I enjoy receiving email from readers that describes how they overcame their challenges and personal difficulties. Sometimes readers also share their inspirational stories. I recently received some correspondence from a reader who described how he and a friend turned a lifelong passion into an actual business, and thought it would be something of general interest to others.
People like to hear stories about how small companies progress from the “idea” stage to the implementation stage. We hear so much these days about the outsourcing of business, and the general decline in product quality. But innovative and exciting things continue to happen in the business world all around us, if only we know where to look.
The company that’s the subject of this post is called Delta2Alpha, and their business is pocket-knife manufacture. When they contacted me and told me how they formed their business, I was curious to know the exact steps they took. The two owners, who go by the names of Ace and Dante, described their background to me in this way:
We had similar upbringings; we were raised in rural areas by parents that carried values the a previous generation. We grew up hearing phrases from our fathers like, “pull your weight,” “earn your salt”, and “this world owes you nothing.” We even heard statements as cheery as, “the world isn’t fair, and it doesn’t care.” We were taught the value of hard work and self-sufficiency, and the value of honor.
We were taught that a man should be good on his word and his handshake, but not everyone will be. Most importantly we were taught that a man’s name (reputation) was built over years, on his own back, his accomplishments, and how fair he was with others. A reputation was also built with his integrity, who he was when he thought nobody was looking. We were also taught that although it took years to build a reputation, but only a few minutes to ruin it.
We grew up fighting, hunting, shooting, buildings traps, making crude bow and arrows and going on adventures. We would build forts down at the nearby creek a few miles away from home in summer…As all little boys growing up this way, we were given knives by our fathers. We carried pocket knives from the time we were 6 years old to now.
Eventually, these shared interests came to be expressed in an entrepreneurial form. Ace and Dante started a production company for knives called “Delta2Alpha.” Their guiding principles were these, as they explain:
We combined our experience in machining, manufacturing, engineering, trades work, martial arts, military service, emergency services, and started Delta2Alpha Design Inc.
Our company design philosophy is simple: we look at the problem, and how those problems have been solved historically. After all, few problems are new, or unique. We then talk to end users, or “the boots on the ground” and find out what they like or don’t like about the existing solutions. We will then look at what improvements can be made using modern materials.
There is a principle we call, “the curse of the rounder wheel,” that we constantly keep in mind. What we mean by it is, at a certain point a design is the best it will be, and any changes you make to it will only serve to make it worse. Something can only be so round, and after that point you begin chasing your own tail.
We stay away from making things “gadgety.” We intentionally avoid the use of small springs, switches, and buttons. Sure, these things seem like a really good idea in the sterile pages of a magazine, or on the controlled environment of the show room floor. However, it has been our experience that having these things on a knife will fail on you in the field, when you most need your equipment to work.
Spaced aged materials may seem like a great idea, but some of the materials just don’t feel “right” in your hand. If you put grooves on the handle for your fingers, it will work great for those few people who hold the end product the exact same way that we do, and have the same size of hand. If one of those people were to switch the product from their right to their left hand, or change their grip slightly, it will feel “off.”
We are also the end users of our designs, so we are committed to making products of the highest quality. We don’t have an interest in releasing a new knife every 6 months “just because.” We send our designs to production only after we have carried them, and extensively tested them. Only when we find that we cannot improve the design any further, do we take our products to the production stage. We may offer a future version of the design in a different color, different pocket clip, or perhaps a version with titanium liners (lightning). Our designs will be few and far between, but worth the wait (and weight).
When I asked them how they started, they made it clear this way: “We knew we wanted to build a legacy that would last a lifetime. We had to keep the passion burning to put in the long hours of labour required to keep a multi-year project going. We want to create products that stand the test of time. In other words, to build “the great white shark.”
They knew that they had to invest in their idea and in their business. Unlike a lot of people who start businesses, they realized that you have to produce something that has value. They continued this way:
We knew that this wouldn’t be easy, timely, or cheap. We had to convince many friends, retailers and strangers that it was a good idea to support us. We hired a high quality graphic designer to keep a consistent style across our website and product creation…We asked for the help of another old friend and entrepreneur who has successfully created dozens of companies over his life time. We interviewed numerous custom knife makers, trying to find a knife maker who could share our vision and build our prototype.
We traveled a great distance to visit him and his family in person, thanking him in person for his hard work and consistency. We ultimately turned to the Italians, and [had another company] mass produce the end product. Even though there were two of us at the head of this project, there were many, many people behind the scenes making the magic happen. Most of the early money was pulled out of our own pockets and savings accounts. Once we proved that we could sell the initial prototypes, we began to fund the project with “pre-order” sales. Some of the people backing this project put in significant amounts of money. However, some of those early financiers had to wait a long time to see the end result.
In other words, they had a passion and they pursued it. And they were prepared to accept the risks that come with any worthwhile enterprise. But they were prepared to continue working and being patient. And the patience paid off. This is what it takes to be successful in business. The old platitude about inspiration and perspiration turns out to be completely true.
The company’s design philosophy was deliberately to aim high. They made no effort, and no intention, of competing with the cheap junk that you might find imported from overseas. The emphasis here is on quality, longevity, and durability. This is an important principle to keep in mind in business: do not aim for the lowest common denominator. Aim high. Quality begets quality. The fast-buck artists fade away fast. Those who last are those with tenacity and those who have something real to offer.
So Ace and Dante made a smart business decision: they wanted customers who knew a good knife from a mediocre or bad one, and targeted that market.
And if you’re selling something of quality, people will eventually take notice. One of their knife designs, the H2 Sierra, is explained this way: “[T]his is the perfect folding knife. We didn’t want to trust the quality of its manufacture to just anyone. With that said, we are quite pleased to say we are working with a company from Italy, a country with not only a rich blade culture but also one with a tradition of old world craftsmanship.” Italy is home to some of the most respected weapons designers, and it was intriguing to hear that they actually have connections there.
It seems that the way to success for a small business is this: focus on what you know, do it in the best way you can, and don’t compromise on quality. Hearing Ace and Dante’s story was motivating for me, and I hope others find it as exciting as I have. If you believe in something, follow your passion, and be prepared to put in the work and the investment. All the old adages about following your passion, and about putting in the brutal work, turn out to be true. There is no magic wand, and there are no shortcuts.
I urge readers to check out their website (delta2alpha.com) to see more for themselves.
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