The term “thinking outside the box” has become a management cliché. Nevertheless, the idea of looking farther than some immediate problem, of trying to not settle on obvious solutions but to instead think beyond them to root causes and veiled opportunities, will always be a valid concept for creative thinkers.
SilencerCo has perhaps fallen into the outside-the-box “innovation trap” — the pressure to think of something new, something imaginative every year.
Jonathon Shults and Joshua Waldron began working together in 2008 with a goal of making the best silencers possible. Their creative model was “thinking outside the box and solving problems in unconventional ways.”
This mental model might sound a bit trite today — perhaps in the style of innovators during the Reagan ’80s — but their successful follow-through has been nothing short of spectacular. Today, Shults is President and Waldron is CEO of a growing multi-million-dollar company, a manufacturer that has grown from a 2,800-square-foot to a 36,000-square-foot West Valley City, Utah, facility in just six years.
In September, not long after the company’s new and pioneering 12-gauge shotgun silencer came on the market, Tactical Retailer interviewed Joshua Waldron.
TR: What did you and Jonathon do before you developed SilencerCo?
Waldron: Well, believe it or not, I was an editorial photographer for 12 years. I shot photos for some very well-known magazines, including Vogue, Newsweek, Outdoor Life and others. I also did commercial photography, but at some point I felt burned out.
Jonathon, my business partner, was in the music business, but he was at the same point, the magic slowly leaking out of the workday. We hung out together and discovered that we both wanted a change in our lives.
Since we both liked guns and silencers, we eventually came to realize that the U.S. silencer business was ripe for change. The [then] current companies had antiquated business plans, poor customer service and bad marketing strategies. We knew we could do it better with our backgrounds in marketing and sound engineering. We decided to change the way the consumer marketplace understood suppressors, and I think we have.
TR: What’s the right term for your product, suppressor or silencer?
Waldron: It doesn’t matter. I use both terms interchangeably, but it depends on the audience. When I’m with gun-friendly people, I’m not afraid to use “silencer.”
If I’m lobbying on the hill or talking to more business- or tech-oriented media, not a gun magazine, I’ll use “suppressor” because it seems friendlier or perhaps less threatening to them.
Silencer is a slang term and suppressor is more technical. In a gun crowd, gun guys will argue saying that our products — and the others on the market — don’t actually silence a shot, but only suppress the report. But in 1909, American inventor Hiram Maxim, who is usually credited with building and selling the first commercially successful models, called them silencers in his patent application. He even sold them to President Theodore Roosevelt. And “silencer” is how the ATF refers to them, so it’s just quibbling.
TR: Joshua, you quit a good job and leapt into the unknown, inventing a company at a time when the economy was tanking. Hundreds of companies were going out of business. What were you thinking?
Waldron: We built SilencerCo “old school.” The bankers we approached just sat on their hands and wouldn’t give us any money for start-up. We even wrote a PPM, a Private Placement Memorandum*, but even that didn’t sway them. Finally we went to friends and family, people we had worked with and who knew us. We raised about $115,000 and, in return, gave them a little bit of equity in the company.
Once we released our first product, a .22LR silencer, SilencerCo gathered so much momentum that banks changed their mind and made appointments to offer us money. But our growth has been totally organic, self-generated. We haven’t taken on any investors since that initial period, and we don’t want to. But yes, at times we struggled during the economic downturn, but we’ve come through and I think America is coming out of it as well.
TR: Why did you begin with a .22?
Waldron: We realized the only way to make a foothold in this competitive industry was to bring products to market only if they offered a significant improvement over what was already available — and we didn’t have much money, remember.
We figured the difference in developing the .22 Sparrow rather than working on some larger caliber like the 5.56 or 7.62 that became the Saker would be several multiples of cash. We wanted to start with a product that we knew would change the way the gun industry thought, and the research and development phase for the Sparrow was relatively inexpensive. I think we did it all in under $100,000. The larger caliber would have doubled or tripled the money we needed. Plus, more .22LR suppressors are sold than any other caliber, although that’s starting to change.
The .22LR has a track record as an introductory caliber, so it was an easy step without bankrupting the company, and we figured there was a huge potential market. We attracted more than 100 retailers with just that one product.
TR: Buying a silencer requires a customer to make an additional financial commitment, and your silencers are already expensive. How do you overcome that hurdle?
Waldron: In the grand scheme of things, our silencers are no more expensive than quality optics, for example. Yes, the government requires a $200 tax stamp, and you have a longer wait for them to process the paperwork, but people like to buy firearms and put stuff on them. Plus, we sell good stuff, stuff that works.
Once somebody shoots a suppressed firearm, it ruins them for shooting any other way. A silencer makes a gun more comfortable and more enjoyable. There’s less recoil, and a silencer eliminates the need for hearing protection, so you can talk to people around you. That means command and control for training is better; situational awareness in training and hunting is better, too. There are many benefits to using a silencer that people don’t think about until they use one. Once they try one though, they want one on every gun they own.
TR: There’s a much-publicized slump in gun sales this year. How will that affect silencer sales?
Waldron: We have a lot of latitude for growth. Only 7 percent of [Federal Firearms License] holders in the U.S. carry silencers right now. At this year’s NRA show our admittedly nonscientific survey said that barely 30 percent of respondents knew they could legally purchase a silencer. So even though the gun manufacturers may have fallen into a slump, SilencerCo has a lot of distance to travel to become mainstream with its silencers. It’s going to take a long-term program of education and lobbying.
In 2008 at our start-up, we figured about 18,000 silencers were being sold in the U.S. This year SilencerCo alone will ship more than 40,000. That’s explosive growth, and we have some exciting products on the drawing board. We’re diversifying our products and our channels of distribution.
TR: So, the Salvo 12, a silencer for a 12-gauge shotgun. It’s gotten a lot of press lately. Is that an example of SilencerCo’s “outside the box” thinking?
Waldron: The Salvo 12 is a fantastic product. We initially heard a lot of skepticism about it because nothing quite like it had ever been produced and marketed commercially before. But this silencer is viable, lightweight and doesn’t interfere with a shooter’s sight picture. I’ve hunted and shot competitively with it, and I believe it’s going to change the nature of the shotgun sports.
TR: What production processes have you implemented that assure tactical retailers that SilencerCo is here for the long run?
Waldron: We keep all processes in-house, from an idea’s conception to shipping the finished suppressor to the dealer. Our state-of-the-art facility houses the best CNC mills and mill turn centers available. We have an indoor shooting range and a highly advanced sound laboratory for research, development and testing. Our products are 100 percent American made, and we support our local economy by purchasing raw materials from as many local sources as possible.
By producing everything in-house, we have total control over quality and we’re totally responsible for delivery schedules. We are transparent and want our customers and dealers to know they’ll receive straightforward and professional service when they deal with us.
TR: So looking to the future, what trends does SilencerCo see in the tactical and shooting sports business?
Waldron: We’re going to see untouchably priced products become more accessible. High-end scopes with multiple built-in electronics. Plus, we’re on the cusp of a lot of crazy technical advances; things like smart guns, the tracking point rifle, night vision, thermal vision, and a lot more. Driven by Silicon Valley and the tech world, these things are going to become more accessible to the average shooter. The gun industry lags a little behind as far as tech goes; there’s a gap between innovation and application to the gun business.
* A Private Placement Memorandum or PPM is a document that discloses everything a potential investor needs to know to make an informed investment decision and write a check. Unlike a “Business Plan,” the PPM details the investment opportunity, disclaims legal liabilities and explains the risk of losses.