10 Questions with John Machacek: Reach Right

Written by: Brady Drake

John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the years. He knows their ups, and their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for James Pladson, Founder, Reach Right USA.

1. To start off, will you please tell us your Reach Right elevator pitch?

Reach Right is an ergonomic handle that extends your “reach” to keep you up- “right.” Reach Right quickly, easily, and securely attaches to or detaches from any shovel, rake or long handle tool with a handle diameter from 1 to 1-1/2 inches. Reach Right’s patented quickrelease clamping system is what sets us apart from every other secondary handle on the market today. Reach Right transforms the tools you already own or will buy in the future into ergonomic tools customizable to you. Reach Right is engineered for extreme pushing, pulling, and lifting and will increase your work performance e and productivity or your money back.

2. What got you started on developing this product?

My inspiration for Reach Right stemmed from my early involvement in the family business of real estate marketing, management, and maintenance. Snow removal was one of my responsibilities and just like everyone else, my back would be very sore after even just a few minutes of shoveling. I tried all the ergonomic products out there on the market like bent handles or secondary handles that would attach with screws and bolts. They helped a little, but they all had limitations and I became determined to find a better solution. It was about 2007, when I was sitting in snow for hours, that I made a simple sketch of my idea, and soon after, I went to a craft store and grabbed some one-inch-thick foam sheets that I cut pieces out of and stuck together with toothpicks. From that, I built a working prototype out of strips of 1/8 inch thick aluminum fastening the parts together with bolts and wingnuts. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I first tried it. It’s in the top 20 best moments of my life.

3. How did you go about creating prototypes and refining designs? 

After graduating from NDSU with a degree in construction management, I worked as a realtor at my dad’s company and as a remodeler here in Fargo. I met with some different engineers about either doing plastic injection molding or cast aluminum, and at the time, the costs were too high for me, so I tabled it for a couple of years and pursued my job in real estate and remodeling. Always in the back of my mind, I applied for my first patent in 2010 which was granted in 2011. It was right around then when I ran into Guy Nelson, owner of Anvil Design and Manufacturing, and I asked him if he would be interested in helping me work on this newly patented idea. He agreed, so we got started on our first working prototypes that he designed and fabricated in his shop.

We made about 20 of them initially with Velcro straps and rubber grips and handed them out for people to try. The feedback confirmed that we needed to get a better fastening system to bring this to market. We tried different kinds of straps and clamps but nothing we tried worked better than the Velcro straps. By that time, my wife and I were about to have our third daughter and our other businesses took all my focus. It was in 2019, when my father passed away, that I started working on the design again. From the first prototype, he always encouraged me to pursue Reach Right. Of the few last wishes he made to me, ‘finish the handle’ was one of them. I became determined to make this handle into what it is today. I tried every kind of strap or clamp I could find on the market, and nothing was quick release or quick attach like I envisioned it. It had to be better than all the other products on the market. About a year later I noticed a T-C-style clamp that was used on a camera mount. I incorporated the T-C portion of that clamp into the design and created the now-patented three-point clamping system that solved the fastening problem! Since then, we have made at least twenty 3D-printed prototypes, each one improving on the other

The NDSU Research & Technology Park Incubator building and all the resources they have available for startups were gamechangers for us. Dave Sauvageau with Innovation Studio has state-of-the-art equipment you can use, with a subscription and training, to make just about anything you can think of. We probably made 15 3D printed prototypes there in the past year, which saved us thousands of dollars and a lot of time. Paul Smith with ND SBDC helped us write our business plan which helped us get funding. Crystal Nelson with Fargo Ergonomics & Alter Ergo to help with our ergonomic design. And we are currently working with Corey Kratcha and Chad Ulven of C2Renew to explore using biomaterials like hemp or flax seed resins to inject instead of plastic like we are using now.

4. Speaking of using Fargo Ergonomics during the process, I noticed on your website how it mentions helping with posture and reducing back injuries; and you also list an ergonomic study. Will you please tell me more about your product from the perspective of back health and ergonomics?

That kind of ties in with our slogan and how I came up with the name Reach Right, as I stated in the elevator pitch question. It reduces the time it takes to bend over to grab the shovel and stand up again to toss the material. Essentially, it’s time you’ve saved with reduced motions and moving on to the next scoop easier and faster, which when added up over time, can be a significant amount of time savings and injury reduction. As part of our R&D, like I said, we hired Crystal Nelson to complete an ergonomic assessment report of Reach Right itself and how it compares to other ergonomic handles on the market already. With that, we validated our superiority over the competition and made key ergonomic design changes to make the handle as ergonomic as possible.

5. I already bought one of your products to use this winter, as I struggle with back pain from shoveling. I can’t say I’m looking forward to shoveling snow, but I am looking forward to using the Reach Right. As you’ve refined and perfected the design of your product, what have you done from a legal or patent perspective?

From the beginning, I was worried about someone taking my idea and using it for themselves. I didn’t talk about it with anyone but my wife until I got my first patent in 2011. That patent is still active with about seven years left on it. However, in early 2022 I saw an opportunity for someone to make this handle in a more cost-effective way with an injection molding machine, so I decided to beat them to it and made the design change. By late 2022, I had this feeling that I should make sure my existing patent covered this new design. Guy had worked with Tom Kading of Fargo Patent & Business Law in the past and recommended contacting him to review the new design. Upon review, my feeling was correct, and the new design was not covered. We were given our options and thankfully, since we had used non-disclosure agreements with vendors and never shared the new design with the public, a new patent was plausible but not guaranteed. We had more meetings and developed two new utility patents that we submitted in March of this year. Since we were already in the process of getting injection molds made in China, we submitted the applications on a fast-track processing option with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that could shorten the response time by about a year. To our surprise, we got confirmation in late June that the first patent was granted with only one minor change to the claims. About a month later we got confirmation that the second patent was granted, again with one simple change to the claims. It was such a relief that both patents granted, and we had the security of knowing our IP was protected.

6. What are your sales channels and strategies to get your products, literally, in the hands of customers?

It was a very stressful time to wait to hear if we had patent protection on the new design. We had already started to invest substantial funds into it and would likely not have an answer from USPTO until later in the year—and we wouldn’t know how strong it would be after review, or if it would be granted at all. It shaped our marketing approach of getting it out in front of as many people and industries as possible. So, we started by looking for conventions to attend that cater to industries that use long-handled tools like snow shovels and ice scrapers. We booked six trade shows this year!

Here are some examples: Because I lived in Bozeman, MT for a couple of years and worked at Bridger Bowl as a lift operator, I remember having to shovel and rake the loading area constantly with a chair passing by every 10-15 seconds. I know Reach Right will help all the crews that shovel snow at a ski resort work safer and more efficiently. So we joined the National Ski Area Association and in May we went to their convention, which was a hard sell because we didn’t have a booth and we didn’t have any inventory due to production delays. Next, we went to the Snow and Ice Management Association convention in June and it was a perfect fit for us.

They had an award called ‘Fischer Innovation Scholarship Award’ that we applied for and won! That was an amazing feeling to get validated by the very industry that Reach Right was created for. We received a booth for free, a free ½ page ad in their June edition, and a full-page advertorial in October’s edition of their Snow Business magazine that had a feature on ‘Tools for Sidewalks and Safety.’. In September, we went to the National Association of Landscape rofessionals (NALP) convention, which was a huge success! We were absolutely shocked at the response we got from the attendees who ranged from smaller family-owned companies to top-level management that made the final buying decisions for very large companies. Many either bought a couple on the spot or ordered them online when they returned from the show to have their crews try them out before making larger orders of anywhere from 10 to 1,000 handles

The orders have been coming in as promised! We went to the Equip Expo in late October, which has the largest landscaper and dealer audience in the country. Many of the NALP attendees told us that this would be a great show for us as it is about five times bigger than NALP’s. We plan to attend the Tools & Fasteners Distributors Association, which is geared toward connecting products with wholesale distributors nationally and internationally. We are hoping the distributors see the value of this product and bid to represent us with big box retailers. The final convention this year is the National Ergo Expo which was recommended to us by Crystal. We are presenting Reach Right on their innovation stage to a room with hundreds of ergonomic professionals that can potentially validate Reach Right even more and hopefully, it becomes a tool that they recommend to their clients, peers, and industry leaders.

7. Wow, that’s awesome to hear. I’m aware that you are the majority owner of Reach Right and working on this full-time, but you have some partners as well. What are the roles and value of your partners?

Guy Nelson is a partner and the VP of Manufacturing & Design. I met Guy about 30 years ago through a mutual friend and over the years, he has become a big brother figure to me. He’s been part of Reach Right since the original designs and prototypes and has never stopped believing in the product. He has over 25 years of experience in engineering and owns Anvil Design and Manufacturing here in Fargo. His experience in engineering, design, and fabricating has been invaluable throughout this process.

Mike Rydell is a partner and the VP of Sales & Business Development. Mike has over 20 years of experience in finance and private equity arenas. Our youngest daughters are the same age and have been friends for about the last five or so years now. In that time, we’ve also become good friends. I have a lot of respect for Mike and have always been impressed with his communication and networking skills. In 2021, I showed him the handle and asked him if he wanted to help us bring this to market. As soon as he tried it for himself, he was in! His experience has been instrumental in the overall management of our multiple sales channels of customers, businesses, and wholesalers. He’s very committed to building long-term relationships with our customers and partners.

Having Guy and Mike as partners in Reach Right has been amazing and has opened so many doors for all of us. I am very grateful for both of them and the skills they bring to our business—which complements some skill gaps I have if I were attempting to do this by myself.

8. While you tinkered on this for many years, you’ve been formally dug in now over this past year manufacturing and selling units. What are some of your hopes for the next year and beyond?

If projections hold and growth is steady, we want to bring all our manufacturing and production in-house to Fargo. We want to build a new facility where we can fully run this business with our own injection molding machines and tooling machines. We want efficient assembly and shipping areas and enough space to store inventory. Ideally, we will also have adjacent space to build Anvil Design & Manufacturing its own space so we can keep exploring new ideas, and so Guy can oversee both Anvil and Reach Right operations. Over the years, I have been adding ideas I have had from problems I’ve encountered that I have not pursued because I want to stay focused on taking Reach Right as far as I can. Hopefully, by next summer, I can start working on them and adding them to the product list.

9. For my time machine question, if you could go back in time to James from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?

Trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to fail and if you do, learn from it and try again

You’re going to start businesses in the next couple of years. You need to take your time getting to know the prospective partners you don’t know on a personal level. Trust your gut when you question their integrity and move on. If someone’s ego is on par with their talent, then they are not worth it no matter how talented they are. When hiring another business for something, check references and reviews. Don’t be afraid to ask questions until you understand the situation and walk away if their answers to your questions are to ‘just trust us.’

10. Lastly, what can we do as a community to help you and Reach Right succeed?

We started big with all the national trade shows but I’m most excited to see people using it around town now that it’s available to buy. I’ve spent the last 15 years watching people shoveling snow with horrible posture and I’ve felt guilty for not being able to get them one to use. If you get a sore back from shoveling snow or use long-handle tools at your home or business, get a Reach Right handle and try it out for yourself. If you don’t like it or feel the value in the difference it brings to the task, we’ll buy it back from you. What do you have to lose?

About John

John Machacek has been helping local startups with the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation since prior to his position with the GFMEDC. Before joining the team, Machacek was the VP of Finance & Operations at United Way of Cass-Clay and a business banker at U.S. Bank.

Reach Right USA

Mentioned in the article:

Fargo Ergonomics 
fargoergo.com

North Dakota Small Business Development Centers
ndsbdc.org

Fargo Patent & Business Law
fargopatentlaw.com

NDSU Innovation Studio
ndsuinnovationstudio.com

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.