November 19, 2019

Leveling Up

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Hampton Station in Greenville, South Carolina, is a haven for cutting-edge local businesses. Located northwest of the city's vibrant downtown in the historic Water Tower District, the former cotton warehouse is equal parts start-up incubator, urban oasis, and old-fashioned watering hole.

Visitors can quaff a handcrafted brew at Birds Fly South Ale Project, grab a bite at White Duck Taco Shop, or even partake in America's latest craze—ax throwing—at Craft Axe Throwing. Hampton Station is also the perfect landing spot for Lever Gear, an up-and-coming business in the "everyday carry" (EDC) category originally launched in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2016.

"I hadn't even heard of EDC before launching Lever Gear, but there's an entire industry based on what you carry on your person," says founder Mike Scully. "There's an element of style, being prepared, and simply finding cool gear. Lever Gear fit right in."

The Lever Gear origin story hits familiar notes. After graduating from North Carolina State with degrees in engineering and industrial design, Scully spent 15 years as a product design consultant in San Francisco. He worked with what he refers to as "some of the most talented design and engineering teams in the world."

Most of his time and energy went into making other people's inventions better. Undaunted and inspired, Scully carved out time for regular brainstorming sessions to conjure a creation he could ultimately bring to market. His parameters were straightforward but stringent: high-quality, über-useful, and compact.

"High shipping costs can be a major barrier in this industry," he says. "Everyone carries credit and debit cards, so that became the target size."

Shortly after moving from the Bay Area to Asheville in 2015, Scully rebranded his consultancy as a product-focused business. He poured himself into the development of a credit-card-sized multi-tool with a clean design, high-quality construction, and unmatched utility. The result was Lever Gear's first release, Toolcard Pro (pictured above).

"I had always planned on starting my own company, and the idea was to build a brand around a product, not vice versa," Scully says. "You have to start somewhere, and we decided to do it with the Toolcard Pro."

Weighing only an ounce with a rectangular design that slips easily into a back pocket, Toolcard Pro features 40 tools ranging from screwdrivers and a bottle opener to a hex bit holder and a cord cutter. It retails from $25.95 to $35.95, depending on the finish. For anyone who has ever needed to open a cold beverage, pop the lid on a paint can, and tighten a screw in under 30 seconds, Toolcard Pro is the solution.

While some of Scully's story might bring to mind ABC's Shark Tank, Scully was committed to funding Lever Gear's launch without outside investment. In 2016, he turned to Kickstarter, a platform for new projects driven entirely by crowdfunding. Backers pledge money to creators to bring products to market. In turn, they receive "rewards," such as limited editions, discounts, and exclusive experiences.

"I really wanted to bootstrap the company and not have to raise a lot of money," Scully says. "Kickstarter is a great platform for small businesses. It has a huge audience of early adopters who are very active in the EDC space."

Lever Gear didn't just meet its funding goal on Kickstarter, it obliterated it. Scully and his wife, April, set what they thought was an aggressive target of $12,000. They ended up securing 1,375 backers who invested $65,840. But the experience yielded benefits beyond selling product and raising money.

"As a [Kickstarter] requirement, we had to build out a full web page of information around Toolcard," Scully says. "It forces you to think about branding and marketing, which we needed."

Lever Gear's target audience is 18- to 45-year-old males who are both picky and intentional about the gear they buy and carry. This cohort frequently travels for leisure and business, so Toolcard Pro is designed to comply with TSA in-flight rules. Scully says most buyers opt for the attachable money clip, available for a small upcharge.

Of course, one product, no matter how well received by the EDC community, doesn't make for a scalable business—especially in a hypercompetitive category in which innovation equals survival. Design of Lever Gear's second offering began in early 2018 and culminated with the launch of BitVault. A combination screwdriver and watertight carrying case, BitVault holds up to six bits with room for other small items.

"The idea is for BitVault to fit on and hang from your keychain," Scully says. "But it also needed to be superfunctional and cool enough for EDC gearheads like me."

Scully's giddy enthusiasm suggests that he's crafting products he'd not only buy, but pay a premium for. On a blazing hot summer morning at Lever Gear's brick-walled office, Scully darts into the back and reemerges with a huge grin and his third creation, the CableKit.

Barely larger than a flash drive, CableKit is an ultraportable case with a mobile device adapter and room for a charging cable. It has already surpassed its funding goal on Kickstarter, with $28,996 raised through 922 backers.

Small, sleek, and easy to carry, CableKit reflects a subtle pivot for Lever Gear from traditional tool to emerging tech. Scully says the shift is premeditated, as it broadens Lever Gear's appeal and actionable audience.

"Our mission is to empower people to get more done in their lives by making products that solve problems," he adds. "Not everyone needs 40 tools, but we've all encountered a situation with a dying battery on a device."

Speaking of power, Lever Gear's bootstrap business model means that Scully isn't under investor pressure to grow the company to a certain size or build it up only to sell it off to a larger entity. So, what does the future hold for this darling of the EDC community?

"I envision growing Lever Gear up to around 40 employees and at that point inserting an executive leadership team," he says. "My exit strategy wouldn't be an exit. I'd let others run the company, and I'd stay on to create and design new products."

Spoken like a person who wants to make a lasting impact on the EDC movement.

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