Tish Scolnik of GRIT
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Meet Tish Scolnik of GRIT. GRIT is an engineer-founded, mission driven company that believes everyone deserves access to adventure. We had the opportunity to speak with their founder, Tish Scolnik, to learn more about her journey, her love of Arnold Palmers, and how a wheelchair design class for developing countries would change her path. Learn more about GRIT, their team and the cool products they are working on.
What’s your story? How did you get here?
I took a class in college my freshman year actually called wheelchair design for developing countries. It was kind of like an introductory engineering class with things like project based seminars and I had always been interested in medicine. I volunteered in my hometown ambulance and thought I was going to be pre-med but kind of found my calling in engineering. I realized I could use my math and science skills to create real products that would help people. Fast forward a little bit and I spent some time through the class and through a couple of summer fellowships, working on wheelchair design at the time, mostly in East Africa, in Tanzania. Together with my classmates, we came up with this idea for a lever propelled wheelchair that would be easier to push over long distances on rough terrain, but also still be smart and maneuverable in smaller spaces. And then fast forward a little bit from there and we found a home for our product here in the US market. We found this connection with wheelchair users and physical therapists and caregivers and partners. That helped us continue to evolve the product and then eventually launched it in the US in 2015.
What problem are you trying to solve?
Initially the problem we set out to solve was outdoor mobility, helping people with disabilities who want to go hiking and camping and picnics to the park. And that’s what we did with the grip Freedom Chair. That was the product that we designed and launched, which is this lever propelled wheelchair. But what we found is that as we’ve been helping our customers access these outdoor places, they want to do more. They want to go kayaking and fishing and hunting and they need more products. And so what we’re doing now with GRIT is kind of expanding into a broader ecommerce platform where we will be the kind of one stop shop for everything adaptive recreation.
When you went out for initial funding, how many pitches did you have to give?
We raised our first angel round in 2015. I presented to a lot of angel groups. So you would pitch in front of 30-40-50 people and then dozens of follow-up conversations. So maybe 60-75? That is just a ballpark.
What keeps you up at night?
Many things, including a toddler.A big one for me is thinking about how we execute on this expansion responsibly. We have a really high level of customer service that we currently deliver to our customers and I want to make sure that doesn’t get lost as we start to expand. You know, and as we start to offer products from other suppliers, there’s a level of diligence that we need to have to make sure we’re continuing to give our customers the best products and the best service.
What is your favorite beverage?
Oh, my favorite beverage is an Arnold Palmer.
Would you consider yourself a risk taker or how did you learn to embrace risk taking?
I don’t think I would consider myself a risk taker necessarily. I’m a planner. And so I will try to plan my way around the risks like, what are all the things that I can do to try to de-risk that? You know, even with fundraising, we were going after angel investors and at the same time we were going after grants. And as I’m fundraising now, I’m going after some smaller funds, but I’m also going after the revenue based financing since we have revenue coming in. So I’m a non-risk taker who tries to plan their way around all the different scenarios.
Have you had to pivot since your initial solution?
I would say a big area we pivoted is in our marketing and a lot of that has to do with our ideal customer profile. When we first started we’re making this off-road wheelchair. We thought our customers were going to be young, really adventurous – might have had an accident in a sport, skiing or mountain biking or something. And that profile, as it turns out, is a very small portion of our customers. Our average customers is 55-65, might have a progressive illness like multiple sclerosis or something where their mobility has been declining but they are active, rolling around the neighborhood with the grandkids or going apple picking. It’s kind of an everyday adventure. We’ve also got customers who do Spartan Races so we really had to change up our messaging and our imagery to relate to our customers.
Another small pivot was related to the product. Here you have a big physical product. We thought everyone’s gonna have to try it before they buy it so we thought we would have to go to all of these trade shows. As it turns out, people didn’t need to try it at a trade show, they wanted to try it in their own environment. So we pivoted to a purely digital marketing strategy and really flexible return policy.
What is something that fits into the “If I knew then what I know now” category?
One thing is that if we tried it in the past and it didn’t work 4-5 years ago, that doesn’t mean that some version of that can’t work now. I had fallen into a pattern of, “oh, we tried that.” The team would expand and someone would have a great idea and I was like, “No, we tried that and it didn’t work.” There are lessons to be learned. Things may have failed in the past but that doesn’t mean they are totally off the table. Another example is we thought we would sell to big national parks like the Grand Canyon. We went there and sold zero. But what’s happened in the past 2-3 years with the COVID boom is that now everybody wants to be in these public lands and there is now an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Now the parks are reaching out to us – not the big guys, but the big state park systems. The B2B part of our business is now growing.
What are your passions and interests outside of work?
I have a toddler so I spend a lot of time in parks at playgrounds, looking at fire stations, fire trucks and construction equipment. I like to bake too. When we had an office I had an audience for my baking, however virtual work does not support baking cookies every day.
What do you think is a misconception about being a founder?
One misconception is it is glamorous all the time and fun all the time. There are definitely those glamorous fun moments but the highs are high and the lows can be so low it is much more lonely than realized. I’ve gotten closer with some fellow founders, like a peek behind the curtain of what’s really happening and I can set my own expectations.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
You need to do something you are really passionate about because it is hard work. There are plenty of days that you wonder what you are doing. And so if it’s not an idea or business concept that you are really excited and passionate about then it is going to be hard to push through those slow periods. When I do hit a low point, I try to remind myself now that I have the benefit of hindsight of having done this for a number of years and it’s all in a state of flux. It’s up and it’s down. I also remind myself when it is up to enjoy it, really enjoy it, because there is no guarantee that it will stay that way and when it’s down, this too shall pass. We’ve weathered a storm like this before is great advice. It may feel panicky when something goes wrong or unexpected but then it is a little bit easier to adapt and ride it out.
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