I had the surreal pleasure of watching a good friend of mine on ABC’s Shark Tank last night. My buddy Tom Burden pitched his product, The Grypmat, to the panel of Sharks including guest judge Sir Richard Branson.
It all worked out perfectly: Tom, an Air Force mechanic, created the Grypmat for other Air Force mechanics. Branson, as you probably know, owns an airline company. The two of them share a birthday. The episode aired the evening after Veteran’s Day, and a week before Black Friday.
Spoiler: Tom could not have handled himself better and landed three sharks: Branson, Mark Cuban, and Lori Greiner. Obviously there is editing for TV, but it really look like he handled the situation flawlessly and with incredible humility.
If that’s where you tuned in to Tom’s story, it looks easy.
Tom and I grew up in a small town called Celina, Ohio. We weren’t super close in high school, but he did take my dad’s class where he learned Computer Aided Drafted and I did let him cheat on my German class homework. At one point, I blamed him and his motorcycle for luring away a girl I had a crush on.
Tom went to the University of Toledo and joined the Air Force out of high school. We lost touch for a while, and he saved cash to buy a house in Toledo which he leveraged to provide him the cash flow to spend time working on ideas and inventions.
At some point, he attended a Startup Weekend in Toledo (which he won with the Grypmat, I think circa 2013) and that created a reconnection as I was organizing Startup Weekend in Columbus. We kept in touch, and he began visiting Columbus.
Over the next couple years beginning in 2014-15, I watched Tom build his business. He worked through getting prototypes, he realized the challenges of building a team, he purchased his first orders of inventory, and he started flipping it at trade shows.
At one point, he even broke rank in the military to get the Grypmat in front of an officer who could help him. And one summer, he sublet a room in our house for $100/month so he could spend more time in Columbus where he was beginning to meet people who could help him.
Throughout this time, he was saving everything he could to reinvest in the business. He was finding ways to keep his trade show materials in as few luggage containers as possible so he barely paid to fly them. He maximized his Chipotle orders to get two meals out of one order. And most mornings, he’d wake me up with these ridiculous motivational videos at 6am.
He started forming a strong team and eventually launched an incredibly well-planned Kickstarter campaign to market the Grypmat. He raised $113,000+ on a $10,000 goal.
The dude just outworks you. He makes the most of every penny, and he does whatever it takes.
If you tuned into Tom’s episode of Shark Tank, it’d be easy to think his success came easily. It’d be easy to think that he knows exactly what he’s doing and that’s how he got there. And it’d be easy to think that it came quickly, too.
But I watched it happen, and I know better. Last night’s Shark Tank victory is the culmination of years and years of hard work, struggle, commitment, and sacrifice. It’s the latest step in a string of figuring it out along the way and not slowing down because of uncertainty.
And if you’re like me, let that be a reminder that the work you’re doing, the struggle you’re living, is a necessary component to success. When you get to your stage, you’ll be ready too.