How did you start a bulletproof vest company? This is the first question people ask. It isn't a simple story, but you're reading and I'm writing so I will try to tell it as quickly as possible.
After Engineering School I went to work for a Helicopter company. There I became a Test Engineer. Test Engineers see if things work properly. One assignment I had was to test a new fuel tank liner. Instead of a Kevlar liner, they were switching to polyethylene to save money. The new liner was only 30% of the cost of the Kevlar one. If it worked, it would save a bunch of money. I think the difference was $100,000 vs. $30,000. I was on the team that did much of the testing and it worked really well. We all received little certificates for our desks that said we helped the company save money. At the time, I looked at bulletproof vests, they cost $1,000 and were made of Kevlar. I wondered if they could switch to polyethylene and get the price to $300.
After working for the helicopter company I went to work for Ford where I became a business planning analyst. It was at Ford that I learned to make things inexpensively. The Helicopters at my old company were $50,000,000 and didn't include any electronics. A fairly complex car or truck was less than $20,000. Ford knew how to build great things at a low price, it was a great place to learn. I left Ford in 1998 to start a company, but tried to keep that knowledge handy.
Fast-forward to 2012 and I was in a store that sold bulletproof vests. I noticed that vests were still $1,000 but now they were made of polyethylene. I was surprised. Why hadn't the price dropped?
I smelled an opportunity. Why were vests so expensive? Could you make them for less? Would anyone buy an affordable bulletproof vest? Would this be a good business for me to launch?
Fortunately, I'm married to a really smart woman who is also a marketing expert. I also have a brother with a Master's Degree in Market Research. I enlisted their help in finding the answers to my questions. Here they are:
Why were vests so expensive? I identified three reasons:
- Because police departments only pay 1/2 the price for their vests and the federal government subsidizes the other half. This causes police departments to buy nicer vests than they would normally.
- Police departments are hard to sell to. You have to visit them, you have to measure each officer, meetings are canceled if there are emergencies, lunches and dinners are often purchased, and the sales process is slow. This adds significantly to the cost.
- Many customers want custom cut, fit, and stitched vests. This requires local manufacturing, highly skilled labor, and a portion of vests are sent back because the first attempt doesn't fit well.
Could you make a vest for less? Yes. The manufacturing of the vest for less wasn't hard, but could you make, market, and find customers for an inexpensive bulletproof vest.
Who would be interested in an affordable vest? It didn't seem like police departments would be that interested, even Detroit's police department who was just about bankrupt didn't want to buy vests that were customized, and every department we spoke to couldn't believe that we wouldn't send a representative to visit them. But, we did find a second market for vests. Security Guards. Security Guards need protection, but they don't get a federal subsidy, nor are they issued a vest by their job. They have to buy their own vest and $1,000 is two weeks take home pay for them. That is far too expensive.
Could you sell an affordable bulletproof vest? Yes, in fact some people already were. Army/Navy stores all over the country were selling expired bulletproof vests for $300-$450. These were vests with no guarantee they will work, no liability insurance, and no warranty. None of the stores seemed to know if these vests will still work, yet they were selling for as much as we thought we could sell a brand new vest for. The only problem, Army/Navy stores were paying as little as $50 per vest for the product.
What could we sell a vest for? Right away we learned that $299 was the target price. It was lower than we had hoped. At $299 we would lose money on our first batches of vest and would need to sell quite a few of them to get the cost below that, but after interviewing 100 security guards it became clear, $299 needed to be the price. One person said that if the price was higher than that, we would have to ask his wife and he didn't want to do that.
After we figured all of that out, we decided to start the company. Unfortunately, it is a long, slow process to create a bulletproof vest, get it independently tested, and to acquire liability insurance for your products. After about 2 years we were able to launch, on August 7th, 2013. We debuted the BulletSafe Bulletproof Vest at the Midwest Police and Security Expo. Here is picture of myself and my friend Beth who helped me out in the booth.
It was a great launch, except for the white BulletSafe labels which we used on our first vests. One officer mentioned "those make a nice target". We changed to black within a week.