Stittsville entrepreneur Tim Maxwell’s business is all about giving customers an edge over their competition.
Or, more precisely, two edges.
Maxwell, a graduate of Carleton University who runs his own industrial design firm, is also a dedicated beer league hockey player. Like many a skater, he’s very particular about his blades and how the sliver-thin pieces of metal that separate him from the ice are sharpened.
After years of tinkering with the idea of devising his own skate sharpener, he began experimenting with various designs before coming up with a hand-held device – dubbed the Blade Barber – that touches up a pair of skates in just a couple of minutes.
Teammates watching him use his invention soon took notice – with a few initial reservations.
“I understand they’re as particular about their edges as I am, but eventually they would show up with damaged edges or they couldn’t get to the pro shop in time, so they’d hand me their skates and I’d sharpen them,” Maxwell says. “All those people were converted. So many people would say, ‘OK, I want to buy one.’ After a couple of years of that and an investor approaching me, I decided, ‘Let’s give it a go.’”
Since then, his growing online enterprise has begun carving out a niche for itself, and not just in hockey-mad Canada. Maxwell and business partner Peter Thomas have shipped Blade Barbers to skaters in nearly 20 countries since the first production run rolled off the assembly line in mid-December.
“I used to think Canada was my market, but I actually think my market is the rest of the world of people who don’t have access to skate sharpeners,” explains Maxwell, who estimates about 80 per cent of his sales so far have been to foreign customers. He says he’s received orders from as far afield as Japan and New Zealand in addition to European hockey hotbeds such as Finland, Sweden and Switzerland.
While Canadians are “almost superstitious” about who touches their precious blades, he says, it’s different in most other countries where hockey is often an afterthought as a winter sport and shops that specialize in skate-sharpening are few and far between.
“People overseas, they don’t have that luxury,” Maxwell notes. “People are so grateful that now they can sharpen their skates. They don’t have to drive two hours to some guy that may or may not do a good job.”
Unlike most conventional skate-sharpening machines that run an abrasive substance over the entire blade, Maxwell’s pocket-sized device sharpens each edge individually using a cutter made of tungsten carbide – a substance found in many industrial cutting tools that is twice the density of steel.
He says the Blade Barber isn't designed to replace machines, noting skates still need to be sharpened by professionals at least some of the time for optimum performance. But Maxwell says his product is having no trouble cutting the mustard with beer-league players who want something to maintain their edges until their next trip to the pro shop.
Used properly, the Blade Barber, which retails for $49.95, can sharpen a pair of skates in just a few minutes and will last up to 30 uses, he says.
“This is more about convenience,” he notes. “You don’t have to wait three hours to get your skates sharpened like often happens at pro shops.”
After much trial and error, Maxwell found a Canadian company to supply the tungsten carbide cutter, and the product is locally assembled at Stittsville’s L-D Tool & Die. He won’t reveal how many Blade Barbers he’s shipped so far, saying only he makes “multiple sales every day.”
So far, he and Thomas have funded the venture entirely on their own. They’ve yet to spend a dime on sales and marketing, relying solely on social media channels to promote the product. They’ve also gotten a boost from British social media site Hockey Tutorial, which posted a YouTube video about Blade Barber last fall that has garnered more than 18,000 views.
While the Carleton Ravens men’s hockey team is probably Maxwell’s biggest client so far, that could soon change.
A family friend who works as a buyer at Canadian Tire has expressed interest in stocking the product at the iconic home-improvement chain, but Maxwell says he’s not sure he’s ready to make the leap to a national-level supplier just yet. He’s still “tweaking” the Blade Barber’s design to make it easier to manufacture on a mass scale, he explains, while working full-time on his day job at the design company to help pay off the R&D costs he’s incurred so far.
“My biggest challenge right now is just finding the time,” Maxwell says. “I just don’t want to rush anything. I’m happy to grow slowly and do it right.”