business forward.

So I went back to asking different professors for help and eventually found this company in Toledo that sells these two-part chemicals I needed to make Grypmats.

He just knew everything, “yeah, the best way to do it would be this,” “make sure you take this, release and spray it so it doesn’t stick to the wet mold,” – things it might have taken me a long time to figure out on my own.

So I finally got the answer I was looking for but it took a lot of people to get just that one answer.

And with that answer, I built the first Grypmat mold during Thanksgiving break in my dad’s barn and for about $60.

Alex: I imagine working through that was tough.

It sounds like it took a lot of heading back to the grindstone of “Oh, this might be a lead. No, this isn’t working out, what do I do now? Well, I could give up but is there a next thing? What’s that next thread that I can start pulling on to keep making some more progress?”

Tom: I would always envision that I wanted to try every single door to see if one opens and when one opens, who knows what I’d find on the other side.

That’s how I thought when I was going to all these different professors, “okay this door is locked or this door is not opening. Ok, here’s one that opened, what’s it going to? Well, it’s going to someone else that knows about these materials, OK we’re kind of making progress, now that led to making a prototype. Now, with the prototype, we can show people the product, what’s the next row of doors? Let’s get funding or how do we get this manufactured.”

You’re just constantly trying every single option or door you can get your hands on until one works.

Alex: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Solid life advice even outside of entrepreneurship.

So, you’ve been back to Startup Weekend since that first time, you mentioned the learning and networking as reasons why.

Tom: Yeah, the community is great. A lot of the best friends that I have now and the people that I work with are from Startup Weekend.

It’s not just professional networking, it’s also personal networking, making friendships and meeting like-minded people.

Also, I always felt like the people who organized Startup Weekend are like just on another level of being scrappy.  I’ve always felt that if I were to work with all of the Startup Weekend people, we would take over the world because you’re raising money and putting these events together to lay the foundation for all of these potential companies in your free time.

So, yeah, any of the organizers, the facilitators, they’ve always been like top notch, it’s always good to be around other people like that.

Making the Future

Alex: For sure.  This my first year of organizing and definitely, it’s cool learning from all the different people and figuring out how to make this thing work.

Next question is kind of a big one: what are you working on now?

Obviously, there’s the Grypmat – hopefully everybody’s seen your Shark Tank presentation.

For those that haven’t, you got a deal and now your Startup Weekend idea is a real company, you’ve got people working with you, you’re traveling around – what’s next?

Tom: So the next step is really expanding our team – this morning, I was talking with a couple of potential interns.

At the same time, we’re growing the Grypmat from something that’s just for Aviation into a product for tool organization.

So it started as “Oh, if you work on planes, you should probably get the Grypmat.”  Now it’s “if you work with tools or you like to be organized and you have physical things that aren’t being organized, you should probably get a Grypmat.”

We’re getting a lot of attention from automotive, military, medical, quite a few different spots within the beauty supplies, we’re experimenting and testing these different markets.

So, that’s kind of the direction of we’re growing into as a company.

And beyond just growing the company, the team and I are starting to see that the mat will be a great segue to get contacts and resources in nearly every single market.

In the future, if I have a product for military, I’m already going to know how to get a product within the military, if I have something for automotive, I’ll already have all the contacts to do so – we’ll be making a handful of phone calls to put things into motion rather than trying to build relationships.

Along with that, I want to be the model company for the Sharks, where they’ll need a system for a new company and I’ll say “well, this is how we’ve been doing it and it’s kind of scrappy, it’s kind of new, but it’s been extremely fruitful” and then they’ll basically have their other companies adopt those systems.

I guess that’s really the long-term vision – optimizing systems.

I mean, I think about what it would be like if we got to the point where Grypmat lowers costs for airlines, then they can drop their ticket prices to be more competitive and better serve their customers.

The same thing with Medicare – what if we get to the point where the operating room is so efficient that operations become less expensive.

I get it, it’s just a rubber tray right now, but I believe my strong point is inventing and seeing these flaws in the systems and I feel like Grypmat is just kind of a stepping stone for going further in that direction.

Alex: That’s awesome dude, I love how you’re aligning where you’ve been, what you’re doing today, and where you want to be in another 10 years so well.

Is there anything else you want to mention before I let you go?

Tom: Yeah, if you’re interested in entrepreneurship or startups or not, I think it’s definitely worth going to Startup Weekend.

I’ve never heard of anyone who has gone and didn’t find it life-changing or didn’t leave with a new friend or inspired; everyone who goes leaves with something that’s very impactful to their life.

Alex: Awesome, thanks for your time Tom!

To Learn More

Be sure to follow the latest Grypmant News on Facebook and Twitter.

And if you’re coming to our next Startup Weekend, you can meet Tom in person – he is Saturday’s featured speaker!