It has been said again and again that necessity is the mother of all invention. This particular product is no exception. Yet like all great products, there is a human story behind it.
The Swiss Army Knife is legendary for its multiple uses. Each soldier receives one upon entering the Swiss Army. The man who is thought to have invented this product for a reason that had nothing to do with military or adventure. It had to do with his car breaking down while he was on a European tour with his wife back in 1975.
As you can imagine, if this caused him to eventually develop a new product, he must have had to fix the car himself. This was the case because they were on a budget. The story behind this product is that while making repairs to his old Fiat he had bought in Amsterdam he lamented the fact that the knife he had with him (in fairness it wasn’t a Swiss Army Knife) didn’t have pliers. In fact the famous, early Swiss knife also didn’t have pliers.
So Tim Leatherman set out to develop a knife of his own. Although he had an engineering degree, he wasn’t really that skilled with his planning and building. What was supposed to be a one-month project turned into a three-year endeavor. It was his wife who had to support him.
He finally got the knife he wanted, of course with the prized pliers. He also got a job to support himself and his family, and in another five years to finally sell it in 1983. It wasn’t easy since there was the issue of product identification. What he thought was a knife, would-be mass purchasers considered it a tool. When he went to sell it as a tool, sellers in that line of business said it was a gadget. So in the end, he finally called it the “Pocket Survival Tool”. It was through the mail order catalog niche that he made his breakthrough sales.
He had a great product, the challenge was in marketing and finding the right channel. After that was accomplished, everything else followed. His perseverance, support from family and friends, helped him bring the product to the mass market. The Leatherman Tool Group, Inc. is now a multi-million dollar company with a host of products and continues to innovate.
Looking back, one of the best moves Tim ever made was buying that broken down Fiat.