Velocity Founders Story | July 30, 2020
What’s preventing you from embarking on your next outdoor adventure? If it’s the old, bulky (and often complex) camping gear stashed in a closet somewhere, you are not alone.
In fact, the founders at Wolf and Grizzly would probably love to chat with you. They are working hard to ensure that people can pursue their next great adventure—on a whim—by making compact fire pits and grills that are portable, easy-to-use, and last the test of time.
But what happens when adventurers are bound to their homes during a global pandemic, with no access to parks and campgrounds?
Even with this looming uncertainty and tough economic climate, Wolf and Grizzly, a current company at the Velocity Incubator, reported a 154% increase in sales since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wondering how they did it? So are we.
We’ve taken a deep dive into their journey to better understand how co-founders George Rizkalla and Thomas Kousholt turned a dire business situation into a startup success story.
The great escape: a spark that lit the startup “flame”
Before Wolf and Grizzly, George Rizkalla spent seven years in software development and product management at BlackBerry. It was during the turbulent downfall of the organization that Rizkalla was considering a long list of future ventures, and realized his true love for adventures in the great outdoors.
“I used to try and escape the chaos by driving to St. Jacobs and parking in front of a farm, trying to disconnect during my lunch hour”, recalled Rizkalla, “But what I really wanted was a way to create those escapes and accessible adventures”.
While unsure of what his future team would build, Rizkalla started focusing on why they would be building it and how to enable those everyday adventures.
It was during his time at BlackBerry that Rizkalla met Thomas Kousholt. While Rizkalla was leading product development of the BlackBerry keyboard, Kousholt was at Swiftkey in the UK—a company later acquired by Microsoft. What initially started as a vendor and supplier relationship, turned into a lasting friendship, mentorship, and eventually a partnership in late 2018.
The market problem: city tools vs. wilderness tools
From the very beginning of the journey, Rizkalla observed a dichotomy between city tools and wilderness tools: “When you consider these two types of tools and what can be found in-store, you can very easily tell the difference. City tools are far more beautiful and fragile, while wilderness tools are typically less refined and more robust. City tools are also much more usable, while wilderness tools are pretty awful to use with so many pieces you have to thread together”.
This was a problem. It was also how Rizkalla came to understand the gap in the market. This contrasting difference meant that adventure tools were not a part of a consumer’s everyday life, but ended up being stored in their endless piles of forgotten things.
That’s why Rizkalla and Kousholt founded Wolf and Grizzly on the idea that wilderness tools should be simple, flexible, beautiful, and yet robust. “We want to make sure that whatever it is that we are designing is meant to last. We are trying to make tools that are repaired rather than replaced, tools that are meant to survive and be passed on through generations. This sets us apart from our competitors.”
“It also comes down to the number of pieces. When we were building the Grill M1, this thing wasn’t going to be greater than two pieces. Our closest competitor had 18 pieces. They put 18 pieces in a tube that you can apparently assemble in 15 minutes. We thought, how do we assemble this in one minute?” explained Rizkalla.
The company’s initial success was solidified by a Kickstarter campaign during the launch of their first product, the Grill M1. The subsequent release of the Fire Safe raised nearly $250,000 on the platform, catapulting the company forward.
Riding the momentum of successful Kickstarter campaigns, Rizkalla and Kousholt completed a pre-seed funding round in the summer of 2019, setting an optimistic tone for the year ahead.
The narrative change: from weathering the pandemic storm to phenomenal growth
“We felt really good about where we were headed into 2020. We had landed several large customers, were ramping up for a seed round, and had plenty of encouraging conversations with investors,” said Kousholt.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The investment climate changed overnight and the founders decided to abandon their original goal of raising an investment round and instead, strategize how to build a scalable, profitable business when no one could even go outside.
“We went from being top-line driven to being bottom-line driven, diving into every single aspect of our business to understand our cost structure”, recalled Kousholt. This suddenly made running an e-commerce business extremely hard to do. With tariffs and duties on their shipments, shipping costs, and warehousing in multiple locations, selling became a challenge for every business.
When we think about what the post-pandemic world looks like, there are two approaches. We can wait and see what happens, or we can take this opportunity to shape it.George Rizkalla, Co-founder & CEO of Wolf and Grizzly
Just as their peak season was about to begin, COVID-19 resulted in retail closures that dramatically impacted their business. All parks were closed and people were forced indoors—the complete opposite of what their product line was meant to do. Unfortunately, this made adventure even less likely for their consumers.
These circumstances quickly led the founders back to their design roots, forcing them to change their narrative.
“We’ve always had the mission of enabling adventure from backyard to backcountry, but we’ve always been focused more on the latter. Now, we’re finally being forced into the backyard and beginning to see the joys of this in a new light. And as we share this narrative with others, they’re latching onto it too,” Rizkalla explained. “When we think about what the post-pandemic world looks like, there are two approaches. We can wait and see what happens, or we can take this opportunity to shape it.”
After shifting their narrative from backcountry to backyard, talking to more of their potential customers, and taking some time to reflect on new opportunities presented, the Wolf and Grizzly team has seen a greater increase in sales than ever before—170% year-over-year growth for Q2, compared to Q2 in 2019.
For the win: building non-traditional tech at Velocity
What is a tech startup? To many, it’s a company that is innovating and building software, apps, and gadgets. However, that definition has always bothered Rizkalla and Kousholt. Having worked in tech and scaling both products and companies, they both knew firsthand what it takes to succeed. While they fondly call Wolf and Grizzly a non-traditional tech company, the amount of energy they have poured into the technology and innovation is no less than what they gave at BlackBerry and Swiftkey.
Building Wolf and Grizzly in Kitchener-Waterloo has been a challenge, according to the team. Since their innovation falls outside of the traditional lineup of software and hardware tech, it is harder to have a voice and recognition in the region. Fortunately, the team found believers at Velocity, allowing them to take advantage of the Incubator’s full suite of programming (e.g., no cost coworking space, business advisory, etc).
Their innovation is finally being recognized by other innovators and designers across the globe. In early 2020, the team received the prestigious 2019 GOOD AWARD for the innovative engineering and design of their Fire Safe product. The award covers new consumer products, graphics, and packaging across five continents, and past winners including tech giants such as Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony.
“We want people to know that mechanical innovation is still innovation”, said Rizkalla proudly.