Russ Layton was one of the few people in his blue-collar neighborhood to make it to college--and by most measures, his career in mechanical engineering was a success. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he was just going through the motions. When an unexpected windfall and job loss collided, he took it as a sign to go all-in on solving a childhood frustration. --As told to Kate Rockwood
I grew up playing hockey in New Jersey, and I was keenly aware of how sharpening affects your skate performance. The only thing I can liken it to is getting your racket restrung in tennis, except with ice hockey and figure skating, you're getting your skates sharpened at the pro shop once a week. It was such a pain. Over the summers, as a teen, I'd go to hockey camp and we'd sneak in an old-fashioned sharpener--this group of 12-year-old boys huddled around, essentially, a bench grinder in a dorm closet, trying to keep our edges sharp without losing an eye. It was nuts.
Everyone in my blue-collar neighborhood was a hustler--holding down multiple jobs and picking up odd hours when they could. From the time I was 10, I worked: I had a paper route, I answered phones at the church rectory, I pumped gas, and as soon as it snowed, I'd grab my shovel and hit the sidewalks. I even made business cards as a teen to drum up more business.
But I didn't want to be hustling in the same way as an adult; I saw college as a way out. Once I started, however, it felt like getting on the moving sidewalk of life: Now you go to college, now you get married, now you have a mortgage. By the time I'd finished grad school, studying mechanical engineering, I felt like all of the hustle had been beaten out of me.
On the surface, it was fine. I had a good job, a great marriage, two happy kids, a nice home. But I definitely noticed that the people around me, in Boston, who had started their own businesses seemed more fulfilled. They worked hard, got results, and were rewarded.
Meanwhile, I was working for people I didn't particularly like, in a part of the health care industry that had too many regulations and special interests. I started working on business models at night and on the weekends, and I had some pretty half-baked ideas--like how to keep burritos from toppling over and losing their filling when you put them down midbite.
Then one day, I took my 6-year-old son to get his skates sharpened, and it struck me that we were still sharpening skates in the same dumb way my parents had done it two decades before. I had toyed with solving this problem in grad school--building something like a Netflix model, where people mailed in their blades and we returned them sharpened--but the financial realities for this concept killed that idea pretty fast. What if there was a way to make the process happen at home? I bought a commercial sharpening machine in 2012, watched the instructional video on an old VCR in our basement, and became obsessed with marrying the latest developments in design and manufacturing with the crude process of skate sharpening.
Progress was really slow. Like, painfully slow. It's hard to start a company when you're working full time and have a family. But then, in mid-2012, my father passed away and left me some money--less than $50,000. In the big picture, it was a small enough sum that it wasn't going to change my life. So it felt like if that money evaporated, it wouldn't be the end of the world. But it was enough that I could roll the dice and hire two entry-level engineers to help get some momentum going for my business.
They worked out of a tiny office just down the street from my day job, and I'd stop by before and after work and on my lunch breaks to check in. It finally felt like we were starting to get somewhere. Then, in 2013, the company I worked for was restructured and there was a massive layoff. My boss called to tell me while I was on a business trip, and it was a completely euphoric moment. My co-worker was trying to console me, and I said, "This isn't horrible--this is fantastic."
I threw myself into Sparx. Four months later, we raised a small seed round from a handful of friends and associates in the hockey world. It took a year to bring our first prototype to life, but as soon as we showed the board of directors, it was clear the design wasn't going to work. We were using an exposed mechanical structure, which didn't feel safe enough, and the material used to grind was almost like stone, where bits would go flying everywhere as you sharpened the blade. We trashed the idea and started from scratch: We found a permanent abrasive, which is used in the aerospace and medical device fields, and we switched to a more enclosed design, so all of the moving parts are protected. It took another year, but when we went back in front of the board, I knew we had it.
Things moved really fast after that. We blew past our 2015 Kickstarter campaign goal almost immediately, though we miscalculated the price so badly that the first few hundred sold felt as if we were mailing $100 bills along with the sharpeners. We adjusted prices after that to reflect the cost to manufacture the product, and sales continued to take off. We've sold more than 15,000 consumer Sparx sharpeners, and we've launched a commercial design for hockey rinks and teams to use--including those in the National Hockey League, the American Hockey League, and the National Women's Hockey League.
We took what's traditionally this huge piece of dangerous industrial equipment that only professionals can use and turned it into a consumer product that anyone can put on the kitchen counter and operate as easily as a Keurig coffee machine.