Marc Lickfett has appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank and has helped build/run multiple companies around the world. But it’s his straight to the point attitude that has helped him garner the success he has. Originally from Sweden, Marc is a serial entrepreneur with a great passion for digital. He has over 20 years of experience starting and leading information technology businesses from fintech (Compricer AB) to online marketing agency (Klikki OY), online services businesses (Carambole AB, Knife Aid Inc.) and ecommerce companies (Mercedes Benz, King & McGaw Ltd). He has worked as CEO or COO in companies based in Sweden, Germany, the UK and USA; a number of which have successfully been sold, and currently is the CEO of Knife Aid Inc., which was his company that is striving here in the United States currently and appeared on the TV program Shark Tank.
Disrupt spoke exclusively with Marc about his company (sharpening knives for people), disrupting his industry and how his Shark Tank experience was for all of those wanting to appear on the series too!
- How did you come up with the Knife Aid concept?
I have started a number of businesses that disrupted traditional industries through digital technology and the internet. In 1999, the opportunities were massive and any industry or sector could be disrupted. Today it is much harder to find sectors, products, or services that are not already online. Knife Sharpening is exactly such a sector, and what makes it extra fun is that it involves craftsmanship, which I love. It is close to the joyful category of cooking and food, and the business model has the big added advantage that it does not add to consumption. It does the very opposite and helps people to get more use out of the knives they already own, and therefore helps to reduce knives going into landfill. The production of new knives is energy and resource intensive, and we are proud to be doing our bit in that regard. As a business model, it has the added advantage of being a reoccurring revenue model, which just builds through time and makes running it less stressful and more profitable.
- Why should someone use your services over another?
Sharp knives are safer, more fun, and more efficient to use than dull knives. I genuinely do not care where somebody sharpens their knives as long as they get their knives sharpened. So the lucky few that have a skilled knife sharpener in their neighborhood should continue using that sharpener as long as they are still around. There are also tons of really bad knife sharpening machines and a few good ones that people use. Those machines only work for certain knife types. They cannot do repairs such as broken tips or chips, and they need a lot of practice to be mastered. But for everyone having the money, patience, and skill that solution works well. For anyone else there is really no alternative to Knife Aid. We are the only ones that service all of the US at volume. We run apprentice programs and train sharpeners, do R&D on the tools and machinery, and keep the craft alive for the next generation.
- What was the reaction by the public after you appeared on Shark Tank?
The reaction was great. We did great volume through the show and it helped our brand recognition massively. Because the Sharks pursued us rather than the other way around, lots of people seem to love that episode where the underdog, i.e. Knife Aid, wins over the mean Sharks. I get excited every day by customer feedback and the love our brand endears. It makes me so happy when people on social media or through customer service say “I love Knife Aid,” and our Shark Tank episode definitely helped to create part of that story.
- How have sales been during the pandemic? What trends have you been seeing?
In general, I am very happy how well we did and how we managed to serve tens of thousands of people that have cooked more during the last twelve months than they had ever hoped to. We really struggled with the couriers for a while as the pandemic impacted the service level; the time around the election was no fun either with massive delays that costed us money and goodwill. Still, in general we can look back at a successful 2020 with solid growth, and I am thankful our niche was impacted as little as it was.
- How do you feel or know that your company has disrupted the industry you are in?
Industry disruption can have a darker side to it, when jobs in an industry are lost and the wave of change results in many casualties as it has done, for example, in the travel industry, or as is happening now with small grocery stores etc. In our case, we are reviving a market as much as disrupting it. The market for knife sharpening is so eclectic that solid market data does not exist, and there are no industry federations or the likes. There is one report that shows that only 1,300 knife sharpeners exist in the US, and that most of them are one man bands. Considering that there are over 120M households in the US with the vast majority owning knives, it is clear that the market has been underserved for many years. It is interesting to consider how the demand for knife sharpening never really declined, but that the market collapsed because of supply side shortage, with the skill and craftsmanship disappearing as well as the classical locations such as butcher shops or small hardware shops also going out of business. So we are rather revitalizing a market that has been disrupted to near extinction before we even started.
- What strategies through online marketing have you felt worked best for your company and other ecommerce companies you have been a part of?
In a way I wish I would not enjoy disruption as much as I do. I think disruption and being a first mover is actually a terrible way to do business as much of the interest-based online marketing does not work well in markets that are being disrupted. What is true for Knife Aid now has also been true for the Insurance and Finance price comparison website I started in Sweden in 2005: no one is looking for a service they do not know exists. When people are resigned to having dull knives or to calling a bunch of insurance companies to compare quotes they will never Google “Knife Sharpening Service online” or “Insurance price comparison.” As a result, there is no existing search traffic paid or organic to tab into, which in turn means a business needs to spend much more money further up in the marketing funnel to create awareness and interest in the service. If you are successful in doing so, the first mover advantage turns into market leadership, which is lucrative and exciting. But if you run out of cash or do not find the right messaging, channel, or timing, you might end up a casualty and the second or third mover will cash in on the awareness you created. So my take ways for marketing are 1) do not rely on interest or search based marketing alone, 2) plan for driving awareness from day one through PR, social media, and any other high reach channels you can afford, 3) have the funds to push sustained campaigning as changing behavior and creating awareness always takes much longer than you think.
- Since you have been through many exits, when is the “right time” to exit a company?
I think it depends on business model and company type. Biotech, AI, or leading edge technology companies create value very differently from agencies or online DTC businesses, and the time line to exit is therefore very different. The majority of my experience has been in online DTC. I have seen again and again that the full potential of a business becomes clear after five years, and that value is maximized two years after that as even the biggest doubters can no longer ignore the business’ ability to generate revenue and/or profits. So for me, seven years is the magic number. Interestingly, I have found that to be true for really aggressively financed VC businesses as much as for an organically grown business.
There are two more points I want to make on exits though: 1) the best exits usually happen when you do not want to sell your business 2) an exit is a relief initially, but it quickly starts turning into the realization that you will now have to come up with a new idea and do another few dog years to get that next business off the ground.
- What is your ultimate goal?
I want to continue working with gifted entrepreneurs, new ideas, and exciting businesses until I fall over and die. I have taken a business coach certification a couple of years ago and will probably shift more and more into coaching and board work the older I get. My ultimate goal is to stay fit, relevant, and up to date and thereby able to add value in business well into my 90s and beyond.