When Missy Kelly founded Cat Tongue Grips, their goal was as simple as protecting our phones from slipping and breaking. Feedback from costumers revealed that her product was much more versatile than she had thought and now her expanded product line is helping members of the disabled community with everyday tasks. Missy shares with us the value of customer feedback and how she found a greater mission for her brand and is discovering her company’s full potential.
Missy: I knew nothing about this world I’m going into and having the people around me to advise and the experience, it’s been a godsend. It’s been incredible.
Sam: If you’re a clumsy person, you probably drop your phone all the time. This was fine back in the early 2000s when we all had Nokia bricks, but the prices of the latest smartphones are comparable to about a month’s rent in most cities. So indifference is no longer an option. Most of us just decide to be more careful but Missy Kelley and her partner Matt actually decided to do something about it. Enter Cat Tongue Grips, a company specializing in slip proof grips that eventually moved beyond phones and laptop sleeves to help members of the disabled community. Missy, it’s such a pleasure to welcome you to ideamix radio.
Missy: Thank you for having me, it’s an honor to be here.
Sam: So let’s start with the starting point in some ways. Tell us a little bit about Cat Tongue Grips.
Missy: Well, our story started in February of 2015 when my husband walked into a Verizon store to upgrade his phone and he just noticed how slippery the back of the phone was. And he, of course, made a comment to the salesperson. She tried to sell him insurance and he didn’t want another bill but the lightbulb went off in his head and he drove to the nearby skateboard shop and literally cut out skateboard grip tape and slapped it on the back of his phone. And later on that night, I saw it and I said, “what do you have going on here? This feels like a cat tongue and it’s going to scratch every surface of my house, you can’t have it on your phone”. And he said that he loved the grip, but he understood what I was saying and asked if I could find something like it for him. So he challenged me to find something and I couldn’t. And so we decided to make it and we sourced out a manufacturer and described what we wanted to do. And he said he’d get his scientists on it and make us some material. And for us, the material, it really had to have several key properties. First and foremost, it had to grip. Also, we wanted it to be grippy and not sticky so it didn’t pick up the weird sand and dirt in a woman’s pocket, man’s pocket, our purses. So that was super important. And we also wanted to make recyclable products so it would be sustainable for the environment. And nine prototypes later, we had a material and we launched our first product, the phone grip, in November of 2017.
Sam: I love the organic nature of what you just described, and at the same time, you know, it sounds super simple, but in fact, what you did was quite a process and quite an achievement to sort of create this product, go through the cycle of nine different prototypes to get to the right place. So tell us a little bit about— you have this conversation in your marriage, you decide to sort of take up this gauntlet that your husband throws down and actually go do something about this. How did you even go about finding the right company to engage in this prototype exercise with? Did the first person you approach say yes? Like how did you go about that?
Missy: Matt did his research in truly finding a manufacturer that specialized in non-slip. And we took a gamble. It took about six months to even get a meeting with the president of the company. And we got the meeting. We literally approached them with an idea, some rudimentary designs for these phone grips that we were envisioning. And he saw the vision and agreed to work with us to make it happen. So it truly was an incredible partnership from the get go.
Sam: Amazing. So just the phone accessories market, which is one of your applications of your product, is estimated to grow to about 70 plus billion dollars in the US and has increased by almost 200% from 2018. Given that rapid growth, has your approach to that product segment changed at all since you got started?
Missy: It certainly has Sam, I mean, it’s pretty incredible that the numbers you just described, it’s one of the most competitive markets in the world, and that is the product that we launched with and definitely the hardest. And what we saw there, though, is when we launched the product, we, no pun intended, started getting traction in that market. But then customers started approaching us asking, hey, can I cut this and use it on a slippery tool handle? One woman asked me, can I cut this and use it on my son’s hearing aids? So we started to hear from the customer that they loved the application for their cell phone, but they also were envisioning other applications for our material. So that put us— we went to the drawing board there. We actually created a larger grip for laptops and tablets, but then we created what’s called our non-abrasive grip tape. So we offer our patented material on a roll so that the customer can truly customize and use it on anything. And that is what has really taken our company to the next level is to your question, starting in this hugely competitive environment, in the cell phone accessories world and then listening to our customer and now creating a product with so many more applications that can help people in their day to day living.
Sam: I can’t tell you how glad I am that you said that because we find— at ideamix we work with so many different startups, the number one reason that companies fail is a lack of product market fit, and that comes from not enough time spent with customers gathering their feedback. And it sounds like you guys have built this very tight set of dialog and relationships with your customers where they’re sort of proactively reaching out to you both to express their needs, but also to share with you their, in effect, product ideas for how they’ve used your product.
Missy: It truly has. And that’s something, as I mentioned, just the customer is who we are creating for and listening to our customers—we started our tape in a clear and then we heard that they would love it in a black. So we created the black in the non-abrasive grip tape as well. We also have just created our grip kit, which is for those customers that have trouble cutting the perfect size circle or the perfect size strip out of the tape, we have pre cut those pieces for them to put on their smaller, more intricate items that they need to get grips. So definitely and we’re continuing to evolve and continuing to listen to that customer base.
Sam: Love that. You started the company in 2015, had you always wanted to be an entrepreneur or did this just happen coming out of what went on with your husband’s needs?
Missy: Well, my husband has always had that entrepreneurial side to him. He started his first business right out of college. He started a recycling company when recycling wasn’t offered by different cities and townships. So he’s always had that really creative side to him. For me, I’ve definitely worked in corporate America and then I actually was a teacher for a while and then decided that I wanted to start my own tutoring business. And I did that prior to having kids and then through my second baby, then I stayed home. So for me, it’s a testament to everyone out there. I’m 48 years old, and I started this company in 2015 after staying home with my kids for 10 years, so it’s never too late to dive into business, that’s for sure.
Sam: It is absolutely never too late. And it’s funny because we all have this impression, I think, exacerbated by the media that entrepreneurs are super young. But by far most entrepreneurs really start their businesses in their late thirties and forties. And they also have much higher success rates because they have experience, as you are outlining, kind of underpinning their ideas based on whatever they’ve done in prior jobs. And I love that you came back from a break.
Missy: Well definitely because now I look back on all of my experiences from going to college and working through my 20s, my 30s, every experience truly has led me to where I am today, and it’s happened in the way it’s supposed to happen. And I just keep walking through doors that open and being grateful for every opportunity and it’s going well so far. So I’m having fun.
Sam: Wonderful. So, Missy, you decided from the very beginning to make your product one hundred percent recyclable, tell us about that decision.
Missy: From the beginning, being recyclable, sustainable for the environment was a no brainer for us. My husband’s history of starting his first recycling company out of college and having always been stewards of the environment, it was so important for us to create a product that not only was going to help people in their day to day living with anything that they need to grip, but was also going to have a positive impact and not have a negative impact on the environment.
Sam: Love that. After a conversation with Chris Waddell, Paralympic Hall of Famer, you realized that your non-slip products could be deeply useful for the disabled and senior communities. Once you had that initial concept or that initial feedback, tell us how you took the company more firmly in that direction from a product perspective.
Missy: Yes, so we had this idea, the tape was just getting launched. And Chris, in our conversations, he made me aware that being in a wheelchair, things fall off his lap all day, every day. And I said to him, I have products that can help you in your day to day life. I’d love for you to try them out. So he tried out the laptop grip, what we call the fat cat, our phone grip, as well as the non-abrasive grip tape. And I checked in with him about two weeks after we met and he told me that these products were a game changer for him. He could wheel around his home with his laptop on his lap without being fearful that it would fall to the ground. Getting in and out of his car, putting his phone on the dash. He didn’t have to worry about it falling between the seats, which for him is extremely problematic. Also, he was able to use our non-abrasive grip tape on his foot pedals of his wheelchair, and that way his feet would not slide off when he’s wearing socks. So there are all of these amazing applications for the product. And interestingly enough, I met another woman at an event and she was in a wheelchair and she told me about an Abilities Expo that— it’s a company that put Expos all across the United States and different cities. And my husband and I went to our first Abilities Expo in December of last year. So just about a year ago, it was in Dallas, and we brought one carton of our non abrasive grip tape, which is forty two rolls, and we sold out of that in two hours.
We had to have my daughter FedEx more boxes and we sold those out by the end of the weekend. And it was truly incredible for me as a leader of this company to realize that where we created this product to help my husband with his problem with this slippery phone, we had no idea that we had created a product that was truly going to help a segment of the population in their day to day life, in essence, becoming a life hack. So that was an amazing realization and it truly gave us a mission for our company to help as many people as possible with and without disabilities, but mainly disabilities across the world with our Cat Tongue Grips products. So it’s been an incredible journey.
Sam: That’s a great story and a perfect segue to my next question, what do you feel has been your most effective method of selling product and growing the business?
Missy: You know, that is— it’s a perfect segue because for us, it’s really being in front of our customer. The product is very tactile. So it’s really you need to feel it to believe it. And we’ve done over 30, I think it’s 34 trade shows over the last three years. Getting in front of our customer, being at events and really, it’s more of a grassroots approach. Of course, we do advertising on social media platforms, but for us, it’s truly been the word of mouth that has given our company and our product the boost.
Sam: Has that been hard during the pandemic and during 2020 when in-person events have just been more challenging to attend?
Missy: It would be, except for the innovation of the different platforms. So the Abilities Expo I mentioned we went to last December and they do nine events a year. So Matt was able to go to the expo in February, but then, of course, all of the rest of them had been canceled. But rather than just not have the event, they went virtual in June and we had an incredible virtual show. And then we just actually participated in another virtual abilities show about a week ago. And for them, you know, it’s just a testament to the incredible pivots that have been happening this year where before they would have a show in a city and so it’s really those people in, what, 100, 200 miles would drive to the show where now they actually have a global presence. So the virtual platforms have been really positive for our company.
Sam: Necessity breeds innovation.
Missy: Definitely. That is the truth.
Sam: So, Missy, let’s talk a little bit about how you run your company, how do you allocate responsibilities between you and your husband and other top members of your team?
Missy: Well, that’s definitely been a learning curve for me. I tend to be that person that likes to do it all. And you can’t do it all when you’re in a startup. That’s the truth.
Missy: So really, the team started with my husband, myself, and we have one other co-founder, Eric. And I did the day to day, Matt would handle the production and Eric handles all of the creative side. So the designs, the graphic design for collateral. And then as the company started to grow, obviously our needs started to grow in terms of growing the team. Now we have a team of about 12. Let me think, last time I counted…yep it’s 12. I just hired an operations manager a couple of days ago. So I’m coachable as an entrepreneur. I realize I have not been able to do it myself as much as I try to. I only have a certain amount of bandwidth, even though it’s a pretty big bandwidth. There’s only so much.
Sam: Absolutely, it’s super hard.
Missy: It is super hard. And it’s truly been a personal growth journey for me to expand out to trust in members of the team that it’s going to get done. It might not get done the way I would do it, but it’s going to get done and in many, many cases better than I could have done myself.
Sam: It’s a real learning curve and I think by a long way. The very rapid realization when you’re an entrepreneur is that you can’t do everything on your own. But the other thing I think that really distinguishes successful entrepreneurs from those that don’t succeed is this learning mindset. To your point, you have to be coachable as an entrepreneur, because if you aren’t willing to be open to new ways of doing things and testing things out and and changing them when they need to be changed, then it’s very hard to grow and run a company.
Missy: One of my mentors, Alison Maslan, says to me that— two things, actually, that you have to make decisions from where you’re going, not from where you’re at. And that’s been really, really powerful for us to be able to, yes, hire another team member, there’s more money going out but that is going to get us to that next level. So trusting in who we hire and that it’s best for the company. And something else is we’re building the plane as we fly it. I think the entrepreneurial journey, it’s full of risk. It’s full of wonder. It’s topsy turvy. It’s put on your seat belt and just go on this wild ride. And I think that you have to be flexible and you have to be willing to make mistakes to fail forward and keep learning.
Sam: One hundred percent. Someone who’s also been on our podcast and who’s a close friend – Frederic Fekkai – I thought said this very well: he said if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risk. And I think that is so much a part of the entrepreneurial journey where you have to learn by doing and you have to make some mistakes along the way to understand what worked and what didn’t work.
Missy: And I do think that those mistakes are necessary to the journey as well. That’s how we learn. That’s how we move forward. Some more costly than others. But at the end of the day, it’s what’s going to take you to that next level. And for me, it’s actually using all of my experiences to help others. So they perhaps don’t have them.
Sam: Totally. Missy, what’s keeping you up at night right now?
Missy: That’s a great question for me. For me with the business, it’s making sure that we have all the processes, the people and everything in place for this expansive growth that we’re having. I talk about how I just hired an operations manager to really help me so that nothing falls through the cracks. I want to make sure that we are the best partner to our retailers, to our online retailers. I want to make sure we’re the best possible company we can be, making the best product we can be for our customers. And that’s what keeps me up at night, is really wanting to serve this community that’s buying our product, selling our product and propelling us to that next level to fulfill that mission I spoke about in helping as many people as possible around the world, in part with our products.
Sam: You’ve raised a really interesting topic because so much of the zeitgeist nowadays and the and the kind of purported wisdom around building successful consumer brands is to sell directly to consumers. And you’ve done that. But you’ve equally, you were just talking about major retailers being your customers, in effect, because they’re taking your product in and presenting it and selling it to your end customers. Tell us a little bit about that mix between selling through retail versus selling direct to consumer.
Missy: We started our company direct to consumer. We launched in 2017 on Amazon exclusives and through our own website. And slowly it’s been a process of learning and growing. We always thought we would be a direct to consumer company, actually, and as finding that this product is so tactile that there is a demand for it. We’ve worked through our sales channels, playing the retail game, which is not something that happens quickly. For about the last year and a half, I’ve been meeting with different retailers and finally solidifying big box retail for 2021. We are thrilled Wal-Mart will be bringing on our phone groups in February/March. We have Fred Meyer bringing in our non-abrasive grip tape. We have true value customers. We have Do It Best coming on board. So we’re finding that our products serve such a vast market that retail is definitely the way for us to go, especially when customers can feel it, see it, and there is nothing like it on the market. So it’s filling a void for something customers need.
Sam: Have you, as the company has grown and scaled and as you’ve rolled out more screws in your product set, has it made you change the manufacturing of your material that underlies all of your products or how have you thought about that?
Missy: It actually hasn’t. We’ve, from the get go, really had an incredible relationship with our manufacturer. And knowing what our vision for this company has been from the beginning is to offer it on a global scale. We’ve set all the processes in place from the get go to be able to scale as the customer demand has increased. So that’s what’s with bringing on— that is a concern and it was for some of the big box, like how can you fulfill this demand? And we’ve done a really great job of making sure that we are ready to scale. And that’s been a big part of the team because I knew nothing about this world I’m going into and having the people around me to advise and with the experience, it’s been a godsend. It’s been incredible.
Sam: Fantastic. Missy, last question. Where do you see yourself and your business three years from now?
Missy: Three years from now? I see us being a global brand that our products are being able to be offered in countries all over the world to customers that truly need the product rather than having to just go through the US and pay these crazy shipping rates. Our company ships all over the world through our website, and it’s my vision that they’ll be able to get Cat Tongue Grips wherever you live in the world, especially those that don’t even know about our product that can truly help them in their day to day living. I have to say, connecting with customers, especially those in the disability market, and hearing from them firsthand how the products have helped them. It’s a passion that fuels me every day. So I see us in three years everyone knows Cat Tongue Grips and they know they can get it nearby, either in a retail store or online.
Sam: Love that. Here’s something else you should know. The disabled and assistive technology market is estimated at about $21 billion dollars in 2020 and growing. Superimportant figure, thanks to Statista and Global Newswire for the data used in today’s episode. Missy, we love your story because you took a solution to an ostensibly mundane problem and turned it into something incredibly versatile and meaningful, and I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you one last question, which is I assume that you have cats, not dogs, hence the name of the company.
Missy: Oh, that’s hilarious. Actually, I’m allergic to cats. I had two— my husband and I, we had two kitties when we first got married twenty one years ago and I realized I was allergic and I lived with that allergy until both kitties lived their lifetimes 14 and 16 years old. We actually have three dogs. So a very large Bernese Mountain dog, a rescue dog that’s a husky/golden retriever mix and a dachshund. But yes, I love animals and I love cats. I just can’t touch them.
Sam: Oh, wonderful. Well, the dogs, I’m sure, are upset that you didn’t end up calling it Dog Tongue Grips, but there it is. I love it. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Missy: I appreciate it. It’s been such an honor. And thank you for having me.
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