For those unaccustomed to planning and carrying out a woodworking or DIY project, at least two factors can stand in the way of either getting started or seeing it through to completion: experience and confidence. Typically the former impacts the latter — the more we know, the more likely we are to dive in and build that bookcase or remodel the kitchen. It’s a truism for both men and women. However, most men can probably bypass a third and very real impediment for some women: even the tools necessary to do the job can be roadblocks to success; they can be bulky, heavy and hard to handle. Add that aspect to the mix, and woodworking or DIY might seem too daunting to try, leaving women resigned to pursue other interests. Tomboy Tools is working to break down all three barriers by supplying women with tool education, a support network of other women who are tool and project savvy, and even tools that are uniquely suited for women. “It’s all about educating the consumer and inspiring them to tackle a project on their own with the right tools and knowledge,” says Janet Rickstrew, cofounder and CEO of Denver-based Tomboy Tools. Rickstrew considers herself fortunate to have had a father that helped her clear both the hurdles of tool education and confidence at an early age. Growing up on a ranch in western Colorado, she shadowed her dad to tackle projects ranging from fence repair to roofing and remodeling. “He never thought twice that a girl shouldn’t be learning these things,” she recalls.
When she bought her first house in the mid ’90s, that tool background and confidence enabled her to personalize it by doing many improvement projects instead of hiring them done. Then, the housing boom of the early 2000s had other women aspiring to do likewise but lacking the direction and “hardware” to make the process easier. That’s when Rickstrew teamed up with Mary Tatum, a longtime friend with a background in computer programming, to launch a website dedicated to women and tools. While the fledgling Tomboy Tools started modestly, their website included an online tool store and a forum for women to come together and talk tools and DIY. The site offered educational information about the applications, features and benefits of Tomboy’s tool line, as well as some projects. But of probably greater importance, it provided a communication link between women who shared their project stories and worked together to arrive at solutions. “They became our guides,” says Janet.
The novelty of Tomboy Tools’ approach developed enough buzz that the company was profiled by “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw” in 2002, “and after that airing we were just inundated with interest from women literally around the world.” It was time to take Tomboy Tools to the next level; both Rickstrew and Tatum quit their previous jobs and invested energy and resources full-time into the new business.
But broader expansion and growth would require a deeper penetration into the market than the two women could manage alone. What they needed were Tomboy Tools consultants — dedicated tool users willing to go into women’s homes to share their knowledge and offer better tools to make projects easier. Rather than doing that in a conventional students-and-teacher environment, however, Rickstrew and Tatum took a more festive approach: bring tool education into homes in a supportive, party-style atmosphere. Give participants a chance to learn by doing and sharing, and keep the whole experience fun. And that direct sales approach has proven to be successful for more than a decade now. The typical Tomboy Tools party includes “Tool School,” where participants learn about the various features, benefits and practical applications of Tomboy Tools. Then, the consultant may lead a hands-on project, which can range from plumbing and tiling to power tool use, upholstery or jewelry-making, to name just a few. The party provides a fun and engaging environment to show women “that it’s really not that hard and that they ARE capable,” Rickstrew asserts. Then, we provide tools that are comfortable, ergonomic and better fitting for women. The combination of the two work well together.”
Tomboy Tools consultants own their home-based “Tool Party” businesses, which can be done part-time or full-time. The network has grown to more than 500 consultants nationwide. Women, men and husband and wife teams all are Tomboy Tools consultants. Not all of the products offered at the parties are custom-designed by Tomboy. Many are existing models from various manufacturers, but all are carefully selected for Tomboy’s product line. “Most tools out on the retail shelves aren’t for women, but Tomboy Tools are,” Janet says. Other tools are unique to Tomboy. Among these are an ergonomic paint roller Janet helped design that makes better use of large muscle groups and a neutral hand position, plus tool bags, tool belts and a tiling bag. A sharpener for the company’s bypass pruners is being developed now, and more tools with an ergonomic advantage for women are forthcoming. Tomboy’s first tools were blue, but the company switched to bright pink because their clientele liked the color.
The evolution and popularity of lithium-ion batteries has been particularly beneficial in providing tools that are lighter and more manageable, which inspires confidence for new tool users. “We take away the intimidation factor by offering a lighter-duty 8-volt impact drill and our new 6-in-1 power tool that is 7.2 volts.” A magnetic hammer that enables users to start a nail with just one hand and a tape measure that reads in fractions instead of hash marks are also very popular with clients.
Rickstrew is pleased to see that more women are getting involved in DIY these days, due in part to post-recession money saving efforts and the rise of DIY programming for women over the past five years or so. The Girl Scouts now offer a “Home Improvement” badge, plus summer programs for girls to learn about tools and projects. Tomboy has also recently partnered with Paige Hemmis from ABC’s “Extreme Home Makeover, Home Edition” to help promote education and inspire more women to get involved.
For Janet, these trends, borne both by necessity and by empowerment, are encouraging. And they support her conviction that the mission of Tomboy Tools is on the right track. “The most rewarding aspect for me is inspiring those who may never have thought they were capable of doing a project or who had this fear of power tools. (Once) you get the tools in their hands you can just see the excitement and confidence building. It’s a really neat experience.”