Scott Murray is the President and co-owner of Level 5 Tools, a company whose mission is to provide unsurpassed value to the drywall finisher in the form of quality tools at a fraction of the cost of other major brands. Scott talks about what's new with Level 5 this spring, and how the company relies on feedback by professional finishers in order to create the best tools possible.
Q: What's new with Level 5 Tools?
Over the past several years, Level 5 has been launching new tools along with upgrades and redesigns to current tools which is part of our focus on continuous improvement. Level 5 has been in the drywall tool business for over 20 years. We know how to make tools and have for many brands over the years.
Two years ago we decided to make the best hand tools on the market and from early sales feedback, I believe we have succeeded.
Q: How do you design tools at Level 5?
The bigger companies have teams of engineers who are working to create a distinct product. But at some point you may have too many features, bells and whistles. At Level 5 We build products from the ground up.
This means we rely on feedback from drywall finishers themselves. I spend an incredible amount of time talking with finishers on site, online, on the phone, etc. I want to know that the finishers who use these tools had a hand in how they are designed and perform.
About 10 years ago we hired a group of engineers to help “take us to the next level of design” for our line of taping and hand tools. This team designed quite a few drastic innovations for our lines which on paper looked great. After 4 years of pushing these into the market place; about 50-60 unique features we began re-designing based on actual finisher feedback vs. the engineers ideas.
It took about 3 years to find our way and today not ONE of those “innovations” remain. It gets back to the fact that more is not always better. Simple, reliable, tough designs that are easy to repair are what the finishers needs, not complicated innovations that look cool but don’t work!
So I would say that compared to many larger companies, Level 5 depends more on on direct conversations when designing or improving tools. Product development is driven by the end-users, who happen to be drywall finishers, not a team of technical experts or engineers. The finisher is the lifeblood of our design and improvement process.
Q: How do you collect feedback about Level 5 tools?
We have conversations with a network of finishers around the world! We have finishers that test and provide feedback from throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. These finishers are “on the wall” every day and are well versed in all aspects of finishing. We have knife and pan, hawk and trowel, automatic tool finishers and a wide variety of professionals both young and seasoned. These are finishers who we have come to know and trust to tell us the truth and to push us to get better every day!
As a result of these one-on-one conversations with users, Level 5 gets a good understanding of what items are popular, and where the gaps and opportunities are in our lineup.
With their input, we then design a cost effective way to make a quality, long-lasting tool. The key is to remain on the leading edge of performance, reliability and affordability and then back that up with the best customer service on earth! Level 5 is proving day in and day out that we are the Finishers Friend like no other!
Q: How do you design the tools after that?
After we receive feedback, we do will build prototype tools out of 3D printed parts and components, and then we get more testing feedback on the prototype itself. This testing process can involve several rounds of prototype review and end-user feedback
For example, our new line of soft grip taping knives, which is actually very hard to make, took 2 years from start to finish for production. The result is the strongest, longest lasting taping knife on the market today, guaranteed!
Q: What makes a taping knife so difficult to design?
Feedback is very subjective, and we needed to make sure we designed a taping knife that works for as many people as possible. But, from our interviews, we learned a few things everyone wanted.
For example, did you know the reason our taping tool includes a hammer end is so that the center of gravity is such that if you drop it from a height it will hit the handle first and not ruin the knife blade.
As well, feedback from working drywall finishers also told us the bladeback has to be firm. That's because if you're on a wall a lot of pressure, it could bend. We learned from finishers that material often gets stuck on rivets, so we over-mold the rivets on our taping knife to prevent that. We used 3D modeling to insure the handle was comfortable and fit the blade back perfectly.
Every feature in our taping knife is based on feedback provided to us by professional finishers who need these tools to do their jobs.
Q: Does every Level 5 tool take this long to bring to market?
It took us two years to bring taping knives to the market. For our automatic taping tools it took us 15 years to really work out all of the bugs. It's a long process but a necessary one if you plan on being in this market for the long term.
But even on the darkest days, when we were looking for a path forward, I would wake up and ask myself, "What do I need to do to make this a success?" And we would find a way forward, thanks in large part to the feedback and support of our network of professional drywalls finishers across the country.
Q: What is the secret to Level 5's success so far?
I am not a finisher. I know how to do it, but I don't do finishing drywall as a trade. To me this is actually a distinct advantage. Because I am not a finisher, I do not have a specific opinion on how a tool should work or fee. This requires me to be a very good listener and to lean on our broad network that helps us make tools that fit the largest part of the finishing population.
I personally spend 3-6 hours every day interacting with finishers online, on the phone or on the job site. This is the most critical part of my job is to build that personal relationship and to reward the finishing community with a fantastic tool at a fantastic price. That is our mission!
Q: What's your message to drywall finishers?
If you want to give me honest input, and are friendly about it :), I'd love to hear from you. We're always looking for comments from drywall finishers who want to be a positive part of the process to help us design better tools.