For Loctote, collaborating with the UK-based bike lock company, Litelok®, was a no-brainer. With a shared passion for living more and worrying less, Loctote's founder, Don Halpern, and Neil Barron of Litelok, focus on engineering products that help you keep your valuables safe so you can enjoy the adventure.
Listen to Don and Neil explain how Loctote and Litelok came to be, how the brands overcame recent challenges, and what’s planned for the future as they sit down with Josh Salvo from the ReddyYeti Podcast.
The below transcript has been edited for clarity.
Josh Salvo: So this is a more unique podcast episode. Rarely do we have two founders of two businesses on at the same time, but to start things off, Don, for the listener that may not be familiar with Loctote, how would you best describe your brand to them?
Don Halpern: Well, Loctote makes what I would call ridiculously tough, ridiculously practical anti-theft bags. In other words, we make bags that you can just take with you every day is your everyday carry. You can secure your things and you can lock it to anything and know that your things are safe. So while you're doing other things, eating, playing, swimming, doing sports, running, working out - it gives you peace of mind, lets you live more and worry less.
Neil Barron: At Litelok we make the world's lightest insurance rated bike and motorbike locks, which we design, develop and manufacture in the UK and sell globally. Basically bikes are getting lighter and lighter and locks have been getting heavier and heavier until now. So we tried to make products that are completely rethinking the whole bike security area.
JS: For the listener that may not be aware, obviously Litelok and Loctote are two different brands, but in the U.S. and Canada, they're kind of collaborating together. What made you guys decide to partner together?
DH: I was familiar with Litelok from back in their Kickstarter campaign. They had launched before us. I admired what they were doing. I loved what they were doing. I was blown away when I saw the original campaign. I was doing hours and inventing our product, kind of thinking back to these guys that somehow made a bike lock out of materials like nobody had ever seen before. Everything about their brand resonated the same kind of values and feel as we had. So it was a no-brainer to me. It was all about living more and worrying less, being ultra secure, being ridiculously tough, being lightweight. It just purely made sense.
NB: I really love what Loctote stands for and the energy that Don's bought to the whole area. Also I really admire things that are simple yet innovative. It takes a lot of work and effort to make something really simple that benefits a user. I think people look at simple stuff and think, “Oh, it must be quite easy to do” but it really isn't.
JH: Neil, how did you develop this idea of Litelok?
NB: There were quite a few things that led to the whole Litelok idea. I ran a bike innovation workshop in the Royal College of Art in London, which is very innovative. There's design and engineering meets art and visual design. And one of the things that came out of that was the observation that bikes are getting lighter and lighter and locks and other things are getting heavier and heavier. I also had three bikes stolen across quite a reasonable period. So I know what it feels like to have your bike stolen, which is really quite important, I think. So you really are trying to make something for the customer and you can actually completely empathize with how they feel. But there aren’t any locks, really until we came along, which are light, flexible and secure. That’s what we really stand for in terms of the technical product.
JS: Did you have any background in engineering or manufacturing that helped you prototype and build the Litelok?
NB: I studied at university aeronautics and astronautics, I used to work and I got trained by Rolls Royce Aircraft Engine in the UK, and I then went on to go to art college and study design. So I think everything came together for this project. I do say to people that Litelok basically encompasses everything I've ever done, whether it's brand, whether it's sort of visual design or technical design in terms of the prototyping question.
JS: Don, let's talk about your start with Loctote. How did things get rolling for you in starting the business?
DH: Well, I mean, it all started when my stuff got stolen off the beach on a family vacation. I guess that's when I came up with the idea for a theft-resistant bag. So at that point, you know, I kind of went out, started on my computer researching. Well, somebody must have created this thing because I need one and there wasn't anything. So I decided I'm going to invent one and that's kind of where it started. I got back home and first thing I did was buy a roll of Tybeck house wrap, and some duct tape and started cutting out and taping up prototypes and went from there.
JS: Your background is sort of inventing and creating new products, what really got you into the inventing world?
DH: Attention deficit disorder and boredom probably more than anything else. My background is in business. I ran a management consulting business my entire life. I have 3 million airline miles under my belt, so I know a lot about travel and bags and security. I sold my consulting firm in 2010 to a public company. I always like to make things and kind of just invent and tinker. That was just kinda my thing out of just boredom. Starting in 2010, I actually had the resources to be able to do it. So that's what enabled me to start to pursue it.
JS: So for the both of you the idea sort of started from a very similar place. Once you have the product finalized, at least the first version, you both ran Kickstarter campaigns. Is that what you used to sort of validate the idea and get things rolling?
DH: Yeah, for me, that was definitely the validation, right. I mean, like I knew, I knew I wanted the thing and I knew it was going to work for me. And my question was, you know, did anybody else care? I honestly had no idea. I'd never done a Kickstarter campaign before I had nobody with experience helping me, I just read everything there was to read. And I wasn't an idiot, I've been in business my whole life, right? So I figured I had as good a shot as anybody on it, but I really didn't know.
NB: I had no idea really whether [Litelok] would be well received, and I definitely kept everything quite secret. The way I say to people these days is that in a month we went from absolutely unknown to making pre-sales in 57 countries. So you could say that [Kickstarter] was just hugely influential. Do people want this? Do they think this a good idea? Does this fix a problem that people have? I think that's fantastic about crowd funding, but we also didn't know anything about how to do it. We had to learn, and we got loads of advice from people, which I have to say on that. I always share it because people were really, really generous with us when we were moving towards going on Kickstarter. It's brilliant.
JS: What tactics did you do with the Kickstarter campaigns that you feel warranted the most success in getting that exposure and ultimately pre-selling the most amount of product?
NB: I tried to do everything in the best possible way that I can. I treat everything I do as being the most important thing I've ever done. So we created some imagery, which we're still using today and that's five years later because actually we haven't really done anything better in terms of imagery. I think we just thought about everything that somebody might ask when they're looking at the campaign and tried to cover it in the campaign. We took lots of advice off people as well. So when you put all that together with a lot of effort you hopefully end up with something good, but you have no idea whether it's going to be successful or not.
DH: I think for us, it was just making it personal. Like my takeaway from all the research we did, everything we read and then from actually doing it, is having it come from real people with a real story. Just making everything authentic and tied together, and just really resonate with who you are. I just think that makes all the difference in the world. I think that's the difference between a successful campaign and a not successful campaign.
JS: So both brands were started in end of 2013, early 2014. And we can start with you, Don. What is the growth been like from then to today?
DH: A lot, right. I mean, obviously Kickstarter was ridiculous, right? That's artificial growth though, because you just don't get that kind of oomph in the real world. So then we flattened out quite a bit, because we spent all our time trying to fill those orders - because who saw that coming? Then Shark Tank came along and we spiked on that and then we flattened out again. Then we tweaked our marketing again, so then we’d come into another growth spurt and then obviously things are flat again with COVID-19. So, you know, it’s pretty consistently we look like a staircase.
JS: And that's how a lot of businesses grow. It's not always the hockey stick that is sensationalized in media. Now Neil, what about for Litelok?
NB: Pretty similar story. I think Kickstarter does give you a slightly artificial kind of growth. We found that after the Kickstarter stopped people wanted to buy from us and pre-order, even though they couldn't just get the product the next day. So we had to not scramble, but not far off, to get a website going and start to become proficient at all of that stuff simultaneously. And that was a bit of a challenge. But since then we've been growing pretty steadily. The current period with Coronavirus is obviously a challenge, but in cycling and motorcycling, potentially, we think there's going to be an uplift on people commuting. So we're getting ready at the moment. We're hoping that we can support people's way of getting back and forth to work and securing their vehicles.
JS: How has, COVID affected manufacturing for your business?
NB: It's amazing actually what's happened because we've got most people working from home and at the moment you can still order a Litelok, still get the same kind of next day delivery or a couple of days delivery. And the fact is it's being fulfilled out of a pretty complex arrangement of people's houses and moving things around and whatever in a safe way. So we've managed to keep going, but the raw manufacturing is hard because you can't do all of it.
DH: We're very tightly integrated with our manufacturers in China. Initially we were manufacturing in the U.S but they could in no way scale to the level that we needed to after the Kickstarter campaign, they didn't even want to try. I had no experience with overseas manufacturing, so I took on an equity partner that actually had 11 factories overseas. So we were very, very tightly integrated. Obviously when COVID-19 hit and it hit there first it was complete shutdown. The good news is that they were back up and running a lot sooner than we are. They shut down a month for Chinese New Year and pretty much right when they were getting ready to come back up after Chinese New Year, they shut down for COVID. So it was a pretty long shutdown for us.
JS: How did you find your partner in manufacturing? What was the vetting process like there?
DH: So I live in a town called New Albany, Ohio, which nobody ever would have heard of, but we are actually the retail epicenter of the Midwest of the United States. So just with networking from people who know people, you can pretty much find anybody related to any aspect of retail and supply chain just by kind of working with who knows who.
JS: I've spoken to so many founders who have had issues where they do an equity partnership for manufacturing. And it's just turned into a disaster because they over promised, said they could do X, Y, and Z, and then just couldn't. And then it was just a whole kerfuffle. And it just sounds like a huge headache.
DH: To me, it was the best thing I ever did. [After the Kickstarter] I thought my kids were gonna like stuff boxes and put labels on them and do the shipping for me. So one day a semi shows up in front of my house and unloads seven pallets of flattened boxes. And I'm just looking at this going, what have I done? There’s just no way, right? And you know, the same partner had 265,000 square feet of warehousing and fulfillment and docks and had everything I needed. I mean it was a no-brainer. And then, you know, turned out just to be a great guy, you know, high integrity.
NB: You can't underestimate luck as well. When we developed our composite material - which is the flexible part of our bike locks - I showed something to Continental in Germany and they said, “well, we can make that”. And it was just a completely accidental meeting. And the next thing is a bit like Don's story of his boxes, I've got five miles of bike lock arriving in Wales. It’s absolutely mind blowing. When you go from secret to that is kind of amazing.
JS: That's crazy. I couldn't even imagine because we're all digital. So whenever I talk to brands that have this big manufacturing component, I'm always like, “Ooh, the logistics of it alone…”, and then the quality control and the relationship - it's a very complicated piece of a business.
DH: Quality control is is the thing that can break you. Like when something shows up and the quality is sub par, but it's within what you asked for, you own it and it's your fault. And if you manufacture something and you make a product and you're a young business, that's what could ruin you. Cause you could end up with three tons of something that you basically have to eat. You know, you can't use it in your product, right. It doesn't meet your standard, the manufacturer delivered to you what you asked for, but it's not what you wanted. Right? Horrible.
JS: Right. So how, how do you minimize that? I guess in, in when creating a new product, how do you be as detailed as possible so that when you do place that large order, you're not nervously awaiting it to see something messed up.
DH: At least my advice is you buy nothing until you have a sample in your hand. That is exactly like what you're going to get that production run to look like.
NB: I kind of agree with that really. Those mistakes are too expensive and you just, as a small business, you can't really afford to do those.
DH: You might have to spend $2,000 to get a six inch swatch of something, do it, you know?
JS: Let's talk about sustainability since you both run manufacturing businesses and we can start with you, Neil, how do you keep a sustainability front and center, especially running an outdoor brand specifically.
NB: So we obviously do strive to be socially and environmentally responsible and aware as much as we can. It's really, really important to me. I've run a design and innovation consultancy for most of my adult life. And I've always had this sort of mantra - I call it responsible creative thinking. What's this going to do to the environment? One of the things that I really like about Litelok is I get up every day thinking I'm actually doing something, that's getting people on bikes, keeping people on bikes. If you make something lightweight, it saves fuel as well. If you look at the whole life cycle of a product, even shipping it around is saving money, if it's lighter. We try to look at it in everything we do. We try to make products that we can separate into materials at the end of their life, but also something that's gonna last for a decent amount of time. And we're just genuinely trying to do our best.
JS: So talking specifically with you, Don, about Loctote, how do you guys keep sustainability front and center with your business?
DH: First and foremost, I mean we design and craft our bags to outlive their owners. That's fundamental in our DNA, right. We don't believe in over-consumption. We don't believe in fast fashion. Regarding product development we’re always focused on improving our products’ theft resistance, but it's all about construction quality and quality of our materials to extend the life of our products. So these things stick around, you know. We don't ever want to see a Loctote bag laying in a landfill. We're currently researching using an up-cycled nylon to replace the lining in our bags. Then from a packaging standpoint, we already use recycled cardboard for our packaging. We ship everything by boat which, you might not have known this, but maritime shipping is actually the world's most carbon efficient form of transporting goods. Lastly, right now in production, we're just trying to diversify our global footprint just to get our manufacturing in more places to reduce our transportation altogether, right. The less we have to move product the smaller our footprint is.
JS: I want to pivot to talk about the future of both Loctote and Litelok, what's in store for the next year, 5 years, 10 years down the road for each of your businesses?
DH: Well, we have a Kickstarter coming up. We've got a whole bunch of new products coming that will be launched in a single Kickstarter. Our goal down the road is to really become a leading lifestyle brand and not a fashion brand. Loctote Industrial Bag Company, you know, I'm not a high fashion guy. I never wanted to be a fashion company. You know, we always kind of modeled it after vintage, hardcore, utilitarian, just gonna last forever, you know, really useful industrial stuff. And, uh, hopefully, you know, you'll start seeing it everywhere.
JS: And I'm excited to see how it goes in the future and Neil, how about for Litelok?
NB: So we're pretty focused on a whole pipeline of technology and new products. So obviously the world of theft and also vehicles is changing. We're seeing all kinds of new things coming along. E-bikes are going really, really strongly at the moment. Electric motorcycles are coming along in a big way. We want to be the premium best locks for that kind of transportation in the world. And to do that, you need to be innovating and you need to be doing stuff that's new that other people just haven't even thought of. Scaling it up, making the technology more exciting and then building the brand out really, really properly and globally is a big challenge. We think there's a big opportunity there.
JS: Well, that's exciting for both of your brands, like part of, part of starting a business is seeing what it can grow into. And it seems like both Loctote and Litelok have a lot of potential and are really disrupting both the bike realm and the bag realm. And with that Don and Neil, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the podcast and share both of your stories.