Can this entrepreneur help solve the American gun epidemic?

Timmy Oh wants to make the world a better place and believes they've built a product that can make gun ownership safer for families around the world. They collected over 20,000 emails with KickoffLabs and you'll learn how!

File under: ecommerce - reward levels

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Interview Bio

Timmy Oh - Vara Safety

Timmy is currently the CEO of Vara Safety, a firearm safety tech company. At the age of 18, Timmy won a Phase 1 grant from the STCF Challenge on gun safety technology and started this project. After winning the $100,000 New York business competition in 2016, Timmy dropped out of college to focus on his startup and build a team. He has been featured on the Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, etc for his innovation in firearm safety.

Vara Safety has secured over $1 million in grants/investment and will be launching their product, Reach, in Spring 2019. With their mission on firearm safety, the team has gained the support of key industry partners and families who care about protection.

Learn more at varasafety.com.

Key Takeaways!

If you get pulled over for speeding ask the officer for product feedback!

Set Marketing Goals

Do some research and understand what success would mean for you at the end and work backwards from that to set goals.

Get In Front of People

Tim never missed an opportunity to present his idea to school competitions, online forums, and even when he was pulled over by the police!

Build, Demo, and Iterate

Timmy has built 30 different prototype versions of their product before landing on the winner.

Disruption Requires a Different Message

Most of the gun industry peddles in fear so Vara Safety struck a warmer, family friendly, tone with their advertising.

Offer Discounts for Sharing

They drove a TON traffic to their campaign through the KickoffLabs viral tools by offering a discount for sharing.

Find Partner Communities

Timmy and his team built relationships with managers of facebook groups and other online communities.

Full Transcript

Josh Ledgard: Hi, everyone. This is KickoffLabs On Growth. I'm Josh Ledgard from KickoffLabs, and we're going to share our advice on growing sustainable businesses through the stories of our customers and our team as we learn and grow together. In this episode, I'll be sharing my interview with Timmy Oh from Vara Safety. The big question I asked myself about this interview was, can capitalism help solve some of the gun epidemic in America? With people like Timmy Oh creating innovative solutions, I think it just might.

In this interview, you'll learn what inspired him to create Vara Safety and the Reach solution for secure gun storage with quick access. You'll learn how he dealt with pushback from both the right and left side of the political spectrum while getting this company off the ground and collecting over 21,000 email addresses using the KickoffLabs referral program with over 40,000 views of their campaign driven by the KickoffLabs word of mouth engine. If you enjoy this episode, write us a review in the podcast app of your choice and send any feedback directly to josh@kickofflabs.com. Enjoy the show.

Today I'm talking to Timmy Oh, who is the founder of Vara Safety. And their product is called Reach, and today is a pretty exciting day for you, right?

Timmy Oh: Yeah, it's amazing. We've been building up to this launch for the last few years now, so being able to finally be here today, yeah, it feels really good. Vara Safety Launch

Josh Ledgard: So when you sent out that mail, were you nervous? I got your launch mail this morning when the store was open, and you're ready to go. So what was that like hitting send on that mail this morning?

on this occasion, there was no way I could control that just overwhelmingly, felt really nervous, excited, a whole bunch of emotions at once.

Timmy Oh: Oh, god. I didn't think I would be that nervous because most of the time when pitching to competitions, you're able to kind of control those butterflies a little bit. But on this occasion, there was no way I could control that just overwhelmingly, felt really nervous, excited, a whole bunch of emotions at once.

Josh Ledgard: And leading up to get to this point, how long have you been marketing the product? And we'll get into the specifics of the product in a couple minutes, but how long have you been marketing the product, and what sort of success have you had marketing the product to date?

Timmy Oh: Yup. So to be quite honest, we only really started our marketing campaign just about a month ago. So in the last 30 days is when we started advertising, ramping that up for launch today. And we've been able to get a huge success with that.

Josh Ledgard: So what do you define as a huge success?

We've been able to capture over 21,000 emails through signups using the KickoffLabs referral program.

Timmy Oh: So we've been able to capture over 21,000 emails through signups using the KickoffLabs referral program. So that was enough of a seed base since our goal was 15,000 signups. We blew that, or yeah, 15,000 sign-ups, we blew it completely out of the park.

Josh Ledgard: That's awesome. I love hearing that. So how did you come up with a goal of 15,000?

Timmy Oh: So we talked to a lot of other hardware consumer product startups founders who've launched successful Indiegogos and Kickstarters. And basically, they told us that you should expect about anywhere from a 25 to 30% conversion on the email list that you build up. So going based on that, we wanted to hit a half million benchmark goal, which equated for us 15,000 emails.

Josh Ledgard: Cool. And give me the pitch of the product, what it is.

Timmy Oh: Yup. So Reach is a product that it's a new generation of firearm safety for homes and families that own a handgun for protection. Right now, over 50% of firearms are actually left loaded and unsecured, so that's a major problem for those especially who have younger children in the home. So this mission started out as a way to bring better safe storage options for people who cared about immediate access and storage so that we could hopefully prevent any accidents and save lives.

Josh Ledgard: Cool. So you're creating a way for people to more securely lock down their firearms but still retain immediate access. Can you describe how the product achieves that?

Timmy Oh: Yup. So currently, traditional safes are more or less a locked metal box. And in emergency, a lot of people believe that they won't be able to get it in time because your hands are shaking. You're in the dark, and it requires multiple steps. We taken the idea of a holster and a safe and combined it. So the way our product works is it almost looks like a holster that mounts next to your bed or in your vehicle, and when you reach out and grab the gun, your thumb goes on the biometric sensor on the safe and unlocks under half a second, so it's very intuitive.

Josh Ledgard: Yeah. And one of the reasons I want to interview you is because I do love this idea. Because as much as we might not like it, guns are not going anywhere in this country.

Timmy Oh: Yeah.

Josh Ledgard: But there's a huge problem with people who shouldn't have access to firearms whether that's... I read this horrible story about this toddler who shot himself because it crawled and got a gun. And just guns not being secured is a big thing. And in Washington State, they just passed a law basically requiring that firearms in the house have to be securely stored in the state. And I imagine maybe other states are going to be passing similar laws as well to help at least make sure that there are some rules around how you store and how you keep guns in a house. Let's back up just a little bit and talk about your story. So what is your background? How did you get to this point where you've created this product?

I was taught about firearm safety, that was the first time I've actually seen a child victim. His picture was on the front page, and it struck me in a way that really emotionally motivated me to kind of want to develop a solution for firearm safety.

Timmy Oh: Okay, so when I was 17 years old, I came up with an idea. Because like you just mentioned about the story about a young child getting to a loaded handgun, there was a big news articles about a three year old who accidentally found a loaded handgun and ended up killing himself. And I think that was one of the most emotional impacts because although I grew up with law enforcement and military family, so I was taught about firearm safety, that was the first time I've actually seen a child victim. His picture was on the front page, and it struck me in a way that really emotionally motivated me to kind of want to develop a solution for firearm safety. And when I went to RPI as a mechanical engineer, they had a competition called Change the World. And I had a concept I believe might be able to help families with better firearm safety. And then the whole thing rolled out from there.

Josh Ledgard: So it started, I mean, you had this idea and then you were in college getting mechanical engineering degree, and there was a competition for create, coming up with a product to change the world. What was the product like at that point? I mean, did you have a prototype? What was the competition like? Was it just a design sketch? Did you write it on paper? How does a competition like that at RPI work?

Timmy Oh: So the first competition was just a simple idea competition where you just have to submit a white paper on the idea. So that went pretty well. At the time, that solution was very different. It was a barrel lock, and although it won the competition, when I took it out to go test it on the market, it went viral on ar15.com, which is the one of the largest gun communities but in a really bad way where the market entirely hated it. They were completely bashing on me, the idea, and the whole concept.

Josh Ledgard: So why did they hate it?

Timmy Oh: Because that solution was very naive in how I approached the gun safety problem. It's not about the lack of safety solutions in the industry. It's about combining immediate access and security in a way that offers families protection. Yeah.

Josh Ledgard: And so from that point, that was just a paper. When you said things kind of progressed from there, what progressed, and how did you evolve the idea from that point?

Timmy Oh: So after hearing all that feedback, I went to the Los Angeles Police Department that summer and did research because my uncle is a firearm instructor and law enforcement officer there. And from there, I basically learned to shut up and listen to feedback. And through these people, these experts giving me feedback on what they required for safety and access, I was able to learn from that and build prototypes. So over the years, I've developed over 20 to 25 prototypes, and every step of the way I would take feedback on the changes. Even when I got pulled over for speeding by a law enforcement officer, I pulled the prototype out from the seat, gave it to review, and he directed me over to the local department so that I could show to them as well.

You got pulled over for speeding, and the first thing you do is say, "let me show you my cool holster for your gun!"?

Josh Ledgard: So wait a minute. So you got pulled over for speeding, and the first thing you do is say, "let me show you my cool holster for your gun".

Timmy Oh: More or less. Yeah.

Josh Ledgard: And did he still write you the ticket?

Timmy Oh: No, I got out of it. So, that was good.

Josh Ledgard: Oh, nice. So this is a good way to get out of tickets if you've got a cool product for a police officer.

Timmy Oh: Yeah.

Josh Ledgard: That's amazing, and that's one of the signs I look for. It seems like it separates people that are successful with their idea, and people that are less successful is when you talk to somebody who just, they look for every opportunity to get feedback, and they look for every opportunity to promote, talk about, discuss their product. Some people are really shy to do that, and then they just have a hard time drawing an audience, connecting with an audience, or building a product that connects with an audience. So it's cool to see that that pattern continue with you. So a hardware piece, piece of hardware like this, people generally need some amount of money and funding to get it off the ground, which is why a lot of people do a Kickstarter campaign. It doesn't look like you are doing Kickstarter at this point. You generated a marketing list, the emails, and you're going straight to the store. So presumably if I order it, is it a preorder? Am I actually ordering the product today?

Timmy Oh: So it's still a preorder, but you'll be getting the product in on August 31st, only a few months out from now.

Josh Ledgard: So you've done all of the prototype and development rounds that sort of plague some of the failed Kickstarters.

Timmy Oh: Exactly, yeah. So we're at the point where we're going into production now, so we're past the prototyping and development stage, and it's more so manufacturing, quality assurance, and all that.

Josh Ledgard: Well, and so how did you get the funding to get up to that point? That's not free getting to this stage.

Timmy Oh: Yeah, it's not at all. Especially for a hardware product, it takes a lot of money. Initially for the first couple years, I was able to fund all the prototypes and market research through competitions either at college, or there was $1 million competition by the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which was a Silicon Valley backed organization developed after the Sandy Hook incident. I won a phase one grant from that, which was $10,000, and all these grants kind of added up to help me through the market research phase. And in 2016, I was actually able to win first place in the New York State Business Plan Competition, which is a total of $100,000, so that's when I was able to finally drop out of college and build a team.

Josh Ledgard: Wow. So you actually, you dropped out of college for this product.

Timmy Oh: Yeah, I did.

Josh Ledgard: What do your parents think?

Timmy Oh: At the beginning they were like, "What are you doing with your life?" But after seeing the passion and the success that I've been able to hit with certain milestones, they're a lot more confident now. Yeah they've been supportive.

Josh Ledgard: That's really great. So let's talk about... Backing up, how did you start marketing this? You were getting all this feedback. You're going to competitions. So when did you actually start more broadly marketing the product? I mean, I know a month ago you did more advertising and everything, but even before that, I know you were still starting to do some market. You had a website. You were still collecting emails. So when did you start doing that?

We wanted to make sure we had partnerships established in the firearms industry. So we've been able to get the support of Project ChildSafe

Timmy Oh: So for the most part, we have been trying to fly under the radar just because this is a very politically infused spaced. So before that, we wanted to make sure we had partnerships established in the firearms industry. So we've been able to get the support of Project ChildSafe, which is a safety initiative by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. So before we went public, we wanted to get these partnerships, which we've been able to get in the last few months. Around January I believe is when we started KickoffLabs. We learned about KickoffLabs through your guys' huge success together with Glowforge, and we contacted you and then started that campaign. But I remember when I had the first call with you, I asked a question. I'm expecting this to be not something that you could just put in and expect to run by itself. You have to put an actual effort for it in order for your campaign list to grow. I wanted to kind of test that the hard way, so for the first few months we didn't spend any marketing money or advertisements, and there was a trickle in of leads through the referral but not as much as expected. And then as soon as I had that conversation with you where it's more about that boost in virality that referrals help, we started that advertisement campaign, and tying in KickoffLabs was where the huge value started coming in and our growth just went through the roof.

Josh Ledgard: Cool. And so when you say you started the advertising campaign, because people have a challenge kind of figuring out what it means to promote it, so where did you advertise? What types of ads where you're running? How are you promoting it?

Right now in the industry so much people focus on that fear factor or very masculinity aspect of guns, but we're specifically targeting families, especially parents who have younger children.

Timmy Oh: Yeah, so for us, it was all about effective content. Where right now in the industry so much people focus on that fear factor or very masculinity aspect of guns, but we're specifically targeting families, especially parents who have younger children. So we wanted to send a message more like Nest, like Apple, that cared and focused upon user experience and family, so we created some very valuable assets depicting that in a more heart warming sort of tone. And then we deployed that through Facebook and Instagram targeting our age group, and that's been able to generate a huge return on their investment.

Josh Ledgard: Yeah, I notice one thing that's interesting about your site today, and I think this was true of the prelaunch site as well on KickoffLabs, is there's not a single shot of a man on the screen. It's all women and children. Is that intentional?

Timmy Oh: Yeah, it definitely was. Once again going back to the fact that it's more of a protection aspect, and we wanted to create a softer, more family friendly tone. And so that was kind of one of our design decisions in advertising.

Josh Ledgard: So once you started to advertise and produce some of that content, what kind of feedback did you get at that point? Because I've heard from other people I've interviewed now that once they did start more broadly putting out content, that's when they started to also get a whole bunch of additional feedback on their product. So what's the feedback been like since you started doing that?

Timmy Oh: Honestly, there hasn't been too much feedback in terms of our content. There was just a lot of appreciation for the fact that it's something different. It's sleek. It's more Apple. Whereas right now in the firearm industry, there still hasn't been a movement towards that type of minimal type of design.

Josh Ledgard: Yeah, I mean, I'm not an expert in guns and firearms, but I've certainly not seen anything that feels like this in the industry like you said. I've been to sporting shops and seen the lockers and everything, and it is very old school with, almost intentionally designed old school like I'm living in an old west town, and I've got this locker. Even the tiny ones are like this thing that's, oh, it looks like it belongs in the 1850s in a gold mining town, and I'm going to try and put that in my bedroom? That just seems absurd. I'd rather just have a shoe box, which is probably what the other 50% of people are doing in a scary way at this stage. Cool.
Vara Safety Thanks
And so I'm happy to hear that you came around to it and realized you needed to get the boost, and you started to get more of a push from that. It looks like you got a decent amount of traffic and leads from the sharing as well, which was nice for the campaign. When I look at the sharing that you guys had, the thank you page, it looks like you were giving discounts on the product itself, right? So how did you come up with I'm going to do this discount versus this other discount or giving away an accessory. It looks like you just choose an elevated discount up to the point where you're giving away a free product.

Timmy Oh: Yeah, so I think this was playing a lot off of other successful startups and people who've used referral campaigns before because it's so powerful in the fact that A, nobody likes giving up their email anymore because they're afraid of getting spammed every day with emails. So giving them an incentive where you focus on the product and as an early supporter for them being able to get a substantial number off, for which is for us was $100 off. We thought would be a good number to start. And then that was obtainable by just referring one friend. So we wanted to make that barrier of getting that full 100 discount as low as possible because we figured if it's one person referring one friend, and now we have two potential customers. That's more than worth that discount. And most importantly, I think we post it in a way as well where as our first launch, because it is a safety mission, we are more than willing to spend additional marketing money on making it more cost effective for our first supporters because we want this solution in homes where there are children who need better safety solutions. Yeah.

Josh Ledgard: Cool. That's actually really good advice. I mean, a lot of people wonder where they should have their reward levels, and I thought you had the right spread of the reward levels where you're giving something substantial for the easy, the one kind of instant gratification. It's a really simple ask. If you asked me to get one person to do something, I could probably easily get one person to do something. But if you said, "Hey, can you get 10 people to sign up by tomorrow to go to brunch with you?" And I'm like, I'd probably have a hard time convincing 10 people, even if I was offering a mimosa or something, to go do brunch on short notice and be able to do that. And so having that spread where you've got something at the low end and then something for people who are more probably influential in your space is worthwhile. You mentioned earlier on in the interview that you had, it was posted in the ar15.com community, and you got some negative feedback. For this round of marketing, did you post for feedback or advertise to any of the more, the larger gun communities, or did you simply leave it to your own, the Facebook audience's community?

Timmy Oh: So we actually have formed partnerships with some amazing firearm communities on Facebook and through other platforms as well. So with them, we decided to work on a affiliate model. So this come next week, we'll be launching with them to also boost our preorders. So instead of us posting on these communities where we don't have much of a presence and a relationship yet, we will be leveraging these other communities and influencers that'll be able to share news of our product and as well as add the benefit of getting a incentive for that.

Josh Ledgard: Cool. That's a great other best practice for people is to find those niche communities on Facebook, or if it's LinkedIn for your business community, find those locations and get connected with the people who manage those communities and those sites. So how did you find those communities? Did you already know they were there? Did you search on Facebook? Just kind of walk me through for somebody who's listening, thinking about doing the same technique. How did you actually find who is in charge and find those communities?

Christine basically networked, went out of her way to network and find out exactly who the influencers in this gun industry space were and made partnerships with all of these people.

Timmy Oh: So fortunately, I have an amazing chief operating officer, Christine Tate. And Christine basically networked, went out of her way to network and find out exactly who the influencers in this gun industry space were and made partnerships with all of these people. So there were a couple important trade shows in this industry called SHOT Show as well as the NRA Annual Meeting. So in these two conferences, she literally went on foot to every single booth that we wanted to target, spoke to the people, got their business card, follow up with them, and was able to form really key partnerships.

Josh Ledgard: That's great. So what's been the most challenging so far leading up to this point? I mean, you'll have challenges to come, but what's been the most leading up to this point, the most challenging part of this?

Timmy Oh: I think the most important part was definitely understanding the customer's needs so throughout the entire way being able to be open for feedback. And even if along the way we thought a solution was correct and spent a lot of money and resource into it, and it proved to be false, being able to trust in the market and make those changes before launching with it proved to be very successful. Because as of this point now, when we have a product that's incorporated so much feedback in, we're able to truly connect and provide a product that people love.

Josh Ledgard: Great. What was the best part about using KickoffLabs for you?

I think KickoffLabs, it's all about the power of referrals where nowadays, it's so easy to just dismiss ads. But when you have a friend or family who really truly believes in the product and thinks it's the right fit for you, you're a lot more inclined to listen and help build a community.

Timmy Oh: I think KickoffLabs, it's all about the power of referrals where nowadays, it's so easy to just dismiss ads. But when you have a friend or family who really truly believes in the product and thinks it's the right fit for you, you're a lot more inclined to listen and help build a community. So a lot of the referrals that we got through KickoffLabs just, we had a lot of people mentioning, "Oh, so and so referred me over through the platform," and I love it. Our whole family and community's engaged and support this idea. So it's integral to the idea of community, and I think that's the beauty of KickoffLabs.

Josh Ledgard: Well said. So now I want to get into a kind of what we call the fast five questions and so really simple answers. We'll keep it short. How do you personally get in the work zone?

Timmy Oh: So I'm sorry. So for me to get in the work zone, it's always middle of the night idea kind of thing. And I end up not sleeping, getting out bed, and then just focusing in. So I would say between 2:00 to 5:00 AM is always my ideal work zone.

Josh Ledgard: So you just shoot up out of bed at 2:00 AM and start working?

Timmy Oh: Yeah, it's one of those things where you can't sleep.

Josh Ledgard: See I have to, I get up, and I tap on my phone, and then I feel like okay, I can sleep. I added it to my to do list for the morning, and I go back to bed.

Timmy Oh: I'm jealous.

Josh Ledgard: That's my way of coming back to those situations. So what's your favorite vacation destination?

Timmy Oh: Anywhere with a beach. Since I grew up in California, I love the ocean, and that's hopefully where I'll end up in the near future again.

Josh Ledgard: Where are you guys located now?

Timmy Oh: We're up in New York, so I don't have a single beach near me.

Josh Ledgard: If you do the water, it'd be a little colder up there.

Timmy Oh: Exactly, yeah. We're upstate New York too, so we're a little bit higher.

Josh Ledgard: Oh, so you're covering yourself in snow every winter.

Timmy Oh: Yup. Yeah.

Josh Ledgard: If you listen to them, what's your favorite podcast recommendation?

Timmy Oh: I would say definitely How I Built That. It's been a really inspirational podcast where you hear a lot of other startup founders and businesses that have been able to achieve success and hear their background and their stories. So that's been a really influential podcast in my life.

Josh Ledgard: So that's How I Built That by Guy Raz and one of the NPR podcasts.

Timmy Oh: Yup.

Josh Ledgard: Okay. Yeah, I've heard of that one. Something you learned in the last year that's valuable.

Timmy Oh: The most important thing I learned in the last year is finding people who are passionate and care about your mission to work with you because they are the people that will inspire you in your everyday to work harder, and I think that's really valuable for a team and mission.

Josh Ledgard: Yeah, it's important to have somebody else that keeps you going because there's always up and down days as a founder. The more people you have that are passionately believing in what you're doing, the better it is.

Timmy Oh: Yes.

Josh Ledgard: Someone you look up to personal or business wise.

Timmy Oh: I think definitely Bill Gates. Not only because he's an avid book enthusiast, but the work he does through his Gates Foundation is inspiring, and it highlights really important world problems. So through that, you get to learn about other innovators in other spaces that are devoting their lives to solving these big issues. I think the most important help I've gotten is not from myself but people outside, so forming a important network to learn more about resources that are available and help that people can provide for free. Because at the beginning stage, you don't have much to start out with, but people are more than happy to help if you ask. And that was really the foundation that led to success, all these people who have been able to come around me and support this idea.

Josh Ledgard: That's a great answer. All right. I want to thank you again for taking the time and talking to our audience today. Again, this is talking to Timothy Oh who is the founder of Vara Safety, and their product is Reach, and the tagline is, a new generation of firearm safety for the home, and it's available for purchase today at Vara Safety.com, and it's amazing. In the show notes, we'll post some links to the images, but it's a very sleek looking, secure holster that solves the problem of keeping guns secure in a house and also accessible quickly in case of an emergency. And I think it's an important problem. Kudos to you for going after it in this space, and I think your solution just looks, it looks amazing, and I'm excited to see you guys get success going down the road.

Timmy Oh: Perfect. Thank you so much to you and the KickoffLabs team for being part of this and making this a success.

Josh Ledgard: Oh, yeah. We're happy to help. I love seeing stories like this, and thanks again for sharing your time.

Timmy Oh: Perfect. Have a great weekend.

Josh Ledgard: Thanks, you too.

Timmy Oh: Okay.

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