Home  »  18 – How to Build Entrepreneurial Skillsets with Frank Gairdner

18 – How to Build Entrepreneurial Skillsets with Frank Gairdner

originally published: 2022-06-09 13:47:20

Patrick McGuire (00:03)
Hey, it’s Patrick. Before we start, at the time of this recording, we went through a bit of a name rebranding from RIC Centre to Altitude Accelerator. With that in mind, we hope you enjoy the following interview. Welcome to the Startups Transform Podcast. I’m Patrick McGuire, your host, board member and advisor at Altitude Accelerator, where we help startups scale to new heights. We chat with phenomenal tech business leaders who climb their way to success within their industry. Our guests delve deep into the lessons they’ve learned along the way so that you can get a head start on your next big idea. Hey, friends, I am so excited about this guy today. The guest I have on the podcast has done incredible things, from bows to guns, boats and bikes, a whole lot of bees. And he’s doing it with carbon fiber and other unique materials. One of the things I love about what Frank does is he elevates the game, he changes the way things get done, and he brings everything from his passion and commitment to every business he’s involved in and makes it better. So I want to say a huge thank you. And I’m very excited to talk to Frank Gairdner. Frank, thanks for joining us on the podcast today.

Frank Gairdner (01:20)
Thanks, Patrick. Thanks for having me.

Patrick McGuire (01:21)
My pleasure. This is exciting to have you on. I mean, you’ve gone through a couple of opportunities and a couple of success stories, and I want to dig into those a little bit more. But first of all, just tell me a little bit in general about you and who are you? What makes you tick, what gets things going?

Frank Gairdner (01:37)
Yeah, sure thing. I guess from the outside, we’re going way back to basically being a teenager. I’ve always just been obsessed with projects and leading things and getting things completed, basically taking things from zero to one, kind of regardless what it was. And that followed me into University, where I got deep into student work, painting, which is just a fabulous program, essentially guiding and leading young potential entrepreneurs and professionals into how to run business. And I just got the bug at that point of wanting to get into it myself and start my own company. And it just stuck with me really hard. And I got a little carried away at University and got into academics, got my Masters in philosophy and kind of figured out at that point that academics wasn’t for me and just wanted to dig back into the entrepreneurial world and moved back to Toronto from Kingston, from Queens University there and started really trying to sort out how to get a business education more deeply. My conclusion at that point was just to get in at the ground floor of a start up with a great leader and a great mentor, which took a long time to find.

Frank Gairdner (02:49)
But I did so. And from there, kind of, I guess would be the rest of the story that we’ll get into through the podcast here.

Patrick McGuire (02:56)
That’s actually good. I got a couple of things out of there that I’ll share at the end, but I heard he’s not a Prof, he’s a producer. He likes to get stuff done and get it to market.

Frank Gairdner (03:04)
Yeah, exactly.

Patrick McGuire (03:05)
You found a great mentor. So those are really cool things to hear. So, Frank, you’ve had two what I would call great successes at this point in time, and I want to talk about those a little more. I want you to tell us a little bit more about Trigger Tech and Carbon Marine. They’re very different than each other, so help us understand what they are and why.

Frank Gairdner (03:23)
Yeah, sure thing. It’s, I guess hard to do without giving a bit more context. But from that first startup that I told you about that I got in on, basically on the ground floor, got super deep into how to pitch companies, how to fundraise, how to build pitch decks. My mentor took me to everything that he was doing and just taught me everything and essentially equipped me to be my own entrepreneur. From that experience, I teamed up with the chief engineer of that company and started Trigger Tech. Again. Going back to what I said about just loving projects, for me, it wasn’t necessarily product related. I wasn’t passionate about the product. I was passionate about the challenge and project itself. And I just decided to take a jump into it. I did the research on what the product was and the marketability and the patent ability, and all that research told me was, hey, this is quite the opportunity. And like anybody knows who’s done it before, you can only do so much research. And then there’s that moment where you just have to take a jump and figure it out and you’re only going to know once you do take that jump.

Frank Gairdner (04:24)
I basically took that jump into Trigger Tech. I guess you could call it a leap of faith and started it basically in my basement. So it was me for. Wow. Yeah, classic story there. So I was working solo for roughly that’s called eight months to a year. I forget the exact time. Just building the business, the website, the name, the branding, trying to develop early sales and doing podcasts kind of like this, please don’t go research. And I might be embarrassed, but just getting it out there and it finally got to the point where we’re building good sales channel and good supply chain and had enough to kind of go raise some money. And at that point, we were able to get my partner on full time and move from my basement to another basement that we actually rented out and grew quite quickly from there. We moved from that basement to renting out the top floor of that house to renting out the garage for machine shop. This was basically an old taxi dispatch house that we were renting out through a friend of ours

Patrick McGuire (05:22)
For anyone that’s listening. If you haven’t checked out Trigger Teck, I mean, cool stuff. I’m an ex military guy, so I’m kind of into this. I’m a little jealous that I’m not playing around with these toys right now. What about Carbon Marine? Give me the details about that. How did you get into it? Why?

Frank Gairdner (05:35)
It was another one of those just opportunity that came up through networking. I got introduced to the owner of that company and they had already had a product but no business. So I was basically brought on board to start the business side of it and basically did a big corporate reorganization and then got manufacturing partners and eventually moved to our own facility and built out our own facility. It was essentially my role to operate and bring the vision to life. Essentially with Carbon Marine, we were building the first fully carbon fiber power boat, so it had never been done before. We’re kind of first movers on that front, that’s for sure.

Patrick McGuire (06:13)
Looking at the website, if you haven’t gotten people, check it out. Carbonmarine.ca has some pretty cool boats and tiggertech.com actually really cool stuff if you’re into that category, which I’m really excited for. So Interestingly your primary role. It sounds like a lot of the time. You’re an innovator, you’re a fundraiser, you’re a pitch deck guy, you’re the Energizer Bunny. I got to get stuff done. Call Frank. Is that kind of how it works out?

Frank Gairdner (06:41)
Yeah, just an executor. I would say my skill set is in recognizing what needs to be done and getting it done, no matter what it is. And going back to Trigger Tech after that Taxi Dispatch old house that we were in, we had about eight people working at that. I think it must have been 1000 sqft in one bathroom and we were just bursting at the seams. And we went from selling 50 units a week to selling a couple of thousand a week kind of thing. So we’re not selling actually just making. So it’s a huge expansion if anyone’s used to dealing with high volume stuff. I mean, obviously some people would consider that mid volume, but going from 50 units a week to 1500 or 2000 a week, it’s a drastic overhaul of your systems. So you just got to figure out how to get it done. Talk to the right people, learn your lessons quickly, apply them super quickly with no ego whatsoever. You just got to get to the root of that problem. And obviously you can get better and better at that. And that was my first start up. So there are certainly weaknesses there that you got to learn quickly from and develop and be agile.

Frank Gairdner (07:41)
But yeah, basically from that Taxi Dispatch house, we moved to a 10,000 square foot facility and full production area and assembly area. You’re shipping and handling. We had a machine shop in house, so it was a big jump that we did there, which is really exciting.

Patrick McGuire (07:57)
What I hear from that is upscaling isn’t easy. Would you agree there, Frank?

Frank Gairdner (08:01)
Absolutely. That’s one of the stages, in my opinion, that has the highest risk of failure. A lot of people worry about how will people want to buy this at all, which is obviously a concern when you’re starting, is there a demand? The additional concern is if the demand raises too quickly, how do you actually deal with it and all the problems that come into play there? Obviously, cash flow is always the one, but there’s also just functional things that you have to worry about. At the same time, when you’ve got your head down and you’re going, you got to focus on your team and your HR. As you know, Patrick, you mentioned that you did an HR software thing. There people can forget about the people that they’re working with, and that’s just as much part of the equation as anything else. So it’s a challenging time for sure.

Patrick McGuire (08:45)
You’re juggling absolutely hearing that sort of stuff. Entrepreneurs, some are made, some are born, some get forced into it, and others just sort of embrace the opportunity. It sounds like you’ve embraced the opportunity you had it in you a little bit to start with, but when the opportunities arose, you took them. Tell us about something that happened early on in your life or your career that impacted the way you work today or the way you, as we would say, get stuff done. Gsd, you can call it whatever you want.

Frank Gairdner (09:12)
Yeah, I would say the lessons are pretty continuous, as they should be. That’s one of the things that attracts me to the entrepreneurial startup space in general is a constant opportunity to learn, and it’s just non stop. So I would say for Trigger Tech, the big lesson there was partnership management. And kind of what I mentioned before is realizing what your team is doing and who your team is, who your partners are, who your stakeholders are and communicating with them clearly and involving them. A lot of the basic stuff of just management. Anyways, when you’re going super fast, being able to look up, take a breath, look around, who’s with you, who you’re working with, what are the relationships like getting your finger on the pulse of the people who are doing this with you. And sometimes for you, you’ve got to just pay attention to that super deeply, and it is really what makes it happen. That was a big lesson for me, for sure.

Patrick McGuire (10:01)
Let’s talk about Trigger Tech. What inspired your startup to do Trigger Tech? Like, why did you get into it and how did that come around?

Frank Gairdner (10:09)
Yeah, one of my co founders came up with the idea, so I definitely did not have any play in the actual technology of it.

Patrick McGuire (10:16)
There you go, folks. At least he’s honest.

Frank Gairdner (10:17)
Yeah. So he had the idea. He’s a wonderful mind on that guy and is super creative and just one of the best technical people I’ve ever had a chance to work with. He came up with this, and he’s been an inventor in a bunch of areas. I think he’s got patents and the double digits kind of thing. Wow. And he came up with the idea, and the idea was really to change the way that triggers worked for firearms and crossbows and really anything that needed to shoot anything. I mean, it could be a nail gun or anything. Right. Was to change it. So typically two surfaces come together and they lock, and then you pull the trigger to slide those surfaces off of each other to shoot whatever you’re shooting. He came up with the idea of implementing a roller in between those two surfaces. You have rolling friction rather than sliding friction. So that had never been done before in the way that he did it. And it was very, very novel and a very clear problem in the industry. That’s kind of what motivated me, to be honest with you, is the fact that it was patentable, which is very important to me in the sense of it being unique and also in the sense of being able to raise money, you got something that other people don’t have.

Frank Gairdner (11:18)
We had a very, very strong patent review, and we kind of moved through those stages quite quickly, which was a big benefit. So that really was it. To be honest with you, that the uniqueness of the product, the uniqueness of the individual who invented the product and who would be my co founder. And that equates into the opportunity with time to jump.

Patrick McGuire (11:36)
Very interesting. I want to segue a little bit because you’ve been part of starting blocks, as you say, the starting blocks of a couple of companies.

Frank Gairdner (11:42)

Patrick McGuire (11:43)
Now you sort of change your focus, but I’d like to hear a little bit about like, I like to ride people who know me, know me well, and they know I ride a lot of bikes. So one thing that catches my eye at the starting of Carbon Marine, I see something in your profile talking about carbon bike building company. So how did you go from bikes to amazing boats?

Frank Gairdner (12:03)
So I’m a big cycling enthusiast myself and kind of have every type of bike that you could ride. Almost your mountain bike or gravel bike, road bike. It’s been a passion of mine and a passion to my family for a long time. I ride with my brother all the time. My dad as well, though. He’s getting up there in age. So it’s just been a deep passion of mine, but never really been on the radar for a business, just passion. And I actually got into Carbon Marine. And then once I started learning much more about advanced composites, I was essentially the only one on the ground at the outset. So I had to learn everything. So I learned how to manufacture carbon fiber and advanced composite parts. And all of a sudden I started realizing that this knowledge could be useful for something down the line. So it was always in the back of my head to say, okay, this could be interesting. The more and more I learned about Advanced Composites applied to the marine world, the more and more I’m also learning about it applied to bike companies essentially, but it’s just kind of a little bit of a hobby or a little bit of an interest in the back of my brain.

Frank Gairdner (13:01)
And then after Carbon Marine, I was like, hey, I’ve got all this metal experience from Trigger Tech. So deep, deep metal manufacturing experience there. And then I’ve got all this deep manufacturing experience on the Advanced Composites with Carbon Marine, we actually got trained by one of the world’s experts out of the United Kingdom, which is unique because they do all the F1 work out there with all the cars. So they’re really next level with Advanced Composites. And he came and taught us for about a month straight on advanced composite manufacturing, which is a huge learning experience. After Carbon Marine, I just realized that I’ve got all the skill sets now to both start a company and understand the manufacturing processes and finally work on a product that I care about. So as I mentioned previously, it kind of was just project focused rather than product focused. And I didn’t want to jump into another startup and the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to get something going and not care about the product again.

Patrick McGuire (13:59)

Frank Gairdner (14:00)
This time I wanted to do something that I deeply cared about. So I find myself at the outset of starting another company here very interesting.

Patrick McGuire (14:08)
And I will poke your brain on that one in the future. Maybe another podcast, maybe another conversation. Maybe you and I go on for a couple of bike rides. I would love that.

Frank Gairdner (14:17)
Yeah. There you go. You could be our testing guy.

Patrick McGuire (14:19)
Oh, I can break stuff for you.

Frank Gairdner (14:23)
Similar to Carbon Marine in some respects, the bike frame building company is unique in that no one, to my knowledge, is actually manufacturing advanced composite bikes in Canada. We would be the first, if not the first. The only company at this point in time making advanced composite bikes in Canada.

Patrick McGuire (14:40)
Is that company yet a public name? Are we sharing that? Are we going to keep that tucked away?

Frank Gairdner (14:45)
There’s nothing public with respect to socials or website at this point, but the working name right now is Bridge, bike Works and just Bridge. And I was actually reading a book called I believe it’s called The Modern Bicycle. And funny enough, it was published in 1898, I think.

Patrick McGuire (15:02)
Pretty modern.

Frank Gairdner (15:03)
Yeah. So I was just reading it out of curiosity, and I came across this one quote that said the bike frame is a bridge with wheels on it built to take people across the ground. I was like, that’s a damn cool thought. And then I was struggling over the name of the company for months, which I usually don’t do. That could be a really cool name. And so that’s the working name right now.

Patrick McGuire (15:26)
I like it. And you know what, folks? We’re hearing how Frank’s evolution has always come around. And it’s not one and done it’s next. It’s an opportunity to grow and get better and bigger, not just in business, but also in his own personal life experiences. And they all come together for the next project and the next project. The next project. So that’s really exciting. When was Trigger Tech founded?

Frank Gairdner (15:50)
2013 and Carbon Marine. They found it in 2015, but I came on board in 2017, but they were doing all product development at that point.

Patrick McGuire (16:00)
Yeah, it takes time to get things off the ground. And I know that the next one is going to be dated real soon, I’m sure, officially. But we’ll leave that one. I want to let everyone know that Frank is not just a guy that helps himself to opportunities, but he actually helps others. And Frank, maybe you could just give a quick status update and position because you are part of RIC Center and you are part of startups Transform. What do you do for RIC Center?

Frank Gairdner (16:25)
Yes. When I left Trigger Tech, I just started digging into wanting to help other people to avoid some of the pitfalls that I went through. And so I just reached out to Pam and had a meeting with her. And one was, is there anything that you guys need help with in terms of are the businesses that I could work for essentially? And or can I get on board to be an advisor? Because I want to help these people through. And so I’m graciously accepted there. And it’s been really fun. I’ve been to a lot of the virtual advisory board stuff and the regional alliance and helped out a handful of up and coming entrepreneurs through that, which has been just fantastic. It’s a passion of mine to help entrepreneurs and effectively not go through what I went through or at least avoid it as much as possible. So that’s been fun. And did a couple of presentations for them as well, which is great.

Patrick McGuire (17:13)
That’s great. And definitely we’re of the same ilk or nature, if you will. We’d rather help others succeed even more than ourselves sometimes and help them avoid those pitfalls. So it is great to have you as a volunteer advisor. And I say that strongly volunteer for anyone listening, because he does this because he wants to he wants to help. And I love that about the right people that you can bring yourself around. And Frank is one of those right people or someone I call plus people, people like us. Frank thinking of one company, just keep one company in mind because you’ve done so many great things. What was an important Pivot point for that business?

Frank Gairdner (17:47)
That’s a tough one. So, I mean, carbon marine. We Pivoted to making our own in house product and changed the manufacturing technique and built out a facility for that, which I think had the potential to be a very big game changing thing and added to the story a lot. So that was a big Pivot moment for sure. And I guess with trigger tech, the Pivot was to get into a different market quicker than we first thought. I mean, part of that was opportunity based. There was an opportunity that came along and that pushed that product development a little faster. And then the other side was just realizing the poll of that other market. So that we started in crossbows, and we did that on purpose to have a slow development so we could kind of grow cautiously or consciously and figured we’d get into firearms later. But we got into it a lot earlier, and our growth just exploded once we made that Pivot, I had no idea at the time that would be that drastic. So that was a big one.

Patrick McGuire (18:36)
So thinking of trigger tech, then, what drove this change to Pivot?

Frank Gairdner (18:40)
I believe at the time, we had an opportunity to create a custom product for a customer in Canada that was in firearms. That side project eventually turned into drastically changing our entire focus. I mean, we basically stopped focusing on crossbows at that time and just had to put all of our effort towards firearms.

Patrick McGuire (18:58)
All right, so who led that change? I mean, sometimes it’s a person, sometimes it’s a team.

Frank Gairdner (19:02)
I think it was the team. Yeah. I think one of our partners got the opportunity with the local Canadian company just through connection. And then for everyone else, it was just a decision that we all made and agreed to.

Patrick McGuire (19:14)
All right. And I’m going to change your brain here, because not everything is golden gates, golden stones, and beautiful pathway to perfection. Things sometimes aren’t that easy for entrepreneurs and companies and startups. So let’s talk about trigger tech. Let’s stay on that one. There’s a few things going. We’ll keep that line going. What was the worst decision ever made for the company?

Frank Gairdner (19:36)
Yeah, I mean, I can only talk about the time that I was there for. I guess that was 2012 and 2016. The biggest lesson I learned was really pushing for pricing. Pricing is very challenging when you have a consumer good. It’s very hard to know what to price your product at above and beyond your margin stack, let’s say, okay, cost this, and we have a distributor, and we got a retailer. So you work up from there. Above and beyond that, it’s what will the market accept? And how do I make selling a little bit easier for me based on the fact that I was the only.

Patrick McGuire (20:07)
One selling that leads actually right to the next question, which is who made the decision or the position and why? Why was that decision? In this case, it’s pricing. So who led that? It sounds like it might have been you.

Frank Gairdner (20:18)

Patrick McGuire (20:19)
Have that.

Frank Gairdner (20:20)
Yeah. So I let it. I talked to a lot of different people, did a ton of research. I thought, based on the fact that we were a new market entrance into the firearms world, that we should just really lowball the price at the time. We had a manufacturing methodology that we thought would give us a certain cost of our goods, and we could still lowball our competition and still be making some money and at the same time decrease the decision making. And our customers saying, oh, they’re new, it’s a new trigger. It’s not safe. You basically cut that short by saying, oh, that’s $40 cheaper than the other guy. I might as well try it, you know what I mean? So I tried to keep that under 100 us, which is quite low for the product. And on one side of things, it worked really well. So it did do what I wanted. It got a lot of attention. It attracted a lot of new customers and a lot of new dealers and magazine articles. So it worked in that way. But from a cash flow perspective, let’s say it didn’t work that well. And that led to a lot of partnership discussions and me essentially having to not apologize but come to grips with the fact that I made a decision that drastically affected the cash flow state of the business.

Frank Gairdner (21:28)
But that’s part of it. You’ve got to be able to say you did something wrong.

Patrick McGuire (21:31)
That’s actually a good thing to hear because something I learned from a mentor many, many years ago. I actually think I was 22 when one of my partners, I had invested into a company. He was a founder, actually said the price can always go up, but it can’t go down. If you learn that early, it’s okay to go to market with one price, knowing that you’re going to have a better price later on. So it’s great to hear you went through that struggle. And it sounds like what I got from that was and we can share is better product, lower price, higher volume, until you just can’t justify it, you got to raise your price.

Frank Gairdner (22:01)
Yeah. And we were going off of projections. Right. So we didn’t know the actual landed cost of our parts. So we outsourced our parts to Asia. All the parts came and we assembled locally. So at that point in time, we only had rough quotes and didn’t understand the issues of outsourcing and the quality control and the quality assurance of the parts coming in and how much time and effort it took to get to the quality that we needed. Definitely changed the projections of our cost of goods, which obviously really affects cash flow and your end price great.

Patrick McGuire (22:32)
The last bigger question I’m looking for is what was the most important thing that led to your company’s success?

Frank Gairdner (22:39)
I would say it’s perseverance. I mean, it’s grit, it’s working through those hard times and trying to find a solution rather than focusing on the problems. Because I guess at one point you could almost say business. It’s just a series of problems that you have to work through. And I think our whole team had that mentality. I mean, the amount of all nighters and the amount of just pure rugged times to get through those valleys and see the end goal. And I would say that’s very critical. With partners in the past have had discussions over perseverance and passion and which one you need more. And obviously that could be a whole podcast in itself in my mind, because it helps to have both. But passion can Swain here and there. But perseverance, if you have it, you kind of always have it and you just kind of work through it.

Patrick McGuire (23:23)
Perseverance, passion, performance and execution, that’s where it all comes together and you got to do it all exceptionally well. And I’m stealing a little bit of that right from your word. So I really appreciate that. Frank, this has been an incredible interview. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. And the companies trigger Tech and Carbon Marine and maybe even the future Bridge bikes. But what are the three things you wish you could have told your past or maybe your 20 year old self when you first started getting entrepreneurial?

Frank Gairdner (23:53)
That’s a tough one. I’d say the number one would be strong agreements. Make strong business or clear agreements make a clear business. So focus on those agreements would be one, two, focus on your health, stay active, eat well, because that matters deeply. Three would be really good to know your partners and make sure that you want to do business with them.

Patrick McGuire (24:15)
That’s exactly true. Get some strong agreements, know your partners and focus on your own health so you can perform better for the company. I love that. Thank you. Frank, what is something that excites you now?

Frank Gairdner (24:25)
The future? Really? As I said before, I’m endlessly curious and constantly wanting to improve and take advantage of the lessons that I’ve had. And that’s the most exciting thing for me.

Patrick McGuire (24:35)
Love that. And Frank, being involved in these startups from the time that you started painting in College to going through with weapons development, trigger development specifically for weapons and even awesome carbon fiber boats from scratch and Canadian made bikes and mentoring entrepreneurs, if you got to start all over again and choose to be an entrepreneur, would you do it?

Frank Gairdner (24:59)
I don’t think I had a choice.

Patrick McGuire (25:02)
That’s actually good to know. So some people do and some people don’t. Frank did not have a choice in this situation. I want to remind everybody Frank is not a prop, he’s a producer. Find a great mentor and Frank is out there being a great mentor. Make sure that you can really understand that executing and getting stuff done is important and upscaling isn’t easy according to Frank and that is according to all entrepreneurs. So Frank, what’s the best way that we can get in touch with you? How do we find you and get in touch to talk about our futures and entrepreneurship?

Frank Gairdner (25:39)
Yeah, I would say the best way is to reach out to me on LinkedIn and that’s Frank Gairdner G-A-I-R-D-N-E-R or just going through the RIC Center I.

Patrick McGuire (25:49)
Just want to say thank you so much to everybody today. Listening to Startups Transform a RIC Center Podcast Have yourself a fantastic day and enjoy your entrepreneurial journey.

Patrick McGuire (26:03)
Thank you for joining us on Startups Transform podcast. You can subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed the conversation, a rating or review goes a long way. Recommend the show to a friend. Find us Altitude Accelerator.com where we can help you begin your startup journey with access to our workshops, advisors and mentorship opportunities. Be sure to tune in for our next episode.

Altitude Accelerator
Altitude Accelerator is a not-for-profit innovation hub and business incubator for Brampton, Mississauga, Caledon, and other communities in Southern Ontario. Altitude Accelerators’ focus is to be a dynamic catalyst for tech companies. We help our companies grow faster and stronger. Our strength is our proven ability to foster growth for companies in Advanced Manufacturing, Internet of Things, Hardware & Software, Cleantech and Life Sciences. Our team consists of more than 100 expert advisors, industry, academic, government partners. The team helps companies in Advanced Manufacturing, Internet of Things, Hardware & Software, Cleantech and Life Sciences to commercialize their products and get them to market faster.

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